Do you want a thought provoking paper on N American Missions?
and the North American Church
BRIAN M. HOWELL
Missiologists have recently debated the extent to which missions in North America
should attend to the culture of newer immigrant groups in efforts to create
culturally particular congregations. While congregations composed of a single linguistic
or ethnic group may be appropriate in some cases, the idea of mission work
based on ministry to distinct “people groups” represented among immigrants in
North America ignores critical dynamics of power and change in these communities.
Instead, missiologists should focus on preparing the wider North American
church to minister to immigrant communities with radical hospitality, compassion,
and justice, responding to cultural change and the social diversities present in most
North American immigrant communities.
Should congregations be multicultural? Yes. The Revelation of John depicts a
church in which every “tribe, tongue, nation and people” bow before the Lamb.
Jesus declares that his people will be one and we will be known by our love
for one another. The miracle of Pentecost was the reversal of Babel, in which the
nations were scattered, to unite the people of the earth in the gospel. As a theological
value, few would argue that culturally homogeneous churches are intrinsically superior
to multicultural ones.1 The question facing the North American church today is not
principally one of theological imperatives, but of missiological strategy. In the present,
does it make sense, in terms of evangelistic priorities, to pursue culturally specific
congregations, or should we pursue multicultural congregations? The answer to this
is somewhat more complex and depends in part on our understanding of the culture
North America is a particularly interesting place to think about culture. With the
exception of NativeAmericans, the United States and Canada are nations of immigrants
who hold varying degrees of connection to ethnicities and nationalities “back home.”
US Americans talk of living in a “multicultural” society while speaking of the “American
way of life” and “American culture” in relatively undifferentiated terms. Scholars
Brian M. Howell is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Wheaton College. He is the author
of Christianity in the Local Context: Southern Baptists in the Philippines (Palgrave, 2008), and
co-author (with J.Williams Paris) of Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective
(Baker, 2010). He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Missiology: An International Review, Vol. XXXIX, no. 1, January 2011
80 Brian M. Howell
of culture in the United States have identified some elements of a “mainstream culture”
rooted in Northern European Enlightenment traditions, yet they qualify any pronouncements
about such culture with caveats and exclusions for the many US populations
with cultural roots outside those worlds (Holmes and Holmes 2002; Jindra 2007).
Today, those caveats and exclusions are almost the norm, as the descendents of
earlier European immigrants become a smaller proportion of the population and newer
immigrant groups from Africa, Asia, and Latin America establish themselves throughout
the continent. For US Christians seeking to share the gospel cross-culturally, they
no longer have to look beyond their own local context; to employ a tired cliché, instead
of going to the world, the world has come to us.
Pragmatically, there are dozens, if not hundreds of examples of ethnic churches
growing, as congregations draw together new immigrant groups through the use of
particular language, aesthetic, and other cultural practices in the church context. Sociologists
and anthropologists have documented the importance of such communities for
the adjustments many make to the North American context (Warner andWittner 1998;
Ebaugh and Chafetz 2000). Encouraging these congregations in their outreach, particularly
to newly arrived immigrants, and training missionaries to reach out to these
groups in a culturally and linguistically particular expression of the gospel makes
sense as a pragmatic use of resources. But pragmatics do not make good theology,
nor, I would argue, do they make good missiology.
In a culturally pluralistic context such as North America, it might seem logical
to adapt globally successful missiological principles among the same peoples now
living next door. Church planting techniques and contextualization strategies successful
among the Ifugao in the Philippines can be brought to the Ifugao of Palo Alto.
Surely the indigenization experienced by the Igbo of Nigeria will apply to the Igbo
of Minneapolis. Yet, to the extent that contextualization may have been helpful in
working through questions of Christianity and culture in those missionary works, I
argue that such strategies employed in North America will elide critical differences
in the ways cultural minority groups experience their cultural context here. Mission
outreach to new immigrant groups of North America would do better to foreground
biblical virtues of hospitality, justice, and compassion, rather than assert principles of
“contextualization” or “culturally appropriate” missiology.
As an anthropologist I never want to be heard as arguing against culture. The
culture concept has been elaborated by anthropology far beyond what is found in
related disciplines; it is central to our work and disciplinary identity. For missiologists
and practitioners drawing on the theoretical frameworks of anthropology, “culture”
is a very good place to start, but it is not the place to stop. The culture concept is a
potentially problematic one when left in holistic or bounded terms. In order for culture
to avoid becoming a totalizing and hegemonic concept, missiologists and mission
practitioners need to conceptualize culture in light of contemporary anthropological
understandings of practice and power.
Culture and Contextualization
Contextualization has been an enormously helpful concept, moving missionaries
and theologians away from a conception of the gospel as a-cultural to an understanding
Multiculturalism, Immigration and the North American Church 81
of how the gospel necessarily becomes translated into the various forms and expressions
where it takes root. However, as I’ve explored in more detail elsewhere (Howell
2006; 2009), to the extent that the idea of contextualization has been linked to overly
cognitive, ideational concepts of culture, it has been limited in its ability to illuminate
complex situations of globalization, cultural change, and hybridity. Reflecting on the
context of Misima, an island society off the southeastern coast of Papua New Guinea,
anthropologist and missionary Mike Rynkiewich (2002) argued that what he called
the “standard missiological model” of culture as a dyadic process of communication
between members of discrete cultural groups is inadequate to illuminate situations
marked by change, flux, and cultural flows across fuzzy boundaries.
Rynkiewich argued instead for a conceptualization of culture as “contested,” “constructed,”
and “contingent.” Since he published his work in 2002, such notions of
culture have become standard in anthropological theory. Sherry Ortner (2006:3) called
this the “re-interpretations(s) of culture,” which followed from the increasing attention
being paid to power and history in explanations of cultural form and practice.
While this reinterpretation is relevant everywhere, it is particularly helpful for
those seeking to understand the context of ministry in twenty-first century North
America. Immigrant groups to North America arrive with particular traditions, world
views, practices, and family norms of their homeland—the classic stuff of culture.
Upon arriving, however, they find themselves in new relations of economic and racial
inequality, changing generational norms, and shifting family dynamics.Younger generations
seeking assimilation, along with women and men of the first generation dealing
with role loss, changing gender expectations and norms, and unfamiliar racial and ethnic
hierarchies, find themselves practicing some familiar customs, but with radically
In a context such as this, focusing on “culture” as a bounded, integrated, adaptive
whole (Kraft 1979:45–63), or contextualization as a way to “creat[e] a community that
is both Christian and true to its own cultural heritage” (Whiteman 1997:3) unhelpfully
reifies culture as a singular entity that can be measured in terms of “true heritage” or
the integrated whole. In the context of immigrant groups in North America, I would
argue that a better approach to mission work and ministry generally is through biblical
virtues practiced by the established North American church, rather than starting with
principles of contextualization to be employed by mission specialists.
By way of illustration I would point to a recent paper by Philip Conroy (2010),
a research missiologist with the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist
convention. In a relatively short presentation, Conroy illustrates the conceptual
limitations of contemporary missiological models of culture while simultaneously laying
out a compelling vision for the church to engage in missional ministry to newer
immigrants, foreigners, and “strangers” in our midst.
A Biblical Alternative
Conroy begins his paper with a presentation of the changing demographics of
North American society, noting that some 18 percent of Canadians and 12.5 percent
of those born in the United States are now foreign born. He argues on the basis of
these figures that we need a “people group missiology specific to the North American
context” in order to engage in successful ministry to newer immigrant groups (2010:4).
82 Brian M. Howell
Connecting the concept of “people group” to the Greek phrase “panta ta ethne” of
Matthew 28, Conroy presents a standard missiological model of the people group as
a distinct “ethno-linguistic group,” identified through linguistic particularity. Conroy
goes on to say, “Based on the ethno-linguistic definition of people groups, the majority
of people groups living in North America would be first generation immigrants,
refugees, or international students” (Conroy 2010:4).
It is easy to see the analytical problems in this conceptualization of group identity
for missiology. If language is the primary marker of a “people group,” does that
make Spanish speakers an “ethno-linguistic group” with Central, South, and Caribbean
Spanish speakers in one group?2 What happens to the bilingual members of those
communities? Is the second or third generation a separate “people group,” even if
they are minors living in the homes of the first generation? It is hard to imagine
that a ministry that does not take into account the struggles of the generations to
stay connected would be a helpful or effective one. Imagining these people groups as
discrete cultural groups at least potentially obscures these sorts of intergenerational
and multicultural dynamics—along with a host of other diversities—that would be
relevant to ministry work.
Following this presentation of church-growth missiology, however, Conroy goes
on to present a very different view of how an awareness of recent immigration might
affect the North American church. Instead of focusing primarily on standard missiological
categories, Conroy spends the bulk of his paper exhorting the church to practice
radical hospitality, extending material, legal, and social support to vulnerable members
of North American society, proclaiming the gospel in a context of relationships
of mutuality and engagement. He quotes theologian Christine Pohl, who says,
The biblical focus on responsibility to resident aliens suggests that a concern for
the physical, social, and spiritual well-being of migrants and refugees should not be
peripheral to Christian life, mission, and witness; instead, it should be central. In
setting priorities, churches and mission organizations need to be much more attentive
to these most vulnerable populations—Hospitality should be understood as a way of
life rather than as a task or strategy. (Pohl 2003:9)
There’s no question that extending hospitality, like other cultural practices, must
be done with an eye toward how particular actions and attitudes take on meanings in
given contexts. In this way, being aware of culture as an anthropological/missiological
category is appropriate. However, developing a program of hospitality to, say, the
Sudanese of Milwaukee cannot then assume a single language, world view, or uniform
“culture” among everyone identified with that community. Such an approach would
be doomed to failure among the diversities present within such a community.
Moreover, such an approach would be likely to miss the external pressures the
wider non-Sudanese society has on the community. Conroy names legal and economic
concerns as areas in which to practice compassion, yet in these cases neither economics
nor legal systems are best understood in terms of closed cultural orders in which
“Sudanese culture” interact with the “American culture” of law or business; the cultural
context in which both exist (along with the established North American Church) is
better conceptualized in terms such as cultural capital, as Pierre Bourdieu (1990)
would describe it, or structural power, as Eric Wolf (1999) has theorized. In this
Multiculturalism, Immigration and the North American Church 83
way, Sudanese culture is not separate from North American culture. Nor is the North
American church separate from the wider context.
To stay with the hypothetical Milwaukee Sudanese example, it has been well
documented that second generation African immigrants, particularly young men, do
not generally assimilate to a mainstream, middle class White American culture, but
often adopt the oppositional culture of urban, Black America, particularly those in lowincome
communities (Waters 1994). Moving from Sudan to the Midwest (or anywhere
in North America), these immigrants encounter a racial ideology that is culturally
particular, and experience pressure to adopt a racial identity in North American terms.
Such ideology is not part of “Sudanese culture” in the standard missiological model,
yet is very much a part of the experience of immigrant communities, particularly those
from non-European nations. For North American congregations seeking to minister to
Sudanese immigrants (or any non-White immigrant), recognizing and addressing the
racialized aspects of US American or Canadian culture, and how that may impact the
experience of immigrants as well as how it shapes the experience of (mostly White)
North American Christians, is a critical aspect of ministry and evangelism, doing
justice, and acting with compassion.
Immigrant groups in North America are dramatic examples of culture in the
constructed, contingent, and contested terms described by Rynkiewich and others.
Efforts to reach new immigrant populations in North America can certainly benefit
from concepts of culture, and contextualization of a sort, provided they keep such a
view of culture in mind. Negotiations between first and second generation immigrants
pose a challenge to missionary work. African immigrants whose identities move from
being rooted in homelands to developing affinities to African-American oppositional
identities pose a challenge to missionary work. And, when in economically diverse
communities the newest immigrants find themselves separated from more established,
wealthier members of their common immigrant communities, this also poses a particular
challenge to missionary work. Attempts to describe “the culture” of “a people
group” are likely to elide the complexities of these communities in counterproductive
But as Conroy makes clear in his work, to the extent that the North American
church can emphasize biblical values of hospitality, justice, compassion, and
proclamation, questions of linguistic competency, cultural sensitivity, and economically
appropriate responses to particular issues will naturally follow. Missiologists and
missionary practitioners have a role in encouraging awareness of the wider context, but
by limiting the conversation to “ethnicity,” “ethnic group,” or “people groups,” the tendency
will be to exclude critical concerns of power, economics, gender, race, cultural
change, and inequality that are so often at the heart of the immigrant experience.
The goal of missiology should always be to empower the local church to engage
in mission, rather than train specialists or professionals for the task. Focusing on
the cultural particularity of “people groups” or other bounded categories, developing
“culturally appropriate” missional strategies for them, and seeking to create culturally
particular congregations de facto excludes the North American church from having
84 Brian M. Howell
much of a role beyond the financial support of the specialists. Moreover, these strategies
will become rapidly obsolete as populations respond to the wider context. Instead,
missiological knowledge should support the virtues of the church in reaching out to
meet the social, cultural, and physical needs of their neighbors.Will this result in multicultural
congregations? In the short run, it’s unlikely. However, as second and third
generation immigrants cross the bridges being built by North Americans of various
ethnicities, Christians will cross in both directions and the image of the multicultural
Kingdom can begin to appear.
1. There has been a significant discussion about the relative theological importance of
pursuing multicultural congregations in the so-called Church Growth literature (Wagner, C. P.
. Our Kind of People: The Ethical Dimensions of Church Growth in America Atlanta: John
Knox Press.) While the church growth advocates do not generally argue against multiculturalism
per se, many have suggested that such a focus is unhelpful insofar as it undermines what they
believe is the most important function of the church, i.e., bringing more people into the church.
(For a theological and sociological response to those arguments, see DeYoung, C., M. Emerson,
et al. . United by Faith: The Multicultural Congregation as an Answer to the Problem of
Race London: Oxford University Press, 123–127).
2. Someone might respond that this could be addressed by appealing to dialects of Spanish,
but this quickly breaks down in the way linguistic boundaries around “dialect,” “language,”
“accent,” and other terms always do.
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