A couple days ago I got coffee with a missionary who has served in East Asia. During one part of our conversation, we discussed a subtle issue we’ve noticed even in otherwise-healthy churches – that internationals and those from other cultures are often overlooked when it comes to both their care as well as investment in their potential. Similar to what I addressed in my post earlier this week, leadership and fellow church members don’t always “see” this particular class of the lowly or the seemingly-unimportant in the same way they “see” those who are same-culture individuals.
This is only natural. Humans gravitate toward those who are most similar to them and with whom they have the most in common. These sorts of people get more of our attention because relating to them is simply much easier – there are fewer barriers to communication and friendship. But therein lies the problem. The Church is not a natural institution, but a supernatural one, a new family built not on shared natural affinities, but on the spiritual affinity of a new birth into a new family where God is our Father and Christ is our older brother.
It’s makes sense that the Jewish Hellenistic widows were neglected in Acts 6. There were pretty significant cultural and linguistic barriers between them and the Judean/Galilean believers that prevented their needs from being as visible to the apostles. But the apostles and the early church didn’t shrug this off as some kind of natural dynamic that should be embraced (“Let’s just plant First Hellenistic Church, shall we?”). Instead, they created the forerunner of an entirely new office in the local church that would focus on the needs of the needy and marginalized. They recognized that they had a major crisis on their hands, that the credibility and faithfulness of the believing community was at stake if its members who were essentially foreign widows – foreigner and widow both being major categories of concern in the Old Testament – got neglected. So, they went and created the diaconate so that this kind of oversight might never happen again. Or, so that when it happens, there are leadership resources devoted to it.
Neglecting the needs of those from other cultural and linguistic backgrounds can still happen, even in our healthiest churches – though this neglect is often unintentional. In some churches, care for internationals and those from other cultures gets essentially delegated to a select few who have themselves served in the past as missionaries. When those cross-culturally-skilled believers then go back overseas or otherwise are no longer around, the body at large hasn’t learned to care for internationals, and they can very easily slip through the cracks. Care and investment can be neglected, which looks like international students getting forgotten during holidays, older refugees getting targeted by scammers, and promising young leaders with a vision for their home country being left to figure it out on their own. Again, this is so often unintentional.
What would proactive steps look like in building a church culture that cares well for the internationals among us? Many churches in the West and in global cities will continue to have members who are either refugees, immigrants, students, or business professionals. And this does not seem to be slowing down. Here I want to offer some initial suggestions, though I offer these thoughts feeling that this is merely the beginning of a conversation on how we can all do this better in our various contexts.
First, in our churches we need to be serious about appointing wise, spirit-filled deacons who can be lead servants for the body in caring for the marginalized, including any internationals among us. After all, the origin story of deacons is explicitly tied to fixing issues of cross-cultural neglect in a local church. Do we insist that our deacons have their radars finely tuned for those in the body who come from different linguistic or cultural backgrounds, the contemporary equivalent of the Hellenistic widows? What in their deacons meetings and ministry rhythms keeps this demographic regularly before them? Without this kind of intentional focus, again, the danger is that the marginalized from our own culture will accidentally take priority, because there are fewer barriers toward them being seen and heard.
The text of scripture highlights being of good repute, spirit-filled, and wisdom-filled as the primary qualifications for the men chosen in Acts 6:3. These qualifications, along with those laid out in 1st Timothy 3 should be our top priorities when appointing qualified deacons. These are the kind of men who have the character needed to see the lowly, and that is the most important thing. However, many have pointed out that all seven proto-deacons of Acts 6 have Hellenistic names. It’s therefore likely that they themselves were more Hellenistic than Hebrew in their cultural background, and thus chosen as those well-positioned to care for the Hellenistic widows. So, while natural affinity is not the foundation of the church’s unity, here we see that it may be important for mercy ministry to the marginalized. This is because we are simply much better observers of those things in which we also have some experience.
My daughter has type-1 diabetes and uses Omnipod and Dexcom systems for diabetes management. When others walk by us with these devices sticking to their skin, or when we hear their distinctive beeping noises, we instinctively notice, when we would not have noticed before. Why? We now have experience with diabetic devices and are deeply invested in them as a way to care for our daughter. It follows that those with experience and investment in other languages and cultures are going to more intuitively notice those from these backgrounds, and also notice their needs.
Given these realities, it seems wise to appoint deacons from diverse cultures or with missions experience as those with naturally stronger radars for spotting those international members most likely to be overlooked. If you have Spanish-speaking members in your congregations, consider prioritizing the development of Spanish-speaking deacons. If you South Asian members, then likewise. Or, perhaps that retired missionary might make an excellent addition to the team of deacons.
Other than appointing and directing lead-servants, what else can be done to strengthen the skill and gifting in the body for caring for internationals? For this I really only have one tried and true method: get people overseas. Create pathways for both leadership and members to spend extended time immersed in a foreign culture, ideally alongside of missionaries or churches that you know and trust. Again, people notice what they have experience or investment in. It’s remarkable the kind of effect that several months or several years on the mission field can have on someone’s ministry outlook for the rest of their life.
We should get creative about finding ways to get church leadership overseas, and not just for short-term trips. My missionary friend serving in East Asia shared about a house swapping arrangement he had with one of his former pastors. Before the pandemic derailed things, this pastor and missionary were coordinating their sabbatical and furlough so that the missionary family would have housing in the US and the pastor’s family would get to spend six months living in a foreign context. What a great idea! What would it look like for churches to free up their pastors for mission sabbaticals like this? The impact of getting church leadership on the field for extended periods could be tremendous. Whenever I encounter a student whose dream it is to be a pastor, I challenge them to spend a couple years on the mission field first. This is because their perspective on ministry and the church will be dramatically affected by spending time in frontier missions contexts – and yes, they will be more likely to have eyes that see the internationals in their congregation.
But it’s not just – or even mainly – up to the leadership. After all, the work of the ministry primarily belongs to the congregation (Eph 4:12). So, there is a great need to equip the body to care for those from other cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Want to create a church strong in mercy ministry? Make sure there are many accessible pathways for your church members to spend extended time in mission contexts. Short-term trips are a start, but much more profound changes are going to come about by spending several months or longer overseas. They need to be there long enough to experience some negative things, and for the initial shine to wear off. They need to experience what it’s like to be a minority in a strange land, not just a tourist.
What can we do to foster a culture in our churches that cares well for the marginalized from other cultures? I think that pressing into our deacons and getting church leadership and members overseas are some sound ways to start. And let’s not forget the outcome of caring well for the Hellenistic widows in Acts 6 – “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).
Caring well for those often overlooked leads to evangelistic power. Of course it does. Spiritual unity among those without natural affinities is a stunning thing.