The Church Between Cultures:
Rethinking the Church in Light of
the Globalization of Immigration

by John S. Leonard

First published in Evangelical Missions Quarterly, January 2004.
Used with permission from EMIS,,
Mohammed and Fatima,* a middle -aged Moroccan couple, live in the south of France with their 7 children. Their marriage of 25 years was arranged by their families. Fatima's family was very anxious to form an alliance with Mohammed's family because several of Mohammed's family members, like Mohammed, have good jobs in France. Mohammed and Fatima live in a three bedroom apartment in a public housing complex with about three thousand other North Africans, ninety percent of whom are Moroccan. Sixty percent are from the same region of Morocco as Fatima and Mohammed.

Mohammed has lived in France for over 30 years. He came to France with his brother when he was 18; they were promised jobs by an uncle who was a mason. Mohammed now has his own business. His children work for him along with a couple of newly arrived relatives from Morocco. He works long hard hours and is only at home to eat and watch the nightly Moroccan news that he receives over his satellite dish. He spends the evenings outside talking to his friends about sports, politics---mainly those affecting Morocco and the Middle East---and religion. He takes his wife to the city-wide market on the weekend and to the large French supermarkets.

Mohammed dreams of retiring back to his hometown a wealthy man. He is well-off by local standards in Morocco. He has built a large house in his home town and the family returns there every August. Each month Mohammed sends money back to his mother to help care for her and his second wife and children. This year Mohammed plans to bring the two oldest children by his second wife back to France with him. Because of his regular business contacts with the larger French community, Mohammed speaks French well. He has learned how to thrive in this land that is not his own.

Fatima's life is little different than her life in Morocco. She cares for her children, keeps house, visits with friends (most of whom are relatives), watches Arabic TV over the satellite dish, and shops at the open-air market in the middle of their housing block, manned by North Africans selling products from Morocco along with North African foods. Fatima speaks little French but her modern Arabic has improved enormously, thanks to the daily Egyptian soap operas. She is already thinking about spending the summer in Morocco with her family - it is the highlight of her year. She is very concerned about her children and worries about them constantly, for none of them are turning out the way she wishes they would.

Hamid, 24 the oldest son, never did well in French school and lives at home. He has felt the brunt of racism in France. He works for his father and is involved in a very fundamental and orthodox Islamic group. Hamid prays five times a day, reads and studies the Islamic faith with Lebanese, Egyptian and Algerian friends. He sends some of his earnings to the Middle East for the propagation of Islam. He is constantly criticizing his parents for lack of obedience in practicing Islam and their mixing superstition and magic with religion. He makes his mother and younger siblings watch religious broadcasting from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Mohammed and Fatima are proud of Hamid and his commitment to Islam but the Islam that Hamid practices is not the Islam that they know.

Aisha is 14 and is the fifth child. She adores Hamid. She practices Islam the way Hamid says it should be practiced. She wears a veil and traditional Arab dress for women. She was the center of controversy last year because she wore her veil to school. The school expelled all girls who would not remove the veil during classes. She and her brother would not give in, and the school has since changed its policies. Aisha spends the weekend with a group of women from the Middle East who instruct girls how they should practice Islam. Her father and mother are already planning her marriage and will talk with a relative about it this summer.

Saiid, the second son is 22 and the coach at a local lycee. Everyone loves Saiid-both the French and the North Africans. He lives in a apartment with a couple of his friends, a French young man and a black African University student from the Cote d’Ivoire. Saiid became a Christian while at the University through his involvement with a Christian student group and a Christian convert group for Muslims which is led by American and British missionaries. He is an active leader, both in the convert group and at his local Protestant church. He visits his family often, making sure that he participates in the feasts and other important holidays. He even keeps the fast of Ramadan so as not to be a needless offense to his family. Saiid has taken his mother and a few of his siblings to the North African convert group. Hamid is furious that Saiid is a Christian; he says that Saiid is a victim of American imperialism and they are using religion to control people. Saiid's mother likes the convert group-to her the group makes her feel at home, just as if she were visiting friends for a special occasion back in Morocco. She honestly likes Saiid's friends better than Hamid's because Saiid's friends are kind and loving. Hamid's friends appear to be angry and critical.

Saiid also spends his summer vacations with his family back in Morocco. He has made friends with the young church leaders in Morocco and helps the struggling church. He even brought his French pastor and some interested elders to meet his Christian Moroccan friends and to lead a weekend training retreat. The French church has helped the Moroccan church with literature, Bibles and even money for special projects. The church in France regularly prays for the Moroccan church.

Youssef, the third son 20 years old, has followed a totally different path. He is addicted to heroin and has spent time in prison. He sometimes works for his father but has dropped out of school. He is a misfit, finding no place in either the North African community or his host country France.

Azika,19, the oldest daughter wants nothing to do with either Hamid's Islam, her parents' Moroccan culture, or her brother's Christianity. She loves France and its freedom. She dates French men to her family's horror, wears the latest styles, and watches MTV. Nothing the family has done-including physically beating Azika -has deterred her from her French lifestyle. Her father threatens that he will send her to Morocco and marry her off to a cousin if she continues in her rebellion. Azika says that she will kill herself before she would let them do that. She can hardly wait to move out of her home and in with her friends.

Fatima keeps a close watch on the 2 youngest children, to make sure that they do not turn out like their older siblings; yet she has little hope, in this strange and foreign land, that they will turn out the way she wants. She often wonders if her family should have ever left their homeland.

Immigration, Assimilation and the Church in the Modern World
Mohammed and his family are part of the 140 million people in the world today that live outside the country of their birth. One in forty people on earth are immigrants. They are on the move for many reasons. The push from underdeveloped nations, with its poverty and lack of opportunity, and the pull towards developed nations and the opportunities they believe awaits for them in the major cities have caused people to immigrate. If the Church is going to minister in the cities of the world it must learn to reach the peoples of the world who now live in them.

When we were in France there were only two approaches that were considered as options by the Church for ministering to the immigrant population. The two options were to integrate immigrants into the existing local church, or to create homogeneous churches. French pastors and older missionaries strongly defended the first option. They based their belief on the nature of the Church. The Church is one and we honor Christ by exhibiting that oneness. The Church, they contended, is larger than any one culture and to limit her to only one culture is to deny her universality. Unfortunately, what these well-intentioned pastors failed to see was that they wanted the immigrants to assimilate into the French church and become like the French in every way. They were imposing a French homogeneity on the church, therefore denying the Church’s universality.

Younger American missionaries, influenced by the Church growth movement, believed that the only way to reach the large immigrant population was to start homogeneous churches that incarnated Christianity into the culture of the people. They based their opinion on Scripture as well. They believed that the principle of the incarnation carries the imperative for all who follow Christ to incarnate the message as Christ himself had done. This means dressing, speaking, eating and worshiping in way that would make the North Africans feel at home. Battle lines have been drawn with there being no room for any other option but their own.

Because of the influence of functionalism on Christian missiology, these two options appeared to be the only options worthy of consideration. Culture was seen as static. If change does take place in a culture, it does so very slowly and seldom does it challenge the basic assumptions of the culture. The physical and technological distances between peoples made isolation from foreign thought and influence possible. Those who immigrated from one country to another were leaving one fixed culture to live in another fixed culture. The process of assimilation was described as Astraight-line@ because people were going not only culturally, but geographically from one fixed point to another. Assimilation appeared to be forced upon immigrants because of the geographical distance and isolation from one's home culture; the only choice was assimilation. AStraight-line assimilation@ best describes immigration from nations of similar backgrounds - for example, Northern Europeans who came to the United States. It can be diagramed as follows:

The Church has chosen to place itself at each end of the spectrum, firmly identified with one clear cultural expression. Where would the family of Mohammed and Fatima find a church home? Mohammed, Fatima, Hamid, and Aisha would be prime examples of why homogenous churches are needed. All four would be much more at home in a North African convert church. Saiid and Azika would be prime candidates for integration into the French church. Youssef would drift in and out of both groups, not really wanted by either. Even if the entire family were to attend the North African convert church, generational differences in the church would begin to divide the group between first and second generational understandings, as it has in so many other immigrant churches as in the Korean church in America.

Culture, Assimilation, and the Church in the 21st Century
In light of new global realities, the definitions of culture and the assimilation process are being called into question. Because of globalization, speed of transport and technology, distance is virtually irrelevant. Culture has been separated from geography. Amié Césaire says it quite eloquently, “Culture and identity are inventive and mobile. They need not take root in ancestral plots; they live by pollination by (historical) transplanting (Clifford 1992, 15). There are two results immediately apparent when culture is separated from geography. First, those who immigrate from their homelands never have to leave their culture. These immigrants will have been born and raised in one country and live in another, but because of technology they are mono-cultural people. They are called transnationals, or “communities that sit astride political borders and that, in a very real sense, are “neither here nor there” but in both places simultaneously” (Portes 1997, 3). Transnationalism allows immigrants to maintain their own identities, particularly if the group is racially and religiously distinct from their host culture.

Second, since culture is freed from geography, people can now identify with cultures from countries in which they have never lived. They can mix and match cultures to their liking. In the global cities of our world, where cultures are laid one on top of the other, we should expect many new hybrid cultures to be forming. In this new world some see culture as “an open and unstable process of negotiating meaning, which has cognitively competent individuals of differing interests and aims relating to one another and, in the finding of accepted compromises, leads to social closure and corresponding cultural boundary marking” (Wimmer 2000, 5). Clifford remarks, “Identity no longer presupposes continuous cultures or traditions. Everywhere individuals and groups improvise local performances from (re) collected parts. (1998,14). In this new world, “straight-line assimilation” can not exist, because although one may know geographically what country they have departed from and where they have landed, the culture they left and the cultures they are going to are both changing. This new world might be diagramed in the following way:

My wife and I have a North African friend who immigrated to Florida and spends most of her time in the Puerto Rican community. Before coming to Florida she spent 8 years in France. She speaks 4 languages and seems to adjust well to most situations. She regularly attends a Spanish speaking Puerto Rican church and an Arabic fellowship group. Her cultural identity is far different than her geographic location. Her case is far from isolated. There are many new immigrants that live in the melange of culture, mixing, matching and forming new identities. They are forming hybrid cultures.

How should the Church minister to the city? Since we do not know where this new global immigration is going, we need churches in both the mono-cultural sphere and the bi-cultural sphere. We need more than homogeneous churches - the context requires hybrid churches.

How do Mohammed and Fatima’s family fit into this new world? Mohammed and Fatima are transnationals. People like transnationals must have a church that is both culturally and linguistically contextualized. One of the advantages of a having a church for Mohammed and Fatima in France is that through the many webs of association the Gospel can spread back into their home country which is closed to outreach.

On a recent visit to North Africa this author saw first-hand evidence of how religion is spread through transnational networks. In one region of the country, where many people had immigrated to Italy, there were several groups of Jehovah’s Witnesses. These North Africans had become Witnesses while in Italy or had been taught by family members or friends from Italy. Through transnational networks we can reach closed nations without ever physically entering them, by evangelizing transnational communities living in open countries.

Azika is an example of the type of immigrant that believes she would feel very much at home in the French church. There was a time when those converting from Islam to Christianity would take a French name because they believed that becoming Christian meant that they were leaving their culture to become Western. There will be many like Azika who come to the Church because they are running from Islam and their home culture. We must provide them with better reasons for becoming Christian than running from Islam. Healthy assimilation does not take place by denial. Those integrating must understand who they are and why they are Christians if they are going to be healthy members of the body of Christ.

Hamid, Aisha, and Saiid are bi -cultural hybrids. They are a mixture of cultures and would most likely identify themselves by other titles than cultural. Hamid and Aisha would prefer to call themselves Muslims. They see themselves as part of the Arab World more than Moroccan or French. Saiid calls himself a Christian and sees himself as part of Western Evangelicalism. In the “straight-line” understanding of assimilation these three would be considered bi -cultural: a mixture of North African and French. In the new world where many cultures inhabit the same space, entirely new identities can be formed. Therefore, churches at each end of the spectrum, in “straight-line assimilation”, are not sufficient to meet these new challenges. We need a “church between cultures” that will bring the Gospel to these new cultural hybrids.

The Church Between Cultures
The “church between cultures” is not against culture, it just cannot be identified with any particular one. The “church between cultures” must be more than just multi-ethnic or multi -cultural, it must transcend cultural and ethnic identities. It must be pan-ethnic. It must incarnate the Gospel into to the lives of “the people between cultures” who do not see themselves in the old forms of ethnicity and culture. The “church between cultures” must help people build a theological understanding of who they are as the people of God. This kind of church may be able to recapture the Apostle Paul’s understanding that in Christ there is neither “Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male and female” (Gal. 3:28). Like the early Church, the “church between cultures” would be seen as a third humanity, neither Roman nor Jewish.

Andrew Walls states that there is an “indigenizing principle” and a “pilgrim principle” found in the Gospels (1996, 7-8). Mono-cultural churches stress the “indigenizing principle”. The Church does very well tied to a culture. Church growth has become synonymous with indigenization. The churches that stress the indigenizing principle must continue to do well, for most of the people on earth live mono-cultural lives. But even these churches must begin to apply the “pilgrim principle” if they are to survive as every culture on earth is experiencing significant change. The Church is too often a preserver of culture, not a proclaimer of the Gospel. When the Church is a part of the established culture and that culture changes, the Church is seen as irrelevant. The new culture that is forming is not rejecting the message of the Bible but the old cultural clothes in which the message is dressed.

The “church between cultures” lives by the “pilgrim principle.” Christ calls us to be strangers and aliens together with other strangers and aliens living as one family of God. We must rediscover the teaching of the one Universal Church, not just as a future hope but a present reality in the visible fellowship of believers. The “church between cultures” can demonstrate these truths better than any other because it is made up of people who have had to learn to live in more than one culture well.

Can such a church exist? In the book of Acts, the church that turned the world upside down was such a church. It wasn’t the mono-cultural church of Jerusalem that was the impetus for the spreading of the Gospel. It was the hybrid people, the bi-cultural people who made up the church of Antioch that were the first to send out missionaries. They were also the first to do mercy ministries cross-culturally in the sending of aid to the church in Jerusalem. It is because of the diversity of the make-up of the church in Antioch that they were able to see needs that the mono-cultural church in Jerusalem could not.

The “church between cultures” is a strategic church for world evangelization, for like the Antioch church it would have first-hand information about the needs in the world from its own people. It also would have many in the church who already had the cross-cultural skills to take the Gospel to other nations. The “church between cultures” could reach the diverse cultures around it by having fellowships that are homogeneous for the purpose of evangelism and discipleship, but always leading people into the fellowship of the larger body. The “church between cultures” would look like the instructions that come with everything we buy - they are in English, Spanish, French and sometimes Greek and Arabic. They are multi-lingual. It could offer language courses for all the languages spoken in the church. A worship service might use several different languages to pray, sing , read Scripture preach and teach.

At first, the “church between cultures” would be a very uncomfortable place - like a hot sauce one can barely eat, but later cannot get enough of! It would be uncomfortable because of its diverse ethnic perspective, it would see sin where mono-cultural churches do not, and call the church to repentance. It could be just the church that is capable of leading God’s people into whatever the future might be. We are seeing the formation of these churches in congregations that describe themselves as, “North African, Arab, Hispanic or Asian” (See Jeung, 2002). Will there be those who dare attempt the next step and group together Hispanics, Asians and others?

The “church between cultures” must be led by people between cultures, leaders who have the ability to lay out before God’s people the vision of Revelations 5:7. The heavenly body of Christ, made up of every tribe, tongue and nation, must have a visible expression on earth in local fellowships. The God who scattered the nations at the tower of Babel is in these days bringing the nations back together through the millions of immigrants that are filling our cities. It is only the power of the Gospel lived out in the community of believers that can make such diversity into a new humanity.

Clifford, James. (1992) "Traveling Cultures." In Cultural Studies Eds. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler. New York: Routledge.

Jeung, Russell. 2002. “Asian American Pan-Ethnic Formation and Congregational Cultures.”
Paper presented at the Lived Theology Workshop. Charlottesville, VA.

Portes, Alejandro. 1999. “Conclusion: Towards a New World -The Origins and Effects of Transnationalism Activities.” Ethnic and Racial Studies. 22(2):463-468.

Walls, Andrew F. 1996. The Missionary Movement in Chritian History:Studies in the Transmission of Faith. New York: Maryknoll.

Wimmer, Adreas. 1998. Zurich's Miami: “Transethnic Relations of a Transnational Community: Working Paper Transnational Communities.” 1998-07.

* The story of Mohammed and Fatima's family is a composite of a family and several individuals from North Africa who now live in France.