By Kenneth D. MacHarg
It all began as an aside in a mission class taught many years ago by Dr. Norman Horner at the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
He was explaining the various ways in which a person could serve overseas such as via denominational mission boards, independent faith mission groups, ecumenical bodies and others.
Pausing for a moment, he remarked almost as an after-thought, “By the way, if you are interested in an English-language ministry overseas you might consider the Union Churches which serve expatriates living abroad.”
Dr. Horner went on to explain that these congregations brought people together from various denominations to worship in an international location where there weren’t enough English-speaking Lutherans or Methodists, Congregationalists or Pentecostals to form their own church.
That was a “light bulb” moment for me. While I had (and continue to have) an intense interest in global issues and missionary work, I had never considered learning a language and moving abroad to carry out ministry.
But discovering that there were, in those days, around 200 of those congregations in a diversity of countries set me to considering serving one of them.
Generally known as international Congregations (ICs) today, there are at least 1,500 such multinational, multi-denominational churches located in major cities around the world serving an ever-expanding cadre of expatriates. And, increasingly, pastors from the United States and other English-speaking countries are heading abroad to take up the pastorate of these churches.
If you are one of those, congratulations. You are about to embark on an exhilarating and profound experience as you take on serving a multi-denominational and multi-national congregation.
But, before you go, there are at least eight things for you to consider to successfully serve such a diverse group.
1. What works back home won’t necessarily succeed in an IC.
U.S. pastors are used to packaged programs for evangelism and discipleship that lay out several steps to achieving success. And, there are numerous types of church governing patterns or models (seeker and emerging churches, missional congregations, lay-led, elder-led) which may not be at all relevant to a congregation that involves people from diverse ecclesiastical backgrounds.
Not everyone in an IC will respond well to these guided process. Some will resist having their church shaped in Australian, North American or European styles and assumptions. Others will see opportunities from a broader, international perspective. Better to develop programs for education, outreach or youth work that are more relevant to the broad make-up of the church you are serving.
2. Give up the idea of building a stable church with a growing membership.
Just as soon as you begin to succeed, you will reach a year when a large percentage of the congregation is transferred out of the country or decides to go back home. Or, upheaval in the country or region will send many expats packing. The IC pastor will quickly learn that turn-over is a major factor that shapes much of his or her reoccurring work. (An IC pastor in South America told me that each year he loses around 50% of his participants due to transfers in the diplomatic and business communities). In international congregations, loyal, supportive members will leave sooner or later and new people will come in to take their place—and none of that is based on whether you are a dynamic preacher or a strong leader.
Turnover can best be addressed by learning how to integrate people into the life of a church quickly and completely. Assuring that they find a small group, asking them to lead in worship or teach Sunday school, using their musical abilities will encourage many to stay and provide immediate replacements for those who leave. While a church will want to get to know someone responsibly before placing them in certain positions, making them wait six months or a year while they are examined usually means they will go somewhere else or will leave without ever getting involved or feeling at home.
3. Be prepared for the lowest attendance Sundays of the year at Christmas and Easter.
That makes no sense to a traditional pastor of a church in the home country. But the reality is that teachers, who may make up a large percentage of an IC, diplomats and some business people have extended vacations over those holidays and use them to travel home or take a vacation elsewhere in the region. Not only that, be aware that diplomats will frequently be gone for multiple weekends—they observe holidays from the host country and those from their home country. Attendance for some will be, at best, sporadic because many expats are regional directors or managers and must travel frequently.
4. Enjoy the opportunity to preach to an international audience.
They are serious about hearing good, biblical preaching and messages that resonate with the struggles of expat life. A never ending series of expository sermons that runs through a book or the whole Bible for months or a year may not be feasible or effective because of the attendance fluctuations and the sizable turnover during any given year. It’s much better to keep series in a manageable length such as three to eight weeks.
Another challenge to your preaching: dare I say most of your tried and true illustrations from back home won’t be relevant in an IC? Australians don’t understand baseball nor North American football. Filipinos don’t watch American or European TV programs and so won’t understand who you are talking about. Latin Americans, Africans, Asians, Europeans cannot follow the twists and turns of U.S. primary elections and never will understand the Electoral College no matter how often you explain it. Pick and choose stories and illustrations that will communicate cross-culturally and internationally.
Oh yes, another caution: If you decide to celebrate the 4th of July, then—in fairness–be ready to celebrate the independence day of all the nations represented in your church. In one congregation we had people from 35 nationalities—making celebrating any national holiday impossible.
5. Your congregation may be in deep need of encouragement and emotional/spiritual support.
Not only will they want counsel and understanding for those normal struggles they would have back home such as marital stress, concern about children and aging parents, drug and alcohol abuse and the like, but they will also require support for unique expat issues. These might include frequent losses as they or friends relocate or move away after a short period of time, adjustment to another culture and learning other languages, responding to violence and insecurity, intense homesickness or loneliness or the fear of deportation or having to return to their home country and giving up the expat lifestyle. Good, biblically-based, need-oriented preaching can help build a basis for dealing with those issues, but many cups of coffee (or tea) at a local restaurant will be required as you help them work through these challenges.
6. Conflict can also arise in an IC.
The issues are many, some of them different from what a pastor might expect: differing expectations between people coming from liturgical or non-liturgical backgrounds, conflict over preaching style from those who want what they had back home; tension between members from developed countries and those from developing nations; political differences in a very diverse congregation; stresses and a lack of understanding between missionaries and business people.
While blending traditions and practices from multiple church backgrounds often works well, an IC pastor must be sensitive to differences among the members in such a diverse congregation. Learning to lead a congregation made up of liturgical Anglicans, middle of the road Baptists and expressive Pentecostals can be a joy while also challenging.
7. Learn four useful phrases which will provide counsel and understanding as you adapt and get along with both expats and people from the local culture.
a. When dealing across cultures, if you remember that “your” assumptions are not necessarily “their” assumptions, you will get along well.
b. A successful expatriate has a good sense of humor and a poor sense of smell.
c. In another culture, you cannot say “you would think…” The reality is that you and they think and do things differently. Be quiet and learn from the way “they” do things.
d. Since you are there to preach the Gospel, taking a political stance in a diverse congregation can damage your personal relationships with people of various persuasions. Avoid discussing politics, especially those from your own country, with anyone. And remember, many of your members don’t watch the same news channels you do (they are more likely to be tuned into the BBC World News or CNN International).
8. Be ready to be challenged, blessed, excited, fulfilled and satisfied.
The reality is that there are no more interesting, challenging and fulfilling churches to serve than the international congregations. They are filled with fascinating people who have the most amazing and bizarre stories to tell; whose perspectives are far beyond those of most folks back home; who are deeply committed to the Lord and the work of His church; who will teach you more than you will ever teach them; who will appreciate your efforts and likely recommend you to serve their new church when they move half a world away.
Kenneth D. MacHarg has served as the pastor of nine international churches in seven countries (Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Honduras, Kyrgyzstan, Panama and the Bahamas) and is the author of the book “Singing the Lord’s Songs in a Foreign Land; Biblical Reflections for Expatriates.” He is semi-retired and lives in Carrollton, Georgia, when not serving an international church abroad in an interim capacity.
Sidebar # 1
Expatriate: Someone who lives outside of their own country. Also known as an Expat.
Do not confuse an expatriate with an expatriot—someone who has given up citizenship in their country of origin. Sometimes known as a traitor.
To know more about international churches, see a partial listing of them and find churches seeking a pastor, see:
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