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An international harvest in our own backyard

CCCNZ Communications Manager Sophia Sinclair talks with Dr Merv Coates about the unprecedented opportunities for multicultural ministry in Auckland because of globalisation.

Demographers tell us that Auckland is one of the world’s most multicultural cities. I gather you’re excited about the implications of this for local mission?

For sure! I saw a great headline from a New Zealand-based mission magazine: The people of the world: Coming to a street near you. It’s obviously true. The international diaspora is arriving here—in tens of thousands. Whatever your views on immigration, the ‘Lord of the harvest’ is sending these people to us.

These newcomers are arguably New Zealand’s most responsive demographic; look at who’s being baptised in New Zealand and Australian churches, especially in the big centres! These people in transition are very open to new friendships and new ideas; and are at least curious about Jesus—and quite a few are responding to him.

Can you give us any examples of this responsiveness?

Two Sundays back our assembly heard two testimonies: One, a Middle Eastern woman who experienced God’s love and power after her Christian friend prayed for her life situation and gave her a Bible. This opened her heart to know Christ.

The other testimony came from a Chinese university researcher who came to New Zealand a couple of years ago, and through an ‘intentionally intercultural’ church found the meaning for life he was looking for—beyond career success and a comfortable lifestyle. 18 months ago, he was baptised along with his wife and daughter. Now this family hosts our International Life Group in their home, with a dozen recently baptised believers from Japan, China, and India, and others still on their way. Last Saturday they joined us and 70 others for an outing on Auckland Harbour in an old steam tugboat. 30 of the participants were from the Middle East, and 15 were families of women in our assembly’s ESOL and Bible study group.

We refer curious international university students to ‘intentionally intercultural’ churches. God has worked through two of these churches in a way that has ignited our confidence in the gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit to touch people’s lives—with dozens being baptised each year. 

What are some ways of engaging with these newcomers to New Zealand?

Most of it is small stuff; everyday friendships, eating together, helping fill out CVs, proof-reading essays, praying with them, showing them our beautiful country, enjoying outings… and celebrations!

Spending time celebrating events like graduations, citizenship, exam success, and children’s achievements. Also celebrating cultural festivals. For example, FFF family and friends celebrated a colourful Middle Eastern New Year festival with ethnic dancing, music, food and table discussions, and at the end of the night, several took Bibles or Jesus DVDs in their language. In December these friends will be invited into various homes to ‘Celebrate Isa’ (Jesus), including an explanation of why we celebrate Jesus’ birth. Fun! Meaningful. Fruitful.

Great to hear! Any more specifics on how the Good News can be introduced to international friends?

As we eat together, become good friends and do stuff together, we understand more deeply what matters to each other.

And some of them welcome an opportunity to join us in short courses that introduce the Christian faith, such as modified Alpha courses, which have subtitles to make it easier to understand. For ESOL guests we’ve developed our own course handouts, combining the best parts of Youth Alpha and the Alpha Film Series. If anyone is interested we’re happy to share these handouts and video clips and discuss the merits of various alternatives. We’ve also experimented with Christianity Explored and Long Story Short—all good  in particular contexts.

Some university groups simply read and discuss segments from Luke or John's Gospel, watching the relevant passages from movies such as Son of God or John (from The Visual Bible). We've done this with graduate and doctoral students, as well as childcare mums from Asia, the Middle East, South America and Europe. Many say they've never actually read the gospels before. It's great just to let Jesus speak for himself, and let our friends make their own responses.

In personal conversations, we offer to pray for whatever hopes and heart-aches these new friends share. Then watch how the Living God answers these prayers.

What about churches in our movement? Over the next 5-10 years, how will we allow the new reality of globalisation to reshape us?

I hope that within the next five years, we’ll see more churches with more of these 11 marks of an intercultural church:

  • Leaders that model inter-cultural hospitality and relationships
  • Preaching, testimonies, and mission statements that direct attention to the world at our doorstep
  • A cultural mix in church leadership teams and worship teams. We need these fellow-leaders to teach us perspectives on Christian living, Scripture, prayer, faith, worship, and costly discipleship--perspectives we lack, without their help
  • ‘Welcome to New Zealand’ Saturday mornings (ask Eden Community Church about this)
  • Multiple language resources—booklets and DVDs— available in church foyers
  • Public prayers for countries represented in the fellowship
  • Acknowledging key cultural events such as Lunar New Year
  • Sermon note summaries available for ESOL people
  • Sometimes singing verses or saying benedictions in other languages
  • ESOL classes, along with simple English Bible studies (ask Northcross Church, Eden Community Church, Lincoln Road Bible Chapel, or Ngaire Avenue Bible Chapel).
  • International home groups or language-based life groups for those with limited English

Obviously, these changes won’t happen quickly or without resistance. Even the first century church took decades to appreciate the radical truth of being ONE people under Christ… walls broken down ... a new humanity made visible. A truly, radically intercultural church is a powerful testimony in a globalised world. 

Merv taught at Laidlaw College for 20 years and wrote his doctoral thesis on ‘Missional Churches in an Age of Globalisation’. He has also taught at Pathways College, NZ Assembly Bible School, and GLO, as well as block courses in Eritrea and Myanmar.

Want to get started right away? Why not begin with Merv’s recommended reading: “Building International, Multiethnic or Multi-cultural Churches.” By Peter and Elizabeth Anderson and Warren and Doreen Payne.


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