Listening to Diaspora Christians: An Interview with Eduardo Mendes
For many years the Church in the West has recognized that our world is shrinking. The mission fields are now among us. Unreached people groups are represented in major cities throughout North America, providing an unprecedented opportunity for churches to serve and reach them. But not everyone who comes to the West is a non-Christian. Nearly half of new immigrants and refugees to North America identify as believers in Jesus. In fact, some are even coming as missionaries. In such cases, our ministry isn’t to them by way of evangelism. Instead, we should look for ways to minister through them, with them, and beyond them in our own country and around the world. However, to do so effectively, we’ll need to begin by listening to them.
In this interview, I ask Eduardo Mendes, the Director for Diaspora Training at TLI, to share some of what it’s like to be a Brazilian Christian living in the United States.
You’ve experienced church in Brazil and are now part of an English-speaking congregation in the United States. What are some of the biggest differences between churches there and here? What do you miss most about your experience of worship and fellowship in Portuguese?
I have been living in the US for over four years. As of now, I would identify three major differences, though they are all interconnected.
First is the heart language of worship. There’s nothing like worshiping in my heart language of Portuguese. Two years ago, I was visiting my home church in Brazil. When the congregation started singing “Contemple a Deus” (“Behold Our God”), it was not the same as in the US! After the song ended, I stood up to preach, and the pastor asked me, “Eduardo, what do you miss most living in America?” Without hesitation, I replied, “Worship in Portuguese! Please let’s sing that song again.”
The second major difference has to do with time and relationships. Brazilians love to spend time together as we worship the One who unites us all (Colossians 3:14–17). For us, church feels more like a family environment. We normally are together many times in the week: Sunday morning and evening, Wednesday nights, small group gatherings, and Saturday evenings for college and youth worship. The church members' weekly schedule runs around the church schedule. But I had to learn that in the US the agenda runs around schools and sports.
Lastly, while the liturgy of my home church is similar to my church in the US, worship in Brazil feels more like a family gathering. Our worship is integrated into who we are as a community. In the US, the absence of a relationship-driven approach in ministry results in less active participation on the part of the congregation. Last year, I traveled to Brazil along with my American pastor. After the service, he mentioned that he felt a lack of individual worship in our services. He had the same sense of “missing something” that I experience every Sunday in the US. The only difference was that we were on opposite sides.
Many diaspora (immigrant and refugee) Christians who come to the United States or Canada initially join a local congregation in their own language. What made you choose an English-speaking church?
Our family didn’t choose a Brazilian church for a few reasons. As a missionary sent to the US from Brazil, I was personally convicted that I should engage and dive in the culture by attending a US church. I also didn’t feel comfortable joining a church that was in transition and didn’t have a strong youth ministry.
There is a growing desire among Western churches to have a genuine multiethnic ministry. We believe churches should reflect the demographics of our communities and, as much as possible, the heavenly vision of all peoples and languages surrounding the throne. What are some of the challenges to this goal?
I believe the biggest challenge is worship. In order to understand this challenge, it’s necessary to understand the huge cultural differences between a relationship-oriented culture and a process-oriented culture. One is led by individual worship (focused more on the vertical relationship between God and one person) and another is led by community worship (focused more on the horizontal relationships with other worshipers). To find a balance between these two is a challenge, but not impossible. Because while we are different, we worship the same God.
Martin Robinson, speaking to the European Leadership Forum Church Planters Network, identified three strategies for church planting: monocultural (for a homogeneous unit), multicultural, and intercultural. All three models can be Christ-centered, but each church needs to discern how it can best exalt God through serving the community around them. The church I attend is basically a monocultural church. It is Christ-centered, and God is shaping our hearts through the preaching and singing. But it’s very much a white church. The worship is individualistic. Every Sunday I struggle, missing the community worship back in Brazil. That’s when God reminds me that we are different, but he is not!
Are monoethnic churches that worship in a different language (Spanish, Mandarin, etc.) truly necessary? Do they promote unnecessary division and contradict the goal of multiethnic churches?
Yes, nowadays we need both monoethnic and multiethnic churches. There are differences between generations among immigrants, and their heart language is a huge issue in worship. The first generation really needs a church gathering in their heart language. Sometimes, the second generation can navigate well in both scenarios, cultures, and languages. Usually, by the third generation, immigrants are fully integrated. (This has been the pattern for immigrants throughout American history.) The need for ethnic churches also depends on whether new immigrants are coming into an area.
So, yes, we need both. And, no, I don’t believe they contradict the goal of multiethnic churches, because different generations require a different approach and worship in a different language.
If someone from another country can understand, speak, and worship in English, are there other cultural barriers that might make it difficult to participate in a majority-culture church gathering?
Yes, the mindset. There is a difference in how the mind works when you have a relationship-driven versus a process-driven culture. Let me give an example. Many in the US from the majority culture would read the first question where I answered with the dynamic of time and relationship in Brazilian culture, and it sounds exhausting. You can’t see yourself enjoying church if it means going more than once or twice a week. The busy life that you have wouldn’t work in that culture. From the perspective of the process-oriented culture, some processes are required for relationships. But that’s not the case in most relational cultures.
In my home country, if I want to catch up with someone, I take the car, drive to his house, ring the bell, and we hang out. But in the US, there’s a different process to follow. If I want to catch up, then I will talk to my spouse about my desire, plan together how it will fit in our agenda to make sure it can work into our busy week. Then I need to decide what is the best tool to connect with my friend (text, phone, or email). Only after going through those steps will I execute a plan, being sure to use the right tool to schedule a time for getting together—which will likely be three or four weeks from today! What one culture prefers can be exhausting for another.
Some diaspora Christians, such as yourself, desire to join in English-speaking churches. What are some ways that our churches can serve them? Does a commitment to becoming multiethnic also mean a commitment to becoming multicultural?
No, I believe that individuals and churches won’t be able to become fully multicultural. Simply having different ethnicities in your church or singing songs in Spanish doesn’t make you multicultural. But we can take steps toward becoming more intercultural. This requires taking the initiative to learn from other Christians and their cultures, prioritizing the relationship over a program. Living for a period of your life in another culture or reading a book may help a bit. But it doesn’t resolve this totally. I had visited the US several times before moving here and had talked to many Americans in Brazil. But after four years here, I still struggle to understand the US mindset.
Understanding a culture starts with understanding people. So I believe the best way to serve the immigrant community is by developing our skills of intentional listening, desiring to hear them, to learn and understand and know them. I would suggest eight steps to develop our intentional hearing with internationals in North America:
1. Take the initiative; they are waiting for you.
2. You don’t need a connection plan, just do it.
3. Listen, and don’t take their potential criticism personally.
4. Ask questions about them, not only about their culture.
5. Don’t let prejudices or first impressions lead you to judge them.
6. Keep in the conversation until the end. Don’t let anything take you away.
7. Be ready to be challenged; be open to change.
8. If you truly care, they will know. They are reading you.