Volume 3.1 / International Churches
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Approaches to Ministry

International Churches

Dave Furman and Scott Zeller

I (Dave) still remember the conversation like it was yesterday.

I was on the phone in our apartment in Texas and could not believe what I was hearing about the opportunities to advance the gospel in the Middle East. My wife Gloria could hear my enthusiasm and walked into the room and started eavesdropping on the call. Our new friend, a pastor overseas, was explaining to me that at that time there was not a healthy English-speaking church in the center of what was the fastest growing city in the world. People from nearly every nation poured into this city where English was an official language, yet there was no gospel-preaching church downtown. Plant a church in the city center of that city, he said, and you’ll reach the least-reached.

That was all Gloria needed to hear. She left the study and went to the dining room to get a chair. Instead of pulling up a seat next to me, she dragged the chair to the closet and stood on it to reach our suitcase. She pulled the suitcase down from the shelf, unzipped it, and started packing some clothes and her favorite books. I remember hearing the suitcase wheels clacking down the tiled hallway to our front door, and then Gloria called down the hallway, “Let’s go!”

That was my wife’s way of telling me she was ready for the adventure. And so was I.

We could not believe how the two ministries we were most passionate about were coming together: the local church and ministry among the least-reached.

 1.     The Sleeping Giant

This ministry we were being called into is known as an “international church”-- a church that operates in one of the dominant (but perhaps not indigenous) languages of a community and welcomes people from every nationality. Although 50 years ago in our region you might have had to know Arabic to even buy lunch, because of globalization English has been elevated as the global language. For this reason we minister primarily in English in order to reach the greatest number of different people groups with the gospel. And that’s exactly what has happened. Our church has grown quickly and we’ve seen many least-reached people respond to the gospel from both the preaching of God’s word and the personal evangelism of our members.

Our hope is to see more international churches started in our area and throughout the world. We believe that international churches could be the sleeping giants of global missions. These churches, many strategically placed in global cities of hard-to-reach countries, have the potential to not only reach their cities but to also reach the world as their expatriate members are sent back home. Pastor Bob Roberts has said,

International churches have been springing up for the past 15 years in major cities around the world. Expatriates who go to live as a minority in a particular place find themselves worshipping with believers from every nation and in every domain. Rich and poor, diplomats and businesspeople, black and white, and representatives of every language--these people are perhaps in the biggest gold mines of church multiplication that we have in the world today (But do they realize that?). They are the most connected churches of all because their membership represents every single domain of society.[1]

Imagine if these so-called international churches really did have this kind of impact on the world— reaching men, women, and children from the nations in key global cities and sending them back to their nations to lead gospel movements there. The possibilities are endless.

When Gloria and I (Dave) stepped off the plane along with our 16-month old daughter onto the sizzling tarmac of our city on August 23, 2008, we had no idea what to expect. We had met a couple people in this foreign city briefly, but did not know if it was actually possible to plant the new church we had been dreaming about since the phone call.

We had taken a map and drawn a square around the city and prayed for a church to be established there. In a short period of time, we were able to link arms with an existing international church on the other end of town. In God’s kindness, 18 months later we were able to see a church started in the center of that square.

And people came! Then more and more people came. Today over 1,000 people from over 60 nations are gathering each week to hear the gospel preached. Many of them are members who have committed to being part of our church, and some of them are visitors. There could be a tourist in town who has never seen a Christian worship service and he wants to “see what’s going on.” There may be a woman whose job in the city hasn’t turned out the way she had hoped and she is looking for spiritual guidance. In an international church, you never know who the Lord will bring through the doors.

In the rest of this article we (Scott Zeller and Dave Furman) want to list out eight realities that should describe international churches.

1.1 A Love for Their City

Several years ago, I (Dave) spent several weeks with Redeemer City to City in New York City for church planting training and one of the things that impacted me most wasn’t anything I heard but it was something I read in a little ministry guide about Redeemer Presbyterian Church. It was a short biography of Pastor Tim Keller that caught my attention. The pamphlet said that his greatest hobby is New York City. It went on to speak of how in his free time Keller likes walking down new streets in the city and learning new features of the neighborhoods. That biography challenged me to pray that I would fall more in love with our city. I started taking the metro everywhere I could and meeting people in the city. We moved from a suburb to an apartment right down the street from where our church met.

Living in the city will help you learn the people you are trying to reach. You walk around the community and pay attention to what is happening. You build friendships with employees, shopkeepers, and servers and get to know their lives. You learn people’s stories and are often surprised by who is receptive to the gospel. I am always amazed by who God raises up as a “person of peace” whose influence opens up even more ministry. To truly reach cities you have to live in them. You will not understand some of the nuances of the community unless you are there in community. Proximity to the people you’re trying to reach is essential. Housing choices should be made accordingly, even if it means living in conditions that might not excite your mother-in-law.

We go into the cities because (as many missiologists have said) if we lose the cities, we lose the world. India is building a new city the size of Chicago every year, just to keep pace with urbanization.[2] The gospel resistant and unreached are moving into the cities of the world. What if we could plant hub international churches in key global cities? What if those churches would then serve to plant more churches in the surrounding areas?

1.2 A Gospel-Shaped Focus

Four years ago, Martin and Maria (not their real names), along with their two young children, came to our Christmas Eve service. For this family from a “least-reached nation” nearby it was the first time they had ever stepped foot into a gathering of Christians of any kind. Martin and Maria thought they were merely being polite in accepting the invitation of two of our members, but what transpired that night would alter their lives forever.

The content of the service was simple: singing, a number of Bible readings, and a short meditation on the birth of Jesus. During the presentation of the gospel, both Martin and Maria felt (in their own words) “a warm sensation come over them that they had never felt before.” In the days that followed they continued to think about Jesus and the message preached that night. They began to study the Bible with the members who had invited them on Christmas Eve. Through study of God’s Word it became obvious to them that Jesus is who He says He is. Both Martin and Maria repented of their sin and confessed that Jesus Christ is both Lord and Savior.

International churches must faithfully proclaim the gospel and resist temptations to change it, distort it, or sideline it in ministry as unimportant. The gospel changes lives. It is the truth that our sin against a holy God deserves death and God’s righteous judgment. And it is only through faith in Christ’s sacrifice for sinners that we will be saved. Milton Vincent’s little book Gospel Primer says:

 It’s interesting that the Bible only attributes the phrase “power of God” in reference to the Gospel. Outside of heaven, the power of God in its highest density is found inside the Gospel. Nothing else in all of Scripture is ever described in this way except for the Person of Jesus Christ. Such a description indicates that the gospel is not only powerful, but that it is the ultimate entity in which God’s power resides and does its greatest work.[3]

An international church must boldly proclaim the gospel and work to build ministries that are driven by the gospel. The gospel should drive the church’s vision, reflecting the Great Commission that Christ gave to his followers. The goal of the ministry should be faithfulness to the marching orders of making disciples of Jesus Christ. Rather than focusing on expanding programs and budgets, the ministry should focus on heart-level issues and seeing people grow in their faith.

1.3  Teach Rich Theological Truths

“I intentionally don’t share difficult truths or repeat the hard things Jesus said in the church.” Those were the words uttered from a leader of an international church I had visited in South Asia. Following the worship gathering I sat with many of the church leaders for lunch and asked them more questions about their church. Another leader said they intentionally don’t teach doctrine that could divide those in the church, so they ascribe to no statement of faith, recognize no elders, and practice no church membership or discipline. In my surprise I asked him, “Why”? He was taken aback and explained, “Why would we want to cause friction in our church body? If we start taking a specific “side” theologically some people will get upset. And we wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. We are all away from home and need each other.”

There is a growing trend in world missions that says church planters ought to restrict their preaching and teaching to the “lowest common denominator” in order to garner bigger numbers. This idea stems from a desire to minimize division among the body of Christ. These church planters avoid expositing passages that teach joy satisfying, worship-fueling truths like the Trinity, election, total depravity, justification by faith, substitutionary atonement, the sufficiency of Jesus Christ, and the confidence we have in Christ’s bodily return to judge the living and the dead. In so doing, as a pastor resists feeding his flock with this rich doctrine, the gospel is assumed and ultimately lost. While the ministry trellises of such a church may be expansive, the vine that grows on them will be fragile and sickly.

Recently I finished preaching through the book of Leviticus over the course of nine weeks. I was a little nervous to preach through the book because I had never studied it in great depth myself. And how do you preach some of those chapters about skin diseases and discharges? It was not the easiest sermon series in the world, but our church loved it. Our prayer going into it was that not only would we love Leviticus but that we would more importantly love the God of Leviticus. And God answered our prayers—our lives were changed.

On the day after I preached the final sermon in that series I received some of the craziest news I had ever heard. During the week prior to my final sermon there were a half dozen seekers from a nearby country who came to our city to meet with a Bible teacher in our country. They had expressed some interest in Christianity and during their week of "tourism" they studied God's word. Most of their discussions were revolved around the law and the Old Testament, then their friend who was teaching them brought them to our worship gathering. They could not believe that I was preaching from Leviticus. Afterwards they told their teacher, "You set this up, didn't you? You told the preacher what to preach!" Later on that day, four of them came up to him and said they had repented of their sin and trusted Christ to save them. They said that the Leviticus sermon made it all click for them. Leviticus! International churches need not dumb down doctrine, but present the glories of God in all of Scripture.

1.4 Practice Meaningful Membership

Scripture is clear that the church has visible form and is organized on earth as an observable congregation. Acts, 1 Timothy, and Titus show us that churches are to dedicated to the right preaching of God’s word and the right practicing of the ordinances. Local churches are filled with people who are marked off as those devoted to God. Mark Dever has said that churches are to be a corporate display of God’s glory to the world.

One of the best ways we can display the glory of Christ in the church is by having meaningful membership—some way of calling Christians to account for their lives. There also needs to be some way of giving Christians the opportunity to serve the church. In international contexts membership is often excluded as a means of making sure that no one feels left out. But this is precisely the reason why membership is important. It is so easy for one to live in anonymity as they move to a new context internationally. They are now in a place where they need support and help. People who move to a new international context (perhaps for a short period of time) should not consider their time in a new church as a break from their “real” ministry. Their home church is not the church back in the city they are from, but in the city they currently live in. Church membership helps the elders of a particular church know the flock they are entrusted with and they can better and more formerly care for the church.

One of my favorite moments in our church happened in our first year. We were interviewing a man for membership. His life was a mess. The sin of his former life had great consequences, but he had become a Christian and wanted to join the church. We told him that we needed to let the church know what was going on in his life so that we could care for him. We didn’t know how he would respond. Would he be embarrassed or angry? He said, ”Tell them everything! I need the church. I need them. Please tell them so they can help me.” Our brother in Christ needed our prayers and support, and he needed us to walk alongside him in holiness. Later on we had to walk alongside this same brother when he fell back into sin. But again, that is why the church is there—to provide a wall of protection for us as we are prone to wander from God.

1.5 Multi-Ethnic Diversity

The diversity in an international church is a beautiful adornment of the gospel. One night at our (Dave’s) home, we held a church dinner. It was a great party with lots of eating and fellowship. The next day, a neighbor confessed to my wife, Gloria: “All night I had my face glued to my window looking at your yard. I was surprised at what I saw. I saw Indians and Africans and Asians and Westerners coming together—bringing food and eating at your house and everyone looked so happy. Why would you eat with people who are so different than you?” Gloria saw an open door to discuss the gospel and said, “It’s all because of Jesus.” Because of the diversity of our church, my wife had an opportunity to describe in full how Jesus tears down the dividing wall, breaks down all barriers, and brings together people from all nations at the cross. It’s because Jesus loves us and we love Jesus that we come together and worship Him. This was stunning news to our neighbor. The pan-ethnic Bride of Christ is a beautiful display of the grace of God through his Son.

On another occasion my wife had a couple of ladies over for lunch. These ladies had never even interacted with people from different countries before my wife befriended them. They were so enthralled by being in our home that they took pictures of everything with their phones--from the couches to the framed family photos. They said they had never been into a foreigner’s home and it was all so different to them. Ethnic barriers are all over our city.

We need to understand the culture and display how Christianity transforms our lives in ways unlike the world has seen. James 2:1 says, “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” When we as Christians truly live this out it witnesses to the power of God in the gospel. International churches can be showcases of the unity of the body of Christ in their community and hospitality as the members are eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3). There are several ways we can aim to do this in our churches. Here are five ways:

First, if you are trying to reach nationalities of people different from you, then work hard for the weekly gathering to meet in their neighborhoods. And if you are a Westerner it would help to meet in a neighborhood with lots of Easterners. That will help you to not only attract people who are like the leaders.

Second, it’s important that the church leadership resembles the diversity you are hoping to see in the congregation. Now of course this does not mean you recognize unqualified elders, but it does mean that you are as intentional as possible in who you hire and train to lead.

Third, it would be wise to have a multitude of nationalities involved in the weekly gathering. From preachers, to service leaders, to musicians, and people praying and reading Scripture--paint a picture of the unity in diversity by who you have on the platform and greeting people in the doorway.

Fourth, be careful that no one nationality is elevated in a special way. Preachers (especially the one who preaches the most) should be careful to not use many illustrations from his home country or always talk about where he is from.

Fifth, make sure the beauty of diversity is celebrated often. Diversity is not the gospel, but it is a sweet adornment of the gospel. When people visit our church gatherings they often say that their experience was a little taste of heaven. We agree and say that often. What a privilege to gather together with the nations to worship our Heavenly King!

1.6 Equipping Those in the Workplace for Missional Living

In order to maximize the evangelistic potential of their location amongst least-reached peoples, international churches in global cities must engage all their members in building a culture of evangelism. Often times, it won’t be the ministers or missionaries who are most prolific in evangelism, but those church members working regular jobs.

International churches must embrace that those who do not make their living by proclaiming the gospel are often best positioned to do so. It is remarkable that while the Apostle Paul called his disciple Timothy to not neglect the gift given to him unto vocational ministry (1 Tim 4:6-16), Paul never made a blanket exhortation in his letters to call individuals to full-time ministry. In fact, he did just the opposite.

Paul reminds the Thessalonian church about how when he brought the gospel to them, he did so “working night and day” as to not be a burden on them (1 Thess 2:9). Shortly after that reminder, his call to the Thessalonian church was for them to model that approach and to win the approval of outsiders by living quiet lives of work allowing for financial independence (1 Thess. 4:9-12). Peter arrives at a similar place when the summation of his missional exhortation in 1 Peter 2 is to manifest status as a kingdom of priests not by passing out tracts, but by doing good and honorable deeds so as to be looked well upon by outsiders (1 Pet. 2:12). From both Paul and Peter then, arises the implication that essential for saving gospel clarity among outsiders is steady vocational faithfulness among believers.

Marketplace professionals - the bankers, baristas, doormen, and every other profession - embody what the city is made for: productive men and women who are ready to work for the good of others in the city and be compensated according to their work. The church can and must rethink how to effectively deploy missionaries to global cities. But alongside that, why not mobilize those naturally able to thrive in the city: Christians who can be awakened to the potential to reach the nations that are right there in their vocation.

Churches all around the world are trying to be faithful to the Great Commission by sending missionaries to what some Christian leaders call the 10/40 Window. It is the region of the Eastern Hemisphere located between 10 and 40 degrees north of the equator. It has become a target for ministry among churches around the earth because it is home to over 3 billion people, most of which have never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. While those numbers are sobering, the exciting news it that there are global cities in the 10/40 Window filled with least-reached people. And, even more exciting, there are many Christians already in those places! There are believers around the world who do not have to pack their bags to “go.” Whether they meant to or not, they went. Churches around the world are trying to raise money and convince people to go, but God sovereignly already has his people in many key cities. And he does nothing by accident.

Recently we devoted a portion of our quarterly members meeting to equipping our church members for outreach to people of a specific religion. A few days after, I was chatting with one of our members and asked him if he had ever had a good conversation with someone of that religion (which represents a majority of the population of our city). “Oh no!”, he said, “We are much too timid for that, we avoid those ones.” This brother had lived in our city for almost two decades, and for the entire time had been avoiding gospel contact with those who needed it most. However, through equipping and encouragement from the church, he is now starting to gain the confidence to reach out in love to the lost.

If they intentionally and lovingly develop their members towards a culture of evangelism, international churches can mobilize the business people in their midst for gospel witness throughout their cities.

1.7 Receiving Those Mobilized for Missional Living in the Workplace

If we are to reach the cities of today, we cannot rely solely on the methods of yesterday.

The last 30 years was something of a Golden Age for cross-cultural missionaries. In 1980, there were 70,000 evangelical missionaries in the world.  Today, there are over 400,000 missionaries who have been sent out to every country on earth.[4] The church has done well at sending vocational missionaries!

However, the church has struggled to leverage the believing business people in their midst to be sent to the nations through their work. In fact, you might say the church has barely even attempted to consider this possibility.

Recently, a recent major study was done of professionals who are trying to use business as a strategy for mission. Topping the key findings was that nearly all surveyed were self-recruited to those endeavors.[5] Making the connections between their work and the advance of the gospel to the nations was something they had to come to on their own. After reaching these conclusions, they also had to piece together a way to make it work. Of those 400,000 evangelical missionaries in the world today, less than one percent are specifically identified as those with business experience that they are currently leveraging for the mission.[6] Clearly, the sending of missionaries is big business. Equally clear is that we are not big on sending business people to mission.

Encouragingly, this trend is changing. Leaders of major missions organizations are beginning to champion the idea that sending business people to the nations for the advance of the gospel is a sound and needed strategy. Consider these recent comments from David Platt, President of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, USA,

I think about, with the globalization of today’s marketplace, the opportunities that students, men, women, retirees from churches here in North America have to go around the world for the spread of the gospel. I’m praying God would awaken the Church to see the opportunities he’s given for us around the world so we might see limitless numbers of people who are actually leveraging job opportunities… over there instead of the default to work here.[7]

The connection to our topic of international churches in global cities is that as more and more Christian professionals around the world take up that opportunity to use their job to go to unreached places, international churches are poised to provide the critical context these workers need to be effective.

James came to our church several months ago to work in finance in the city. He did not just come to advance his career, but to advance the gospel. Because of the existing local church, he was able to immediately thrive in personal ministry. Within weeks he was leading a small group, discipling men from several different nations, and reaching out to the lost in his workplace. His job provided the means to get here and live here, but the church provided the context for him to hit the ground running in ministry.

Mobilized marketplace professionals will not have the same training as missionaries, nor the same ability to take years to learn a language or adapt to culture. However, they can still be effective if they are received in their new global city by a healthy international church that is already on mission in that city.

1.8 Dream Bigger than One Church

Cities are known for being somewhat transitory. Whether someone’s job was just a 12-month contract or their multi-year tour of duty gets cut short by family needs in another city (or country), it is not uncommon to have people here today, and gone tomorrow.

The typical response to that in international churches has been to provide little more than chapel services and potlucks for those in their midst. Since it is hard to know how long people will be with you, the thought is that it would be better to simply help them maintain some spiritual pulse along their way to their next stop.

We’ve taken a different approach.

We look at the hundreds of brothers and sisters flowing through our church from dozens of different nations and see incredible potential for training leaders for the global church. What would it look like if each were not just sustained in their faith, but encouraged and equipped for ministry? What if international churches were catalysts for ministry training, churning out leaders for the church both in their city and in whatever cities the members might go next?

We often tell our people that their time in our city should not be a parenthesis in their spiritual life - a time in the middle where not much important happened - but that our hope for their time among us is that it would be one of the most significant seasons of their growth in Christ.

Towards that end, we teach and disciple each member, and also have formalized those efforts in a church-based training center. Our training center offers an innovative approach to theological education, comparable to the best seminaries in content and quality, but designed for the needs of working pastors, church or parachurch staffers, and marketplace professionals.

Housing this kind of training within an international church stems from the foundational conviction that the local church is God’s appointed means of accomplishing his work in the world. So every aspect of our training, from the programs we offer to the structure of individual courses, is structured to equip students specifically for ministry in local churches. This also allows those trained in our ministry not only to serve among us but to be ready to build up other churches when they move on or return home.

It was a thrill to us recently when one of several of our church members decided to use their annual leave trip home not just for vacation, but to hold training events to encourage the local churches in the areas that they are from. These were not missionaries; they were not pastors. They simply were brothers and sisters that came to our church as members, and had, by God’s grace and through training opportunities and discipleship, grown into active gospel encouragers for the church.

An international church in a global city is poised to have an amazing breadth of impact for the gospel in the world, if it is committed to training all of those who come to it. Ministry in an international church can be, as one fellow pastor put it, “like trying to hug a parade.” People in, and people out. The missional opportunity of this parade though is tremendous. We believe that international churches in global cities have the potential to spark regional movements of the gospel if they are willing to operate as training hubs.

2.     Conclusion

The global cities of today are the key frontlines of the advance of the gospel in the world, and the international church presents a key model for ministry in those cities. Formerly seen as social clubs for the temporary expatriate Christians on short job-assignments in foreign countries, international churches are now emerging as dynamic hubs of missional activity.

Pastor Bob Roberts puts it this way regarding international churches,

Most act as havens for people who need to find a community of faith and catch their breath in nations that are not their home. However, of all churches in existence today, these churches could capture the potential of a global movement and be at the forefront. International community churches exist in almost every nation and could become the strategic hubs from which all else would flow.[8]

International churches need to resist the temptation to be a comfortable enclave of people who enjoy the respite from the stress of a culture. Instead, pastors of these churches need to work hard to equip and mobilize a missions force to the nations by gathering those who are already there. Churches should work hard to be outward focused and not ingrown. They need to be about planting more churches and not building more programs. They need to consider mobilizing a membership for mission.

In his theological vision for urban ministry, Tim Keller observes, “The people of the world are now moving into the great cities of the world many times faster than the church is.” The reality of urban growth is even more pronounced in the areas of the world that have been thought of for generations as “least reached” or “10/40 Window nations.” International churches must be present and on mission in those cities. And if they are, they will both serve the city and the world by their gospel impact.


[1]Bob Roberts Jr. The Multiplying Church: The New Math for Starting New Churches (HarperCollins, 2009), pg 130-131.

[2] Report from McKinsey Global Institute: “India's urban awakening: Building inclusive cities, sustaining economic growth” (April 2010), pg 8. Available online: http://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Global%20Themes/Urbanization/Urban%20awakening%20in%20India/MGI_Indias_urban_awakening_executive_summary.ashx

[3] Milton Vincent, A Gospel Primer for Christians (Bemidji, MN: Focus, 2008). 14

[4] Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, “Christianity in its Global Context, 1970–2020: Society, Religion, and Mission,” accessed July 20, 2015, www.globalchristianity.org/globalcontext/.

[5] Recruiting, Training and Deployment of BAM: Practitioners: Successes and Challenges, (report by Business as Mission Global Think Tank, July 2015), 3, accessed July 16, 2015, http://bamthinktank.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/BMTT-IG-BAM-Recruiting-Training-and-Deployment-Final-Report-July-2015.pdf.

[6] Accelerating the Fulfillment of the Great Commission in our Generation,” Global Network of Mission Structures (2010), accessed July 16, 2015, http://www.gnms.net/envisioning.html

[7] David Platt, interview by Aaron Cline Hanbury, “Should We Change How We Think About Missions?” Relevant Magazine, June 25, 2015, accessed July 16, 2015, http://www.relevantmagazine.com/ god/worldview/change-way-you-think-about-missions/.

[8] Bob Roberts Jr. The Multiplying Church: The New Math for Starting New Churches (HarperCollins, 2009), pg 130-131.