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Diaspora Christians and Theological Education

Last year Covenant published a few excellent articles about the future of theological education. One issue that preoccupies many theological educators is the post-COVID challenge of navigating the future amid pressure to shift to online learning. The immediate need to respond carefully and thoughtfully to the unknowns of mixed modes of delivery might make us overlook some of the other significant changes we are facing. Theological educators also face a demographic shift shaping both church and seminary. I was recently at a baptism service in an Anglican church, and the majority of those being baptized (both infants and adults) were immigrants from Asia or Africa. What is happening in churches is mirrored in seminaries. Most of the growth in churches and our seminaries, at least in Canada, is from immigrants.

Statistics Canada says that as of 2020, one in four people Canadians are racialized as non-white. In 1981, it was less than 5 percent. With a population that has just surpassed 40 million people, eight to 10 million people in Canada are immigrants or the children of recent immigrants (only 30 percent of racially diverse citizens were born in Canada). This shift is part of a wider global migration, with 3.6 percent of the global population composed of international migrants. While this might seem like a small proportion of the world’s population, it adds up to 281 million people, and countries like Canada or the United States receive a significant portion of these immigrants.

We have heard a lot recently about the strain this huge influx of immigrants is putting on Canada’s housing resources, and other issues that affect the economy. While churches should engage a whole host of issues tied to immigration, a key question is what this shift means for the makeup and mission of our churches. Mainline churches, Anglican churches, are more ethnically diverse. The decline in attendance at mainline churches, which is often noted with alarm, would be much worse if it weren’t for the influx of Christians from other countries.

Some of these immigrant groups include few Christians, while others have a much higher percentage. For example, there are 1.7 million people of Chinese descent in Canada; 71.7 percent of them say they have no religious affiliation, and only a small fraction are Christians. Yet, with the Black population (500,000 people), more than 50 percent are Christians. One third were born in Africa and 21 percent were born in the Caribbean and Bermuda; 18 percent of them identify as Catholic, 8 percent as Pentecostal, and 25.9 percent as Christian with no specific denominational affiliation. Different immigrant groups are dramatically altering the makeup of mainline churches in Canada — perhaps especially Catholic churches, but certainly Anglican as well. The only monocultural churches in Canada now (except in some rural communities) are Chinese, Korean, or Nigerian immigrant churches.

This sea change presents theological educators with challenges and opportunities. One of the most immediate challenges is to help equip graduates develop the wisdom and skills needed to engage in local communities that are ethnically diverse, and to know how to help local churches welcome, serve, and learn from the different immigrant groups. Most churches are not particularly welcoming to people of different cultures. We only need to look at how churches welcome different generations to be reminded how difficult it is for churches to welcome “outsiders.” How many aging congregations speak of reviving their children’s ministry, only to then complain about how loud or boisterous children are when they show up? The unspoken assumption is that others are welcome as long as they don’t upset the status quo. It is no surprise that we respond in the same manner when people from different cultures show up. We want them to fit in with the way we do things, rather than our learning to appreciate what they bring to the community.

One of the greatest opportunities this demographic shift presents is for Christians to learn from the different perspectives these global Christians bring to the conversation. This fall, in one small-group discussion at our college, we had an ethnically and denominationally diverse group of students. There were two American Jesuits, three students of Korean ancestry (one a Korean Presbyterian, and two who have become Anglicans), a Filipino student serving in a Korean Presbyterian church plant, and two Caucasian students (one Anglican and one Presbyterian). The group’s diversity provided a rich learning environment, with unexpected conversations that were often challenging, insightful, and occasionally upsetting. One week, two of the Korean students took another Korean student to task about biblical interpretation, while the rest of the small group watched and wondered. They were very direct in challenging this student for adopting a hermeneutic that was more aligned with one denomination’s values than with the gospel.

In the midst of this diversity, and the learning it provoked, I was reminded of Lesslie Newbigin’s witness to the ways in which our understanding of the gospel is enriched when we try to make sense of it in the midst of relating to those from different cultures:

the only way in which the gospel can challenge our culturally conditioned interpretation of it is through the witness of those who read the Bible with minds shaped by other cultures. We have to listen to others. This mutual correction is sometimes unwelcome, but is necessary and it is fruitful. (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 196)

Newbigin spoke from his experience as a missionary in India, where he was challenged in his understanding of the gospel as he tried to engage others. When he returned to the U.K. in retirement, he was shocked at the decline in church attendance, but also surprised that many people seemed oblivious to how cultural norms were shaping gospel understanding. It is much easier to have a laissez-faire attitude to our cultural blinders when we are in the majority. Newbigin may not have anticipated increased immigration in the U.K., but he did anticipate that one of the fruits of truly encountering people from other cultures is that it forces us to revisit our understanding of the gospel.

What makes this particularly complex is the need to discern what elements of our tradition we should retain and what elements need to change: what is credal and what is adiaphora. In most churches, we tend to cling most fiercely to those elements that reflect cultural or denominational norms and are more flexible with gospel essentials. For theological educators, this is one of the most difficult tasks — to equip students with the theological foundations to discern wisely as they lead in change, as well as with the pastoral skills of how to apply that theological knowledge in practical ministry.

Newbigin was one of the first to note that the focus of mission has shifted from the majority world to the West. Now we have a situation in which immigration results in a significant demographic shift in our communities and our churches. Is it possible that the exigencies of this new reality will be one of the ways in which the Holy Spirit breathes new life into our churches and our theological colleges? We cannot predict what the Spirit will do, but it seems fairly safe to suggest that 10 years from now, the seminaries or theological colleges still standing will not only have sorted out modes of delivery, but they will also be effective in responding to the sea change brought about by immigration.

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