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It was an unusual word of encouragement for a young preacher. 

“One of these days you will preach in front of Americans.”

She didn’t elaborate but we both knew what she meant. This was a word of encouragement, laced with hope, that one day God would grow my gifts enough to be received by white people.

In case you are wondering how I could infer so much from her statement, you should know something about the world in which she, and other Indian immigrants in the 80s and 90s in Oklahoma City, lived. Most of the Americans that she knew were white. The person who sponsored her family to move to America was white, as well as the person who interviewed her for her first job, and the person who employed her, the person who sold her a home, the person who taught her children, the authors they read in school, the people they watched on television, and the people who enforced the law. In other words, nearly every person in a position of authority in her life, who opened doors of possibility, who legitimized her place in society, was white. 

Dear reader, we need not wince at these words. This was simply the reality for minority immigrant communities. There wasn’t a hint of contempt in her tone for neither white people nor Indians. She was merely trying to encourage me, and I received it as such.

But I also received her words in ways that she never intended. I came to believe that the people who ultimately legitimized my ministry were white people. To be accepted by white Americans meant I had arrived. And this tape played in the background of my decisions when I hesitated to become a pastor in an Indian church, and when I struggled to be comfortable in my own skin as the pastor of a predominantly white church. In both cases, I saw my “Indianness” as something that needed to be transcended in order to be successful. 

Not every leader is on a quest for legitimacy, but at the same time, there is no way to become a leader in a church unless someone legitimizes us as such. Someone must recognize our spiritual fitness to lead. This is just how healthy church leadership works and is true for all ethnicities and cultures. We lead because someone, often in a position of authority, recognized our character, confirmed our call, and trusted us enough to vouch for us in front of the community. 

But what happens when it’s not enough? When after you have been trusted to lead, you still struggle to find your footing and question your legitimacy as a leader in a church that you love but where no one looks like you?

Leading in the immigrant church isn’t necessarily easier. It can be challenging for a young leader with passion and vision to effectively lead change unless she has the support of senior leaders. Her struggle for legitimacy is not related to ethnicity as it is familiarity. Her immigrant community knows her and watched her grow. Nevertheless, she senses that her gifts, experiences, and knowledge is respected everywhere but her hometown.

How can second generation immigrants still lead well amid their struggle for legitimacy?

IDENTIFY YOUR AUTHORITY

In his leadership podcast, Craig Groeschel notes that if we want to develop leaders, we must delegate authority, not tasks. If we tell someone to pick up refreshments every week on the way to church, we have delegated a task. But if we tell that person to be responsible for crafting the culture of hospitality through food every week, and give him the freedom to decide what we eat, we have delegated authority. The difference is in defining the win, helping him see his role in achieving that win, and then giving him the authority to create. 

My experience as an English service pastor in an Indian church in Houston helped me see the tremendous possibility for change when young leaders are not simply given tasks but are given authority to lead in ways that craft the spiritual culture of the church. Therefore, if you aren’t sure how to effectively lead change, it may be worth asking what kind of authority you have. 

  • Are you a part of a team, board, or committee with decision making power — from planning small groups to sermon series?
  • What authority do you have to mentor individuals and groups?
  • How does your unique involvement help shape the organizational and spiritual culture of the church?
  • Do you have a platform to instruct others?
  • Are you in a position to help form practices for others to follow?
  • Have you been asked to raise up other leaders in any capacity?

If you can clearly identify the authority delegated to you — whether formally or informally — you can enact meaningful change within that sphere of influence.

IDENTIFY WAYS TO CREATE BELONGING

In 2021, Erin Chan Ding wrote an article in Christianity Today describing why children of immigrants were leaving the multiethnic church to return to their ethnic-specific churches. In many of the stories that she tells, the second and third generation immigrants in those churches were searching for belonging.

Interestingly, many leave their immigrant communities for this very reason. They could not bare their souls, confess their sins, and had to cover their shame. And they did this because revealing their brokenness would threaten their belonging.

It is no wonder that some are nomadic, wandering between two or more churches to discover the kind of community for which they long. Others feel forced to choose between the freedom of sharing their culture and the freedom of sharing their lives.1 But if you are called by God to lead in one of these churches, leaving is simply not an option. You must forge a way forward because, as Eugene Park notes, community is not something we find as much as it is something we build.

Even the most well-intentioned Gospel-focused leaders can forget that belonging as lived reality requires intentionality. They forget that the glories that Christ has made possible must be apprehended, that we must press on to take hold of that for which Christ has taken hold of us. 

For example, God welcomes us as his children with open arms because of Jesus. But to experience belonging as children of God, we must often fight through feelings of estrangement and instill practices that reorient us to what is true. Practices like daily devotions, prayer gatherings, and accountability groups. 

But as it relates to experiencing belonging to one another in the family of God, many leaders assume this happens naturally without intentionality. We don’t prioritize the need to help others fight through their feelings of estrangement and instill practices that reorient the entire church to what is true.

The leaders of your church may believe that God has united all ethnicities in Christ. However, they may need your help to see that just because God has made it possible doesn’t mean that he has made it inevitable. This requires leadership. People who will build a community to realize the wonder Christ has won. And who is better positioned to facilitate belonging than those who know how challenging it is to find it?

To be a third culture leader means that no one fully understands you all the time. There are things about you that puzzle the first-generation immigrant church when you are with them, and there are things about you that perplex the church where you lead as a minority. Compounding all of this is the fact that you also struggle to find your place among them all. So how can you cultivate a voice amidst this vertigo?

Leverage it. 

  • Let your unique experiences become a place of rest for those who often feel disoriented. Your experience is a vital part of their belonging.
  • Let other leaders who do not share your experiences learn from you. Do it with a posture of humility, knowing that God knit you and them into the same community to serve the diverse needs in your church – needs that require their perspective, and needs that require yours.
  • Be a peacemaker when your community is divided by competing ideologies. Help them see their disagreements from a different perspective. You’ve had to live with nuance. In humility, help others do the same. 

FINDING OUR VOICES

It had been several years since he heard me preach.

In fact, we last saw each other at an open-air meeting in India. Open-air meetings are outdoor church services in India where the preacher’s sermon blares loudly through speakers for the town to hear. The sermons that I preached in those services were often “hot off the altar,” lacking in preparation but full of passion for the truth.

But this time, I was invited to preach at his Indian church in America. I had not thought about how my preaching style had evolved over the years until he approached me after the service and said, 

“You’re a white man’s preacher now.”

Interestingly, these words were like the woman’s encouragement several years before. If her words were prophetic, that I would one day be received by Americans, then his words confirmed that her prophecy at long last had come true. Except this time, it felt different. Her words carried the hope that I would be found. But his were spoken in search of me.

What was it? Was it the fact that my professors taught me to surgically analyze the passage and present my conclusions in three points? Was it my cadence, my tone, my presentation, and measured passion? What does it mean to be a white man’s preacher? What does it mean to be an Indian preacher?

The words of hope and judgment, prophecy and fulfillment, that one day we will be found, and that no one recognizes us anymore need not define us. It is Christ who legitimizes us in all our brokenness and cultural complexity. We may be a white man’s leader, an Indian’s leader, or something entirely different altogether. 

Yes, this can be lonely. In an age of self-actualization, to be all things to all people carries the dread of not being anyone at all. But what we are is known to God. And our struggle to find our footing is no hindrance to his call on us as leaders. In fact, it may even be the grounds for it.

Jason James is the lead pastor of New Hope Church in Harlem, New York City, is a coach with City to City, and is on the advisory council of the Advance Initiative. You can read more of his writing on Substack.

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