Solving the Immigrant Church Crisis: The Biblical Solution of Parallel Ministry

Written by Ronald M. Rothenberg Reviewed By Daniel K. Eng

Immigrant churches in America have faced a difficult problem: effectively reaching the locally-born generation. Drawing on his ministry experience and exegesis of Acts 6:1–7, Ronald Rothenberg’s Solving the Immigrant Church Crisis offers a solution for church leaders in immigrant churches.

According to Rothenberg, immigrant churches often led by OBCs (overseas-born church-people) engage in culturally irrelevant ministry towards LBCs (local-born church-people) and have high attrition rates among LBC pastors. As a result, LBCs have begun an exodus from the church and even from the faith altogether. Building on the premise that the Bible, not sociology, must be the basis of the solution, Rothenberg proposes a parallel ministry model of church leadership based on Acts 6:1–7.

In Chapter 1, Rothenberg argues the immigrant church crisis is a universal experience among immigrant groups. Focusing on evangelical Christianity in the United States, the author claims that cultural differences in values “results in the reticence of OBCs to transfer financial and decision-making authority to LBCs” (p. 20). He then presents a series of excerpts from correspondence with both OBCs and LBCs in a variety of immigrant churches. After each quotation, the book provides questions for reflection and discussion. Topics addressed include joint services, frustrations between OBCs and LBCs, and differences in ministry approach.

Chapter 2 presents an exposition of Acts 6:1–7 and a parallel ministry structure based on this passage. According to Rothenberg, this ministry model has two aspects, the spiritual-relational and the ecclesiastical. Focusing on the latter, the author argues that the structure of immigrant churches should have separate, interdependent, and parallel ecclesiastical elements (p. 38). Rothenberg maintains the Jerusalem church is a valid analogy to the immigrant church. He likens the Hebraic Jews to OBCs and Hellenistic Jews to LBCs. Rothenberg points out that OBCs fail to meet the needs of the LBCs, much like the Hebraic Jews did not meet the needs of Hellenistic Jews.

The author argues from Acts 6:2–3 that the solution lies in transferring financial and decision-making authority. However, the church still functions as one church and is able to reach unbelievers from both groups (Acts 6:7). Rothenberg continues with some supplementary points about this church model, from parallel meetings to equal authority. He insists that this model can be achieved if there are favorable spiritual-relational conditions (e.g., attitudes towards one another). Ministry effectiveness is promoted by churches having co-pastors and separate leadership boards for the parallel ministries; yet, joint boards for special issues would affect the whole church.

In Chapter 3, Rothenberg suggests vital principles from Acts 6:1–7, arguing for the normative nature of this ministry model. He then responds to its perceived objections. He clarifies the distinctive elements of the ministry model presented in Chapter 2. He addresses issues such as the distinction between independent churches and interdependent congregations, clarifying the existence of two leadership boards, and the value of financial autonomy for the LBC congregation.

In Chapter 4, the author surveys three prominent solutions for immigrant churches that have previously been proposed. He places each within the context of the typical development of an immigrant church. These proposals represent stages of church growth. Suggested solutions include: (1) bilingual worship with translation, (2) separate worship services without transferring financial and decision-making authority, and (3) planting an independent church.

Chapter 5 shows the deficiency of these three solutions. Rothenberg contends the bilingual worship model relies on a false analogy from Scripture and is counterproductive for solving the crisis of the immigrant church. Next, he argues the separate worship model misses key elements of Acts 6 and only promotes partial parallel ministry. Finally, Rothenberg identifies the church planting model as driven by sociological not biblical reasons. He points out that similar benefits can be found in the parallel ministry model yet without hurting the immigrant church in the long run.

Given the dearth of published resources addressing immigrant churches, Rothenberg’s book provides helpful content for discussion. He helpfully presents perspectives from both OBCs and LBCs, providing cultural insights alongside them. The quotations from the OBCs in Chapter 1 are especially poignant, such as the words of older OBC parents about their children. His charts and figures are clearly presented. His anecdotes are relevant. Rothenberg clearly explains his exegetical methodology and provides adequate Scriptural evidence for his conclusions.

Rothenberg’s book does have some weaknesses. His exegesis begs for more depth and justification, especially in countering the widely-held application of Acts 6 towards a pastor-deacon leadership structure. It also raises a larger question: to what degree are each of the individual church situations described in Acts prescriptive in nature? The author’s content is often repetitive. At times, he makes broad generalizations about the dynamics in immigrant churches without substantiation. Finally, Rothenberg’s thesis would be much more compelling if he provided anecdotal accounts of success utilizing the ministry model he espouses.

Despite its weaknesses, Solving the Immigrant Church Crisis is a helpful addition to a limited conversation regarding the church in America. Pastors and church leaders in immigrant churches can use its content to catalyze fruitful discussions about effective ministry.

Daniel K. Eng

Daniel K. Eng is assistant professor of New Testament language and literature at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon.

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