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May 28, 2016

Asian Culture is not Mono-Culture

By Scott Sanders

There is a lot of talk, particularly amongst Caucasian pastors, about the need to develop more in-depth and intentional ministries to the large number of Asian migrants who now call Australia home – something we as a network, Geneva Push, want to encourage and equip churches to be doing well. But it is important to understand that demographic movement is not a single culture.

One of the more helpful areas of discussion during the last few years has been around understanding the different generations that make up Asian migrant culture. In his Traps for Ethnic Plants Planter Session, church planter Peter Ko helpfully breaks up the cross-cultural church into the following generational groups: Generations 1, 1.5, 2 and 3+ (it’s something that Bruce Hall has talked through with me regularly in our discussions about cross-cultural planting).


Members of this generation migrated to Australia as adults or in late high school. Their heart language—that which they will wish to hear the Gospel in—is actually their home language, and not the language of their new adopted nation. They retain a strong ‘migrant’ work / study ethic which cuts across Australia’s more laid-back culture. For these and other reasons, they don’t tend to integrate well with Anglo Australians and other cultures. They will feel most at home in congregations that consist largely of their migrant background.


Members of this generation are not Australia-born, but they are Australian-raised. They were young children to early high school in age when they arrived and are truly children of two different cultures. They are bilingual (or more), with many being able to read and write in their home country’s language. However their heart language is English. Consequently they can mix and interact well with Anglo Australians, though they won’t feel completely at home with them. But because they straddle the generational divide, they don’t tend to feel completely comfortable with members of the first generation either. Their preference will be to mix with other 1.5 Generation or 2nd Generation members.


Members of this generation are Australian born and raised, and so their heart language is definitely English, even though they might speak a basic or conversational version of the language spoken in their parent’s home country. They preserve many cultural habits of their parent’s home country, and have been shaped by their attitudes. However they may just as likely be reacting against those attitudes. 3rd+ Generation members still feel somewhat torn between two cultures and experience varying levels of integration—it depends very much where they have been brought up. Some may consider themselves ‘fully Aussie’ despite their appearance. Others may be more comfortable around other 1.5 or 2nd Generation members.

In his Planter Sessions, Peter Ko, now the senior pastor at South West Chinese Christian Church, argues that, “For churches and church plants to reach ethnic communities in multiethnic centres, there must be effective partnerships both within and without.”

So what has to happen if church plants are going to successfully reach ethnic and multiethnic communities?

Peter suggests we have to begin by developing effective partnerships within these churches between 1st and 1.5 – 2nd generation ministries. His experience is that churches tend to choose one generation over the other. One always looks and feels like the after-thought, so one thrives and the other suffers. One is driven as the primary vision of the church and has leadership stacked in its favour, but the other doesn’t. The result is that congregations operate as separate churches within the same building. This might be appropriate in mono-ethnic churches, but it certainly isn’t okay for ethnic communities.

Church plants being sent from established ethnic congregations offer some hope for developing gospel-centred church communities sensitive to the context of migrants. Peter’s solution at SWCCC was to plant two congregations simultaneously – a Mandarin-speaking congregation reaching the 1st generation and an English-speaking congregation seeking to reach the 1.5 and 2nd generation. These two congregations, together as one church provide the opportunity to effectively reach multi-generational ethnic communities.

Unfortunately, in Australia, multi-ethnic and ethnic church plants aren’t happening fast enough. The nations will be coming increasingly to Australia. And for many ethnic church plants they don’t tend to be doing anything different to the kinds of churches they’ve come from and so don’t grasp the great opportunity of doing something new that comes from a new church.

So where are the opportunities?

This model can serve other ethnic communities. It will be different for different migrant communities since the migration history will be different (to Chinese migration). For example, the recent Persian migration experience offers some very different challenges to Cantonese migration a few generations ago.

However, there are enough similarities in the lack of growth and lack of partnerships in these ethnic groups between the 1st gen and the 1.5+ generation ministries. Which leads us to the key challenges or things to think through…

  • Finding the right lead planters: Ideally the lead planter will be someone from the 1.5 generation.
  • The need to gather two core groups:Ideally families that bridge both 1st generation and 2nd generation.
  • Sufficient resources (importantly leadership) to have two ministries up and running simultaneously: In Australia it has been (and is) difficult to find suitable equipped pastors who can minister in an ethnic community’s mother-tongue and communicate well in English.
  • Finding internal and external partnerships: The model requires internal and (especially) external partnerships.
  • A desire for Kingdom growth: More concerned about Kingdom growth than ownership (denomination or otherwise).
  • The need to be intentional and proactive.

My prayer is that we will see many new churches seeking to reach 1st generation migrants and the next generation migrating with their parents and being born. There are great opportunities for Gospel-centred churches in Australia.


Scott Sanders

Since June 2010, Scott Sanders has worked closely with church leaders throughout Australia to see new churches established in his role as Executive Director of the Geneva Push, an Australian church-planting network. Prior to working with Geneva Push, Scott was the Secondary School Chaplain and Head of Christian Studies at SCECGS Redlands from 2007-2010. He completed his Master of Divinity at SMBC in 2006 and worked as a Tax Manager with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Transfer Pricing and International Tax.


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