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27 March 2019

Hopes, Dreams, and Dangers: Nepali Young People and the Next Generations of the Church in the UK

Synopsis:

This paper discusses the findings from interviews conducted with different generations in a Nepali church in the UK, the challenges they face and how they responded to build bridges and work together to relate to the majority culture and their traditional community.

Richard Evans

Richard is a Lecturer/Tutor at All Nations Christian College in Hertfordshire, England, where he, together with his wife Louisa, leads the en route cross-cultural ministry training programme. They have a passion for multi-cultural church planting and ministry with the diaspora churches in the UK. Previously, they worked in Malaysia, Nepal, and Nigeria.

Hopes, Dreams, and Dangers: Nepali Young People and the Next Generations of the Church in the UK

Mission Round Table Vol. 12 No. 2 (May-Sep 2017): 9-14

Introduction

“As the West brought its love for God to us in Nepal, so now we are bringing our love for God back to the West,” Sornim shared with me during a recent conversation.

The son of a retired Ghurkha soldier—whose father Simon Sunwar came to Christ in 1997 and whose family migrated to London from Hong Kong in 2007—Sornim represents a young generation of Nepali Christians born in Nepal (or intermediate country) but brought up and educated in the UK. This so-called “one-and-a-half generation” is now actively working together with its seniors, the “first” generation, to plot both the present and future of their Nepali diaspora church, the “second” generation, in the face of significant challenges and opportunities (Diagram 1).[1]

The United Nepali Revival Church (UNRC) in Wembley, of which Simon is the Pastor and which this London-born, “English Christian” has had the privilege of calling his spiritual home for the past four years, has doubled in size to sixty members over that period. The successive spikes in Nepali migration to the UK following the negotiation of more favourable immigration settlements for former Ghurkha soldiers in 2004 and 2009, have occasioned the entry of a significant minority of Nepali Christians.[2]

In many places, including London, these families found themselves in areas lacking organised Nepali fellowships—a void that precipitated a ten-year journey of struggle, consolidation, stability, and growth from which the UNRC, along with other “survivors”, has now emerged.

What follows is a brief presentation of preliminary findings from interviews conducted with members of the UNRC and others from within the wider Nepali Christian community in the UK. During these conversations possible future scenarios for the Church were shared alongside an immensely rich mixture of Christian life stories and associated global journeys. This summary of their valuable contributions is intended to stimulate forward thinking vis-à-vis inter-generational, inter-church, and inter-cultural relationships, and in some small way address the current dearth of case-studies on Nepalese migrations.[3] It also follows in the footsteps of several studies relating to “one-and-a-half generation” Christians in the Korean and Chinese diasporas.[4] However, whereas these largely focus on issues of definition, identity, and education, this article will focus on their unique missional potential as cross-cultural “bridge builders”.

1.    The generations

“And He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Mal 4:6).

Nepali Saying: “स्वर्गको चाबी छोरोको हातमा हुन्छ” “The key to heaven’s door is in the son’s hand.” Shared by Kalyan Gurung, from the “one-and-a-half generation”.

The church is no stranger to the problems posed by generation gaps that are perceived as “unbridgeable” (Eph 3:4; 6:1–3). The idea that such generational differences can be exacerbated in the early stages of a transnational migration has been attested to by commentators familiar with the Nepali Christian diaspora in the UK. For example, Valerie Inchley succinctly outlines the issue of the younger members of the family: they adapt to the language and culture of the host nation with greater ease than their parents and grandparents, which leads to conflicting preferences with regard to how worship services are conducted.[5] One young adult lamented that some Nepali teenagers “only come to church because of their parents” and then periodically disengage from their interaction with personal electronic devices to participate in the service.

1.1 Recognising an educational irony

These negative attitudes towards church were often traced by parents back to their children’s participation in the UK education system. Many families noted that a “proper education” had been a significant pull-factor in their decision to relocate to England—with the young people themselves often lobbying for this option to be made available to them when their parents were reticent to move. Ironically, however, this academic pursuit was then seen to undermine the more conservative principles of the older generation in the home, causing their attempts to advise and correct their children “in the Christian way” to be ineffective. Receiving “a good education” at school was observed to stifle efforts to impart “a gospel education” at home. Differing generational experiences of cross-cultural interaction in the UK (and responses to this) appear to have reinforced or even accentuated the prevailing values of the older generations whilst shaping the values of the younger generations in a way that has contributed to greater inter-generational tension.

In the midst of these strains, however, attention is turning to the members of the “one-and-a-half generation” and their growing role as cross-cultural bridges between the generations. The “first generation” seniors are increasingly recognising the needs of the younger generation but also that they face difficulties in addressing them directly. “They simply won’t listen to us” was a frequent refrain of parents; the younger “second” generation’s perception of an educational deficit within the senior “first” generation rendering their counsel “old-fashioned and out-dated.” Conversely, those in the “one-and-a-half generation” evidently considered themselves able to understand the views and values of both groups and uniquely-positioned to arbitrate between them (see Diagram 1). They were also found to be acutely aware of the need to demonstrate both empathy and humility if their participation in this process was to be effective.

1.2 Embracing new ministry opportunities

Both the “first” and the “one-and-a-half” generations were pleased to report that these “negotiations” had resulted in the formation of two new groups within the UNRC community: a “Youth Fellowship,” formally established in 2015 for those between the ages of 19 and 35 and a “Teen Fellowship” in early 2017 for 12–18 year olds. The first is representative of the “one-and-a-half generation,” the latter of the “second.” In both cases the “one-and-a-half generation” actively sought the permission, oversight, and blessing of the “first” generation before launching these ministries. In this way the key Nepali value of “respect”, as emphasised in several of the interviews, was embodied and expressed.

It is important to recognise that the “one-and-a-half generation” first negotiated and established a mechanism to meet their own need for discipleship that subsequently fostered a concern to meet the discipleship needs of the “second.” Seamonth Rai, an accountancy student and the newly appointed leader of the “Teen Fellowship,” testified to the importance of the ministry she had received as part of the “Youth Fellowship” in opening her eyes to the spiritual needs of the “next generation” and nurturing a desire to serve them. She pointed out that one of the first challenges has been to help the teenagers develop a Christian apologetic that will enable them to participate more effectively in discussions with those in school who represented and advocated for other religions, particularly Islam. Indeed, this concern had been one of the driving forces for establishing the group and the catalyst for the discussions that followed.

1.3 Towards inter-generational harmony

This inter-generational process of inaugurating new ministries observed the traditional Nepali values inherent within a societal hierarchy based on age and ensured that the spiritual needs of all generations were addressed. As one might expect, all parties tacitly acknowledged minor difficulties and misunderstandings “on the way” and the need to demonstrate ongoing flexibility and trust. The success of the “Teen Fellowship” in particular is by no means assured although the early signs are promising. There is a fear for some, particularly those progressing to higher levels of education, that a “window of opportunity” may have passed; but also a hope, especially for the younger teenagers, that they will eventually contribute to the future development and leadership of the church.

To explore these futures, however, it is important to understand the church’s origins—a subject to which we will now turn.

2. The futures

“Can two walk together unless they are agreed?” (Amos 3:3 NJKV).

Nepali Saying: “धेरै शिर धेरै बिचार” “Many Heads, Many Minds.” Shared by Kalyan.

The church in the global north has often been cool in its embrace of those from the global south.

In terms of receiving South Asian Christians, P. Emil Chandran regretfully noted that “in general the churches’ response … in host nations [he specifically mentions the UK amongst others] has been poor.”[6] Moving closer to “home,” Peter Brierley goes further to enquire if “there is a place for those of other cultures in our traditional London or UK churches as they are” or if radical change is required to “transform a middle-class, white stereotype into a warm, all-embracing New Testament fellowship?”[7]

Thankfully, when Sornim’s father Simon first arrived in the UK, he did receive a warm welcome from the local Methodist Church in which the UNRC is now meeting. He explained that he had no intention at that time of forming a separate Nepali Church (Diagram 2, Model A). However, the “growing demand” from other arrivals upon those, like Simon, who had already been instrumental in forming and leading the United Nepali Christian Church in Hong Kong eventually, yet reluctantly, caused them to “upgrade” their mid-weekly Nepali house fellowship into a fully-fledged Nepali church on 1 August 2010.[8] Initially, they met together on a Saturday, as per Nepali church custom, before moving the service to Sunday afternoons in order to coincide with members’ employment patterns.

2.1 Building the case for a ‘Nepali’ church

Several individuals observed that various social, cultural, and linguistic needs were met through their participation in an exclusively Nepali congregation. Members knew that if they or their loved ones passed away that their family would be appropriately supported—a vital reassurance. Other Nepali Christians, who had initially ventured into UK congregations, eventually returned to a Nepali church. This was often due to the more intentional manner of pastoral care they received from their “own” pastors. Attending a Nepali church in the UK was thereby seen as a way to resolve a variety of cross-cultural complications and enable a clear Nepali identity to be established.[9]

But how does a Nepali church sustain its Nepali identity from generation to generation?

Panu Lama, from the younger end of the “first” generation, outlined a possible strategy. Drawing on Mark 18:20, he asserted that “Church is like oxygen for us [Nepalis],” advocating a triple-track approach designed to maintain a distinctively Nepali church. Firstly, the Nepali community urgently needed to be more intentional about transmitting the Nepali vernacular to the second and third generations through extra-curricular classes and home conversation. Secondly, parents should be held responsible for imparting both their Christian faith and traditional Nepali values to their children. Finally, the UNRC must purchase its own building in order to establish a Nepali Christian Centre that could provide a more “flexible and accessible” social space in which the young people could gather and fellowship. Within this scenario (Diagram 2, Model B), cross-cultural mission would mean incorporating non-Nepali converts to Christianity from the surrounding community into the congregation through voluntary, assisted Nepali language acquisition.

2.2 The dilemma of investing in people or place

Representatives from all generations reflected similar sentiments concerning the objectives of instilling the Nepali language and values (thus establishing this scenario as a widely held future ideal). Several also acknowledged that such a strategy was likely to encounter ongoing, even terminal, resistance from the “second” generation. Furthermore, though procuring property as a means of securing a physical, social, and spiritual future for the church was prevalent amongst the “first generation,” members of the “one-and-a-half generation” preferred to invest in people before property.

Due to resource limitations, what was perceived by church members as a binary choice—people or property—also appeared to be rooted in differing generational values. Given their extensive church experience but lack of formal ministry training, the “first generation” tended to emphasise their proven proficiency in matters of church management, planning, and growth.[10] What had worked so effectively for them in Hong Kong and other diaspora situations could also work in London. By way of contrast, the “one-and-a-half generation” tended to value “expertise” over “experience,” especially that which could be acquired through the means of which the “first generation” had been largely deprived. They were keen to see the “first generation” invest directly in their generation in order to “serve” all generations, as opposed to the “first generation” investing indirectly into both generations through the provision of facilities.

It is important to acknowledge the honourable intentions reflected in both approaches and each generation’s sincere concern regarding the future of their church. However, from a strategic perspective, the potential outcomes are quite different. On the one hand, the “property acquisition” route, reflecting a strong and valid desire for cultural and linguistic longevity alongside ongoing Christian witness, culminated in the prospective development of a dedicated Nepali Christian centre. On the other hand, the “people investment” route, depending on the nature of the training undertaken, was seen to open up more diverse possibilities.

2.3 Training cross-cultural “bridge builders”

“We could prepare Nepali Pastors to help us … to understand British culture … to integrate more easily and witness [to non-Nepalis],” one member suggested. Implicit in this aspiration was the prospect of a more hybrid church identity emerging as a result of pastors engaging in appropriately contextualised, cross-culturally orientated, “Diasporic Pastoral Training”.[11] Such a programme could be designed to equip would-be Pastors from diaspora churches in the UK to deal with the specific challenges and opportunities that they encounter. In this scenario (Diagram 2, Model C) questions regarding language, values, and church conduct are regarded as negotiable, dependent primarily on changing generational needs and the fruit of any cross-cultural outreach undertaken. The “one-and-a-half generation,” as well as being an internal “bridge” between generations, could also function as an external “bridge” between peoples.

Commensurate with this expanded intermediary role—from generations to peoples—discussions with the “one-and-a-half generation” often progressed towards the adoption of a more conciliatory “best-of-both-worlds” position. Couldn’t the most desirable values of the Nepali and British cultures be blended, embodied, and expressed in the life of the church? This prospect might be considered idealistic, especially given the complexity inherent in diasporic, cross-cultural value formation. Nonetheless, each generation’s oft-expressed concern for the overarching biblical value of congregational “unity” should enable the UNRC to reach an inter-generational and inter-cultural consensus around the values of “experience” and “expertise”. This would allow the whole church family to explore together a wider range of potential church futures.

3. The relationships

Nepali Saying: “अगुल्ठो नठोसी, आगो बल्दैन” “Unless a piece of burning firewood is placed in the fire, its flame goes out.” Shared by Sit Rai.

“A friend loves at all times and a brother is born for adversity” (Prov 17:17).

Our discussions have revolved around mobilising the uniquely positioned “one-and-a-half generation” to tackle the pressing inter-generational and cross-cultural issues inherent in diaspora church life and ministry. However, in order to understand the widespread nature of these challenges and the mutual support available to meet them, it is important to appreciate the wide-range of embedded and inter-linked networks to which the UNRC is connected (Diagram 3).[12]

In this concluding section, two such groups will be considered: The “London Regional Association of Nepali Churches” and the “Local UK Churches.”[13]

3.1 London Regional Association of Nepali Churches

Diaspora communities often contain relatively small numbers of people, putting pressure on resources and leadership as churches expand. As a result, they frequently put a special premium on unity. For the UNRC, whilst “ongoing relationships with [a] homeland” community are often regarded as definitive when describing a diaspora group, the relationships formed with the Nepali churches in Hong Kong and the UK currently appear to be of the greatest importance.[14]

Regrettably, Pastor Simon had endured two painful church splits as the Nepali Christian community was establishing itself in Hong Kong. As a result, he and his colleagues have been keen to promote a Nepali ecumenism that would preclude such outcomes and ensure the growing stability of the Nepali church in the UK. They see that a divided diaspora church compromises its ability to face an already uncertain future in an unfamiliar context, thus potentially damaging all. Conversely, a united church can provide a stable and cooperative ecclesiastical environment in which these uncertainties can be faced together. The pastors in particular appear to draw considerable strength from the ecumenical arrangements that have developed as a result.

The progressive coming together of several independent Nepali churches to form the now five-member “London Regional Association of Nepali” is testimony to this “spirit of unity” and evidence of a widening appreciation of its potential advantages. For the “first generation,” participation in the group was perceived to diminish potential issues of competition, suspicion, and “sheep-stealing” whilst providing a forum in which matters of doctrinal orthodoxy, or otherwise, could be discussed and addressed. Whilst appreciative of these gains, members of the “one-and-a-half generation” were also keen (and given opportunity) to give public voice to their concerns for the “second generation” and the future of their churches more generally. It is significant that an organisational entity formed by the “first generation” for the express purposes of promoting church cohesiveness and solidarity is now serving to gather, inspire, resource, and release members of the “one-and-a-half generation” to spiritually envision the “second generation.”

As a result, a vision for an inter-church Nepali youth fellowship, outings, and outreach concerts is currently being shaped under the leadership of the London Region Youth Coordinator, Pastor Dorjey Timothy Tamang of the London Family Church in Camden. By bringing together the “generational and cross-cultural bridges” from each “Youth Fellowship” this initiative aims to help Nepali young people “know Christ, know each other, and make Christ known.” With regard to immediate priorities, Timothy commented that, “We have been good [as a community] at relating to God and telling others about Jesus but [at present] the focus is on [simply] getting to know each other.” This does not come at the expense of “knowing Christ” and “making Him known” but comes in the midst of these activities; leading to deeper, more meaningful relationships and greater, broader, kingdom impact.

Indeed, a member of the “one-and-a-half-generation” recognised that in this context “knowing each other” should include the whole body of Christ and not just youths in other Nepali fellowships; an insight pursued in the following section.

3.2 Local churches in the UK

Inchley has suggested that the development of a relationship between a Nepali diaspora church and a local UK “host” congregation could be an important indicator of the Nepali church’s ability to provide for its future generations. The anticipated future need for convenient and trusted access to an English language service for its young people is cited as the primary reason for this.[15]

On the ground, the efficacy of such relationships seems to be influenced by several variables. For instance, a greater degree of multiculturalism in the host congregation is thought to contribute to a closer relationship with the diaspora congregation. Diaspora fellowships that form from within a host fellowship are typically seen to enjoy better relationships than those that gather independently and then subsequently attach themselves to a host church. Some of these relationships are purely based on financial transactions corresponding to premises rental whilst others see the pastor of the Nepali congregation taking leadership responsibilities in the “host” congregation and its Nepali members thoroughly involved in both fellowships.

These are complex and interrelated issues that call for further research. Here, we shall focus on the possible implications for the UNRC.

Whilst it has strong, supportive relationships with Nepali churches in Hong Kong and the UK, my prayer is that connections with local churches would be made that transcend the conventional and demonstrate the potential of deep, inter-cultural, inter-church friendships to bless and transform. This would not be expressed through UK churches “adopting” a mono-cultural congregation or through ministry “to”, “through” or “by and beyond” the diaspora.[16] Rather, it would be the result of a genuine desire to move into mission “with” one another.[17] As equals, all would work together as friends to release each one to fulfil the callings that they believe God has for each of them.[18]

There is a need to build two-way “bridges.” As the diasporic “one-and-a-half generation” is well placed to “bridge” between “generations” and “peoples,” the diaspora churches can provide an essential “bridge” between the local churches and migrant communities. At the same time, the local churches can provide a “bridge” between diaspora churches and the host culture, not just to serve the former’s “second generation” but for the mutual benefit of all.

The latter is the role that my wife and I have, quite unwittingly, been performing at UNRC. I hope that we are gentle reminders to a predominantly “mono-ethnic” congregation of the surrounding host culture and a local church community that loves them (Lev 19:33–34). At the same time, the Nepali Christians are constant, loving reminders to us that “Since the creation of the world … till today, diasporas have been an indispensable means by which God has accomplished his redemptive purposes through Jesus Christ.”[19] But most importantly, we are good friends, helping one another to cross cultures in Christ’s name for his glory.

Conclusion

Crossing cultures often requires “bridges”—people from both “worlds” who can help others make the journey from their own “world” to another. I trust that we have established that the “one-and-a-half generation” of the UNRC appear ideally placed to perform this role internally, between the “first” and “second” generations, and externally between the peoples whose cultures they embody. I trust that we have also made a convincing case for the development of specialised “Diasporic Pastoral Training” for those called to lead this work.

This article has also argued that a new type of relationship needs to emerge between local and diaspora Christian communities: friendships that have the potential to mutually transform, resource, and release both parties to fulfil their part in the mission of God.

It may be that such relationships will enable Sornim, together with the many Nepali Christians who share his heart, to bring God’s love back to the land from whence it came.

[1] Johnston and Merrill define the “one-and-a-half generation” as “those who were brought to a new land as children and quickly become Westernized.” Patrick Johnston and Dean Merrill, Serving God in a Migrant Crisis: Ministry to People on the Move (Colorado Springs: GMI, 2016), 61. The term is defined more specifically by age-group in Rubén Rumbaut, “Ages, Life Stages, and Generational Cohorts: Decomposing the Immigrant First and Second Generations in the United States,” International Migration Review 38, no. 3 (Fall 2004): 1160–1205. In this present article, however, the “one-and-a-half” generation describes those who embody both the “home” and the “host” cultures, with the “first” generation identifying primarily with their “home” culture, and the “second” primarily with the “host” culture. This follows Chan, who describes the “one-and-a-half generation” as those who share the “cultural characteristics of both the first- and second-generation immigrants.” Arlene Chan, The Chinese in Toronto from 1878 (Toronto: Dundurn, 2011), 1070.

[2] Krishna P. Adhikari, Nepalis in the United Kingdom: An Overview (Reading: Centre for Nepali Studies United Kingdom, 2012), 110–112. It is currently estimated that there are approximately 78,000–85,000 Nepalis resident in the UK and 2,000–3,000 Nepali Christians in the UK.

[3] As noted in Tristan Bruslé, “Introduction (Nepalese Migrations),” European Bulletin of Himalayan Research 35–36, Special double issue: Nepalese migrations (2009–2010): 20,

http://himalaya.socanth.cam.ac.uk/collections/journals/ebhr/pdf/EBHR_35&36_full.pdf (accessed 11 August 2017).

[4] For example: Young Woon Lee, “Brief History of Korean Diaspora and Educational Issues of Korean Diaspora Churches,” Torch Trinity Journal 13, no. 2 (2010): 173–190; Huamei Han, “‘Westerners,’ ‘Chinese,’ and/or ‘Us’: Exploring the Intersections of Language, Race, Religion, and Immigrantization,” Anthropology and Education Quarterly 45, no. 1 (2014): 54–70. Matthew Todd’s article on Canadian-Chinese diaspora examines missional issues pertaining to the tension between the “first” and “second” generations but without reference to the “one-and-a-half generation.” Matthew Todd, “A Biblical and Theological Approach to Retaining the Next Generation in Canadian Chinese Diaspora Churches and Doing Mission,” Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies 18, no.1 (2015): 107–124.

[5] Valerie Inchley, The Nepali Diaspora: Migrants, Ministry and Mission (Kathmandu: EKTA Books, 2014), 383.

[6] P. Emil Chandran, “South Asian Diaspora: Challenges and Opportunities,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 40, no. 4 (October 2004): 452, https://emqonline.com/node/1753 (accessed 23 June 2017).

[7] Peter Brierley, Capital Growth (Tonbridge: ADBC, 2013), 147.

[8] Interestingly, the first “church” service was actually in one of the elders’ houses. The following week they had their first service in a church building. The name United Nepali Revival Church was officially adopted on 20 March 2011 and the first communion service was on 24 April of the same year.

[9] On the issue of integration with the UK church, Ram Gidoomal notes that “it is very easy for South Asian Christians to stay separate from the mainline churches in [the UK]. There are so many factors that make it difficult to integrate with the body of Christ.” Ram Gidoomal, “South Asian Concern’s Roots,” in Diaspora Mission: The Story of South Asian Concern, Arif Mohamed, with Ram Gidoomal, Robin Thomson, and Raju Abraham (London: South Asian Concern, c.2015), 141.

[10] Their lack of formal training was largely due to lack of opportunity and resources. Training during this period was primarily conducted by visiting Pastors/Teachers from churches in Nepal.

[11] The term “diasporic” is used here as the adjectival form of “diaspora.” Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 6th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 675.

[12] The importance of the associations and networks formed by the wider Nepali community in the UK is explained in David Gellner, “Associational Profusion and Multiple Belonging: Diaspora Nepalis in the UK,” in Diasporas Reimagined: Spaces, Practices and Belonging, Nando Sigona, Alan Gamlen, Giulia Liberatore, and Hélène Neveu Kringelbach, eds., (Oxford: Oxford Diasporas Programme, 2015): 78–82.

[13] Here, I am simply contrasting Nepali churches with local churches in the UK which have no significant Nepali presence.

[14] Kim Butler, “Defining Diaspora, Refining a Discourse,” Diaspora 10, no. 2 (2001): 191. In trying to define a “diaspora” Butler also makes reference to “dispersal to two or more locations,” a “collective mythology of homeland,” a sense of “alienation from hostland,” and an “idealization of return to homeland.” http://sites.middlebury.edu/nydiasporaworkshop/files/2011/04/Defining-Diaspora1.pdf (accessed 23 June 2017).

[15] Inchley, The Nepali Diaspora, 383.

[16] Enoch Wan, Diaspora Missiology: Theory, Methodology, and Practice (Portland: Institute of Diaspora Studies of USA, 2011), 129–131.

[17] Wan, Diaspora Missiology, 133–135.

[18] Stanley John, “Diaspora Missions: Diaspora Churches as Equal Partners in Mission,” The Exchange, Christianity Today (10 November 2016), http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2016/october/diaspora-missions-diaspora-churches-as-equal-partners-in-mi.html (accessed 30 May 2017).

[19] Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, Scattered to Gather: Embracing the Global Trend of Diaspora (Manila: Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, 2010), 20, http://www.jdpayne.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/Scattered-to-Gather.pdf (accessed 23 June 2017).