My challenge to local churches, as often as I can convince them to listen to me, is to see immigration to the United States not—as many in the larger society do—as a threat, but rather as a missional opportunity. God, in his sovereignty, has brought people from every nation to our communities (Acts 17:26), presenting an opportunity to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) without leaving our zip codes. Furthermore, I’ve been reminded that God uses people on the move to spread the gospel in the other direction as well: many immigrants come from strong Christian backgrounds and share their faith with the many in the U.S. who do not yet know the hope of a transformational relationship with Jesus.
Recently, though, I’ve been thinking of yet another way that the issue of immigration presents a missional opportunity for the Church in the U.S.: by giving us a chance to obey God’s commands to welcome and seek justice for immigrants, we have the opportunity to “let [our] light shine before others” (Matthew 5:16). When we stand with those who are vulnerable and seek justice for the marginalized of our society—as we’re commanded to do repeatedly—we also give credibility to the gospel that we verbally proclaim. And a watching world—including native-born citizens as well as immigrants— takes notice.
Particularly for folks in my generation—“millenials” who have been trained by a marketing-driven society to be suspicious of false pretense and who yearn for something genuine—a gospel message that is unaccompanied by counter-cultural , gospel-driven lifestyle rings hollow. Only when our actions match our message can we make a compelling case for millenials looking at evangelical Christianity from the outside. As Max Lucado has argued, “compassion is the best apologetic.”
A few weeks ago, we ran a guest blog here at g92.org by my friend Ashley. Ashley was actually instrumental in bringing me into the work that I do today. As a community organizer working at the local immigrant rights organization, she saw my ability to connect to other evangelical Christians like myself and helped find a way to make that my full-time job, rather than something I did in my spare time. In the process of collaborating over several months, I also got to introduce Ashley to a number of local churches—churches like Willow Creek Community Church and New Community Covenant Church—that she found, with a little bit of nudging, were driven by their belief in Scripture to jump whole-heartedly into ways they could embrace and advocate with the vulnerable immigrants in their community.
Ashley left the Chicago area to spend a few months exploring China and we lost touch. She called a few months ago to task if we could have coffee. Knowing well how community organizers function, I sat through our coffee waiting for some sort of an “ask”: good community organizers are constantly inspiring and pushing people out of complacency and into action on behalf of their community. Then, Ashley surprised me: she told me that the reason she’d wanted to get together was just to let me know that she’d accepted Jesus and become a Christian, that she wanted me to know because she came to faith at one of the churches to which I had introduced her.
Ashley’s previous views of evangelicals—likely shaped by caricatures in the media of evangelicals as right-wing partisans who are anti-immigrant, anti-gay, and anti-lots-of-other-people, rather than as people who have received God’s grace and welcome and are eager to extend it to others—was such that she had never seriously considered embracing the evangelical Christian faith previously. But what she saw at some of the churches that I partnered with—churches who, as Bill Hybels has said, are “not anti-anybody” but seeking for all to come into a relationship with Jesus Christ—opened Ashley’s heart and mind enough that she began to attend a local church where she eventually embraced the gospel and a relationship with Jesus. It’s been an enormous blessing to watch Ashley grow in her new found faith, and also a reminder to me that—not just for immigrants arriving in this country, but also for the many American citizens observing us from outside—the ways that our churches respond to the issue of immigration have important ramifications for the mission of the Church.
Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. When states known for being part of the “Bible Belt” pass anti-immigrant legislation with little to no dissent from local evangelical leaders, and when politicians who call themselves evangelicals suggest responding to illegal immigration with lethal electrified fences or by penalizing US-born children of the undocumented, those outside of the Church take notice in the other direction. Folks on the outside suspect (albeit, I think, unfairly) that all evangelicals are close-minded, xenophobic, or even racist, and they’re repelled.
Like most evangelicals, I am a big believer in evangelism: I believe that each believer has the privilege and the responsibility to share the hope of the gospel with those who do not yet know Jesus. But I also am convinced that though God can work even through desperately broken vessels—we will see little fruit if our proclamation of the gospel is not accompanied by a biblically-driven striving after justice. As Isaiah 58 says, it is only when we seek God’s heart for justice, providing food to the hungry, shelter for the stranger, clothes for the naked, and freedom for the oppressed that “then [our] light will rise in the darkness” (Isaiah 58:10). My prayer is that the Church as a whole would seek justice for our immigrant neighbors—and that many, both immigrants and citizens, would then see out witness and believe in the God who guides us to justice.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
Please note that the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of everyone associated with G92 or any institutions with which the blogger may be affiliated.
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