Evangelicals desire to see those who have not yet embraced and been transformed by the hope of a relationship with Jesus Christ join into the family of those who have. We share the gospel not just because Christ commands us to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19) but also because he calls us to love our neighbors (Luke 10:27), and our own experience confirms that faith in Christ brings redemption and salvation to those who will receive God’s free gift in faith. Since its earliest days, the Church has seen the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel as central to its mission in the world.
A few months ago, Christian leaders from around the world met in Capetown South Africa for the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization. At Capetown 2010, an important theme was a new strategic perspective on global evangelism, recognizing the opportunity represented by “people on the move,” the many around the globe who have migrated either voluntarily or involuntarily and whether on a permanent or temporary basis. “Diaspora missiology,” the study of God’s providential work through migration, was highlighted in a short book prepared for Capetown 2010 called Scattered to Gather: Embracing the Global Trend of Diaspora (LifeChange Publishing, Manila, 2010).
The idea of diaspora missiology is grounded in Scripture. Throughout the Bible—from Adam and Eve to Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, and Jesus himself—we see God using the movement of people to advance his purposes. We are told explicitly that God established “the exact times and places set” for each person “so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him” (Acts 17:26-27). That is the case today as it was in the days of Scripture, and perhaps even more so, as never beforein history have so many—200 million people—been on the move.
Missiologists like Dr. Enoch Wan and Dr. Sadiri Tira suggest that God works through migration in a number of ways:
1) As those who do not know the hope of a relationship with Christ enter countries where the Christian faith is more rooted, ministry to the diaspora takes place. Those of us who are native-born American citizens should see the arrival of immigrants to our neighborhoods not as a threat—as some in our society do—but as an opportunity to lovingly share the good news with immigrants who, missiologists tell us, are uniquely receptive to the gospel.
2) Migrants are not just objects of mission, but agents: ministry occurs through the diaspora, as believing migrants bring a cultural intelligence to sharing the gospel with their own compatriates—whether upon returning to their country of origin or within the immigrant community in the host country—that a missionary from another culture would require years or decades to acquire.
3) Migrants carry the gospel with them to the countries that receive them and share the good news cross-culturally, ministering beyond the diaspora. Americans, like me, sometimes overlook the reality that many of the countries from which immigrants come to the U.S. are more Christian—at least as a percentage of their overall population—than we are, and I’ve met a number of immigrants who felt the Lord call them to the U.S. as missionaries.
While an important paradigm shift for missional thinkers in the U.S., a country known as a nation of immigrants, diaspora missiology is certainly not just relevant for us. In fact, the Scattered to Gather book was published in the Philippines, a country that sends many “overseas workers” around the world each year, including to countries with very restrictive governmental policies toward the Christian faith. African migrants to Europe are revitalizing a church that would be all but dead were it not for migration. Ministry through diasporas is, as the Lausanne movement has celebrated for decades, “from everywhere to everywhere.”
Here in the US, though, I think that some of our churches face a hindrance to fully engaging with what God is doing through diaspora: too many within our churches have bought into a politically-driven narrative that sees immigrants not as a missional opportunity, but as a threat. A steadily-decreasing, but still signficiant, percentage of American evangelicals associate immigration with economic challenges, crime, and a disruption to the culture they know—and their response is thus grounded in fear. Undocumented immigrants—which account for nearly a third of all immigrants living in the US—are the object of particular scorn. If we respond to immigrants with fear, though, we may miss out on what God is doing. We cannot effectively share the gospel with an immigrant, telling her that Jesus loves and died for her sins, while simultaneously telling her how much we loathe her and wish she would leave—but that’s exactly the message that we risk conveying if we fail to embrace biblical hospitality and instead parrot the rhetoric found on certain cable news shows, talk radio programs, and in forwarded emails.
In the end, we evangelicals need to love, welcome, and advocate with immigrants both because the global diaspora presents an opportunity for the gospel to go forth and because inherent to that gospel is a call to seek justice, which means we cannot focus solely on evangelism while ignoring the injustices within our current immigration system—or merely work for policy reform without proclaiming the hope of the gospel. We are called to embrace the whole gospel, which includes both proclamation and social action, prophetic witness against structural injustices and personal transformation.
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 previous role at World Relief was as a BIA-accredited Immigration Legal Counselor. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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