After hearing me talk through a few of the many references to immigrants and immigration in the Bible, Elaine reflected that, in sixty years of church, she could not ever recall hearing a sermon that mentioned immigration.
I haven’t been in church for sixty years (yet) but my sense is that Elaine’s experience is not unique, and research confirms this suspicion: A Pew Research survey last year found that just 16% of white evangelicals had ever heard about immigration from their pastor in any context. That’s not because Scripture is silent on the topic, though. Beyond the many characters in the narrative of the Bible who were themselves immigrants, God also repeatedly commands his people to love and seek justice for immigrants. I led a Bible study with some denominational leaders a few weeks ago, and in preparation I used my concordance to make a list of passages that related to God’s heart for immigrants. I quickly came up with more than fifty. And yet, those verses do not seem to be mentioned from the pulpit very often in most churches; it’s almost as if we’re intentionally avoiding them. Evangelicals sometimes accuse theological liberals of picking-and-choosing only the parts of the Bible they like and dismissing the rest, rather than accepting the biblical teaching that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). But maybe we just choose to ignore different parts of the text.
With their pastors largely silent, the folks in our churches are learning about immigration from other sources—from television, radio, and the Internet, sources that usually make no pretense of offering a Christian perspective. As a result, most American evangelicals have probably never thought about immigration from a biblical or theological perspective. Only 12% of white evangelicals say that their views on immigration are primarily informed by their Christian faith. As people who claim God’s Word as the authority over our lives, that’s a big problem.
My challenge to pastors and church leaders is to prayerfully consider how you can engage your congregation to help disciple them toward a biblical response to both the challenges and the opportunities of immigration. While sermons on immigration are relatively rare, there are some prominent pastors who have preached on the topic, and I’d encourage watching or listening to a few of their sermons for inspiration. Rich Nathan, the pastor at Vineyard Columbus in Ohio, preached a sermon (available in audio, video, or transcript form online) about a year ago focusing on Matthew 25, where Jesus identifies our reception of strangers as a criteria for judgment. Bryant Wright, the pastor at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta and the current President of the Southern Baptist Convention, preached on the topic of immigration (available in video or audio form online) last fall during a series on contemporary issues, focusing on the text in Leviticus 19:33-34 where God commands his people to love immigrants as they love themselves, remembering their own immigrant histories. Brady Boyd, pastor at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, discussed immigration during a sermon (available in audio or video form) focused on the life of Ruth, a Moabite immigrant to Israel. There are enough references in Scripture to immigrants and immigration to fill a dozen or more different sermons.
Other pastors have addressed the issue of immigration by bringing in someone from outside to speak on the issue of immigration. Bill Hybels and Heather Larson at Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago asked me to come and share with their congregation some time ago and I’ve since repeated different versions of that interview with pastors at various other churches. Bringing in someone from outside the church might be an easier first step for some pastors to begin a conversation on the issue within their church.
However we choose to engage, I’m convinced that how we respond to immigrants is an issue of Christian discipleship, and we need our leaders to help shepherd the flocks that God has entrusted to them toward faithfulness to Scripture in this and in all areas. That takes a good deal of courage, because—perhaps because we’ve ignored the issue for so long—many in our congregations have fully accepted some not-particularly-biblical rhetoric about immigrants. A few will respond somewhat explosively to the suggestion that certain Bible passages might apply to our current realities of immigration. If we’re serious about submitting ourselves to the authority of God’s Word, though, we have no choice but to bring this to our churches.
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.
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