My wife and I spent New Year’s Eve somewhere above the Atlantic Ocean en route to London. Our tickets were for Seats 51F and 51G, directly next to the lavatory in the last row of the plane. We were prepared for a long, cramped, potentially unpleasant smelling flight. But just as we were about to board, we were called to the gate desk and given new boarding passes: we’d been upgraded to first class, which on this transatlantic flight meant seats that reclined into fully horizontal beds, a five-course dinner, and a pass to skip the immigration line upon arrival at Heathrow and visit the Air Canada lounge for a shower and (a second) breakfast before starting our day. I felt like I was living a small-scale example of Jesus’ statement that “the last shall be first” (Matthew 20:16).
That passage resonated in my mind throughout the flight as I devoured a superb short book called Western Christians in Global Mission: What’s the Role of the North American Church? The book, which I picked up just before our trip while at the Urbana Student Missions Conference, is authored by Paul Borthwick, who teaches Missions at Gordon College and is also on World Relief’s board of directors. Though Borthwick’s name is on the front cover, he uses much of the book to lift up the voices of Christian leaders from the Majority World, from the regions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America where most of the world’s population and most of the world’s Christians reside, an area that North American evangelicals have often envisioned as what Jesus meant when he called us to “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Borthwick presents a passionate case, backed up both by Scripture and from a host of missiological thinkers, most from the Majority World themselves, that while there is absolutely still a role for the North American church in God’s mission, our role needs to evolve from a mindset that sees the West (particularly the United States) as the origin of mission, recognizing that joining in God’s mission is an imperative for Christ followers not “from the West to the rest” but from every nation and to every nation. In fact, those of us in the West need to look to our brothers and sisters in the Majority World—from “the ends of the earth”—for leadership.
That paradigm shift has to occur within the U.S., Canada, and other western nations as well, Borthwick argues. He notes that migration has resulted in a paradigm shift for looking at global mission, as people from every country arrive in ours. Some of those folks do not yet know Jesus, presenting divine opportunities to extend Christ’s love in tangible ways and to share the hope of the gospel; as one Toronto pastor says, “God called us to go to all nations. We didn’t go, so he’s bringing all nations to us!”
Borthwick notes, though, that migration is not merely a one-way missional opportunity for North America Christians: many (probably most) of the immigrants who arrive in and remake their lives in the United States are already Christians, often bringing with them a vibrancy and zeal for the gospel that has much to teach churches and professed Christians that are too often characterized by lukewarmness, where Christianity has become more cultural than personal. Refugees who have fled persecution on account of their faith in Jesus understand his commands to “take up their cross and follow” (Mark 8:34) better than I can, and I need to let them teach me. Believers who have crossed a desert to escape from extreme poverty have learned much better than I have what it means to rely upon God for my “daily bread” (Luke 11:3). Others have left their countries and come to the United States as missionaries, leaving behind all that is familiar with a passion to bring the light of the gospel to a country where many are walking in darkness.
Immigrants have already quietly been reinvigorating our churches and denominations in the United States. The Assemblies of God denomination in the United States, for example, is now about 40% non-white; it and many other denominations would likely be shrinking if it were not for the arrival of new immigrants in the U.S., some of whom find Christ and join the church for the first time here, others of whom import a committed faith with them when they migrate. Many white American evangelicals, though, have not realized this is happening: immigrants make up a large and quickly-growing share of American evangelicalism, but there are very few prominent Christian leaders of recent immigrant origins whose names and faces are recognized by white Christians; they are very seldom in the top leadership of denominations or parachurch ministries; few white Christians read the books that they write. And yet, as Borthwick argues persuasively, we desperately need their leadership to help the Church in North America find our place in God’s global mission.
There are glimmers of hope: I was so grateful to see the voices of the Global Church—including many who have migrated to the U.S. and Canada—represented at Urbana: on the main stage as speakers, worship leaders, and artists, in the teaching sessions, and among the more than 16,000 attendees. In fact, 44% of attendees at Urbana were non-Caucasian. Urbana provided a picture of what the church in North America actually already looks like (but which most of us do not see on a typical Sunday, since we tend to worship separately), and, as the demographics of the United States shift, this multiethnic reality will become even more pronounced in coming decades.
The Apostle Paul challenges us in 1 Corinthians 12 to see the Church as one Body, with many interdependent parts. Borthwick cites Nairobi Chapel pastor Oscar Murio’s emphasis on verse 23, noting “a stress on honoring the less significant-seeming parts of the body.” Immigrant churches in North America might seem to fit into that “less significant-seeming” category by some measures: with some exceptions, immigrant churches usually do not have huge buildings, flashy production capacities for a weekend service, or large amounts of money as they often meet in storefront facilities or in another congregation’s space. But they are integral parts of the body, and the other parts need them to survive. In his good plan, God has called those “parts that we think are less honorable [to be] treat[ed] with special honor” (1 Corinthians 12:23). He has made those considered “last” to be first. White U.S. citizen Christians like me would do well to join him.
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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