How the church can respond in the age of migration
By J.D. Payne
We live in the age of migration. More than 230 million people live outside their countries of birth, according to the United Nations. That’s 3 percent of the world’s population. If this number represented a single country, it would be the 5th largest nation in the world.
The peoples of the world have been–and continue to be–on the move. And the Western world remains a popular destination for these men, women, and children.
The book of Acts reminds us that the Lord is the divine maestro, moving the nations that they may know Him:
“From one man He has made every nationality to live over the whole earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live. He did this so they might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find Him, though He is not far from each of us.” (Acts 17:26–27).
Consider the following:
- Between 1990 and 2013, the number of international immigrants worldwide grew from 154 million to 232 million, an increase of 50 percent.
- Almost 6 in 10 international immigrants, or 136 million people, live in the Northern hemisphere.
- One in 5 of the world’s immigrants live in the United States, which is home to 46 million immigrants, according to 2013 statistics from the United Nations.
- About 13 million immigrants in the U.S. were born in Mexico, while 2.2 million were born in China, and 2.1 million in India.
While it’s easy to get lost in the numbers, we must remember each immigrant is created in the image of God. He or she may be in need of salvation or may already be serving on mission with Him. In light of God’s work, the church must ask how she should respond in the age of migration.
Not only has the Lord told us to go into the entire world, but He is also bringing the world to our neighborhoods. The United States receives 20 percent of the world’s international migrants, making it the largest migrant-receiving nation in the world.
Some immigrants arrive in search of a better life. Some come for education or employment. Others run from famine, war, and economic or government instability, seeking security and peace.
Some arrive already knowing Jesus. Some arrive without Him.
Some come to study at universities in the United States. Others come as refugees.
And more than a few represent unreached people groups, which gives churches an unprecedented opportunity to freely share the gospel with them.
Guidelines for reaching the strangers next door
Here are some principles to keep in mind as your church develops a strategy to reach immigrants in your community.
Be intentional. Without an intentional plan to reach the strangers next door, it is unlikely they will be reached in your community.
Learn as you go. Research is good, but there is no substitute for being in the field with people. Listen and observe as you engage in cross-cultural missions. Soak up everything you can about the people you serve.
Be willing to make mistakes. Awkward moments and missteps are bound to happen when serving cross-culturally. Remember, the Lord recognizes we are not perfect; He only desires our obedience and will work through our limitations.
Recognize the bridges of God. Many immigrants remain in frequent contact with friends and relatives in their home countries. Today’s technology allows regular, ongoing communication. If the church works through these bridges of God, then the families, tribes, and governments of the world can be influenced by the gospel from abroad.
Look for receptivity. The gospel is not to be withheld from anyone. But as wise stewards—unless the Spirit leads otherwise—we will want to begin working among those who are the most receptive to the good news. People tend to be more receptive to the gospel during times of stress and transition; both situations are common among immigrants.
Pray in all things. Reaching the nations requires us to be people of prayer. From this devotion, we receive wisdom and guidance to understand best how to relate to the strangers next door.
Find connecting points. Methods of connecting with immigrants will vary by context. Some churches will teach English, driving skills, and cultural-acquisition skills, while providing other practical assistance. Helping people when they arrive in our country will go a long way toward building personal relationships.
The church must not view immigrants as a project or a way to accomplish a goal. Rather, we must understand all peoples are created in the image of God and are to be respected. While we share the love of Jesus and call all people to repent and place their faith in Him, at no time are we to be coercive or manipulative. We are to care for others whether or not they become followers of Christ. Our service is to come with no strings attached.
Make disciples. It’s important that a church’s strategy for reaching internationals involves discipling new believers. Whether new believers are literate or not, they need to know how to apply the Scriptures. They need to understand what it means to be a part of a local church. We also need to provide opportunities for new believers to develop skills in personal evangelism, gathering and leading Bible study groups and churches, and raising up other leaders.
The need of the hour
The call to reach our international neighbors does not mean we should neglect sending missionaries across the globe. Until churches are willing to reach across cultural barriers to share the love of Jesus, the unreached will remain unreached.
Whether it is the Chinese church in San Francisco reaching across the bay area into the Afghan community, the African-American church in downtown Chicago taking the gospel to the Guatemalans in their neighborhood, or the Korean church in rural Georgia preaching the truth among the Fulakunda in Senegal, cross-cultural work is the need of the hour.
No matter its location, the church must become increasingly cross-cultural in her global disciple-making.
J.D. PAYNE (@Jd_Payne) serves as the pastor for church multiplication with The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama. He is the author of Strangers Next Door: Immigration, Migration and Mission. Read more from J.D. at www.jdpayne.org.