Southern Baptists and other Evangelicals are beginning to recognize the incredible opportunity and responsibility set before us. As the above infographic from www.ethnecity.com demonstrates, the nations have come to us en masse. Between 41 and 47 million foreign born peoples (by latest estimate) now live in the United States (13.2 million in the South). Many come from nations where Christianity is the predominant religious background. Many more do not. The challenges and opportunities facing the church today are enormous and they exist on multiple levels:
- How will American Christians integrate immigrant Christians from around the world into their churches? How will we assist in helping form new churches? How will denominational agencies and church planting networks engage with immigrants and immigrant church planting movements? We need visible and specific strategies to “welcome the stranger” in our midst and equip our current churches to engage, minister to, and advocate for the immigrant, sojourner, and refugee that has come to us.
- How will American Christians engage with immigrants who are non-Christians? Obviously, not everyone will be a Christian who comes. What of the Muslim? The Hindu? The non-religious? How will we deal with the multiplicity of perspectives flooding into our nation? How will we learn to live in a multiethnic, multicultural, and multi religious world?
- How will American Christians engage with immigrants and refugees with the gospel, compassion, mercy, advocacy, and hospitality? How can we help our churches become immigration centers that welcome and assist immigrants in their transition into our communities? What if the local church was the front door through which newcomers came to America? What if the church existed to meet needs, plant seeds of love and the gospel, and pull the weeds of injustice up so that newcomers could better connect with life here and begin to flourish instead of languish?
- How will American Christians advocate for immigrants and refugees and their situation? There are so many challenges and obstacles for immigrant families. What if the local church became the advocate for them? How would that change their perspective on the gospel.
In addition to immigrants and refugees coming to the United States, we also must look at what is happening in countries overseas. Wars and rumors of wars, persecutions, famines and earthquakes, violent and oppressive ideologies, conflict, economic volatility – all of the things that Jesus spoke about in Matthew 24:3-14 are creating a “push” effect that is sending people away from their homes and places of origin. Estimates are that there are over 60 million refugees in the world today. Many have left their home countries. Many more are displaced within their home countries. The church that engages in immigrant/refugee ministry where they are locally, will also be the church that finds itself equipped to take the gospel and aid to refugees in other countries that have been displaced and are seeking to rebuild broken lives. Here is a picture of what we are looking at in countries around the world regarding internal displacement:
The world is seeing over 24,000 people per day displaced from their homes and having to set out in search of safety, security, and survival. This is already a global crisis. How will the church in North America respond?
“The world is in a tremendous displacement crisis that is relentlessly building year after year, and now too many places have the perfect storm of conflict and/or disasters,” said Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which runs IDMC.
“We have to find ways to protect people from these horrendous forces of both nature and the man-made ones.”
The U.N. refugee agency has said the number of people forcibly displaced worldwide was likely to have “far surpassed” a record 60 million in 2015, including 20 million refugees, driven by the Syrian war and other drawn-out conflicts.
The IDMC report said displacement in the Middle East and North Africa had “snowballed” since the Arab Spring uprisings that began in 2010 and the rise of the Islamic State militant group, which is waging war in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.
“What has really led to the spike we have seen most recently has been the attack on civilians – indiscriminate bombing and air strikes, across Syria but also Yemen,” said Alexandra Bilak, IDMC’s interim director. “People have nowhere to go.”
Globally, there were 19.2 million new cases of people forced from their homes by natural disasters in 2015, the vast majority of them due to extreme weather such as storms and floods, IDMC said.
In Nepal alone, earthquakes in April and May uprooted 2.6 million people.
Can’t we see it? Shouldn’t we be asking, “What is God doing in all of this?” Our current situation is the context of our discipleship and sanctification – if we will engage. Everything that Jesus talked about in Matthew 24 in the Olivet Discourse is happening. War. Nations rising against each other. Famines. Earthquakes. Persecution. Violence. Messianic figures. A great falling away. I am not trying to predict Jesus’ return, but I will note that he sets the stage for what will be happening before His return. But, this is the key that applies to us whether or not the return of Christ is near: “And this gospel of the Kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (vs. 14). Could it be that instead of JUST saying what will happen right before Jesus’ return, He is also telling us that when these things happen, that the gospel of the Kingdom will be proclaimed in the midst of these events? Instead of seeing this great upheaval as something to run away from and protect ourselves against, what if Christians saw these things as opportunities to run TO so that people affected and displaced could hear of a God who loves them and offers them refuge? What if the violence and upheaval amongst the nations was actually a perfect opportunity for the people of God to show sacrificial love to people in great need around the world? What if we had a Matthew 24 perspective when it came to our own discipleship and mission and what is our own sanctification (being set apart from the world FOR the Kingdom of God) was manifested and realized as we joined God in ministering to the least and lost? Instead of seeing these things as a threat to our American identity, what if we saw these things as a clarion call upon our Kingdom identity to throw off comfort and security and to take on the mantle of ambassadors of Christ?
These are just a few questions that Christians and churches in North America must answer if they want to better understand and engage in what God is doing through the global migrations that are happening right now. Acts 17:24-28 says that God knows and sets the times and places where people will live and that He does this so they will reach out to Him and find Him, for He is not far from each one of us. How can the church better respond to the presence of immigrants and refugees from all over the world? We will explore all of this at the upcoming Reaching the Nations in North America Conference, August 26-27, 2016 in Brentwood, TN. This is a first of its kind conference sponsored by the International Mission Board, the North American Mission Board, and the Baptist conventions of Tennessee and North Carolina. Keynote speakers will be JD Payne, Ed Stetzer, and Jenny Yang of World Relief. There will be breakout sessions and tracks for denominational leaders and practitioners on the ground. The whole purpose of the conference will be to help equip the American church for the mission before us – and ultimately for our own following of Christ in the times and places that He has set us in. See the recent Baptist Press article on the conference for further information. This concept of engaging in mission along the fault lines of global migrations and people movements is being called Diaspora Missions. It can also be seen as an Acts 17 strategy – that instead of us sending missionaries to unreached peoples, we receive the people who come to us from around the world with hospitality, sacrificial love, gospel ministry, aid, and advocacy.
According to latest Census.gov estimates, the American South has over 121 million people, which is by far the most populous region of the country (37.7% of the nation’s population). With over 13.2 million first generation foreign born (11.2% of the Southern population) in the Southern states ranging from Virginia/Maryland to Florida to Texas/Oklahoma (where Southern Baptists and Evangelicals have their largest footprint), a perspective on how we pivot to, reach, engage, minister to, and advocate for the immigrants and refugees who are now our neighbors is needed more than ever before. What if the Southeastern United States became known more for its biblical hospitality toward immigrants than for turning away from them? What if churches in the South led the way on engagement and invitation to immigrants who have come to live among us? What if Christians in the South took on the needs and problems of immigrants and began to bless them and advocate for them as though they were our own family members? What if instead of 85% of immigrants never being invited into an American’s home, we reversed that number completely and invited at least 85% of immigrants into the homes of Christians in the South to build relationships with them? How different would our future be? The future of America and of the American church is being created right now. What will it look like? How will the gospel be planted into the lives of people who are newly arrived? If Acts 17 is true and God really does determine the exact times and places where people will live so they will reach out to Him and find Him because He is not far from each one of us (vs. 24-28), then what is the responsibility of Christians and churches who are already in this land to “welcome the stranger” who is coming to us from places around the world? What if we look at all of this through a perspective on what God might be doing to bring His salvation to the people’s of the world instead of seeing it through a lens of fear and self-protection?
This conference seeks to help answer these questions. There is a growing movement of churches and Christians in the South who are waking up to the opportunities to sacrificially love our neighbors as those made in God’s image that He is bringing right before us. Will we see what is happening? Will we love them? Will we be a voice for the voiceless (Proverbs 31:8-9) and defend the rights of the destitute and the poor and needy? Will we sacrifice our own lives to take up their cause and consider their needs ahead of our own (Phil. 2:1-5)? I will be leading a breakout session on Immigration Centers as platforms for the gospel to enable churches to do just this. I hope that you will either attend or follow along with the ensuing conversation related to Reaching the Nations in North America and also those across the seas.
One last thought: A good friend of mine is engaged with the church in Europe and has told me that he has been to meeting after meeting of German pastors and church leaders who recognize the moment before them. They have stopped their previous plans and set aside their agendas and are planning, praying, and working to welcome and minister to the refugees who have come to them. Thousands are coming to Christ and thousands more are being helped and served by the church in Germany. They recognize the crisis and see that the times that they live in have become the arena for their own discipleship and faithfulness to God. Will we do the same? Or, will we miss this moment that God has designed for us because we long for a moment in the past that never really was?
Finally, this video from the InternationalProject.org called “The Foreigner Among Us” beautifully explains what is happening around the world. Perhaps I should have led with this, but I wanted to start with questions. What is in this video contains many of the answers that we seek.
For further information and resources for connection, ministry/mission engagement, and advocacy (among many more, but this is a start), start by checking out …
Keelan Cook’s People’s Next Door blog
Missiologically Thinking: J.D. Payne
The International Project
Reaching the Scattered Nations
Immigration, the Gospel, and Southern Baptists in a Nation in Turmoil
People’s Next Door North Carolina
The Evangelical Immigration Table