When Local = Global

When we consider our strategies for evangelism, are we forgetting the immigrant next door?

Let’s be honest: We don’t tend to think of the United States as a mission field. Yet if our country is the No. 1 destination of immigrants worldwide, then clearly we are.

We’ve got some rethinking to do.

Last March I traveled to Manila, Philippines, to attend a conference of the Global Diaspora Network. This subset of the Lausanne Movement focuses on evangelism and church planting among global immigrants.

I found it enlightening to be among missiologists from so many nations. (Of the 300 attendees, only five were American—proving, it seems, that we don’t yet see the reality of our mission field.) The global representation stripped the conference of nationalistic slants in strategy and in our understanding of elements of the gospel.

In global missions conferences, immigrants typically get cursory attention. Actually, as soon as immigrants leave their nation, they often are forgotten by their government and, for the most part, the world. For those who arrive on our soil, the majority of the attention they get seems to be negative, embroiled as we are in a political immigration conundrum.

Top destination choice?

Here in the United States, immigration is an acute issue because of the sheer volume. As noted already, we are the foremost destination for immigrants worldwide, with close to 43 million immigrants total. Our country is, for so many, that “city on a hill” predicted by the early Puritan settlers—an example and desired destination for much of the world. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2025, our country’s foreign-born population will be almost 15 percent of our total—the highest since 1890.

While we hold the No. 1 position on the global migration list, these immigration patterns are affecting other countries as well. The Pew Research Center reveals that the most diverse immigrant community can be found in the United Kingdom; the highest percentage of foreign-born (84 percent of total population) can be found in the United Arab Emirates; and the French tend to emigrate to more nations (83) than any other nationality.

We still need to reach both our neighbors and the greater world, but today, chunks of that greater world live in our neighborhood. So we must rethink our local evangelism strategies. Because of their critical mass, immigrants within our own borders can easily recreate little Sudan, little China, little Mexico or little Guatemala—communities that would be difficult to reach using typical “attractional” or “seeker-friendly” models of church outreach.

We can have either of two responses to these immigration trends:

  1. Shut the borders and pull up the drawbridge.*
  2. Work to win them to Christ.

When we choose the latter response, we can help immigrants reach their own transplanted communities around us. And if they return to their own countries, they can go as missionaries, fluent in the language and culture. (Certainly this was part of Paul’s rational in returning Onesimus to Philemon.)

So, what do we do?

What kind of changes will it require to our systems and structures to begin investing heavily (in prayer and resources) to reach the immigrants already within our borders? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Listen: With so many voices screaming about the world’s immigration conundrum, it can be hard to hear God’s small and quiet voice on the matter.
  2. Be informed: Start by reading Strangers Next Door: Immigration, migration and mission, by D. Payne.
  3. Be open: God may be working via a new paradigm of evangelism—something like but different from what we’re passionate about and have been trained for.

Maybe that outsider we risk reaching out to will become like that one woman at the well who brought a whole city of outsiders to Christ. We never know what God will do with our obedience. One Anglo changed the course of my life as a young Hispanic in Laredo, Texas. He told me about Jesus, and I have not been able to extinguish that fire for 41 years. Be that servant for an immigrant.

*Defensive wall-building has never worked as a long-term strategy for protection, let alone as a Great Commission strategy for the Christian. Hadrian’s Wall was eventually abandoned by the Romans in the fourth century. The Maginot Line became a liability to the French against the Germans in 1940. The Great Wall of China was a bit more effective for the Chinese, but it was not perfect. Even the 420-mile Israeli wall around Gaza does not keep its inhabitants perfectly safe.

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