A church in Alabama was discussing the issue of unreached people groups as part of their mission focus week. Church members were surprised to discover that at the local university, there were more than 70 unreached people groups represented among the student body! Unreached people in Alabama? Indeed. In fact, in my own county of Gwinnett in the metro Atlanta area the 2010 census states that 25 percent were born outside the United States. A local parent told me there are 30 nations represented at his children’s local elementary school. Many people within the American church community are simply unaware of the huge migrations of people from all over the world that have been taking place over the past couple decades.
This has enormous implications for local churches who want to respond to God’s mission to call the nations – people groups – to Himself. There is a variety of people groups now in most communities across the United States. Yet often the church is either unaware or ill-equipped to know how to engage them.
Throughout the Bible, God used the geographical movements of people to grow awareness of Himself. Consider Abram leaving his homeland, the Exodus, the Exile, and the persecution of the early church. Can we equally see the movements of people into our nation as something God might want to use for His purposes – so that more people from diverse backgrounds can know Him and worship Him? If so, what should be the American church’s response?
A comprehensive plan is beyond the scope of this column. But there are some practical ideas that could get the ball rolling. For any church in a university city, it is highly likely that there are students from other countries. According to the Institute of International Education, there were nearly 200,000 students from China and more than 100,000 from India alone studying in the USA this past academic year! The Bible is very clear on how God’s people are to treat people who come from distant lands. Yet statistics suggest that 75 percent of foreign students never set foot inside an American home while in the USA, much less the home of believers. International Students, Inc. (www.isionline.org) is a good resource for getting involved in this area. Many colleges and universities have adopt-a-student programs for international students and are in need of host families.
In most urban settings there are usually enclaves of specific ethnic populations, often with their own stores and restaurants. Those are great places to get to know people and build relationships. People often love to tell how they ended up here; asking them to tell their story is a great conversation starter. For many world cultures, hospitality is a high value, so people from these cultures are usually blessed by the offer and likely will offer it in return. In fact, a sense of rejection can come from the fact that new immigrants often are not invited into homes. They would find that unthinkable should the roles be reversed and a foreigner were to have arrived in their community.
Given increased tensions related to Islam, it is a critical time for American Christians to become equipped to build relationships with their Muslim neighbors. Christians must not give into the same fear that seems pervasive among many Americans. Most Muslim immigrants, many who left desperate circumstances to find their way here, are eager for friendships. A friend once shared that he asked a Muslim in a local community if the Christians spoke with him. He said, “Yes, they sometimes invite us to their churches, but never into their homes.” There are some excellent resources to help American Christians learn how to build deep relationships with people from Muslim backgrounds and engage in constructive conversations about our faith in Jesus. Seminars such as Jesus and the Quran (www.jaq.org) can help Christians gain this understanding.
As members of the body of Christ, we should be at the forefront of welcoming people, helping them in their new home, and sharing our faith in ways they can hear it. If we will embrace the opportunity God has laid before us, perhaps we might experience a bit of Revelation 7:9 in our own communities.
Jim M. Ramsay is director of field ministry for The Mission Society (www.themissionsociety.org).