Mission and Migration

Jim Ramsey

Jim Ramsey

By Jim M. Ramsay –

Did you know that in today’s world more people are on the move than at any time in history? The United Nations estimates that as of 2013 there were 232 million people who were living long-term outside of the country of their birth. Forty-one million of these are in the United States, which receives more immigrants than any other nation. They represent about 13 percent of our population – the highest percentage since the peak of European immigration to the US at the end of the 19th century. Immigration is understandably a hot topic in the US among politicians – yet due to the nature of that debate, often the larger picture of what is happening in global migration is missed and, more importantly, what might it mean for the spreading of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

What happens when you look at the Bible through the lens of migration? Is it really even in the Bible? The answer is a resounding “yes.” In fact, migration seems to be a major theme in the Bible. From individual migrants such as Abraham, Joseph, and Paul, to the mass migrations recorded in Exodus, the Exile, the persecution of the early church, and the expulsion of Jews in Rome, reports of migrations are throughout the entirety of Bible. There are numerous occurrences of the word “migrant” – often translated as “foreigner” or “alien.” In fact, the Old Testament law gave special attention to that class of people, reminding the host Hebrew culture of their own migratory experience.

While an in-depth look at the Bible and migration is beyond the scope of a brief column, it is important to note that the Bible demonstrates clearly how God was using the movement of peoples for His purposes. In some cases He clearly caused the move (Abraham, Exodus, Exile) and in some cases one might argue about cause, but it is clear that He used the movement (Joseph, Acts 8 persecution). In fact, when looking at the New Testament through this lens, it appears that much of the early church growth was a result of migrations – Philip to Samaria, the church in Antioch, and Priscilla and Aquila. In addition, there were Jewish communities scattered throughout the Roman Empire, a phenomenon known as “the Jewish Diaspora.” Much of Paul’s, missionary work was connecting to these Jewish communities with which he already had an affinity. In the early centuries of the church, it continued to grow organically, geographically through these people movements caused by trade or forced displacement.

Given the fact that God has used the movement of peoples as a primary means for the spread of the gospel, what might this suggest for the church in 2014? Fortunately, there are those who have been paying attention and thinking Scripturally about what this all might mean. There is a burgeoning discipline in missions called Diaspora Missiology which is giving deep thought to this very issue. Certainly there are churches that have ministries to migrants in their communities. For example, many churches in Atlanta partner with groups like World Relief to aid refugees. Other churches offer ESL classes or provide space for migrant church services. The needs are great and it is clearly in accordance with both Old and New Testament commands that Christians show hospitality and love to migrants and be ready to share the “hope that is within us.” (I fear we sometimes fail miserably in this regard, but that is another column!) Churches can use demographic data to learn what groups are in their area and consider how to build relationships with them. There are many ways churches in the host culture can serve.

With today’s advanced communications and rapid travel, migrants usually maintain close contact with people in their original homeland. So as relationships are formed between the host culture and migrants through which the good news of Christ can flow, there is a natural pipeline through which the good news can flow back to the migrants’ homeland as well. This has huge implications for missions, especially when one considers the limitations on foreign missionaries in many of the unreached parts of the world. A church may well be able to impact a people far away by showing hospitality to people who live close by.

Finally it is worth noting that in the Biblical examples, it often was the migrants who were the ones who carried the gospel message. We often think of the migrants as those who are to receive the gospel from us – the host culture. But we should also ask the question, “How might God be using the migrants themselves for His purposes for the host culture?” When one considers that the majority of migrants in the U.S. are from Christian areas, perhaps God wants the American church to be hearing the gospel from their perspectives. Could it be that our churches need to learn from the experience of the migrants in order for us to gain a deeper understanding of our faith? How might established churches connect with migrant churches to enable such sharing to occur? It would be well worth the time for local churches to consider such questions.

If, in His sovereignty, God’s Spirit is indeed behind this massive phenomenon of global migrations, it behooves us to ask Him to examine our hearts, our attitudes, and even our structures so that we can join fully in what He is doing. As we show hospitality, share our hearts, and listen to their stories, God’s Spirit will bring transformation in and through us.

Jim M Ramsay is Vice President for Mission Ministries at the Mission Society.


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