Scattering and the Kingdom

RefugeesBy Jim M. Ramsay –

“And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” This simple statement shows up in Acts 8:1 (NASB), just after Stephen was killed by stoning. Up to that event, the record of the early church growth was in Jerusalem. Certainly some of the visitors, mentioned in Acts 2, who heard Peter’s sermon and came to faith at Pentecost had returned to their homes, but we don’t hear anything about them up to this point. Then Stephen is martyred and a general persecution breaks out.

The fourth verse goes on to say, “Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word.” Following this is the specific case of Philip, who ends up in Samaria where people start coming to faith in such numbers that word got to Jerusalem, and Peter and John came up to check things out. We can assume that there were other cases of the “scattered” like Philip. This can do much to explain the believers we see in later stories already existing in other places such as Joppa and Antioch.

This scattering of people was probably not on the apostles’ 25-year plan for evangelizing the Roman world. Yet the kingdom broke out in the midst of this scattering. Paul often moved in and out of the scattered Jewish communities that were pervasive across the Empire, an earlier scattering that certainly had not been planned, but was important to the growth of the early church. God used this sociological and demographic phenomenon to spread the news of redemption and reconciliation in Jesus Christ. The kingdom broke out in the midst of the scattering – in the midst of something that most would not have seen as a positive development.

Fast forward to today and observe the unprecedented phenomenon of people on the move. The United Nations estimates that 230 million people now live outside of their countries of origin. This would include legal immigrants as well as undocumented immigrants and refugees. Another nearly 700 million can be added to that number who are internally displaced within their own nation. In the United States, there is much handwringing over the issue of immigration. We hear concerns about the number who have arrived illegally. We hear concerns about the many who come legally, but seem to have a different set of values than is “truly American.” Regardless of opinions and concerns about this, is it possible that God is active in this modern-day scattering in ways that will show his kingdom breaking in today?

With the ongoing crisis in Syria and Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon became home to huge numbers of refugees long before the crisis hit Europe and got on the radar of most Americans. Estimates are that over ten percent of Jordan’s current population are refugees. The Jordanian church along with many faith-based organizations have stepped up to provide welcome and help to the refugees, most of whom are Muslim. As hospitality is shown in the name of Christ, many are coming to faith as they have experienced open arms and open hearts. The kingdom is breaking out in Jordan in the midst of a terrible situation. And now encouraging stories are coming also from Europe, where many churches are reaching out to the refugees finding their way into their communities.

In the United States, the scattering of people to our shores has also accelerated in recent years. This influx of people gives amazing potential for outreach. We have the opportunity to show hospitality to those who have come to live in our cities and towns. But if our first response is fear and distrust, then we miss a great kingdom opportunity. Will we be like Philip in Samaria, willing to cross cultural barriers to build relationships with people who come from very different cultural and faith backgrounds?

Another aspect of the scattering to consider are the believers, like Philip, who are scattered and share the gospel with their new host culture. Some of the most closed countries to expressions of the Christian faith in the Middle East are also home to large numbers of Filipino foreign workers, many of whom are believers in Christ. In the midst of the challenge of working far from home, the kingdom breaks out as these workers live out their faith in places that traditional missions cannot penetrate.

As we look at the United States, one often-overlooked fact is that the majority of those immigrating actually come from Christian backgrounds (estimated by Pew Research to be 61 percent of authorized immigrants and 83 percent of unauthorized immigrants, based on 2012 statistics). Ironically, many Americans seem to be worried about these new citizens “watering down” our nation’s faith and culture. On the contrary, there is great kingdom potential for them to bring new life to a culture that is increasingly post-Christian. Some of the largest and most vibrant churches in Europe are pastored by people who have emigrated from Africa. Increasingly, diaspora communities of Christians in the United States are seeing as part of their mission to help revitalize the American church and call it back to orthodox Christianity. This is another example of the kingdom breaking out in the context of migration.

There are many other examples out there, but suffice it to say that just as the Lord of the Harvest used the context of scattering in the early Church to broaden its reach, he is doing the same in the scattering of the 21st century. He invites us to have kingdom eyes to see how his hand is moving and to join him in this mission.

Jim Ramsay, who served for 10 years with his family in Kazakhstan, is The Mission Society’s vice president for mission ministries. This column is adapted from his article in the Fall 2015 issue of Unfinished, the publication of The Mission Society. 

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