Mission Fields on the Move

The massive global migration we see today presents unparalleled opportunities for ministry.
Mission Fields on the Move
Image: Paul Green/Unsplash

Migration is a major feature of the 21st century. A 2005 United Nations report claims that there are nearly 191 million international migrants worldwide. The International Organization for Migration estimates the number of foreign migrants at around 200 million. Another 100 million are on the move within their own borders.

Migration is enormously complex. Its causes and its effects range from simple economic betterment to the horrors of war, ethnic conflict, and genocide. Whatever the causes, it is an undeniable opportunity for evangelization that the church dare not ignore, says veteran missiologist J. Samuel Escobar in this installment of the Global Conversation.

In our 50 years as missionaries, my wife and I have become familiar with immigration laws and offices in the countries where we have served: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, the United States, and now Spain. Our most recent experience of standing in line for hours, filling out forms and asking God for patience to cope with bureaucratic slowness, was in Valencia in 2007. Standing in such lines, you hear amazing stories of the joys, tragedies, dramatic expectations, and disappointments of migrant people.

Spain is geographically situated between Europe and Africa, and tied to the Americas by three centuries as an imperial power. As such, it attracts migrants from Latin America, Africa, and Eastern Europe. The country's Catholic church and its tiny minority of Protestant churches have faced the challenge of this massive wave. It is a missionary challenge that forces churches to go to the roots of their faith.

In the middle of the night on May 4, 2002, in the town of Arganda just outside Madrid, a group of skinheads painted swastikas and racist phrases on the walls of a Romanian evangelical church. Then they set it on fire. Similarly, Joaquín Yebra, pastor of a Baptist church in Vallecas, a suburb of Madrid, has had services interrupted by young men whom he describes not as skinheads but as hooligans who have drunk too much. Twice a week his church provides food and medicine for 600 people, mostly immigrants from Morocco and Latin America. Some neighbors have protested the long lines that form for three hours, though most of them are understanding and sympathetic.

At the 2004 Forum for World Evangelization, hosted by the Lausanne Committee in Pattaya, Thailand, the "Globalization and the Gospel" working group heard stories of how churches in Canada and Japan responded to the challenges posed by migration and how they were transformed in the process. "We cannot underestimate the sheer power global migration has on the interdependence of our daily lives and collective fates, creating our larger common horizon of experience," the group's report concluded.

Migrants are people in transition, experiencing the loss of roots and open to new commitments, ready to assume faith in a personal way.

But the challenge and opportunity are nothing new. Migration was an important factor in the 16th-century Reformation. Celebrations of the fifth centennial of John Calvin's birth bring to mind the fact that he was a migrant who had fled France. He became a refugee in Geneva, Switzerland, where 5,000 migrants joined a population of 10,300 between the years 1542 and 1560. Historian Fred Brown describes "the terrific task facing church and state in Geneva to take care of the waves of people inundating the city." Calvin launched initiatives for the professional training of young people and the readaptation of adults to new jobs. He also preached clearly against those who wanted to benefit from cheap labor.

Magnets for Migrants

In the New Testament, we see that migration was a key factor in the advance of the church. Paul ends his Epistle to the Romans (chap. 16) by greeting a long list of people. He had met them on his trips through the Roman Empire, and they all ended up in Rome. Migration was constant in the Roman Empire, just as it is in the 21st century. As a center of cultural, economic, and political power, Rome attracted migrants just as rich countries today draw people from underdeveloped countries who are seeking jobs, security, and a future they do not find at home.

Actually, the whole New Testament shows people on the move. It also depicts Christian missions taking place in that context. People scattered by religious persecution founded the church in Antioch (Acts 11:19). In other cases, voluntary migrants moved with a missionary purpose in mind. Paul describes how, having completed his evangelistic task in the eastern half of the empire, he feels driven to go to the other half to evangelize (Rom. 15:19, 23-24).

Priscilla and Aquila, the first couple whom Paul greets (Rom. 16:3), provide a key pattern of church formation in New Testament times. Aquila is described as a Jew from the region of Pontus who had to leave Rome due to the persecution of Jews (Acts 18:1-4). Priscilla and Aquila supported themselves through specialized work involving leather. Few tools were necessary for this trade, making mobility possible. It was an ideal occupation for a traveling man like Paul. Acts says that "he stayed with them, and they worked together" (18:3, NRSV, used throughout). After "a considerable time" (v. 18), the trio moved on to Ephesus. By the time Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, the faithful couple had returned to Rome; the apostle praises them as people for whom he and "all the churches of the Gentiles" are thankful (Rom. 16:4).

During their journeys, voluntary and involuntary, Priscilla and Aquila planted churches in at least three cities of the empire. The pattern continues in our time. Employees of a British railway company planted many evangelical churches in Argentina in the early 20th century. I have worshiped in churches in Brazil, Peru, and Spain founded or developed by Korean businessmen. In the 1960s, Spanish migrants planted Spanish-speaking churches in Germany, now attended by Latin American migrants. More recently, Filipino young people have planted churches in the United States, and Ghanaian migrants have done the same in the Netherlands.

A notable case is Sunday Adelaja, a young man from Nigeria who went to study in the Soviet republic of Belarus with a Communist scholarship. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he moved to Ukraine and with seven others founded the Word of Faith Church in Kiev on February 6, 1994. The church has grown at an incredible pace and now claims 30,000 adherents, mostly white. Today it is known as the Embassy of the Blessed Kingdom of God for All Nations, with 700 branches in 35 countries including the U.S., Germany, and Israel. It runs 217 centers to help drug and alcohol addicts and 27 educational institutions that minister to 170,000 persons.

Paul's list of greetings in Romans 16 allows us to imagine at least five house churches in Rome. We find names such as Mary (v. 6), Andronicus and Junia (v. 7), and Herodion (v. 11), all evidently Jewish. Other names such as Phoebe (v. 1), Narcissus (v. 11), Ampliatus (v. 8), and Urbanus (v. 9) have Gentile origins. Big cities are melting pots where different races and cultures meet; sometimes the meeting is traumatic. Racism does not target only some people and cultures. All of us are ethnocentric, and the acceptance of "the other," the one who is different, is not always easy. Social and economic crises bring out racism's ugly ghosts, as we see in some European, Asian, and African cities today. The reluctance to accept those who are different also affects Christians; we see the problem throughout 20 centuries of church history. In both the writings of Paul and the Book of Acts, we see that the encounter of cultures and races caused many problems in the early church.

Some of the house churches in Rome comprised Jewish believers, and others comprised Gentiles. Some may have mixed the two groups. In those communities, a degree of mutual acceptance and welcoming took place. Paul encourages these varied Christians to accept one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. His exhortation has a definite theological connotation and a pastoral intent: "Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God" (Rom. 15:7). By pointing to the way in which Christ receives those who come to him, Paul's exhortation gets to the heart of the gospel he has developed in the epistle. Such mutual acceptance included accepting cultural differences such as different eating habits and culturally rooted prohibitions (Rom. 14:1-6). Paul's missionary strategy, outlined in chapter 15, includes actions and teachings designed to foster mutual acceptance between Jews and Gentiles. For example, note the collection that the Gentile churches gathered at Paul's initiative to help the impoverished Jewish believers in Judea (Rom. 15:25-29).

Such mutual acceptance was also reflected in the practical hospitality that became a mark of first-century Christian churches. Paul's words of commendation for Phoebe, probably the carrier of his letter to the Romans, could not be more specific: "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well" (Rom. 16:1-2).

Three Challenges

Churches that are in countries flooded with immigrants face similar challenges and opportunities as the early church. This is true in the big cities of every country, not only in Europe and North America. The amazing growth of churches in Latin American cities is explained partly by their welcoming of displaced persons from rural areas. In many cases, a church's embrace of a migrant becomes a symbolic prelude to the experience of being received by Jesus Christ and finding salvation in him.

Migration presents a threefold challenge to missions-minded Christians. The first challenge is Christian compassion and sensitivity. Churches need to provide funding and volunteers to respond to the massive flow of humans who face hunger, homelessness, and marginalization. Recent decades have prepared evangelical Christians for that exercise of compassion. This has certainly been a theme of the Lausanne Movement and its emphasis on holistic missions. Churches might also learn to cooperate with secular nonprofit organizations, which are patterned after the Christian model of volunteer involvement but are usually suspicious of churches.

Second, churches need to take a prophetic stance against the injustices that immigrants face. Sometimes churches find it difficult to become mouthpieces for the poor and downtrodden. They don't like to pronounce a critical word to societies that are panicking about new waves of foreigners. But the church must look back to the sources of her own faith and to an ethical treasure of compassion that is a half-forgotten part of the Western and European heritage.

Third, churches should see migration as an opportunity for evangelism. Migrants are people in transition, people on the move who are experiencing the loss of roots. They are usually open to new commitments and ready to assume faith in a personal way. Historically, missionary Christianity has often flourished in the context of migration precisely because of the two aspects of the migrant experience. One is the pain of homelessness and uprootedness, and the other side is new freedom. The presence of new believers in old communities brings pastoral challenges as the church is forced to face the other in its midst. But since when have evangelism and church growth been without challenges?

In the face of massive migration worldwide, the Book of Romans can have a powerful effect. If European churches reflect the embrace of Christ rather than the exclusion of a frightened society, they may become better bases for a new evangelization. North American congregations can become loving communities that deliver the church from the temptation to imbibe cheap civil religion. If new migrant churches hear Paul in Romans, they will find ways to connect with long-established churches in need of revival and a new missionary spirit. And in places like Latin America, Africa, and some parts of Asia, where the church is growing and vital, enthusiasm will be matched by a striving toward maturity. All in all, God will use migration to accomplish Christian missions, just as he did in the first century.

J. Samuel Escobar, chair of the Lausanne III (Cape Town 2010) Advisory Council, teaches at the Theological Seminary of the Baptist Union in Madrid, Spain, and is honorary president of the United Bible Societies. A native of Peru, he has served on the staff of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students as both a missionary and a missiology professor.


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