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Understanding the Diaspora Church

Cross-cultural diffusion of the Gospel through people on the move.
Understanding the Diaspora Church
Image: Unsplash/Lois Hansel
What is the Diaspora Church?

Millions of people live and work outside their homeland due to economic, social, political, or environmental reasons. Migration has had and continues to have a profound impact on the global church. In fact, the Christian faith in all of its history has involved displacement and migration. Today, there are Christians in every geopolitical entity in the world, often called the diaspora church.

Diaspora refers to dispersed people who find themselves other than where they were born. “Diaspora” was originally a biblical word meaning “dispersed” as a farmer would sow and scatter seeds, but “diaspora” was later applied too forcefully displaced people, especially the Jewish diaspora. In the first century, the Jewish diaspora influenced the trajectory of Christianity and shaped the growth and expansion of the church. More recently “diaspora” refers to displaced people in general.

For hundreds of years now, America has been a nation of immigrants. The same continues to be true today. While the U.S. is not the most ethnically diverse country in the world, there is more ethnic diversity present in the U.S. than in any other country in the world. Each migration and influx of immigrants brings with its religious faith and moral values. In recent years, we have seen the explosive growth of Christianity in the global south. As a result of forced migration and missionary movements from the global south, the face of global and American Christianity is again changing. We can expect that there will continue to be people moving out from Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

The Impact of the Diaspora Church

As America becomes more global, American Christianity becomes more global. In total, almost two-thirds of immigrants are Christians. As a result, we have Christians from all over the world who live in America and have started ethnic churches throughout the country. The Christian diaspora in America is having a profound influence on the shape of religious life and the church. Wave after wave, from different parts of the world throughout our history, diaspora peoples have added new strength and vitality to Christianity in America. In so doing, American Christianity has been shaped and reshaped by migrants.

We have seen throughout history that Christianity grows and thrives when it sends its people out. They carry out the missionary function, not necessarily enrolled in a mission agency, on payroll, or with training. Yet, they carry out the cross-cultural diffusion of the gospel. Our evangelical vision and global engagement arise out of these interconnected, global, transnational networks.

We have much to learn from the diaspora church. God is raising an army of immigrants to create a new ethos and new values for American evangelicalism, reengaging the world with a new passion and new vision. The American church will be more globally relevant if we understand the diaspora people among us. The American church must learn and build these connections from around the world to engage the mission task before us as Great Commission Christians. The diaspora can challenge our parochial worldview to give us a global view of a God who is a missionary God.

The American Church and the Diaspora Church Together

While we have much to learn from the diaspora church, the American church also has a role to play. The world has come here. Migration has led to the great diversity of people who live in America. This has never happened in the world since the Great Commission. In previous generations, we have sent missionaries around the world who have to travel, learn a culture, and live among other peoples. Now the geographical distance has collapsed, but cultural distance has not. Immigrants who come here often continue to be isolated by language and culture. We now have mission work right in our own backyards and in every neighborhood. As a result, it is not just a few people that can become professional missionaries around the world. Entire congregations can be a Christian witness to their friends and neighbors who are part of the diaspora.

We are living in an exciting moment in human history in which there are Christians in every corner of the world. An African theologian said, "If you belong to Christ, you belong to everyone who belongs to Christ." We have a God that is on the move. God who incarnated, who came into the world, also charges us to go to the ends of the earth. The movement of people is part of God’s story of redeeming the world. We are entering into a new era of Christianity shaped and influenced by the Christian diaspora. It's vitally important that we study global Christianity to move out of our siloed, denominational, ethnocentric existence so that we can understand and comprehend the very nature of Christianity.

This fall the Wheaton College Graduate School is launching a Global Christianity cohort in the M.A. in Ministry Leadership degree program.

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