‘The nations are coming to us’ has been an eye-catching headline for some time now. The strategic implications of ‘ministry in our back yard’ are important for candidates to consider:
They are easier logistically to reach. We don’t need huge budgets or life in difficult places; we can just find sound missiological ways to be a blessing to the immigrants among us. (Easier logistically doesn’t necessarily translate to easier missiologically, although it can be a tempting mistake to make.)
Converts here might spread the Gospel to their families back home. Many keep in touch with those they left behind, and new believers here are often eager to share their faith with their families. This has led to households coming to Christ.
Converts here could become a valuable part of a church’s mission staff. They can use their knowledge of language and culture to inform the development of programs. They might even go with short-term teams as a kind of expert guide who can open doors for a church in their homeland.
Converts here might want to return to their homeland desiring as a missionary to their own people. Their bold witness could spread the Gospel far and wide—they already know the language and culture, and would be far more effective communicators.
Each of these points has obvious strategic value and should not be overlooked. Still, ‘converts here’ are not a simple solution to the challenging complexities of the Great Commission. We need ‘the whole church’ to bring the whole Gospel to the ‘whole world.’ Here are some challenges with ‘converts here’ that keep us from focusing on this strategy as our sole option:
1. Just because people are moving out of their home country doesn’t mean they are moving into strongly evangelical or even majority-Christian areas. To physically reach them may require a church to get out of their ‘backyard’ and go to a nearby suburb dominated by a different ethnic group (and this might be more akin to going to Samaria, with all of the cultural implications, than to Judea). As an example, while some Syrians have come to the United States, the vast majority of Syrian refugees and diaspora are in Lebanon and Jordan.
2. Just because people are moving into our country doesn’t mean they are moving into the average church’s backyard. Many are headed to specific, largely urban places. The idea that ‘nations are in our backyard’ holds true for many urban churches, but it is not necessarily the common rule. You may find them in a nearby state. Diasporas tend to "clump."
3. Many coming to the West are already believers or heavily evangelized. The largest diaspora groups (Chinese, Indians, Filipinos, Syrians) have substantial churches ‘back home.’ Many (Turks, Iranians, Iraqis) are Christians fleeing warfare and persecution. They may have little influence ‘back home’ and little desire or ability to return.
4. While some ethnic groups are coming to us, many are not. Many poor minority groups are not able to leave their current homes; some do not wish to. Consider the Acehnese: virtually all are found in on the northern tip of Sumatra, Indonesia. Some tens of thousands have migrated to Malaysia. Very rarely would one likely find an Acehnese anywhere around the average Western church (although of course there will be outliers).
5. Of the groups that are coming: while many individuals from them are immigrating, many more remain in their homeland. Another example: while there are large numbers of Turks in the West, there are far more in their homeland. Reaching the Turks in Germany, Canada or the United States does not automatically (or even probably) translate into reaching Turkey.
6. It is not a foregone conclusion a ‘convert here’ will lead to ‘converts there.’ There is potential for contact between the diaspora and their families at home. Some in the diaspora send money home and maintain contact using cell phones or VOIP technology. Some who work abroad return for regular visits. Still, in many cases, the fact they are abroad can indicate a separation between them and their family which will prevent the Gospel flowing back home. Many Turks and Persians are somewhat more liberal-minded than their families, and have gone abroad as much to escape the religious climate as to find work; their influence back home may very well be muted.
7. Finally, one significant danger: this question taps the deeper idea of doing what I can do instead of considering what needs to be done. ‘What am I called to do?’ or ‘What is my share in the Great Commission’ can quickly become the temptation of: ‘what is the least I can do to assuage my conscience?’ Let us not fall for the easy route to ‘checking the mission box off our life list.’
So, what should we do? There are clearly very large diaspora communities. There are more Chinese in diaspora than there are French living in France, and 22 million ethnic Indians are ‘scattered across every continent.’ Filipinos, Arabs, Iranians, Turks, Somalis, Ethiopians, and others can obviously be found everywhere, and this grand migration should be blessed with the Gospel. Here are some thoughts about a both/and approach:
1. Bless ethnic groups everywhere—near and far—in whatever ways are most appropriate and most impactful. Don’t forget the nations we don’t easily see, while not ignoring the nations in our back yard: a gift of hospitality while they are here may do much to counter false ideas about Christians and Christianity.
2. Engaging with ethnic groups here can be excellent training for crossing cultural lines elsewhere. Consider how this work might be used to identify potential candidates, partners, and opportunities to gain experience.
3. Raise up believers within the diaspora to minister to others in the diaspora. Those culturally closest to a group will be best able to communicate the Gospel within that group. I think we should certainly encourage the development of home groups and churches that give preference to the languages and cultural forms used by those within the diaspora.
4. Don’t shirk from sending workers to labor among people in remote places, remembering that while we may see Chinese, Indians and Indonesians, it is less likely that we will see Acehnese, Uighurs, and Zhuang. We are about every people group and individual having a chance to hear the Gospel.