Accessing Population Flows

06 Jan 2023

As the year gets started, I’ve been frequently returning to the idea of flows—the movement of people from one place to another. There are all sorts of reasons why flows of people will be enormous this year—from people fleeing wars, to wars ending and people returning home, to international tourism and vacations, to students returning to schools.

There’s many kinds of population flows:

  • recurring flows (like international students moving in and out of specific countries, or business people).
  • forced flows (wars, refugees, etc—flows between states, countries, continents)
  • Voluntary one-time flows (tourism, medical trips, and so forth)
  • Religious flows (pilgrimages, short-term mission trips)
  • Holidays and family visits
  • Relocation flows (moving from one place to another for an indeterminate amount of time for work or permanent living)

Access to a particular kind of flow is a key element in many strategies, because this can open up previously less-reached peoples to the Gospel. Many unreached groups are cut off from the gospel by barriers of geography (they are in remote places), language and culture (you have to learn to speak), politics (restricted border crossings), and spiritual barriers. To get out of such areas requires quite a bit of work on the part of people. So flows don’t just bring people into a place that’s more accessible to Christians—the fact that people are willing to take the journey, with all the effort and risk and resources required, indicates something about their openness to new things.

I have noticed, however, that from a ministry perspective there are two different kinds of flows—near and far—and a word about the two may be helpful. In many of the stories of diaspora ministry I’ve heard, the further the distance people have traveled, the more likely the person traveling is personally unlike the culture they are leaving behind in key ways.

Many who leave their home country and go to another continent must have significant reasons for doing so. Yes, a major motivation is flight from significant danger. But it’s also likely they are unlike some powerful force at home—this unlike-ness is what causes the risk of danger—and one of the ways people are unlike is that they are already evangelized, or even already Christ-followers. Many Afghanis, for example, who fled to Europe, were already Christians before arriving (that’s one of the motivators for leaving Afghanistan). So the further afield they go, the less likely they are to be ‘unreached.’ Again, I say this on the basis of the many conversations I’ve heard, not some sort of comprehensive survey. It’s not a universal rule—it’s just the weight of probability.

On the other hand, when people flee across an immediate border–for example, if they leave the rural area and go to a city, or if they flee from Country A just across the border into country B, this unlikeness doesn’t seem to be as true. Forced out of their immediate surroundings but choosing not to go far, their existence has a ‘temporary’ feeling to it—they want to remain close on the possibility of returning to what is ‘home.’ In a meeting last year, a worker told me about a situation of civil unrest where many people from an unreached people group largely abandoned their home area and moved into a refugee camp near a major city. While there was a lot of heartache and pain associated with that, it put them–for the first time–in a far more accessible area.

A different way to put it is this: even with ministry to refugees, the further a Christian has to move away from Christianity, the more likely they are to encounter truly ‘unreached’ groups of individuals. (Christians tend to clump near Christians, and non-Christians tend to clump near non-Christians, and so you have to move if you want to reach those with little to no access.)

But where to find such population flows and centers? It’s hard to say, because they are one of the most difficult things to put into databases or on lists–and the mission world loves lists. Things that are on lists tend to be more visible than things that are not, and fluctuating flows of diaspora peoples (here today, not here next year) are much less visible to those who are in the business of long-term strategic planning.

The approach I’ve seen most often associated with ‘successful’ ministries (those that at least engage a diaspora group) is to simply put yourself in a location that is frequently the target of diaspora flows (like a city with an international airport or a pre-existing international community) and then build outreach processes that are constantly “in the community,” reaching out to everyone who’s there. I wish I had a better solution to offer for the list issue. But perhaps this is one area where databases of places where people are likely to gather, rather than people groups themselves, is a better approach.

One other challenge faces those who would work with diasporas: the local church. Unfortunately for many Gospel workers, working to be a blessing to diaspora peoples can sometimes expose you to hostility from churches, Christian workers, and other believers, due to the current widespread climate of nationalism and hostility toward outsiders. Working with diaspora peoples requires cross-cultural communication and a great deal of endurance and willingness to put up with misunderstanding and persecution—some of it originating from within our own home churches. This is one reason diasporas and ministries to them are hard to find—they want to stay under the radar. While we bemoan the difficulty of putting people and ministries on lists, let’s have some compassion for those who can have some very good reasons for wanting to remain off them.