The nations are coming to us

The nations are coming to us. Some are coming to escape oppression at home, some for work, some to study, some to take advantage of opportunity, some to move their money. In this incredible wave of migration, individuals from some previously staunchly unreached peoples have moved right into the same neighborhood as Western churches.

Obviously, we need to reach out to them, and encourage others to reach out to them as well. But we need to hold some things firmly in view as we do. This week, I hope to explore some of these ‘issues, and look forward to your feedback.

1. Just because they come from an “unreached” country doesn’t mean they are non-Christians. In fact, the fact that they moved to a more-Christian region may mean better odds that they are less like their homeland. For example, there has been a mass exodus of Christians and more liberal, secularized people from the Middle East. The Iranian down the street from you may in fact be a Christian, not a Muslim.

2. Different segments of the Diaspora have different positions in society, and may only be here a limited time. Strategies ought to take this into account. Consider the different categories: visiting professionals, students, entrepreneurs, migrant workers, asylum-seekers, illegals, and the trafficked. Each of these are in significantly different situations which require different approaches. These different types may equally have different levels of influence or connectedness back to their home culture.

3. Multiple generations of a diaspora acclimate to be more like the culture around them, requiring different strategies. You’ve probably had the experience: you hear Indian parents talking, and they sound like Indians; but then their children start talking to you–and they have the same accent as your kids. The first generation (who immigrated in) will have one set of cultural ideals (perhaps a large family, or trouble specking your language, for example); but their children and their grand children change, adopting the local language and cultural norms. Reaching the older generations will likely require a completely different strategy than reaching the youngers.

4. Reaching the diaspora requires some training in cross-cultural ministry. You would not go to the foreign mission field without some level of training and preparation. Understanding worldview and culture is as important to reaching the diaspora as it is to reaching the least reached in their home countries.

5. Reaching the diaspora “here” does not automatically mean impacting their home culture.Think of the Persians of America and the Persians of Iran. Reaching Persians in America may lead to some connections to their families in Iran–or maybe not. It’s not an automatic given that the Gospel will flow over that distance. It may be more likely with students and other itinerant workers who return home. Another situation is the person who goes to a foreign country, builds a business, gets rich, and then has influence back home.

6. Reaching diaspora peoples in Christian countries can be good training–provided the community you are engaging is similar to the one you’ll be working with in their homeland. Reaching a 5th or 6th generation Korean American, for example, may be little different from reaching any other American, and tell you next to nothing about reaching Koreans in North Korea. (Do they even speak Korean?) Obviously, there are communities where life is lived mostly like the culture they left behind.

7. Reaching the diaspora does not solve the problem of the unreached. There are over 200 million first generation migrants in the world. There are over 2 billion unevangelized individuals who have no access to the Gospel. Even if all the diaspora were unevangelized (and they’re obviously not, see #1 above), they would only represent 10% of the challenge (and the easiest 10% at that). We obviously should reach the diaspora among us. And it would be very strategic to not only reach them and disciple them, but equip them to be disciple makers if and when they should return home. But we need to keep in mind that diaspora ministries are only one of the strategies in our ministry toolbox. 

Additional Resources 

What we look for in a missionary candidate

I agree with David: “Just because you’re a Christian doesn’t mean you’re a missionary.” I believe that we are all commanded to be disciples, witnesses, disciple-makers, and baptizers (regardless of whether we face the ultimate price or not; I disagree with a few others on this): this is the commission in Matthew 28.

And, yes, sometimes this means we “go into the world” (some have told me Matthew 28 is better translated “as you are going”).

Sometimes this is due to circumstances and sometimes it’s intentional.

But being a missionary – crossing cultural boundaries, learning new languages, enduring culture shock, etc. – isn’t the same, in my book, as being a witness.

Paul, for example, was a Hellenized Jew, and he mostly stayed within the Hellenized culture. He didn’t go to Britain, India, or China – he stayed primarily within the Roman world. I’m sure he encountered different languages and different cultures but it would have been similar, let’s say, to modern New York, England, or Dallas – different cultures within a common overarching culture.

Was he a missionary? What do you think? I think the answer is “Yes–sort of.” It would be similar, perhaps, to the situation that many churches in America find themselves in today, with lots of diaspora people around them.

Representing Jesus to one’s neighbors and co-workers isn’t being a missionary, but rather being a witness.

Being a missionary means intentionally seeking out and reaching out to people who don’t have Christians around them at all.

There are many pockets of such people within our Christian cities, true.

But there are even larger pockets in places that are largely non-Christian, for the obvious reason that there are no (or few) Christians there.

It takes a different set of skills, talents and giftings to be a missionary – more than simply being a witness.

At the most fundamental level we look for people who aren’t afraid to speak up for Jesus, and who have shown the desire to strike out and make disciples.

They are willing to take a risk: more than simply being willing to speak up if their Christianity is threatened, they are willing to speak out and risk making a fool of themselves.

But beyond that, there are additional skills:

  • being a self-starter.
  • Being accountable to others.
  • Living a life of purity in the midst of temptation.
  • Being able to endure when no fruit is immediately to be had.
  • Listening to the Holy Spirit.
  • Being obedient, even when it seems crazy.
  • Being able to raise the funds required (which shows skills of organization, communication, followup, etc).
  • An appreciation for other cultures.
  • A willingness to leave what is comfortable and go into the uncomfortable.
  • A willingness to learn another language and culture, not just work through translators.
  • Cross-cultural friendships.
  • Boldness.
  • Humility. And so on.

To use an analogy, there are people who go to work for large companies, and do a job, and do it well.

  • They take care of their family.
  • They are good to their neighbors.
  • They go to church.
  • They take part in outreaches.

All of that is good – we need that. But there is a different set of skills required to start a new business on your own, and to grow it to a substantial size. Beyond (like other mission agencies) has many people in the field. They are wonderful people who I greatly enjoy being around, and I learn from. They are not saints, but they are learners, and they are being obedient to the calling of Christ.

So if you feel like you are called to something far away – then we’d love to talk to you. But be aware that mission agencies don’t take anyone, because not everyone is a missionary.

Different kinds of mission structures

When I was younger, most missionaries went out through a traditional sending agency (parachurch or denominational). However, there were a small handful who “didn’t fit the traditional agency board” and went a different route. They were tentmakers or missionaries who had enough resources to form their own “501c3 charitable organizations.” They were few and far between.Today, their number is vastly increasing. With the plummeting costs of vision-sharing (email, websites, blogs, social media), connection (sms, Internet chat, social media, email groups, VOIP, phone, meetups), collaboration (message boards, agreed upon action, flashmobs, cheap donations, etc), it has become easier and easier to form “mission structures” of one kind or another to send people on mission.

  • Tentmakers go on their own or with a placement agency overseas, to work a job, and thus need little/no fundraising.
  • Business as Mission is being increasingly dominated by true entrepreneurs who need little agency or church backing–and who are often in places where they don’t want the ties to traditional sending structures.
  • Large churches are able to send their own workers, fully funded, to the field, without any intervening mission structure.
  • Smaller churches are banding together and using services like Kinnexxus to send workers, some of whose support is spread over multiple structures.
  • Traditional agencies and denominational sending boards are having to rethink their relationship with churches – to make sure the proper attitudes are maintained! – and to build partnerships with lots of other folks on the ground in order to get a sizable enough team to do something.

I don’t think any of these sending structures are inherently bad. I’ve written quite a lot about swarms and decentralized structures, partly from a desire to help these new forms become more effective.

However, I do think these structures face one significant challenge, which larger and historical agencies do not possess: they are new and cheap. These two factors–a lack of history (legacy, longevity, desire to sustain) and a lack of cost (=cheapness, easy-in/easy-out)–can lead to a “testing of the waters” or a short-term mentality.

It can lead to evaluations based on cost-effectiveness, profitability, return on investment, or even a “project of the month” idea. Many mission efforts require a very long time in order to see a sustainable, indigenous, reproduce church planting effort start. Yes, you can go in, “plant seed” with widespread evangelism (some of which can be risky or even downright dangerous), and you can even make some converts. But doing the hard work of language learning, cultural adaptation, inculturation, finding people-of-peace, translation, cross-cultural discipling of disciples who make disciples–all of this takes time.

A recent study quoted to me showed many agencies are seeing significant turnover at the 4-to-8 year mark–which is unfortunate, because as Stan P., VP of Global Ministries for MUP noted, it’s at the 8-year-mark that most missionaries start to be really effective. Sustaining workers in the field until they become really qualified and effective is a very big challenge.

Unfortunately it seems to me that most of the nontraditional sending structures do not think in terms of placing people on the field and doing the hard work of keeping them there for up to 10 years. I think this longevity is something strategic which we need to encourage. I am reminded of the line in the old movie, “Hello, Dolly”: “A man is not worth a cent until he’s forty.  We just pay him wages until then, to make mistakes.” There’s some wisdom in that. 

Edit: as one reader noted, this does not address “boutique missions” or “mom-and-pops” – the very small 501(c)(3)s set up largely to cover one person’s individual ministry. They face another challenge, which I’ll address in a later post. See Also