Immigration is one of the most divisive political issues of this presidential election cycle and has raised the collective blood pressure of our nation. As a nation of immigrants and, more importantly, as churches, it is imperative that we understand the past, present and future of immigration in America and the opportunities and challenges it poses to the Christian community. For churches, immigration should be a missions issue rather than purely a political one.
CNN ran a story on Sept. 28, 2015, covering a report compiled by Pew Charitable Trust titled, “Modern Immigration Wave Brings 59 Million to U.S., Driving Population Growth and Change Through 2065.” As reported by CNN, the Pew Research study showed that one in five global immigrants is in the U.S.—“the largest immigrant population in the world.”
Since passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965, Hispanics have constituted the largest group coming to the U.S., and Asians have been the second largest. The report shows, however, a surge in Asian immigration such that by 2065 Asians will comprise 38 percent of immigrants, exceeding Hispanic immigrants by 7 percent.
Perhaps the most eye-opening of all is that, as CNN reports, “By 2065, Pew projects more than 78 million people living in America will have been born elsewhere.” Regardless of how many walls we build around our country, the multifaceted need and reality of immigration are here to stay, and it is changing the ethnic landscape of America, redefining the nature of Christian missions for churches.
Global migration has arrived in the smallest neighborhoods, towns and villages of the world, including those in America where change comes slowly, and xenophobia is an ever-present reality. Demographic change brings cultural anxiety to the existing order. Embodying the current struggles with immigration and cultural change in America is the 2008 movie “Gran Torino.” In it, Clint Eastwood plays a widower and Korean War veteran, Walt Kowalski, who struggles to come to grips with his changing neighborhood and nation as Hmong families from Southeast Asia settle in his formerly white neighborhood of Highland Park, Mich. The cynical and cantankerous Walt is forced to take a closer look at another culture and begins to appreciate the family values he sees in the Hmong community, contrasted with his strained relations with his children. Eventually, Walt rediscovers his humanity by looking after and loving, in his own way, his next door neighbors’ two Hmong teenagers—both under constant threat from an ever-present Hmong gang. SPOILER ALERT: In the end, Walt overcomes his cultural disorientation, learns to love his neighbors, and ultimately gives his life to save theirs.
The neighborhood of your city, state and nation has changed due to forces beyond your control. Globalization has made the world a smaller place, more interconnected and ethnically diverse. It has led to the mass migration of people, often changing the ethnic makeup of the most traditionally “American” places in the country. The realities of this emerging world order are here to stay. Pandora’s box is open with no way to close it. As Christians and churches, how do we view these culturally disorienting changes as the world continues to come to our doorstep?
Paul offers answers in his sermon on Mars Hill in Acts 17:24-29:
The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’ (emphasis mine)
God is sovereign in the creation and placement of all human beings on the earth. He also determines when and where nations or people groups exist. Globalization and the migration of peoples are the outworking of God’s redemptive plan. He creates the conditions that lead to the relative free flow of people from one country to another in order that these displaced people would seek God.
Diaspora people and especially their children are most open in their displacement. Syrian refugees in Europe continue to convert, seemingly en mass, to Christ in their displacement. Persian people from Iran also continue to be highly responsive to the Gospel of Jesus Christ both inside and outside their home country. In America, the Gospel finds its greatest reception among immigrants and their children. Rather than responding in fear, the church has an opportunity to respond in faith, embracing people of other countries who come to our own with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Missions is no longer “over there” but in our neighborhoods. God commits the task of missions to the local church. In our own “Jerusalem,” we find residents from Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. In order to reach the nations of the world with the Gospel of Christ, churches and their leaders must become students of demographic changes and the various cultures of the world that are now in our communities in order to be faithful to the Great Commission.
What can we do as God’s people? See your heavenly citizenship as primary over your earthly citizenship (Philippians 3:20). Increase your cultural intelligence quotient (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). Show hospitality to strangers (Hebrews 13:2). Take care of the alien in your midst (Deuteronomy 10:18-19). Love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39). Churches must also be intentional in reaching immigrants through evangelism and church planting. Future growth in the Southern Baptist Convention and the broader evangelical community is directly tied to our willingness to reach the peoples of the world in our Jerusalem.
Though each country is responsible for wise stewardship in government, including the establishment and enforcement of immigration laws that promote peace and prosperity, as Christians, we know that God does as He pleases in all the earth, including the country we call home. God has chosen to allow our demographics to change. Why? Paul says that God determines the time and place of people groups so “that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him….”
God’s plan in migration and immigration is redemptive. God has brought the nations of the world to our doorstep so that His churches might share the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ with immigrants by life and proclamation. With all of our navel-gazing as American Christians and churches, concerned primarily for our own welfare, will we miss the opportunities for the advance of God’s Kingdom that the Sovereign Lord has given to His people? If not us, then God will raise up deliverance from another quarter.
The Triune God who worked in concert to save us through the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit is worthy of our efforts to do the uncomfortable thing of crossing cultural boundaries in our towns and cities with the Good News of Jesus in order to show the love of Christ in the most practical of ways to those whom He has purposed to save. Where others see risk, let us see and seize the opportunities to make disciples of all nations, starting with those in our midst.