“If your business learned that [a high percentage] of your community couldn’t access your product, what would you do?”
— from the website of an intentionally multicultural, multilingual PCA church plant.
While we might bristle at the comparison of the church to a business and the gospel to a product, the question itself is well worth considering, especially since the actions needed to draw more to Christ and welcome more into fellowship are in clear obedience to the Word and require no compromise of the integrity of the gospel. Beneficial changes might require only a realignment of our personal preferences with those of our God.
Since 2018, fewer than half of children and youth under 15 in the U.S. have been non-Hispanic white. In many public schools, close to 50% of pupils are members of immigrant families. With each release of additional data from Census 2020, it becomes increasingly apparent that our communities are becoming more diverse than ever.
At least 1 in 4 persons in the U.S. is either themselves foreign-born or is the minor U.S. citizen child of a foreign-born resident. If we have missed these increases, the 2021 airlift into the U.S. of 50,000 Afghan allies within a few short months demands our attention. The future relevance of our churches and the efficacy of our witness to the truth of the gospel are inextricably linked to how we respond to these indisputable demographic trends.
When God revealed to John the culmination of all human history, John saw persons “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb … crying out with a loud voice ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb’” (Revelation 7:9,10). While this vision has inspired many to foreign missions, what does it say to us today as we discover those from the nations whom the Lord has brought near?
Many coming to the U.S. are already believers, and — if we have the humility and grace to welcome them — their fresh perspectives and varied gifts can bring crucial insights and renewed vitality to our churches. Some may have experienced severe persecution, and we can learn much from their faith, refined through suffering.
What of those who don’t yet know Christ? Whether their purpose for coming to the U.S. is seeking safety from persecution, joining family members, or pursuing opportunities, the Lord declares His sovereign purpose “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:27).
This doesn’t happen in a vacuum; He is bringing those who never had the opportunity to know Him into proximity with us who do, so that His kingdom might be advanced through authentic, redemptive relationships. Will we respond in full accord with His purposes?
But where to start? Here are some recommended steps:
Commit to pray regularly with a few other persons who sense God’s call to engage with refugees or immigrants, to discern what He is calling your church to do in the light of His clearly stated commands to love the stranger. Allow silences to hear the Holy Spirit’s leading. Pray for core group growth. At the close of each session, elicit at least one action all can take before the next.
Awareness of God’s Heart Toward the Stranger
Search Scripture for the words “stranger, “alien,” and “sojourner,” and note God’s attitude and commands concerning interaction with them. Invite your congregation to do this with you.
The “I Was a Stranger” bookmark with 40 Days of Scripture & Prayer is a useful tool for congregations. Also on that page, find graphics for social media to help your church see the stranger as God does.
Among the 92 Old Testament passages in which God, reminding His people of His ultimate authority, exhorts His people to love foreigners: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty and the awesome God who is unbiased. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19).
Lest we feel exempted as Gentiles, Paul reminds us in Ephesians 2 that we were once outsiders to the covenantal promises. Only Christ’s sacrifice enables us to become “no longer strangers and aliens but … fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”
Most compelling of all, in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus equates our attitude and actions toward “the stranger” to our true attitude and love for Him, spelling out eternal consequences. He makes abundantly clear that one essential indication that our salvation is genuine must be welcoming strangers, as we would welcome Him.
Despite the frequency in Scripture of the Lord’s command to treat the stranger with dignity, respect, and love, fewer than 25% of churchgoers in a 2010 Pew Research study reported ever hearing a sermon on this topic. Ask your pastor to preach on it.
Pastors, have you ever met with an immigrant pastor solely to learn their story of immigration and faith, and their current burdens and joys?
The engaging, practical, six-session inductive Bible study, titled “Welcoming the Nations Among Us: Engaging with Your Cross-Cultural Neighbors for the Sake of the Gospel,” can be useful in moving a congregation or small group from fear toward the welcome God commands.
We sing “Christ for the world we sing, the world to Christ we bring.” Now the Lord has brought many from the nations here to allow us to do just that! While He still calls missionaries abroad, He has brought close to us immigrants who may be more open to the gospel than their countrymen who remain in homelands. If they become believers through our genuine friendships, they may become highly effective communicators of the gospel among fellow immigrants and — via social media and visits — back to homelands, accelerating the success of missions there.
Gather information about the presence of newcomers in your community. Numbers rarely include the (U.S. citizen) children born here to immigrant parents, so percentages of those living in immigrant families are often twice as high as shown.
• city-data.com/ A snapshot of the demographics of most cities
• The website of your local school district may be viewable in more than one language, indicating the ethnicity or national origin of many of the families in your community. Info about the school system’s ESL/ESOL program may suggest the scope of newest arrivals.
• Directories of religious institutions in your community might include mosques and Hindu temples. Note the locations, quite likely immigrant neighborhoods.
• Find a listing of churches where worship is predominantly in another language. Opportunities for partnership for the kingdom! (Might they welcome an ESL program at their site for their monolingual members, offered by your volunteers alongside their bilingual members?)
Getting Acquainted and Listening for Needs
As you pray, the Holy Spirit will open your eyes to immigrants around you who may have been invisible: the grocery checkout person, a waiter at your favorite restaurant, the gas station attendant, your parent’s caregiver. Turn casual interactions into opportunities to learn a little about them, building upon what you learn with each new encounter. Have a photo of your family on your key chain? Show it to them and ask if they have children. Notice a textbook nearby? Ask what they are studying and encourage them.
Back at the car, jot down a name and what you have learned. Next visit, review your notes and then carry the conversation a bit further (“He’s not feeling well today? I will pray for him.” Or “midterm exams? I’ll pray that you remember all you’ve studied!”). They will soon notice that you care about them as persons and that you are a person of faith.
Ask the Lord to show you one immigrant (same gender best) you can meet for coffee or lunch. Invite them to share the story of their coming to the U.S. Humbly listen to their joys and challenges. Thank them and consider inviting them to your home for a meal. Accept their invitation if they offer you hospitality! Marvel at how that one contact opens a window on the broader immigrant community.
Pastors, have you ever met with an immigrant pastor solely to learn their story of immigration and faith, and their current burdens and joys? If an immigrant congregation shares your facility or is nearby, have you considered praying together over coffee regularly? Bringing the young people of both congregations together for quarterly activities? Working together on a mercy project? Joining to clear unused land for a community garden or playground? Believers working together toward a common goal can transcend superficial differences, deepen understanding and spiritual growth, and display the winsome unity that Jesus implored the Father that His church would exhibit — “so that the world might believe you sent me and loved them even as you love me” (John 17:23).
Do you already have an English as a Second Language program in your church? Is involvement with the students limited to a small group of dedicated volunteers? Have you asked how other members of the church could support their ministry? Would child care or transportation allow more to participate? Might each teacher welcome a prayer partner to pray for their students? Could the congregation plan periodic events designed to get to know one another — picnics, potlucks, hikes? What have ESL volunteers observed among students that may indicate a broader community need? What can church leadership learn from the ESL team (your in-house experts!) about welcoming?
As your prayer and study groups share experiences and insights, you may identify commonalities of felt needs in the immigrant community.
Assess the Resources of Your Congregation
Though there may be commonalities, no two churches’ outreach will look alike, because the Lord has given each different capacities and uniquely gifted members.
Has your church done an inventory of members that goes beyond recruiting for the nursery, Sunday School, tech team, or choir, instead exploring the unique human resources your church might mobilize to impact the broader community? Many such inventories are available, or you can create your own Google Doc questionnaire feeding responses into a spreadsheet.
Tim Keller’s DiscoverU document (on SCRIBD) inspires creative survey categories. Include a few open-ended questions: “Do you have a connection to another culture? If so, which?” You may discover one member grew up as a “missionary kid” in Uganda, another took a six-week course in Arabic in preparation for a business venture, or their parents sponsored a Vietnamese refugee family in the 1980s. “What need currently captures your attention?” may reveal several who are eager to welcome Afghan refugees — the most compelling opportunity in our lifetime to reach and serve persons from an Unreached People Group close to home.
Don’t miss the obvious! If you have ESL classes or an ethnic congregation in your building, the Lord has provided a foundation to build upon!
Where Do the Skills and Resources of Your Congregation Overlap With the Needs of Immigrant Communities?
One tool for discerning a starting point for outreach to refugees and immigrants in your community is this Venn diagram:
The first overlapping circle represents the felt needs of local immigrants, learned from key members of those communities and others already serving them (school system, health department, ethnic organizations). Divide the circle into slices, each slice representing a need prioritized by those you want to serve — after-school tutoring program for children, citizenship classes for adults, mentors for professionals trying to re-certify, safe activities for teens, etc.
In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus equates our attitude and actions toward “the stranger” to our true attitude and love for Him.
Your church cannot begin to meet all these needs, so look for overlaps with the second circle — passions, talents, skills, and spiritual gifts of your members. Each slice of that circle represents a cluster of those elements from your inventory results — e.g., you may have several whose passion is soccer, a good overlap with the need for activities for teens.
The third circle — the resources available — provides further clarity. (Have space for a soccer field? If not, can you partner with another church that does, with you supplying the coaches and equipment?)
As you pray and mentally “spin” each circle, you will see overlaps that will help you focus on possible starting points for your outreach to refugees or other immigrants.
If clarity has not yet emerged, here are a few on-ramps for moving forward:
Serving the children of immigrant families is a perpetual need and tremendous opportunity. Contact the nearest public school to ask about its need for help for immigrant kids (tutoring, mentoring, creative arts program geared to trauma healing, etc.) Sure, gather those backpacks and school supplies, but look for opportunities that will allow you to develop caring relationships with the children. Consider holding VBS or Kids Club in a community center or park accessible to families who lack transportation. Newcomer children and youth seek role models, hope for the future, and principles to organize their disrupted lives in this new place. And loving them will open the hearts of their parents.
The potential of ESL ministry in virtually every community cannot be overestimated. Investigate gaps in what is currently available. Mission to North America (MNA) ESL Ministry can equip any believer who speaks English, loves Jesus, and cares about immigrants to teach in a church ESL program. Already have a program but need a refresher? Have new volunteers? Check out upcoming training opportunities.
Does another church nearby have an immigrant initiative that needs volunteers or resources? There is no limit to what God can accomplish through us if we are willing to surrender sole ownership!
Returning to the Revelation God gave John of His goal for all of human history —people of every tongue, tribe, and nation worshipping shoulder to shoulder before the throne of the Lamb — perhaps we need to ask ourselves: Will we experience great joy at seeing near us some from the nations who will be there because we allowed God to use us to love them into the kingdom? And will we experience the fullness of joy the Lord intends for us in that “forever” environment, feeling “at home” because we have chosen here and now to welcome and embrace the diverse people He created and loves, who bear His image? May it be so!
Pat Hatch is the director of Mission to North America’s Refugee and Immigrant Ministry.