Desk globes simplify geography. A light spin brings distant nations into plain view. Remote lands lie at arm’s length, even for the youngest schoolchild. Boundaries are clearly marked for reference, along with major cities and natural features. Clarity and ease are what make the educational spheres commonplace in American classrooms.
It’s one thing to put a finger on national borders, but what about people groups? Can the catalog of worldwide populations – rather than lands – be charted so neatly?
The answer is no, according to a number of missions experts.
In fact, due to global migration patterns, a shaken snow globe would better resemble international people groups than a desk globe, but that doesn’t mean they’re out of reach.
Individuals, families and large clusters of people are scattering all across the world, and much like the floating white particles, they eventually settle. The United States happens to be one of the most popular locations for scattered peoples to land.
What is diaspora missions?
“More than 42 million foreign born residents now live in the U.S.,” said Keelan Cook, Urban Resource Coordinator for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. “Some of the fastest growing international populations in America are in our southern cities, right in the areas where so many local churches are within arm’s reach.”
Because of these population shifts, Cook said churches with nearby migrants have an evangelistic task before them. It is commonly called diaspora missions.
“Diaspora means ‘to scatter,’” said Cook, “a fancy word that refers to people who have moved away from their place of origin to another place in the world. … It’s easiest to think of diaspora peoples as migrants.”
Migrants come in four groups, he said, depending on their life situation: (1) Immigrants come through customary immigration programs; (2) international students move for educational pursuits; (3) refugees are people forced out of their homeland due to hardship, such as famine or religious persecution; and (4) undocumented migrants either overstay their visa or smuggle themselves into a country.
Cook emphasized that most migrants come to the U.S. legally, and it is unfair to assume a foreign born individual is undocumented.
Ministry to foreigners has been a typical practice throughout Christian history, according to Cook, but academic discussion about diaspora missions is a relatively new discipline.
“There are plenty of examples of diaspora missions right in the Bible,” he continued. “Israel was told to take care of the foreigners in their midst. Phillip shared the gospel with the Ethiopian eunuch, who was traveling through a foreign land. … much of Paul’s strategy was working with the Jewish diaspora spread across the Roman Empire.
“Yet, in the last generation, the world has seen a spike in global migration that is unprecedented. There are more people moving more places around the world than ever before.”
As a result, new demographic trends are stretching traditional missions categories.
Blurred lines, clear vision
“The line of separation is now blurred between North American and international missions,” said J.D. Payne, pastor for church multiplication for The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala. “Migration provides a kingdom opportunity to make disciples of some of the world’s unreached people groups.”
Sammy Joo, multiculturalist consultant for collegiate ministry at the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, said, “Colleges in the U.S. are becoming more ethnically diverse due to incoming international students and [American] students returning from overseas experience.”
He said the diversity of cultures on university campuses creates the “natural flavor” of international ministry.
“International people are like a 21st century Moses,” he said. “As God met Moses in the wilderness and sent him back to Egypt to bring his people to the Promised Land, God can meet international people in the U.S. and send them back to their people to lead them to Christ.”
Local church ministry in the U.S. is changing too, according to Alan Cross, executive director of Community Development Initiatives in Montgomery, Ala.
He said it is vitally important for local churches to engage international people in their cities and neighborhoods.
“How we treat them is directly related to how well we understand our own salvation and the God who saves,” said Cross. “If we do not see the immigrant as either currently or potentially a brother in Christ, then we are missing a major theme of scripture.”
Jenny Yang, vice president for advocacy and policy for World Relief, echoed Cross’s sincerity.
“Matthew 28:19 instructs us to ‘go and make disciples of all nations,’” she said. “If we take the Great Commission seriously then engaging international people is a non-negotiable. It’s critical that local churches see migration not as a threat but as an opportunity to share the gospel with people from all nations.”
Cross said, “… those who do not see it simply do not see what is already happening in their communities. America has 41 million first generation immigrants right now. Approximately 80 million first and second generation immigrants. That is 25 percent of our nation’s population.”
Yang added, “Some of the fastest growing churches in the United States are immigrant churches, and I believe the church has a critical opportunity to reach the nations without ever having to leave their own backyards.”
Reaching the scattered nations
Because of globalized demographic patterns in the U.S. and the biblical importance of diaspora missions, Cook, Yang, Cross, Payne, Joo and others are speaking at an upcoming event to equip Christians with “practical tools for engaging immigrants, refugees and international students.”
The conference is called Reaching the Nations, and it’s scheduled for Aug. 26-27 in Brentwood, Tenn.
Each of the speakers encouraged all Christians to consider attending.
“I hope attendees will be seized by what I believe to be a historic opportunity for the church and actively engage their local church in ministry for refugees and immigrants in their neighborhoods,” said Yang.
The scattered peoples of the world may be difficult to represent in simplified form – no desk globe for ethnicities anytime soon – but that does not make them inaccessible.
“We are standing at a critical moment in history,” Payne said. “The unreached peoples of the world are here, there and everywhere. Followers of Jesus are here, there and everywhere too. It is important for us to think about how to reach, equip, partner and send (in new ways) that all people will rejoice and shout for joy (Psalm 67:3-5).”
Cook concluded, “As Americans, we especially need to see the importance of this. … Instead of this being a point of fear for Christians, we need to tell a different story. We need to see that God is at work, and that he has given your local church and my local church unprecedented access to our mission field.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Emily Blake, BR editorial aide, contributed to this story.)