Skip to main content

Issues Facing Missions Today: 39.2 ‘The World is Coming to Us’

Issues Facing Missions Today: 39.2 ‘The World is Coming to Us’

The second point for discussion in our imaginary ‘Mission 101’ course (module) is:[1]

Point 2: ‘We really no longer need to go anywhere for mission work: through immigration, the world is coming to ‘us.’’

In the previous post, which challenged the suggestion that there are no mission fields today, the issue of immigration was already raised (and reading on this from Andrew Walls and Timothy Tennent placed on our indicative bibliography for the course).  Two very important points in missions are acknowledged: there is in our day an amazing movement of people to the West, and the West increasingly offers new mission fields for missionaries coming from what used to be mission fields in their own right.  Immigration to the West is an important part of present-day missions (as it was in, say, Augustine’s day!).  Yet there are also problems with the statement as it appears in Point 2 and in many off-handed conversations.

One positive aspect of immigration to the West is that immigrants have often strengthened the Church.  Some would say, e.g., that the most spiritually alive or growing (or both) churches in England are often black churches (whether immigrant churches or ethnic minority churches).  Growth in the Assemblies of God in the northern state of Wisconsin in the U.S. comes not so much from natural multiplication but from Hispanic immigration.  Thus, not all immigration to the West is about non-Christian immigrants.  Nor can we say that the West is Christian, even if Christianity has played a significant role in reshaping the culture of Caucasian tribes and Western nations.

A major error in Point 2 is the idea that, because of immigration, we do not need to go anywhere else for missionary work.  The previous post emphasized the continued importance of geographical strategies in missions.  Another matter is that ‘missions’ is not only a matter of geography.  As the Church Universal’s mission, there are multiple reasons for believers to engage in ministry around the world.  This is not to equate all ministry with mission, but it is to acknowledge that evangelism, Bible translation, church planting, and theological education are not easily discussed with geographical restrictions.  The same might be said for an understanding of mission that involves helping ministries and development work: if this is our understanding of missionary work, then the place for mission is where the need arises.

Another mistake in Point 2 entails getting caught up in the Western media’s presentation of the news.  Immigration to the West has been one of the major news stories of the year (2015).  However, immigration is occurring elsewhere.  For example, immigration to South Africa rarely gets a mention.  Wholly reliable statistics seem impossible to obtain regarding the population of South Africa.  One report in 2000 stated that South Africa is a country of 40 million (however, the census in 2011 had the registered population at 51.7 million) and ‘has between 500,000 and four million unauthorized foreign residents.’[2]  This is not the place to try to sort out conflicting and changing data.  The point is that even working with such statistics, South Africa may have close to 10% of its population composed of illegal immigrants—and another 3% of legal immigrants might be included.[3]  For this and other significant reasons (e.g., the breakdown of law and order, corruption, unemployment, the emigration of highly educated, white citizens, and AIDS), South Africa needs missionaries and other foreign involvement precisely because it has so many immigrants.

According to the Pew Research Center, illegal immigrants in the US in 2014 numbered 11.3 million, or 3.5% of the population.[4] The report further states that half of the illegal immigrants come from Mexico, a predominantly Roman Catholic country (even if many of these are only nominal Christians), and 60% of unauthorized immigrants settled in just six states (California, Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey and Illinois).  Immigrants in 2015 to Europe, on the other hand, are predominantly non-Christian—as is Europe itself.  The International Organization for Immigration estimates that, from January through September, 2015, some 464,000 immigrants have entered Europe.[5]  With a population of just over 743,000,000, this amounts to less than 1% of the population in Europe.  Thus I offer some reflection on this data in order to emphasize the fact that, the more one digs into the statistics, the more one realizes that they point to specific issues facing specific regions and are not, therefore, statistics to guide mission strategy in general:
*Immigration from other African nations to South Africa may have no effect on the percentage of Christians in the country but nevertheless increases the need for missionary activity in the country;
*Immigration from Hispanic countries to the United States may increase the number of persons identifying themselves as ‘Christian’ (many, no doubt, being nominal Christians) and, in some cases, are revitalizing denominations;
*Immigration to the UK is both revitalizing the Church and increasing the numbers of non-Christians;
*The present immigration ‘crisis’ in Europe may be bringing non-Christians to a region of the world that was once shaped by many Christian convictions and values but that has moved very far from those Christian roots.

Several comments arise from this cursory discussion.  First, the West is not the only part of the world dealing with vast numbers of immigrants.  Second, illegal immigration is not from every country but from particular countries—and in the case of the US and South Africa, many of these immigrants are from more ‘Christianized’ countries.  Third, that a part of a population immigrates does not mean that everyone or even a majority of persons are immigrating: there is still a need to reach the countries from which these immigrants came with the Gospel.  Fourth, the West is not Christian.  Of course, no country can be called Christian, but many countries that were profoundly influenced by Christianity in Europe and the Americas are not very Christian any more, in any sense of the term.  Fifth, a related matter to the story of immigration to Europe from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia is the remarkable fact that no European country has birth rates high enough (at 2.1 births per woman) to maintain its population at the present numbers.[6]  In the words of George Weigel (Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Roman Catholic ‘Ethics and Public Policy Center’), ‘something has gone dry in the soul’ in Europe that is illustrated by statistics such as this related to the family.[7]  Sixth, if one goal of missions is ‘For every people, an indigenous church’ (so the mission of Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship), then merely ministering with immigrants to the West (or South Africa or Australia) is hardly a sufficient strategy for missions.  Nor is a broader understanding of missions that includes social transformation served if the focus shifts in mission activity in the West to engaging immigrants to the exclusion of sending missionaries abroad.

More needs to be said on this issue in terms of the types of ministry that constitute mission activity.  There are still ‘unreached’ areas of the world that need to hear the Gospel.[8]  There are still many languages that lack Holy Scripture—and many languages that could use a new translation.[9]  There are certainly countries where ‘churches’ exist but where they are not ‘healthy’ Christian communities.[10]  Moreover, the Great Commission mission of teaching (teaching disciples and educating persons for ministry) is a task that needs to be carried out in local and regional contexts, not by bringing students from overseas to Western theological colleges.[11]

The movement of peoples in our day is an amazing, front line story.  We regularly hear how the story of immigration is unfolding in Europe and the USA, but the story is also unfolding outside the West.  Immigration trends do call for serious strategizing in Christian missions.  Immigration also allows some countries not typically sending missionaries overseas for economic (or other) reasons to engage in ministry to immigrants in various ways—from handing out a bottle of water to sharing the Gospel verbally (leaving aside what we mean by ‘mission’ for now).  The small Evangelical body of believers in Croatia, e.g., trained in relief aid through the Balkan war in the 1990s, has in the past month been able to mobilize themselves to minister to immigrants streaming through their country to European countries further north and west.  However, none of this provides an argument to diminish the sending of missionaries to foreign countries.  The task remains one of going into all the world, whether we understand our mission to be the Great Commission of making Christian disciples and teaching them the Christian faith or the Great Commandment of loving our neighbours’ as ourselves.




[1] See ‘Issues Facing Missions Today: 36. Missions 101.’
[2] ‘South Africa Amnesties,’ Migration News Vol. 7.1 (Jan. 2000).  Accessed 8 October, 2015: https://migration.ucdavis.edu/mn/more.php?id=2015.
[3] ‘Rainbow Immigration,’ South Africa Info (8 October, 2015).  Accessed 8 October, 2015: http://www.southafrica.info/travel/documents/immigration-trends.htm#.Vhb-HvlViko.
[4] ‘5 Facts about Illegal Immigration in the U.S.,’ Pew Research Center (July 24, 2015).  Online: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/24/5-facts-about-illegal-immigration-in-the-u-s/.  About half the illegal immigrants are from Mexico.
[5] Jeanne Park, “Europe’s Migration Crisis,” Council on Foreign Relations (Sept. 23, 2015), accessed 25 October, 2015: http://www.cfr.org/migration/europes-migration-crisis/p32874.
[6] See George Weigel, ‘Eurocentricity, Demographic Winter, and the Synod’ in ‘Letter Number Ten, Letters From the Synod: Reports and Commentary. From Rome and Elsewhere, on the XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops,’ First Things (Oct. 9, 2015).  Online at: http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2015/10/letter-number-ten. Not mentioned by Weigel is Russia, which also has a negative population growth.  The US’s population growth rate is 0.7%.  Kuwait’s is the highest at 4.3%.  See the World Bank’s statistics online (accessed October 9, 2015): http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.GROW.  Compare UNICEF’s country statistics: http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/.
[7] Ibid.
[8] One attempt to identify people groups without sufficient resources to evangelize their own people, the Joshua Project, places the number at over 6,600.  Accessed 15 October, 2015: http://joshuaproject.net/. Note the demographic work of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity: http://www.worldchristiandatabase.org/wcd/ and the Pew Research Center for religion and public life (with special attention to its ‘Religion’ section): http://www.pewresearch.org/.  
[9] See the statistics of Wycliffe Global Alliance, e.g. at: http://resources.wycliffe.net/statistics/WycliffeGA_stats_2015_FAQs_EN.pdf.  Also see United Bible Society, http://www.unitedbiblesocieties.org/translation/.
[10] By way of example, I might reference one of my own works (with the help of others) that attempted to ‘map’ the convictions, practices, concerns, and so forth of baptist communities in Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia.  The work did not focus on evaluating the health of churches; the focus was on describing the churches through surveys conducted in the early part of this century.  I would hope, though, that this sort of research could help in discussions of 'church health' as much as strengths, needs, and so forth.  See Rollin Grams and Parush R. Parushev, eds., Towards an Understanding of European Baptist Identity: Listening to the Churches in Armenia, Bulgaria, Central Asia, Moldova, North Caucasus, Omsk and Poland (Prague, CZ: International Baptist Theological Seminary, 2006).
[11] On the issue of foreign students training in theological colleges in the West, and the many issues involved, see the excellent article by Jenny McGill, ‘Furthering Christ’s Mission: International Theological Education,’ in Transformation 32.4 (October 2015): 225-239.