The Church in Exile

A special focus in this issue of Lausanne World Pulse is the Church in exile. As migration increases, especially from the Majority World to the West, special opportunities and challenges emerge. Immigrant peoples are often more open than indigenous peoples to friendship and discussion about meaningful life issues. Christian churches throughout the West grapple with appropriate ways to reach out.

Often it is Christians who are displaced from their homelands. Sometimes they are refugees who fled in order to survive. I remember meeting some young men from Sudan, who were severely persecuted and forced to leave not only their country, but also their families in Sudan. One of them, a devoted Christian, told me he had not seen his wife for ten years.

Other times, they choose to leave their homelands, looking for economic opportunity and a place where their children can be educated in a free society.

How do we meet the needs of immigrant
believers looking to connect with the Body of
Christ in a distant land?

How do we meet the needs of immigrant believers looking to connect with the Body of Christ in a distant land? Two points:

  1. Immigrant people naturally associate with people most like them. While it is admirable to wish that immigrant believers would feel at home in our Western churches, for the most part, they will not. Layers of culture must be crossed, including language, dress, worship styles, food, time parameters, etc. Better is the church that recognizes this and finds ways to support house groups or small fellowships of people from the same country or region of the world. Provision of meeting space, funds to procure worship equipment and supplies, and food for common meals, can be of great help. It is a fact that the majority culture in any society will be more ready to integrate with others than the smaller immigrant groups. This doesn’t mean there is latent prejudice; rather, that there is a need to be with people most like you when trying to step into a new world. Only as an immigrant faith community adjusts to their new homeland are they open to integrate with the majority culture in church worship settings.
  2. Immigrant people from one country will more readily relate with immigrants from other countries than with the majority host culture. For example, Ukranians and Ugandans from two different continents have more in common with each other than they would with the majority culture in a new Western homeland. They share the realities of raising children in a Western society, where issues such as freedom of choice and lack of moral boundaries frightens them. They share the challenge of communicating in a second language, of feeling different in almost every way from the majority culture. They find connection in dealing with immigration and finding jobs and housing. It is a wise church that links them with one another in small and large group settings, combined with offering help acquiring social services and language skills.

Evangelizing immigrant peoples is one of the most pressing issues for churches in the West. The Billy Graham Center is located in Wheaton, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. In our county of one million persons, thirty-three percent are people not from the West. By the year 2020 that number will be fifty percent. The town my family lives in is already at the fifty percent level.

Wonderful people from Latin America, South Asia, Africa, and East Europe are moving into our neighborhood. The opportunity to tell them about our Lord Jesus is everywhere. Many, if not most, are very open to friendship with us. They come hopeful of opportunity in the West. Yet, very little is being done to reach them. As Roy Oksnevad, director of Muslim Ministries for the Billy Graham Center says, “We are not good at reaching people most like us, much less those from other cultures.”

The need for teaching about cross-cultural ministry is important for all committed Christ-followers in the West. Even when we want to reach them, we often think we are ill-equipped to do so. 

I’ve just met a neighbor from Southeast Asia. He and his young family live near us, and recently acquired our old basketball equipment. It was a joy to give them the equipment, and now to watch his young children use it. I’ve talked with this man briefly twice as I have jogged through our neighborhood.

God loves these people so much. I need to love them more. I need my spiritual hearing awakened to Christ’s desire to inhabit their lives as much as mine. The good thing to remember is that wherever God’s people live, it is meant to be a home now and forever for others. In that sense, we are never exiled, because almost everywhere we can meet some of God’s finest and find a welcome, though culturally different, home.

Oh, that millions would come to our global Church homes and find a welcoming Father in our generation!

Dr. Lon Allison is executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, USA. He also serves as director for the Institute for Strategic Evangelism at Wheaton College. He is co-publisher of Lausanne World Pulse.