Why Immigrants Are Our Greatest Hope for Church Renewal

immigrant population

Migration is a significant vehicle by which the church in North America will be renewed.

This article originally appeared on MissioAlliance.org and is reposted here by permission.

The center of Christianity has been shifting over the past century from the global north (North America, Europe) to the global south (Africa, Asia, Latin America, Oceania). In 2018, Africa became the continent with the most Christians, surpassing Latin America. It is estimated that by 2050, 77 percent of all Christians will live in the global south.[1]  These numbers, when overlaid with those of human migration,[2] create an interesting scenario for the future of the church.

While it’s true that the church in North America has an incredible missional opportunity to be a light to immigrants who don’t yet follow Jesus, I’m convinced that migration is a significant vehicle by which the church in North America will be renewed.

In a 2011 video interview, Dr. Timothy Tennet, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, noted that “86 percent of the immigrant population in North America are likely to either be Christians or become Christians. So, the immigrant population represents the greatest hope for Christian renewal in North America.”[3]

Prophetic Witness from the Global South

Immigrants who arrive in our country as Christians often embody an unwavering, vibrant faith that could edify and challenge North American Christians. I will always remember the comment my friend Mercy made when I lived in Nigeria: “I think it must be difficult to be a Christian in America.” I was perplexed. Being a Christian in America is relatively easy with all of our  religious freedoms. By comparison, it is a dangerous prospect in many parts of Nigeria. In fact, persecution and religious violence in the years prior to my arrival, resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives.

Curious, I asked Mercy what she meant. Without missing a beat, she responded, “Americans don’t need God because you have plenty of money. You can just fix things by paying for them. It must be hard to be an American Christian.” Years later, as I reflect on that conversation, I understand and agree with her perspective. Our affluence, often paraded as security, is in fact an idolatry that leads us away from the God who ultimately provides.

As an African Christian, Mercy, with her prophetic witness, is an example of what the North American church needs. We need to be confronted with our consumerist idolatries. We need to know how to cultivate the faith and courage that will sustain us in the face of true persecution. We need to properly understand suffering, lament, and joy—and how to hold them all in holy tension. We need to more deeply comprehend the God who works miracles, not just in and through people but also in broken systems and seemingly impossible circumstances. Mercy spoke a simple, yet profound, truth to me as an American Christian. We need more Mercys. We need more mercies.

Could it be that through human migration, God, in his abundant kindness, is bringing the Mercys of the vibrant, global church to those of us who are thirsty and needy in North America? Will we be ready to receive? Will we respond with curiosity rather than defensiveness? Will we listen and learn? Will we follow rather than lead? Will we be ready to repent?

Being Carried by the Global Church

Bethany is a gifted Christian leader who I’ve known and mentored for years.[4] After completing her degree in North America in 2019, she was awarded a prestigious fellowship that covered a year’s worth of global travel and continued learning.

As part of her fellowship, she traveled to a retreat center in Albania. She was there when the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe and was therefore unable to leave for many months. Though she was successful, gifted, and faithful, Bethany was also carrying tremendous sadness and loss. Perhaps not coincidentally, the name of the retreat center where she was “stuck” was the Albanian word for “crossroad.” At the crossroad of success, sorrow, and “stuck-ness,” Bethany waited and prayed.

Prior to her return to the US, she embarked on a road trip with the Albanian retreat staff, who had become her friends. They traveled through the beautiful, mountainous Albanian countryside. At one point, they stopped at a scenic view on the side of the road. They all got out of the car, and as they stood at the overlook, Bethany began to weep. Her friends hadn’t known the extent of the loss and sorrow she was carrying.

When she shared with them how difficult the previous months had been for her, they responded with incredible compassion. Placing their hands on her, they sat weeping together on that hillside. After some time, they began to speak healing words, reassuring her that she no longer needed to carry her burdens alone. “We are here, and we will carry it with you,” they promised.

In that moment, Bethany—the American, affluent, educated, successful-yet-needy leader—was carried forward by the global church.

Her Story is Our Story

Though for decades we have had the privilege of raising up and sending out competent, equipped Christian leaders, we are beginning to experience undeniable decline and great loss in the North American church. For far too long we have exported our Western, white, educated, male understanding of the gospel to other nations, often failing to listen and learn from what God has already revealed in those people and places. But like Bethany, the North American church finds itself at a crossroads.

The global church sees our desperation and struggle. They understand they have a role to play in our healing. The question is, will we allow ourselves to listen to and learn from the global church? Will we allow them to be an agent of our healing and renewal?

The future of the North American church may feel like death. But there is life ahead.

How we will be good news in the next two decades will be determined by whether we decide to become part of the global church and allow it to become part of us. As Christ sees us, we are already part of one another. However, practically we must decide if we will acknowledge and live into the truth of our belonging to each other.

If we will embody mutuality, marked by a true understanding that we need one another, we will flourish. If we are open-handed and share power, we will thrive. If we say “yes” to this movement of God, it will simultaneously feel like loss and gain. Will we choose to surrender our power, our preferences, our positions, and receive the gift of renewal? If we are concerned with saving our lives as we know them—our comforts, our convenience, our rights—we will lose them. But if we are willing to lose our lives for the sake of God’s mission in the world, then we will most assuredly find them.

From Outreach Magazine  How to Be Steady in a World of Worry

 © 2022 Missio Alliance—Writing Collectives—All rights reserved.

Sources

[1] Gina A. Zurlo, Todd M. Johnson, and Peter F. Crossing, “World Christianity and Mission 2020: Ongoing Shift to the Global South,” OMSC 44, no. 1 (2020): 8–19, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/2396939319880074.

[2] The terms migration and immigration will be used interchangeably in this article. Though technical differences exist, for the purposes of this article, migration and immigration will mean the movement of people across international borders.

[3] Dr. Timothy C. Tennet, Asbury Theological Seminary, “Christian Perspective on Immigration,” YouTube video, 5:19, June 22, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WHx95cuXpUE.

[4] Name has been changed to protect identity.

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For more than a decade, Lisa Rodriguez-Watson has served as an urban church planter, collegiate minister, and international missionary. Her heart to see people reconciled to God and to one another has led her to invest her life, family, and ministry in places and people that have often been overlooked by the world. Lisa served as co-founder of a grassroots organization in Memphis, TN that was committed to mobilizing Christians to love their undocumented neighbors and consider an appropriate Christian response to our nation’s immigration crisis. She now serves as the national director of Missio Alliance. Educated at Florida International University and Golden Gate Seminary, she lives in Washington, DC where she is a mom to three fantastic children, Nathan, Elias, and Annelies, and wife to her best friend Matthew, who serves as Pastor of Christ City Church.