Immigration and the Church Today: Part 11 of the Welcoming the Stranger Series

open door photo

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put [Jesus] to the test, saying, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered right; do this, and you will live.”

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

—Luke 10:25-29, RSV

Chapter 9 Summary

This week, our subject is Chapter 9 of Welcoming the Stranger, “Immigration and the Church Today.” Chapter 9 describes how immigrants affect the demographics, culture, worship styles, spiritual life, and work of the church. While re-reading this chapter to prepare for our discussion, I found it overwhelming. While on the one hand Soerens and Yang challenge us, I’d argue that most of the chapter is focused on the opportunities that immigration presents the Church for revitalized ministry. The American Church has the opportunity to experience a deeper joy as it serves immigrants as fellow family members and not as strangers or even neighbors. I found it difficult to write a summary for this chapter, and have decided that this week, my post will be almost completely reflection. I will guide you through some of the thoughts that rose up in me as I was led by Soerens and Yang through thinking about how immigration to the United States affects the American church. As with everything on this blog series, charge all offense to me and not to Soerens or Yang—unless you have read their words for yourself! This week, I’m coming from the heart because much of what they bring to our attention provoked an emotional and not detached reaction from within me.

Key Discussion Questions

  1. If your church were to create a statement on immigration, what would it say?
  2. Do you agree with the authors when they state that God is using cultural diversity to accomplish his greater purposes here on earth?
  3. After reading this chapter, what do you think is essential to God’s heart in the midst of the immigration debate? What do you think God may be asking of you as you read this book?

Reflection

Partway into this chapter, Soerens and Yang describe Prof. Soong-Chan Rah’s book, The New Evangelicalism, and point out that he argues that it is not enough for the church to move from hostility toward immigrants to hospitality, welcoming them as guests:

Ultimately, we must live into the biblical vision of the church as the family of God, with brothers and sisters of different backgrounds living within the same household under one Father. “Hospitality only takes us so far,” he writes. “How do we move from being simply hospitable to one another to actually becoming a family?…You will have kimchi on the table for that one meal when you entertain me as a guest. But what if you have to stock kimchi in your refrigerator every single day?” (Soerens and Yang, p.186)

We are reminded in Chapter 9 that we must move from seeing each other as strangers to recognizing neighbors and, ultimately, to recognizing family when these strangers become fellow believers (p.186).

This is so difficult to do, because we must relinquish control of our communities in order to recognize one another as family. We must recognize that, just as with our earthly families we do not choose who our brothers and sisters are, our family composition is determined by who our Heavenly Father is and whom he has brought near to us. We must admit that our worship is culturally influenced—just like the worship styles of every other culture—and we must be willing to give up what is familiar to us in order to follow God our Father into what he is doing among those who are living among us and being brought to us. This is true not just for White Americans, who have been on the receiving end of this criticism most often, but this is true for all Americans who are finding themselves responsible for responding biblically to this moment in our Nation’s life.

I decided to begin this blog post not with a quote from the book, but quoting the introduction to the story of the Good Samaritan, because it is crucial to establishing one’s heart’s orientation towards these issues. The beginning of the account starts with a lawyer asking Christ what is required to inherit eternal life. You’ll notice that Christ is satisfied with his original response, but watch what the young lawyer says next: “Who is my neighbor?” And why did he ask this? Well, the Scripture tells us that the lawyer sought to justify himself.

This is why I find reading Scripture such a harrowing experience. From Old to New Testaments, my experience with reading the Bible goes something like this:

  1. I read something fascinating or inspiring;
  2. I learn that that fascinating or inspiring thing would have been profoundly shocking or challenging to the original hearers;
  3. I reflect on why that thing would have been shocking or challenging;
  4. I realize how I am now supposed to understand and be challenged by God’s impossible demand on me;
  5. I leave the Scripture somewhat unsure about how I am supposed to do what is commanded. When we realize how much it will cost to do what is commanded, I seek to justify myself by excusing myself from the cost.

In this passage, I don’t think many folks would have any issues with the original response to Jesus about what is to be done to inherit eternal life. Nor would anyone have any trouble understanding what events occurred in the story that follows. But for me, the main point of the passage is that the young lawyer sought to justify himself. I think this is the most important point of the story, and the point that everyone skips over. It is our default response to everything God asks us to do that directly threatens us with major cost.

The desire to justify ourselves is so strong I can point to two examples of interpretations of this passage as illustration. One prominent pastor whom everyone reading this would know if I’d named him said that the main point of the Good Samaritan story is to give a model for personal evangelism, not social justice. While I’ve heard this story used many times—by Christians and non-Christians alike—to motivate concern for social justice, I have never once heard this story interpreted as primarily about personal evangelism in any other context. It is so costly to recognize that Christ clearly indicates that everyone is our neighbor, that it is preferable to interpret the story as about sharing the gospel—which, incidentally, most of us also find too costly. Another prominent evangelical seminary president whom everyone here would be familiar with referred to this story in his discussion of immigration. He said that while we are to care for our neighbor, our neighbors don’t have to come near to us. They don’t have the right to come into our midst. Again, I’d never before heard this story interpreted in order to restrict rights or to narrow the definition of our neighbor, only to expand our responsibilities to our neighbors. These examples show that, although we have no problem in principle with showing love to our neighbors, Jesus’ implicit command to show no limit to whom this love is due is simply too hard for us. It costs too much.

To me, this is the main issue in the American Church as it relates to the immigration issue. Integrating immigrants is directly connected to our willingness to allow the Holy Spirit to control our lives and sacrifice even important aspects of our culture if that’s what we perceive it would take to follow Christ. Is there a limit to the cost you will suffer to follow Christ? As long as we see our own cultural expressions of Christianity as the “right” way to worship, it will cost us too much to see immigrants as even neighbors, much less family. Fortunately, many churches have counted the cost and thought it worthwhile to make great sacrifice to follow Christ in serving immigrants. This chapter is rich with details on how churches are currently serving immigrants. There is much on the prophetic voices calling to the church to serve refugees and reach out to immigrant communities. And, as I said at the beginning of this series, those who are doing this work are getting on with it without fanfare or media attention.

However, reading Chapter 9 has also raised so much of the pain and frustration I’ve felt with the American Church. More often than we’d like to admit, American Churches view the cost as too great. Consider the following quote from Chapter 9 describing one of the biggest challenges to the American Church concerning immigration:

Less than half of American evangelicals surveyed told LifeWay Research in 2015 that the arrival of immigrants to their communities presented “an opportunity to introduce them to Jesus,” while most (including about 70 percent of white evangelicals) believed the arrival of immigrants presented a “threat” or “burden” of some sort. (Soerens and Yang, p.187)

We—and I do mean we Americans and not White Americans—are likely to view immigrants as a threat rather than an opportunity. We are so willing to send someone else to foreigners in their own homelands, but what might our response be if God begins to send them to us right here at home? What if we don’t have to send missionaries to the 10/40 window? What if God is commanding us to receive these people groups here at home by way of refugee resettlement and “forced” migration? Does the threat of terrorism deter you? How about the fact that they come from cultures that are not Judeo-Christian? Are you afraid that they might irreversibly change our culture for the worst? We pray for revival and lament the state of discipleship in the American Church. What if God is sending missionaries from abroad into our midst by way of migration— documented or undocumented—of people groups who are more likely to be devoted Christians than native-born Americans? (see quotation of Timothy Tennent on p.181) Are you offended that God views men and women from abroad as the instruments He will use for His glory among us? Are you ashamed to admit that we are failing the mission of Christ here at home and are becoming a mission field for non-Westerners? Or are we rejecting our missionary responsibilities and Spirit-driven revival by seeing immigration as a threat?

I believe that the Holy Spirit is moving in the American Church towards revival through the influx of immigrants from across the globe. While there are certainly churches here that send missionaries to the nations, the primary move of God in our churches will be sending believers, and non-believers who will receive the gospel, from abroad into our American church communities, thereby revitalizing our churches and our devotion to Christ. I would hesitate to make such an unequivocal statement, but I believe God is speaking too clearly about this to ignore it. I first read about this nearly two years ago in The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church by Peter Leithart. I’ve seen the unique challenges of receiving the missions field being brought to our doorstep when I visit the church my wife and I were married in. At Bethel Gospel Assembly in Harlem, NY, they weekly welcome busloads of tourists for multiple services per week into their churches. Many of these visitors—who would have previously only been reached through a foreign missions trip—receive the gospel and confess a faith in Christ. At the same time, their presence creates unique challenges for the current members who may feel displaced or uncomfortable. I’ve experienced this personally by attending a Catholic worship service as my relationship with one of my current students has evolved. I visited the Catholic church near my workplace and have seen a full Mass filled with people from different nations and people groups. There was no dominant ethnicity in participation or ministering of the service. Finally, as Chapter 9 shows, the statistics bear it out. All of our American Christian denominations are declining among Whites, and the younger generations of Americans do not affiliate with Christian traditions at the rates they have in the past. Much of the growth of the congregations that are growing is the direct result of immigration. Moreover, this is not just an American move of the Spirit; it is global:

One pastor in Jordan said he was praying for revival for the Middle East for years. As his church has welcomed Syrian refugees into their midst and tangibly met their physical needs, this pastor realized God was answering his prayer for revival through the refugee crisis. Many of these Syrian refugees had entered the church and met Christians for the first time. As the Jordanian Christian community was loving their refugee neighbors, God was answering their prayer for revival. (Soerens and Yang, p.193)

Many other examples are provided in the box titled “The Church Beyond the United States” on p.193-194. Just as migration is not only an American issue, the move of God to revive and build His church in part through migration is also a global issue. Immigrants and ethnic minorities are stabilizing our churches and injecting them with new life through the Spirit.

The last quarter or so (p.194-200) of Chapter 9 describes how, in the decade since the original Welcoming the Stranger was published, evangelical advocacy for immigrants has qualitatively and quantitatively changed. There are many more American evangelical Christians advocating for immigration reform, seeking out ways to serve immigrants and refugees, and establishing or supporting organizations such as the Evangelical Immigration Table to “encourage distinctively biblical thinking about immigration issues” (p.199). In view of all this, will you consider how you and your church can avoid the temptation to justify yourself? What can you do to join what God is doing through migration in His Church today?

Peace and Blessings,

Royce


Training Update

We are now just under two weeks out from race day on October 20th. I’m feeling really good, so thank you all for your prayers. I still have plantar fasciitis symptoms, but it has been manageable all the way through the cycle so far. I have been unable to run more than three times per week, and I have not been able to run as fast as I’d have liked during some of the workouts. However, I am thankful that I have not had to stop my training like I did last year.

This past week, this one, and the next are traditionally referred to as the “taper” before the race. However, my last two big races I trained for, I feel that I didn’t manage the taper properly. I let my volume go down way too far and ended up losing some of the fitness I’d fought so hard to gain. I’m hoping not to make that mistake this time around. Last week was good in terms of volume, but yesterday we had a big Sunday brunch at our home and I indulged some in the donuts, quiche, and croissants, lol. Let’s hope my body uses the extra calories to rebuild itself.

On Saturday, I completed my second to last long run before the race, and this was what we call a “planned half-marathon pace run” or a race simulation. The goal is to run about half of the workout at your planned pace as a race simulation. Ordinarily, you might also aim to be on your feet for about the same amount of time you’re intending to race, but I let that be my goal on the prior week’s long run, not this past Saturday. The race simulation is intended to give you a reality check as to where your fitness is, and to determine whether your race goals need to be adjusted. Based on this past week’s training, I’d say that it is quite possible I will meet my goal of 2:00:00. The pacing on both this and the 13 mile run last weekend both suggest this is well within my current fitness level, so now I’m thinking about preparing my mind to run that last 5k after 10 miles hard. We’ve come a long way on both the blog and in the training, and I’m looking forward to next week when we have the excitement of approaching the race. Thank you all for your prayers and encouragement.

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Royce Francis

Royce is an associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering at the George Washington University. He conducts and teaches under the broad theme “SEED”: Strategic [urban] Ecologies, Engineering, and Decision making. His research and teaching interests include infrastructure sustainability and resilience measurement, risk analysis, and drinking water systems analysis. Royce is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the Society for Risk Analysis (SRA).

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