This is part 1 of 3 of Don Johnson’s paper, “Diaspora and Mid-Term Missions.” The full paper was presented at the Southeast Regional EMS conference and the MissioNexus OPEN conference. Read part 2 here and part 3 here.
Guilt became my primary emotion whenever I went to my neighborhood coffee shop in metro Detroit—not because of the calories or the cost. It was the men sitting outside the shop that bothered me. They were there almost every day, shooting the breeze before starting their workday. As recent immigrants from Albanian-speaking countries, they had found each other and developed their own ethnic Albanian community.
As a Christian and a missionary, I wanted to connect with these men. The mission agency I served with had a team engaged in Albanian ministry in southern Europe, but here was a cluster from that same people group just blocks from our mission headquarters. They were easily within reach of the church and the Gospel—at least it seemed like they should be. But efforts to make a connection only resulted in empty stares. Their morning coffee clique was clearly a closed group; outsiders weren’t welcome. And so I walked by them each time and felt guilty.
My wife and I had helped launch an ESL program at our church just a few blocks away, and several other local churches had similar outreaches to the growing immigrant population. But in over ten years, these men never attended an ESL program at the church. They continued to be just as unreached as their relatives in the Balkans.
J.D. Payne points out in his book Strangers next door: Immigration, migration and mission, that for the past several decades many of the world’s least-reached peoples have been migrating in ever-increasing numbers to the U.S. and Canada. In North America alone there are 50 million international migrants representing 361 unreached people groups (UPGs) in the U.S. and 180 in Canada. The numbers of unreached peoples coming to North America from around the world—often from countries that are closed to the open spread of the Gospel—can’t be ignored.
For mission agencies, the slow response to diaspora peoples may be rooted in the centuries-old paradigm of missions: Missionaries go from “here” to “there.” The culture of traditional missions emphasizes where we serve rather than who we serve. For those agencies to embrace the call to diaspora missions here, their whole paradigm would need to change. Instead of thinking in terms of sending missionaries to Albania, they would need to think of sending missionaries to Albanians—wherever they are—even if that means here in North America.
Typically, missionaries who are assigned to a stateside role, or who return from a foreign location to work in a domestic location, have an extremely difficult time maintaining sufficient support. If the new reality is that diaspora missions gives us an opportunity to connect with unreached people groups in our own backyard, then church policies regarding financial support for stateside missionaries need to be redesigned.
While North American churches are generally running behind in reaching local diaspora people, it may not be entirely their fault. Most North American Christians are not trained or equipped for effective cross-cultural engagement. In a webinar from The Mission Exchange, B. Camp states that one thing many churches are looking to mission agencies to provide for them is “guidance and assistance in local cross-cultural outreach.”
Become Like Us
While churches in North America are increasingly recognizing the need and opportunity to engage diaspora populations in their communities, often their efforts are limited to offering ESL or citizenship classes. These churches should be applauded for their desire to reach those who have never heard the gospel. Unfortunately those efforts are not enough. And in some cases they might even be detrimental.
What these ministries may inadvertently be communicating is “let us help you become like us—learn to talk like us, dress like us, and be good American citizens like us—then you’ll be able to worship our God like us.”
There is an underlying assumption that these “foreigners” want to assimilate into American life. Previous generations of immigrants tried to quickly integrate with their new culture and be known as “American.” In contrast, immigrants today, according to N. Pirolo, “are coming in even greater numbers, but they are not becoming American. They are maintaining their language, their foods, their culture, their religion.”
Whether they intend to or not, when American Christians and their churches take this “assimilation” approach in reaching local diaspora, they come perilously close to replicating the errors of the Judaizers within the early church. While there were significant moral and theological issues involved in the Judaizers’ dispute with Paul, a lot of their concern revolved around issues of culture. The Hebraic Jewish Christians were saying that to become part of the church, the Gentiles and Hellenistic Jews must first become cultural Jews—eating like them, following their traditions, and so on. In other words, “first become a good Jew; then you can become a Christian.”
While offering ESL or citizenship classes can be key elements of diaspora missions, if such methods are the only ones churches employ in reaching out to a local diaspora, their message may be perceived as saying, “First become a good American; then you can become a Christian.” The American church needs to be careful not to communicate to migrant populations that they must learn our language, adopt our citizenship, become able to function in our culture and worship in our churches, before they can become Christians.
Another factor that motivates the “come to us” approach is our American cultural hunger for efficiency. We are always looking for a faster, cheaper, easier way to accomplish a task. That drive for efficiency can easily influence our diaspora missiology. Some have even argued that, unlike traditional missions, diaspora missions does not require that we learn the language and study the culture of the focus population. One simply needs to “be a friend” to a stranger from another culture to accomplish the missiological task. With this mind-set, it’s reasonable for a local church to assume that diaspora missions can be a “faster, cheaper, easier” means to reach the world. The time required to learn a new language and new culture is removed as volunteers teach the English language and American culture to the newcomers. The costs of sending full-time workers out of the country are eliminated as local volunteer hours accomplish the task.
Thus missionary specialists with appropriate skills, training, and spiritual gifting are replaced with untrained volunteers who may have plenty of passion and drive, but may not be prepared for all that is involved in doing cross-cultural evangelism and church planting.
Brian M. Howell, associate professor of anthropology at Wheaton College, claims that “the goal of missiology should always be to empower the local church to engage in mission, rather than train specialists or professionals for the task.” Howell asserts that instead of professionals applying contextualization strategies, a better method is for local believers to engage in “radical hospitality, compassion, and justice.” At the same time, he affirms that “efforts to reach new immigrant populations in North America can certainly benefit from concepts of culture, and contextualization.”
However, most lay people in local churches lack the training needed to adequately contextualize the gospel into another culture. C.C. Lorance acknowledges that
The pursuit of contextualization is simply too difficult for most North American Christians. It is too difficult to develop cross-cultural competencies and learn a new language, to engage in respectful interreligious dialogue, and to seek to deeply understand one’s neighbor from another nation in order to better communicate the love of Christ in a way he or she can understand.
Howell defends his reasoning in part by pointing out that contextualization strategies will become “rapidly obsolete” as subsequent generations assimilate into the host language and culture. There may be some validity to that argument, but it is too limited and overlooks important additional facts.
First, many of today’s immigrants to America eschew the idea of becoming Americans, or even mixing with other immigrants with similar linguistic and racial backgrounds.
Second, Howell’s assertion seems to imply that immigrants from any one people group come to their new home all at the same time, so that when that initial generation is gone, so is the need for contextualization. But new waves of immigrants are coming to the U.S. and Canada every year. Rather than disappearing, the need for contextualization would seem to be renewed with each new wave, and, at least for certain groups, may continue for multiple generations into the future.
So, if on one end of the spectrum offering ESL and citizenship classes is too limited and potentially smacks of ethnocentrism, but on the other end engaging in contextualized diaspora missions is beyond the capacity of the typical North American church, what options are left? If churches truly are looking for “guidance and assistance in local cross-cultural outreach,” is there something that experienced, established mission agencies can offer them?