Can Immigrant Christians Be Missional in the West?

Mission, as in the mission of God, missio Dei, has always been connected to migration of followers of Christ from one part of the world to another. In fact, the spread of religions, whatever they are, is generally dependent on the migrations of their adherents. For instance, the spread of Christianity in the twentieth century happened as more than twenty percent of Europe’s population–and Europe was the Christian heartland of the time–migrated to the rest of the world, taking Christianity with them and seeking the conversion of their new neighbours. In our day and age, it is the Latin Americans, Africans, and Asians that are both experiencing explosive growth in the Christian populations and are also on the move, migrating even to the West. These migrations of non-Westerners to the West bring what has been termed “ethnic” or “immigrant” Christianity to the West.

How can these immigrant churches effectively engage in mission in their Western cities?

Unfortunately, most of these foreign Christianities are usually clustered, if not locked out, outside the mainstream Christianity in the West. They have their own immigrant congregations where they do their own immigrant forms of Christianity, speaking their homeland vernaculars, singing foreign songs and eating food they grew up on. Clustered in these ethnic ecclesiastical islands, they have very little exchange with Western Christianity. Their gifts are not received, and they have minimal access to Western theological and missiological conversations. Between the immigrant and the local, missionally speaking, there exists many issues to be negotiated including race, culture, theology. For instance, I recently responded to David Fitch’s blog post about the problem of the lack of diversity in the missional conversation. But that is one conversation that would be of great help for immigrants trying to do mission in the West in this postmodern world (and I am certain that the migrants’ contribution to the conversation would also enhance it significantly).

For the past thirteen years, I have carefully observed tens of African immigrant congregations in Germany, England, and the US. I have seen not more than five that have attempted to engrain it in their DNA to be missional to the Westerners among whom they live. Most of them do missions and evangelism as if they are still in Africa. When they talk about missio Dei, what they have in mind is a Christendom-shaped mission (which worked in Africa, but can not work in Europe and America). Very few African immigrant pastors have made the effort to contextualize their ministries to their Western cities. However, I believe that once they negotiate their identities properly and understand how to reach the West in ways that are missionally relevant, immigrant Christianities will make a significant contribution to the process of re-evangelising the West. Right now, however, I can not hep but wonder whether immigrant congregations do understand the need to be missional. Or to be specific, can African immigrant Christians be intentionally missional in the West?

Engaging the Immigrant Churches

Immigrant Christians need to be intentionally engaged in Western mission conversation for at least the following three reasons:

To Help Them Understand the Wider Western Context in Which They Minister.

Many African immigrant leaders fail to take time to think about how the context in the West changes the way they do their ministry. For instance, if they were to preach to Western postmoderns, their preaching styles would have to change in a big way. I heard one Nigerian pastor advise new immigrant pastors, “You can not just keep on shouting without substance. This is Britain. You must have something worthwhile to say, otherwise, you better stay away from the pulpit.”

To Help Harness and Channel Their Missionary Zeal Effectively

Most immigrant Christians come from places where Christianity is exploding. They are used to seeing people “getting saved.” They want to do the same in the West but find it difficult since (1) the public square is highly regulated and secularised, and (2) many Westerners are antagonistic to Christianity. Their zeal is then frustrated and they end up channeling all their energy to their immigrant congregations. Engaging them missionally would let them use their energy more effectively.

To Help Some Westerners Relearn the Art of Mission

Due to the rise of what Charles Taylor calls the buffered self, most Westerners have very little clue about the power of God’s Spirit. Mission and evangelism are, for a majority of contemporary Western leaders, about church marketing (vending religious goods better than the church next door) and not God’s transforming power that works through God’s Spirit to change people’s lives. Most immigrant Christians understand the spiritual nature of the missio Dei. They know that to combat spiritual powers and principalities, and thus to be effective in mission, Christians must pray. This, among many other issues, is the gift that immigrants bring to the missional conversations in the West.

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