The word is getting out. Responsible churches are seeing the need to be involved in ministry to international peoples locally. After all, within one generation, the United States will be majority minority and most of the growth will be due to foreign-born peoples migrating to the US and raising families. It is an everyday occurrence around my office to receive requests from churches interested in starting some type of ministry to internationals.
I usually start by asking, “Which type of internationals?”
While a lot of churches are recognizing the presences of internationals, many still think of them as one simple category. They are simply “internationals.” If we are honest, the only commonality that holds that “group” together is that they are not like us and from a different country.
Fact is, ministry to internationals is not some additional category of ministry you add alongside youth ministry, senior ministry, homeless ministry, etc. The internationals moving in to your community may be extremely diverse, from very different regions, and in very different stages of life. Not only do they come from different places all over the world, international peoples often come for very different reasons and lengths of time. Any church that ministers well to these new neighbors must think through two important questions.
Where are they from?
While all the people groups moving to the US come from many different places, they will most often attempt to settle around communities of like-minded people. In other words, people from South Asia will often gravitate toward areas where other South Asians already live. When you think about it, that is merely common sense.
Churches ministering to people groups in a community need to know which people groups are there. Working with South Asians from Pakistan is very different from working with Chinese or West Africans. The world views are different, the cultures are different, and effective ministry will reflect that. By doing people group discovery around your community, your church begins to learn both who is there and what they are like. You do not have to be a cultural expert to begin work with an international people group; however, by beginning people group discovery engagement you can become a cultural expert with those you engage. Be humble. Ask the right questions.
Why are they here?
Another common misconception is that all international people get here the same way and for the same reason. If a church first experience refugees, they assume all internationals are refugees. If they first see international students at a local university, they only think of international ministry as being to students.
It is possible to break internationals into four big categories. There is overlap but understanding these four groups is helpful. Work with each of these groups may look very different.
- long term stay
- many naturalize
- all economic tiers
Perhaps the broadest category, this includes any internationals that simply immigrated to the US to live. There are many reasons that people would immigrate to the US (work, quality of life, etc.), but the thing to realize is that these people are not students and they are not (necessarily) refugees.
- short term stay
- most will speak English
- most will return home
International students are a different category altogether. Most students will speak English, at least enough to take classes. However, it is important to remember that students are transient. They are here in the US for a short time. Ministry with students will need to be focuses and often lasts only a semester up to three or four years. If the long-term goal is to plant churches for people groups in your community, then student ministry would struggle to accomplish that task.
- often long term (but sometimes short)
- potential traumatic experiences
- often lower income situation
- often lower English proficiency
Refugees are a specific type of migrant. The federal government has a special status for people who are fleeing hardship in their home country. Refugees to the US come because they are escaping persecution, war, or a humanitarian crisis of some form. Often, the move to the US is a sudden interruption in their life and comes on the heels of trauma. Resettlement agencies help the government place refugees and connect them with organizations (churches and charities) that can help them settle in to the area, find work, and accomplish necessary tasks.
Ministry to refugees may be different to both of those mentioned above. Often refugees are here for an extended time and become permanent residents; however, many will return home if the crisis is resolved. Since their situations are often less-then-ideal, many will not speak English, and they may suffer from economic hardship.
- undocumented immigrants
- or overstayed their visa
By far the trickiest category of internationals in the US are those who have over extended their stay. Unfortunately, these are the focus of media and popular discussion of immigration to the US. Many people unthinkingly lump all internationals in to this category, when many (if not most) immigrants are not here illegally.
And it must be said that even if someone is here illegally, that does not excuse our responsibility to share the gospel with them. Regardless of your stance on illegal immigration and the confusing political entanglement that surrounds it, Christ commands the church to go to all the world… even the people in your community who you think do not belong.