The Church was Saved by Refugees

Had it not been for refugees, the Christian faith would have died in Jerusalem.

At least, that is the argument made by Andrew Walls in his classic work, Missionary Movement in Christian History. Walls makes some excellent observations about the unique nature of Christianity, and one of those is its inherent translatability across cultural lines. Unlike many other world religions, Christianity is not at home in any one culture. Islam, for instance, has a specific religious language and culture, but not Christianity. Christianity has no “home” culture in the world. It started as a thoroughly Jewish phenomenon, but eventually became a European religion. If we Americans are honest, most of us think of it as tied somehow to our country. After all, we are the big missionary sending country, spreading the gospel around the world, right? Well, that was true at one point. Today, Christianity is the religion of the global south, of Africa and South America, more at home in those cultures than even North America.

Across the history of Christianity, it advanced and receded in different places and cultures. Always, though, it has spread through the crossing of cultures, as one group takes it to the next. Had this not been the case, Christianity would not have lasted.

Here is Walls:

The first Christians in Jerusalem, Jews to a man and woman, did not change their religion when they accepted Jesus as Messiah. To be a Jesus person was to be a Jew in a fuller sense; to find new delight in the law and in that temple to which they daily resorted. Then somehow, some people—we do not even know their names—introduced the Jewish national saviour to some pagan Greek friends in Antioch. Though this was to lead to some heart searching in the Christian community, its real significance was not clear until thirty years later when the Romans destroyed the Jewish state and the temple and the original Christian community faded into the margins of Christian history (Walls, Missionary Movement in Christian History).

Walls goes on to say:

The first Christian frontier breakers, those “men of Cyprus and Cyrene” in Antioch, were simply talking to their friends. They themselves were immigrants, indeed refugees, earning their living in new surroundings (Walls).

Walls is right, and we cannot forget religious persecution (Acts 8:1) was God’s initial means of spreading the gospel and planting the church outside of Jerusalem. Unnamed refugees who left Jerusalem to make their home in Syria founded the church at Antioch, the world’s first truly missionary church. This truth causes me to wonder if God is up to something similar today.

Many, if not most, of the refugees coming to the United States are actually Christians. In fact, many come here precisely because of persecution for their faith. In a time when Christianity is noticeably receding in the United States, God is moving scores of Christian communities from Africa, South and Central America, and Asia. There is not a little irony in the reality that the fastest growing Christian movements in our country are coming from areas where we used to send missionaries. These new Christian communities are brothers and sisters, a resource to our churches. Perhaps we should take the posture of learners when it comes to our interaction. We have much to learn.

I regularly write about the opportunities for the Great Commission provided by immigration here in North America. Christians are not the only immigrants. We have many coming from very unreached places too, and I believe we have a responsibility given by Christ himself to spread the gospel among our new neighbors. However, we are blind if we do not see this Christian majority of refugees as friends and not enemies. What if our spiritual renewal is brought, not by our megachurches, but by a group of unnamed refugees from “Cyprus and Cyrene.”

2 Comments

  1. Louis Cook said:

    Where is the data for this statement, “Many, if not most, of the refugees coming to the United States are actually Christians.”

    Thanks brother.

    May 3, 2017
    Reply
    • Keelan Cook said:

      It is a widely reported phenomenon. According to Pew Research, roughly 61% of the refugees who entered on religious minority status last year were Christian with 22% being Muslim. That said, religious minority is a specific status. All refugees do not come under that title. This past year was the first time in over a decade that Christians were not the highest overall number. I believe it was 46% Muslim and 44% Christian for the totals this year. Even with 2016 factored in though, Christians are decidedly the biggest slice of refugees. The statistics are even more lopsided if you throw in all immigrants, because so many come from Central America. Most of those are classed as Christian.

      As best I can tell from the data I’ve reviewed, truth is, we have lots of Christians moving here from the global south, and we need to embrace the ones who are like-minded and share a common confession concerning the gospel. However, trends seem to indicate that the number of non-Christians and unreached coming may be going up. This only underscores our responsibility to share the gospel with them.

      For specific articles, here are two Pew reports that may shed some light: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/02/07/most-refugees-who-enter-the-u-s-as-religious-minorities-are-christians/ and http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/01/30/key-facts-about-refugees-to-the-u-s/

      May 3, 2017
      Reply

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