Opening the Borders of the US Church: A Call to Serve the Immigrants Among Us

When Victor Xingh* was eight years old, his mother put him in a boat with a stranger. He was the first of his family to escape the war in 1970s Laos by crossing the Mekong River into Thailand. Two years later, Victor’s family was given a chance for a new life in the United States through the compassion of a Christian family. Through their Christlike love, Victor began to realize who God is.

Eventually Victor’s family migrated south to Alabama where they lived in government housing along with many other immigrant and refugee families. It was the late 70s, early 80s, and discrimination was still somewhat prevalent and gang wars were common. But enemy lines quickly faded when the local Baptist church’s bus came around on Sundays and Wednesdays and all the kids piled in together.

Christians became almost like a mediator between them. They became peacemakers among the immigrants. That’s what helped Victor realize who the true God is, and that he is able to overcome the barrier of manmade walls of division between us and others. Or even barriers that we place between God and ourselves.

One Savior, One Church

The apostle Paul said the same atoning sacrifice Jesus made on the cross to remove the hostility between us and God, also removes the hostility between us and the people we see as foreigners (Eph. 2:14–16). In the Roman Empire, where colonizing rulers commonly forced people to migrate, Paul denounced racial and nationalistic squabbles by exalting God’s grace on the cross.

“Christ is all, and in all,” he wrote to a church of Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, men and women (Col. 3:11). Paul told churches how Christ is our only hope to unify his followers from multiple cultural backgrounds (Eph. 4:4–6). We, as Gentiles, originally separated from Christ, can be especially grateful for God’s provision of peace to strangers alienated from his promises (Eph. 2:11–22).

Paul puts down racial and nationalistic squabbles by exalting God’s grace on the cross.

This reconciling gospel led Paul to take our singular hope to other diverse communities that were alienated from God. All the while, he modeled the saving power of the gospel that motivated him to cross the cultural barriers. Today we can cross those barriers by going to other nations or by welcoming people who are different from us into our own cities.

Our Missing Brothers and Sisters

The United States is the top destination for the world’s migrant population. In 2015, it was home to 46.6 million foreign-born residents, while Russia ranked a distant second with 11.6 million immigrants. With an increasingly diverse population, experts predict that by 2055 the United States will not have a single racial or ethnic majority.

With an increasingly diverse population, experts predict that by 2055 the United States will not have a single racial or ethnic majority.

However, Pew Research Center reports that 76 percent of evangelical Protestants in the United States are white, and only 9 percent of the total US evangelical population are immigrants. Why aren’t immigrants in our churches? Are we welcoming them into our pews? In our demographically diverse nation, shouldn’t our churches’ demographics be more diverse?

Now, more than ever, the US church has the incredible opportunity to welcome people from many backgrounds. The end goal, though, is not to just welcome them into our congregations but also to empower them with the gospel and mobilize them to make disciples of the nations themselves.

After Victor was saved and baptized, God gave him a new perspective and a new purpose. He envisioned his Asian brothers and sisters coming to faith in Christ, and he knew God was calling him to return to Southeast Asia. “In obedience to God’s Word, I journeyed back home. Only this time I get to serve the one, true God, Creator of everything. I cannot imagine doing anything else.”

Victor, along with his wife and three children, now trains local believers in Southeast Asia to take the gospel to their people in their native languages. He is able to access restricted areas and is accepted into remote villages where others can not go.

Open the Church Doors

The Baptist church in Mobile, Alabama, not only welcomed Victor and his family, but it also catalyzed Victor’s mobilization to the nations. How can more American churches respond with a missional mindset to the influx of internationals? Thi Mitsamphanh, another Laotian refugee, is the pastor of First International Baptist Church, a multiethnic church that serves the refugee and immigrant community in Memphis, Tennessee. He shares how the American church can respond to global migration:

  1. Welcome the nations. According to missiologist J.D. Payne, the United States now hosts the third largest number of unreached people groups behind only China and India. We have the opportunity to welcome the nations into our communities and churches by practicing biblical hospitality. Christians can host international students, meet the needs of refugees, and befriend their immigrant neighbors. By welcoming the stranger, we are welcoming Christ himself (Matt. 25:35).
  2. Disciple the nations. Christians have the opportunity to share Jesus with their immigrant neighbors through word and deed. Immigrants are often more open to the gospel message than they would have been in their home country. This opens the door for Christians to pray for their immigrant neighbors, share their personal testimonies, invite their immigrant friends to study the Bible, and take part in evangelistic outreaches (ESL classes, block parties, picnics) in immigrant neighborhoods.
  3. Respect the nations. Christians in the United States have a tendency to simply bring new converts into their American-style churches. But immigrants may require culturally appropriate discipleship. Healthy ethnic or multiethnic churches provide communities where people can follow Christ without the cultural trappings of American Christianity.
  4. Mobilize the nations. Immigrants are well connected to other immigrant communities throughout the United States and to their families back in their homelands. American churches have unprecedented opportunities to partner with, empower, and mobilize immigrants to spread the gospel through their natural networks.

*Name changed

Kara Blakeley lives in Southeast Asia where she works with local believers to make disciples and mobilize missionaries.  

Thi Mitsamphanh came to the United States in 1986 with his Buddhist family. He now has a PhD in missions, focusing on diaspora missiology, from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary.