I believe many Christians have an underdeveloped understanding of our mission to non-Christian refugees who come to us from countries where it would be difficult or impossible to enter as a Christian missionary.
Let me explain. I recently attended an interest meeting for a refugee ministry that provides for newly resettled families items such as furniture, bedding, cleaning supplies, and a welcome meal in their new home.
People in the ministry mobilize churches and volunteers to personally welcome refugees by helping children register for school, helping families learn the public transportation system, making sure they know how to get to the grocery store, and countless other tasks that those of us who grew up in America instinctively know how to do.
The Missing Element in Refugee Ministry
While the ministry offers great opportunities to help refugees, I was a little disappointed in what I heard—actually, what I didn’t hear. The meeting lacked something that, to me, should have been obvious: an emphasis on gospel proclamation.
To be clear, I do not think this ministry is against it at all. But they demonstrated what I think is a common approach to evangelism in many ministries. Either gospel proclamation is assumed, or it’s put on the back burner, secondary to everything else the ministry does.
The problem is that we can’t just assume people will proclaim the gospel. Many believers, myself included, are simply uncomfortable verbally sharing the gospel. And many are eager for any excuse not to do it at all.
But putting gospel proclamation on the back burner demonstrates a view of the mission that is simply too small. When we narrow our focus to solely meeting physical needs, we miss the opportunity to see God’s kingdom grow and him worshiped among all nations.
It is easy to hope that if we serve refugees, or any non-Christian for that matter, they will see something “different” in us and will ask us about it. And when they ask, we will enthusiastically share the gospel. However, that’s not a biblical strategy, and practically, that’s rarely how it happens anyway.
“We are responsible for verbally proclaiming the gospel, whether asked or not.”
We are responsible for verbally proclaiming the gospel, whether asked or not. Without gospel proclamation, our work can look remarkably the same as that of an athiest or Muslim. Or even the Boy Scouts. We are called to be bold in our witness, and this includes our ministry to refugees.
Physical Needs Do Not Circumvent Spiritual Need
When we encounter refugees, hear their stories, and see the magnitude of their suffering, we try our best to empathize with them, imagining how it must feel to be torn from home, family, friends, and livelihood. Most of us can’t fathom what it’s like to be dropped into a country where we don’t understand the language or the culture, do not know anyone, or struggle to complete the most menial tasks.
With all of the suffering they have experienced in this life, we can’t imagine that they may have to face suffering for eternity. Even so, our gifts of temporary provision place us in the position of savior unless we pointedly direct them to the One who can truly save eternally.
In the face of a vast physical need, we charge forward in order to easily fill the obvious need. However, the refugee’s biggest need is the hope of the gospel, which presents both a more difficult task and less sure results—someone coming to faith, which may take a long time.
Perhaps the immediacy of their physical needs is a distraction, but Scripture is clear that sharing the gospel is an urgent matter. We do not know the day or the hour when Christ will return, so withholding the gospel in favor of physical support is not an option.
The physical needs of a refugee—or anyone, for that matter—are simply not more urgent than their spiritual need. Sure, it may take more time for them to respond in repentance to the gospel than it does for us to bring them groceries. But they cannot be saved if we don’t share the message of salvation with them (Rom 10:13-15). We cannot afford to delay.
“To only love by meeting physical needs is cheap love. We love most fully when we share the hope only found in Christ.”
Because of this urgency, gospel proclamation must remain central to our ministry. The harsh reality is that people without the gospel are eternally lost—doomed to an unimaginable Hell—if we do not share the truth of the gospel and call them to respond.
To only love by meeting physical needs is cheap love. We love most fully when we share the hope only found in Christ. Then, we can demonstrate his love in our actions.
We Still Meet Physical Needs
I am certainly not implying that we should cease all refugee ministry in order to focus solely on evangelism. The Bible is clear that we should love people in both word and deed. We should continue welcoming refugees with open arms. We should care for them by helping them find jobs, providing for physical needs, and inviting them into our lives. We should teach them about our culture and make an effort to learn about theirs.
There are endless ways to love and serve these families. Commit to doing so. But as you do, you absolutely cannot neglect to share the truth with them.
God in his sovereignty has brought the nations to our doorstep. It is only he who can orchestrate the opportunities we now have to reach unreached peoples in our own neighborhoods. However, we must not forget that ultimately God is working for the glory of his name among all peoples.
He is not just saving people from physical earthly violence and persecution. Our opportunity is to offer them something that surpasses physical provision. We have the glorious privilege to share the only true message of hope they will ever hear—that they may be saved for eternity.
Meredith Cook is a content editor for the International Mission Board. She has an MDiv in missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She lives with her husband in Houston, Texas. Find her on Twitter @MeredithCook716.