Are Immigrants The American Church’s Greatest Untapped Outreach Opportunity?

World Map DarkI stood transfixed by the sensory overload as I was assaulted by the array of sights, smells and sounds of the open market. I had seen similar markets throughout the world, from Mexico to Mumbai, teeming with people of all ages as they searched for everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to rebuilt household appliances.

Looking around, I found myself standing next to a table overflowing with cockfighting DVDs, while the aroma of taquitos, empanadas and tamales tantalized my nostrils and the sounds of a myriad Spanish dialects flooded my ears with both spoken and musical words.

Like being suddenly awakened from a dream, it took me a few moments to adjust to my surroundings and realize that I was not in Mexico, or Honduras, or Bolivia, or Argentina or any of the countries my travels had taken me. I was, in fact, right here in NW Georgia, just a few miles from our little farmstead.

On any given Saturday, metro Atlanta provides an opportunity to visit, Jamaica, Nigeria, India, S.E. Asia, and a host of Latin American countries without ever leaving the I-75 corridor. The abundance of flea and farmers’ markets in our region can virtually transport us anywhere around the world. It’s like EPCOT without the outrageous admission fees. And I love it!

As someone who has spent much of my adult life as a Christian Missionary, or working for Mission organizations, I can’t help but see an opportunity for the Gospel that in most cases we are allowing to slip by.  So I thought I’d take a few moments and hopefully move it to the front burner.

Recently, David Platt, President of the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board, and author of the best-selling book ‘Radical’ announced that due to lack of resources, the FMB was being forced to reduce the number of personnel stationed around the world. I’m not a Baptist, but my heart still sank. The fact is, what’s true for our Baptist cousins, is true for the rest of the American Christian Church as well.

If we look under the covers, we can find several reasons why our ability to send more dollars and missionaries has been reduced, and someday soon, I’ll tackle some of those, but for now, I want to highlight a silver lining to our predicament. While we are being forced to cut back on ‘going’ and ‘sending’ (God have mercy on us), the world is coming to us!

Leaving aside the thorny political issue of illegal immigration, the fact is, millions of foreign nationals live in our communities with millions more on the way.  This influx provides the Christian Community with unprecedented opportunities for outreach and service.

Off the top of my head, I’m thinking our congregations could offer English classes, job opportunities, classes in how to find a job, basic literacy, how to budget and handle money classes. We could offer basic services like assisting a family to find housing or basic auto maintenance. We could assist these new arrivals in finding medical care. In fact, what if health care professionals in our churches volunteered time to serve these families in the same way we often go overseas to set up clinics? (Think, ‘Doctors without Borders’ who don’t need to cross boarders).

Perhaps we could begin offering worship and outreach services targeted at immigrant populations, or even planting Churches among them. (For the record and before some of you blow a gasket, yes, I believe in assimilation, but I don’t believe in waiting for that before reaching out with the hope and love of Jesus.). I can close my eyes and see a mighty army of world changers who already understand cultures and languages that would take American nationals years to learn, being sent out from our Churches to places we’ve never gone, or maybe never been allowed to go.

We have the world at our doorstep; and unlimited opportunity to serve in Jesus’ name. We don’t need mission boards or parachurch organizations to reach them.  Our opportunities will vary with the immigrant makeup of our own communities. Where my wife and I live it will be mostly Hispanic, but other places may be Haitian, Jamaican, Indian, Pakistani, Nigerian, Filipino, Chinese, or a host of other nationalities. All we need to do is open our eyes and hearts to discover ‘the fields are ripe for harvest’ right outside our windows.

Our colleges and universities are also home to large numbers of young adults from other places. Many of them are confused and lonely and could use some real friends, even if we do look and sound funny to them. I have been an immigrant, far from what is familiar, and know first hand how wonderful it is to be truly welcomed by someone in my adopted country. The Church should be leading the way in welcoming foreign students.

I don’t mean to bore anyone with a Greek lesson, but when we look at Matthew 28:19, 20 (The Great Commission) in the Greek we find the command is ‘Make Disciples’. ‘Go’, ‘baptize’ and ‘teach’ are participles describing HOW we make disciples. I have some great news, sometimes we don’t have to ‘Go’ very far.  Sometimes the world is no farther away than, well, the other side of our front doors.

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