In the last couple of years, while preparing and signing the paperwork for many of our missionaries’ visas in Eurasia, and in light of the ever increasing limitations to missionaries to acquire immigration status in the countries where we serve, an intriguing thought came to mind: “Most missionaries are immigrants, volunteer immigrants.” Conversely, I thought, “Many immigrants may be missionaries, involuntary missionaries.”
This is not the first time that the connection between mission and migration has been made. In fact, throughout the history of God’s people, God has accomplished God’s mission by moving people from land to land. One may say that a big part of God’s movement resides on the mobility of God’s people.
It all started with Abram. In Genesis 12, the Lord said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you” (v.1). Abram obeyed; and, throughout his journey of obedience, God fulfilled the promise and made him into a blessed great nation. God’s people have always been people on the move. As an established nation, the people of Israel had to move numerous times. From the very beginning, God told Jacob, “Go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there” (Genesis 46:3). Years later, when the people of Israel had forgotten about their migratory past, God reminded them that God’s movement was often entrusted to people from other lands. God instructed them later to love the foreigners living among God’s people “because you were foreigners living in Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34, GWT).
The story of God’s movement through the mobility of God’s people continued throughout the Old Testament. Whether it was through exile and persecution, God always accompanied God’s people and commanded them to transform the host land in which they were planted. Jeremiah 29:4- 7 summarizes the “theology of exile”—God’s instructions for people whom God carried into exile from their homeland—when God mandated the people to: “Build houses and settle down, plant gardens and eat what they produce…Increase in number there, do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile” (vv. 5-7).
And Jesus himself was a refugee. When He was a child, His family had to move to Egypt to save His life (Matthew 2:13-15). Then, He told us to go!
The Early Church
Jesus promised that His church was to be His witness in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (see Acts 1:8). To accomplish that, He put again His people on the move. The first believers migrated and were scattered because of the persecution against the church in Jerusalem. So, “those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:4). Philip went to Samaria, and there are many oral traditions that record the apostles traveling to faraway places to preach the word (Thomas to India, Barnabas back to Cyprus, etc.)
The exponential growth of the Early Church depended on scattered believers reaching out to pockets of immigrant population around the ancient world. The Jewish people ended up being scattered by the religious, political, and social conditions that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem (among other things). Many of the apostles focused their ministry among pockets of migrant Jews throughout Asia Minor and Rome. Paul’s strategy in Asia Minor, while intended to target the Gentiles, started at the synagogues of the immigrant Jews in places like Derbe, Thessalonica, Athens, and Corinth (see Acts 16-18). Interestingly enough, Paul went to the scattered Jews—immigrants of their time—to bring God’s mission to the Gentiles.
The immigrant nature of the Early Church was so prevalent that the gospel was shared in Rome, not in the language of the empire (Latin) but in the language of the immigrants (Hebrew and Greek). And the movement continued.
The Church of the Nazarene
As a missional church, the Church of the Nazarene has also been a movement of people on the move worldwide. The second missionary work, which predates the denominational merger at Pilot Point, Texas, in 1908, was started by John J. Diaz, a Cape Verdean convert who returned to his island with the message of Holiness in 1901. Like Diaz, other Nazarene immigrants sojourned back to their home countries to start or continue missionary work. A few notable examples are the following: Rev. Santos Elizondo, an immigrant from Mexico, who converted in Los Angeles, and helped open the work among Hispanics in El Paso, then returned to Mexico and opened the work in Juarez. J. I. Nagamatsu, Hiroshi Kitagawa, and Nobumi Isayama were all immigrants from Japan working in California when they encountered the Church of the Nazarene. Each eventually made his way back to Japan. They did not open the Japan field, but they were the first indigenous leaders there. Nagamatsu was the first district superintendent there and Kitagawa was the second.
In Europe alone, several works have been started because of immigrants who, having received Christ and His message of holiness in their homeland, have taken the message to the new lands in which they have been planted. Examples abound: In Portugal, the church was started with and by immigrants from Cape Verde; in France, the church was started by immigrants from Martinique, Haiti, and Egypt; in Spain, the core of the Church of the Nazarene today is composed primarily of immigrants from Latin America. In those cases Nazarenes from mature mission fields have migrated to other parts of the world and they have taken the message and the doctrine along. This is also true for the church in America.
In a 1987 manuscript, “Internationalization and Ethnicity: Nazarene Problems and Accomplishments,”* Pre-eminent Nazarene historian Timothy L. Smith suggested that the success of our missionary work outside of the United States, and particularly in Latin America, “yielded a number of immigrants who had assumed a Nazarene identity before they moved across the border” and that they gave new vigor to the work among Hispanic-Americans. Smith correctly predicted that “the rapid growth of our Mexican districts, and in general of our Spanish-speaking work throughout Latin America, [will make] all of us aware of the connections between what were once thought of chiefly as foreign missions and the immense opportunity of evangelizing the rapidly multiplying Spanish-speaking population in the southwestern states.” Twenty-plus years later, it has become apparent that a significant portion of the growth of the Church of the Nazarene in America has been fueled by the immigration patterns of Nazarenes who have arrived in America with a Nazarene identity that is Christian, Holiness, and Missional.
But like in the early days of the church of Christ, migration does not happen only from mature mission fields. The Church of the Nazarene in Kosovo is led by a young Albanian immigrant who received Christ in his homeland. With very little knowledge but a lot of passion and conviction, this young believer is at the heart of a transformational mission in Kosovo.
Most recently, a young couple from the CIS field has moved to Moldova and now they are planting the Church of the Nazarene there. She is a Russian citizen whose father is a Cuban pastor who received Christ in the Church of the Nazarene in Cuba and married a Russian believer. He is an Ukrainian believer who received Christ as a result of the drug and alcohol rehabilitation ministries there. Together, they have engaged in the migratory movement of God to reach other nations.
Implications for Mission Strategy
Several conclusions can be drawn from Scripture, history, and the recent global realities of cross-migration. The most important one is that God has chosen the mobility of people as one of the ways to accomplish God’s mission. The Church of the Nazarene can continue fulfilling its mission as it intentionally emphasizes a “Missiology of Migration” that considers some practical strategic implications.
God’s promise to reach “our Jerusalem, our Judea, our Samaria, and the ends of the earth” will be fulfilled. God uses the geographical mobility of God’s people to accomplish God’s mission.
Global migration is not a new phenomenon. Most successful missionary movements have included a migratory element (from the missionary as a temporary immigrant, to the migration of believers who carry the good news to new locations).
“Foreigners” in our land can be effective instruments of God’s mission, especially among people groups that are hard to reach through traditional missionary work. Current trends on urban evangelization suggest that ministering to pockets of migrant populations may result not only on new believers in the host country, but on the possibility of new believers returning to their homeland (which may otherwise be hostile) as agents of God’s mission.
Immigrant believers are often instruments of God’s revival and spiritual renewal because they bring to the host country some of the deepest spiritual and doctrinal values that they received from exemplary missionaries who exposed them to the gospel.
Regardless of each culture’s view on immigration (from the integrationist policies of France to the restrictive policies of Denmark), there will always be people who will stay in the host country. All of them bring along different culture, religion, and values. Intentional ministry to the pockets of immigration (like the model of the apostle Paul) could result in transformation of entire migrant populations on behalf of the Church and the kingdom of God.
by Gustavo Crocker
Eurasia Regional Director
*Historian Timothy L. Smith’s scholarly paper was shared at a 1987 ANSR Conference (Association of Nazarene Sociologists) and also appeared in the book, Evangelism and Social Redemption, edited by Albert L. Truesdale, Jr. and Steve Weber (Beacon Hill Press, 1987). It can be read online at http://www.nazarene. org/files/docs/Internationalization%20and%20 Ethnicity.pdf.