This article first appeared in the Effective Evangelism column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 44, number 4 (2021).
For further information or to support the Christian Research Journal please click here.
When you support the Journal, you join the team and help provide the resources at equip.org that minister to people worldwide. These resources include our ever-growing database of over 2,000 articles, as well as our free Postmodern Realities podcast.
Another way you can support our online articles is by leaving us a tip. A tip is just a small amount, like $3, $5, or $10, which is the cost of a latte, lunch out, or coffee drink. To leave a tip, click here
By European standards, my living room was spacious but not quite spacious enough to comfortably seat the thirty young adults who gathered there for Bible study. On one side of me sat a PhD student from Hong Kong, on the other, a young woman from Peru. She was deep in conversation with two interns from Norway. Across the room, a student from Nigeria practiced her French with another student from Paris. Germans, Brazilians, Australians, Indians, Taiwanese, and Brits were scattered around the room. The vibrant conversation gradually abated as I spoke up to welcome the group and give a brief introduction. My Romanian friend would be leading our discussion that night.
When I moved to France to plant a church, I expected to encounter French nationals; I did not expect to encounter the nations. Soon after arriving in Lyon, my wife and I became involved in an international church with a heart to reach the college and career demographic of our city. The need was evident. The call was clear. We simply opened the door of our home. We did not advertise but started by inviting the handful of students we knew. Others followed. They came for a homecooked meal, a caring environment, and an opportunity to talk and be heard. Our outreach ministry continued to thrive and grow until our return to the United States in 2019.
The realities of ethnic diversity are pervasive in major European cities. But even in less multicultural areas of the United States, it is becoming increasingly common to encounter people who do not hold American passports, or who were born in countries outside the U.S.1 Our cities are taking on a more cosmopolitan flare. In this, the American church has been given a unique opportunity to go by staying — that is, to go to the nations by letting God bring the nations to our doorstep. Christians must now marshal the courage to open the door to relationships that were once reserved for sent missionaries. While there is no formula that guarantees a successful ministry to the internationals in our communities, there are at least three ways the church can engage the nations at home. This engagement happens 1) through invitation into fellowship, 2) through actively seeking to understand new cultures, and 3) through focusing ministry on the person and work of Jesus Christ rather than on secondary and tertiary matters.
Inviting the Nations. One unifying feature of human behavior is a common desire for basic emotional and relational needs to be met through community. Internationals may be open to forming relationships with neighbors belonging to their host nation, if for no other reason than to fill a relational void and to experience connection to their new environment. This is particularly true when individuals from a common language and culture are unable to create homogenous communities for lack of numbers or proximity to one another. Relational beings inevitably seek relationship. While the issues surrounding the integration and acculturation of immigrants and visitors to the United States are complex and beyond the scope of this article, it is uncontroversial to suggest that people are naturally inclined to seek community, friendship, and acceptance.
Not only does community meet a relational need; it meets a deep spiritual need that can be actualized only through union with Christ and with His body, the church (1 Cor. 12:12–13; Eph. 2:11–22). The underpinnings of community-amplifying fellowship are evident from the very beginnings of the church (Acts 2:42–47). The Bible repeatedly construes the building up of Christian community as a vital feature of obedience to Christ and sanctifying growth (Heb. 10:24–25). Consider Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:18–20: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”2
Jesus’ missional command to His disciples is centered first on bringing the nations into the community of faith. This is represented through the covenant sign of baptism. Further, Jesus commands His disciples to equip new disciples to follow Him by teaching them to obey the totality of His instruction. This instruction converges on Jesus’ call to repent from sin and to believe in His atoning sacrifice on the cross and resurrection from the dead.
In the original Greek of the New Testament, Jesus’ missional imperative is not in the verb go, but in the verb make.3 This is not to say that going out is merely ancillary to disciple-making. But it does suggest that the Great Commission might have more to do with who the nations represent (ethnicities and peoples) than with where those nations are found. Likewise, the imperatival strength of Jesus’ command places greater weight on what is preached (obedience to the teaching of Jesus) than with where the preaching takes place. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the rhetorical force of Jesus’ words is found in the command to His disciples to bring others under the teaching of Jesus, that they would come to know Him as the true and living Word of God (John 1:1, 14), and to have life in His name (John 20:31). Disciple-making can happen in our own backyard, quite literally. The first step is invitation.
Understanding Your Audience. When I moved to France to serve the Lord through church planting ministry, the burden was on me as a foreigner to study the cultural norms of my host country. The French were not going to become American for my sake. In the same way, internationals living in the U.S. will inevitably be required to learn some things about American culture. The burden of acculturation naturally falls on visitors, whoever they may be. This, however, does not rule out the requisite for Christians to learn something of the culture of those we invite into our homes. Laying aside a few of our cultural distinctives and embracing a few of theirs can convey genuine interest and afford us an opportunity to enter into an otherwise guarded life.
Doing our research communicates that we value others. By creating a relational connection, Christians can generate a culture of trust with their international neighbors. Trust can open doors to deeper conversations about the big questions — ultimate reality, the existence of God, the meaning of life and death. When we actively pursue genuine interest in those around us, we demonstrate the relational attractiveness of the Christian faith. When our relationships with our international neighbors aim at the truth of who God is, we demonstrate the rational cogency of the Christian faith. This serves as a powerful multifaceted apologetic. The relational and the rational are both vital. According to Douglas Groothuis, a biblical apologetic for the Christian faith “invokes both rational legitimacy (objective truth) and emotional appeal (subjective attractiveness).”4 These two pieces working together appeal more fully to the human heart and mind.
International living can evoke feelings of excitement, fear, liberation, and repression all at once. These conflicting feelings sometimes impede openness to the host culture and isolate visitors and immigrants. Christians, who are sensitive to these challenges, are given a unique opportunity to identify the need and reach in, demonstrating the relational attractiveness of the Christ who cares for the lonely and lost. Sometimes the challenges of international living can promote attitudes of openness to new things. Again, the church can respond with open arms. Those who were once subject to strict religious and cultural oversight at home may feel inclined to explore new ideas and experiences when separated from the watchful eye of others. For example, an inquisitive Muslim may feel less inclined to explore his questions about the Christian faith from beneath the shadow of the minaret. But far from home, the possibility of discovering answers might naturally materialize.
Understanding your audience means empathizing with your audience. Empathy develops out of time spent, time asking, and time listening. This is not easy, but it is worth it. Getting it right comes with a risk of getting it wrong. Experience has taught me that when the church reaches out with genuine care for internationals, love covers over a multitude of cultural faux pas.
Keeping It Centered on Christ. For better and worse, America has diffused its products, politics, and cultural distinctives to the world. New arrivals to the U.S. will usually know much more about our political leaders and cultural icons than we will know about theirs. They have listened to our music, used our smartphones, and eaten our fast food. Some internationals will have been negatively impacted by American involvement in their homelands. They may be eager to share opinions and hear ours. This can engender healthy dialogues and opportunities to learn. It can also degenerate into combativeness.
When faced with acrimonious and divisive subjects, the church must remember its call and live a life worthy of it (Eph. 4:1). The mission of the church is not to justify a nation’s foreign policy but to make disciples of the nations. Its mission is not to export a product but to integrate new followers of Jesus. Jesus gave His life to reconcile to Himself people of all nations — those who were “strangers to covenants of promise,” those who were “far off,” and those who by the blood of Jesus are now “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:11–22). —Jonah Haddad
Jonah Haddad (MA) served as a church planter in Lyon, France for more than a decade. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Aberdeen, UK, where he is conducting research in epistemology and skepticism.
- According to the Pew Research Center, more than 40 million people living in the United States in 2020 were foreign born immigrants. See Abby Budiman, “Key Findings About US Immigrants,” August 20, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/08/20/keyfindings-about-u-s-immigrants/.
- All biblical quotations are taken from the English Standard Version.
- A. Carson, “Matthew,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, ed. Frank R. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 595.
- Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 25.