Immigration and the Great Commission

Scripture instructs us to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5 ESV), viewing all of life through the lens of a biblical worldview. On the issue of immigration, though—polarizing and controversial everywhere, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the border state of Texas, where I live—I worry that too few Christians have ever subjected their opinions to the teachings of the Bible. The stakes are high, because if American Christians fail to think biblically about immigrants, we may largely miss what Albert Mohler calls an unprecedented “Great Commission opportunity.”

Throughout history, God has been at work through the migration of people to advance His purposes. While the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) certainly sometimes requires going, God in his sovereignty has also brought the nations to us. That our nation is home to more immigrants than any other in the world—41.3 million individuals, representing more than 13 percent of the U.S. population—is no accident: Scripture tells us that “From one man [God] made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.” God orchestrates the movement of people and where they settle for a purpose: so that human beings whom he had made in his image, whom he sent his Son to die for “would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him” (Acts 17:26-27 NIV 1984).

Many of those who settle in our country are already believers. I’ve personally seen how many of these immigrant brothers and sisters have been a blessing to the Church within the U.S., instilling new life into congregations and entire denominations in need of revival. Christian immigrants are often the most culturally competent leaders to reach those of their own ethnic communities living in the U.S. and those remaining in their home countries. Others reach beyond their communities as cross-cultural missionaries within the U.S.

Other immigrants to the U.S., though, are not yet believers. In fact, the International Mission Board estimates that there are about 360 unreached people groups represented in the United States. We can and should try to reach those people in their countries of origin, but why wouldn’t we also reach out when they become our literal neighbors? “Something is missionally malignant,” says pastor J.D. Payne of The Church at Brook Hills, “when we are willing to make great sacrifices to travel the world to reach a people group but not willing to walk across the street.”

My sense is that too many believers have allowed a political narrative about immigrants to blind them to this missional opportunity. In fact, by our own admission, 88% of white evangelicals surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2010 said that their views on immigration are primarily informed by factors other than their faith. I suspect that’s a significant factor as to why a slight majority of white evangelical Christians say that they think of immigrants (without any reference to their legal status or country of origin) as a threat to American values. By fixating on what they believe to be a threat, too many are missing the Great Commission opportunity. LifeWay Research finds that most Protestant churches in the U.S. are not involved in assisting local immigrants at all. And here’s what I think is the most troubling statistic: among people of non-Christian religious traditions living within the U.S.—most of them immigrants—60% say they do not “personally know” a Christian. Not that they’ve never been to church or never heard the gospel, but that they do not actually know a Christian. We’re doing a rather poor job of reaching out, and I’m convinced that the acceptance of a fear-based political narrative about immigrants is a major factor.

The only cure to this “missional malignancy” is to apply the truth of Scripture, even when that means wading into a controversy many would rather avoid. The Bible actually has a lot to say on the topic of immigration—with repeated commands to love, welcome, and seek justice for immigrants, and warnings of God’s judgment upon those who fail to do so—and yet just 16% of white evangelicals ever recall hearing the topic of immigration discussed at church. For those of us called to pastor others, we have work to do to ensure that those entrusted to our discipleship are thinking in distinctly biblical, missional ways about both the challenges and opportunities of immigration. The Evangelical Immigration Table has a number of resources to help.

Finally, though I think a politically-targeted message has largely been responsible for this message, it’s also important to engage the public policy discussions around immigration with a distinctly biblical, missional perspective. First of all, advocating for just policies is part of our call as Christians to seek justice, with a particular concern for the vulnerable. But, secondly, I find that most evangelical Christians—across the political spectrum—actually agree with the policy solutions advocated by most evangelical leaders, which disavow the extremes of amnesty and open borders on one side or mass deportation and ending legal migration on the other. Learning that there are reasonable ways forward that both honor the law and extend compassion actually reassures most Christians, allowing them to see past their political reservations to love, welcome, and share the hope of the gospel with the immigrants in their community in obedience to Scripture.