Every day, the media trumpets unsettling news about global instability, terrorism, immigration debates, and ethnic tension. Add to this the natural, fallen tendency to distrust people who are different from ourselves, and it can seem like a very bad time to talk about reaching out to people from other cultures.
But I think it’s just the opposite.
This is a great time for Christians to confound the world and proactively reach out with the gospel to the strangers in our midst. Whatever we may think about immigration and refugee policies, I hope we can all agree that everyone made in God’s image is worthy of hearing the message of hope in the gospel. And a friendly word may be more precious than ever to our foreign neighbors today.
Many of us don’t have to board international flights to reach people from other religions and cultures. We just need to open our eyes, look around, and engage the nations in our own cities and towns. Strangely, gospel work right here at home can seem more daunting than a two-week trip around the globe. Many people don’t know where to start, where to find unreached populations, or how to engage them with the gospel. But if we are spending good effort to see the gospel taken to places distant from us, it makes sense to notice the people that God has brought to our own doorsteps. Here are some ways we can do just that:
Strangely, gospel work right here at home can seem more daunting than a two-week trip around the globe.
1. Research. A first step is to find out who from other cultures and ethnic groups live in your area. This is as simple as opening your eyes as you drive around different parts of your city. Are there a lot of “Halal” food markets in a part of town near you? Chances are you have Muslims neighbors. Visiting ethnic grocery stores can be an especially good way to learn about and connect with specific ethnic or religious communities. These markets often have bulletin boards with information about events, festivals, and community needs that might provide opportunities to find out more and build relationships. Of course, just doing some straightforward online demographic research about your community can be easy and useful too.
2. Take initiative. Whatever you discover about your community, it will generally take initiative and encouragement to get your congregation engaged. In my local church, we concluded that the main population of internationals in our vicinity was students. So we began to pray occasionally in our public prayer meetings that God would allow us to reach international students with the gospel.
Reliance on God in prayer, however, is not the enemy of human initiative. One of our elders took initiative too. He sat down with a fellow church member who had himself been converted as an international student from Singapore while in London. This young man began hosting a Bible study for international students to model and encourage this outreach. Over time, it developed into English-language classes on two local university campuses and a network of church members meeting one-on-one with students interested in studying the Bible in English. Ultimately, more than fifty church members were meeting each week to explore the Bible with students from countries where evangelism is severely restricted.
3. Try different things. What might that look like in your own congregation? It could mean hosting English classes at your church, or members joining local adult soccer clubs dominated by internationals. It might mean connecting with efforts to resettle refugees or volunteering to meet newly arriving international students at the airport. Each of these can be a great entry point. But the best way to reach out to internationals may simply be your friendliness and openness when you bump into them in shops, on the street, or in your neighborhood.
4. Talk to people. One member of our church met a Muslim woman who’d begun working in the shop where she had her hair styled. During their first meeting, the Christian woman mentioned she was getting her hair done for a friend’s wedding. Then she asked the Muslim woman—clearly new to our country—if she had ever been to a Christian wedding. She had not. So right then and there this Christian invited the woman to join her for the wedding at our church that weekend. The woman came, she heard the gospel, and a new friendship was born. It can be as easy as that.
5. Practice international hospitality. Most visitors and recent immigrants are naturally eager to meet locals and understand the local culture. Sadly, it’s often reported that 80 percent of international students never see the inside of an American home during their stay. Long-term immigrants seem to fare only a little better. This is a great opportunity for Christians to exercise hospitality. Holidays are especially good times to do this. Nearly every major holiday, our family has at least one or two international students join us for a meal. In the process, we are able to share with them our supreme thanks for the grace God has extended to us in Christ, as well as expose them to some pretty amusing food and cultural traditions.
6. Prepare to be patient. However you go about pursuing relationships with internationals, you should recognize some of the challenges involved. For starters, the time expectations of internationals can sometimes take Americans by surprise. Other cultures often have much greater time expectations for friendships. You need to be prepared and willing to educate your international friends about your culture by kindly setting boundaries that are appropriate for you and your family.
You’ll also need a great deal of patience for long-term investment in relationships. Often a lot of underbrush needs to be cleared away before the gospel begins to take root. North American culture is far from Christian, but it does seem that many North Americans have some passing affinity for the gospel, whether through parents, relatives, or friends. And there is at least some cultural fluency with gospel ideas, even if twisted.
But for many of our friends from other cultures, there is none of that. They may have never known a Christian before and have no affinity for the Bible or the gospel. Persons from Muslim or some Hindu communities may have been taught to hate Christians and the Bible. Or your international friends may have come from a radically secular culture, as in much of China, where theistic belief is equated with mental deficiency. God can and will do whatever he pleases, but in the normal course of things, it usually takes a good bit of time and patience to work through the questions that these cultural hurdles create. But the fruit is always worth whatever effort it takes.
*This article is adapted from Andy’s book, "Missions: How the Local Church Goes Global"