A version of this article first appeared at 9Marks.
Before our church got off the ground a couple years ago, the vision of transforming the city intrigued me. But a few months into our church plant, I would have settled for a transformed marriage or two.
When you’re the only staff pastor of a small church, pulling off a weekly service is hard enough. Beyond that, how can you lead your church into meaningful, sustainable engagement with local unbelievers?
The answer depends on each church’s context. Our church decided to work and pray for a church culture where it’s normal to be in relationship with immigrants and refugees.
Why Minister to Refugees?
There are important theological reasons for investing in the foreign-born. God commanded Israel to love the sojourner, as a reflection of his care for the vulnerable and a reminder of their sojourn in Egypt (Deut. 10:18-19). Surely we too, as “sojourners and exiles” in this world (1 Pet. 2:11), should be drawn to those who are cut off from everything familiar and are, in so many ways, helpless.
Yet in this article I want to focus less on the theological rationale, and more on the strategic value of refugee outreach for mobilizing your church in evangelism.
Taking into account the demographics of our city, the extent of our resources, and our overall ministry philosophy, our leaders settled on a couple criteria we want our evangelistic steps to reflect. First, we desire an approach that will not require a ton of work to keep things rolling or to keep people interested. It needs to be somewhat self-sustaining.
Our second criterion dovetails with the first: we are aiming and praying toward a culture of evangelism. We want to see our members embrace an evangelistic way of life that trickles into our conversations with each other, how we spend our time, and how we pray.
On the one hand, working toward a new set of lifestyle norms in your congregation is more intensive than an event- or program-driven approach. You never cross culture-building off your to-do list. It requires singular focus, intentionality, modeling. But it’s also true that culture-building doesn’t require the same staff-dependent plate-spinning that’s necessary to pull off large events or refuel beleaguered programs. In a church plant, what you lack in staff and financial resources you more than make up for in what you might call “motivated malleability.” What I mean is that your church culture is largely there for the shaping, and your people are more likely to be eager self-starters.
Guided by these criteria, we are calling our people to engage their lives with immigrants and refugees. More and more people from countries hostile to the gospel are settling in American cities every year. And opportunities for relationship-building and gospel-motivated service among them are low-hanging fruit. We haven’t seen revival yet, but we’re inching closer to the place where it is normal in our church to be in relationship with foreign-born unbelievers.
Four Tips for Reaching out to Refugees
If you believe this strategy may work in your context, here are a few steps we’ve taken that could help you get started.
1. Identify faithful ministries already doing good work among the foreign-born in your city. Especially if your church is small, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel if there are already ministries that can facilitate the kind of relational engagement you’re aiming for. Chances are these ministries exist in your city and they need volunteers. You’re looking for an individual or team already embedded in an immigrant community who wants to hand off some of their relationships. You might start by checking out organizations like World Relief, InterFACE Ministries, and the North American Mission Board.
2. Find a person or a team to coordinate volunteers from your church. If you’re a pastor, given the diversity of your responsibilities, this outreach culture isn’t likely to get very far if it’s solely on you to recruit volunteers and connect them to ministry opportunities. You need a quarterback. You want someone who understands and embraces the vision to own responsibility for recruiting, training, and connecting those who step up.
3. Find a useful pathway for relationships. The needs that come with resettling in a drastically new place can be debilitating, so it isn’t difficult to identify service opportunities that lead naturally into relationships. Medicine can be a good option. We have a number of folks with medical training in our church, and we try to funnel them as volunteers to a medical clinic in our community that assists newly arrived refugees.
Other opportunities promise even more sustainable relationships. Our first avenue was forming playgroups between some moms in our church and moms in an immigrant community. It’s amazing what kids can do to diffuse cross-cultural awkwardness. And who doesn’t love a good playdate?
English-language learning is another huge opportunity. Helping someone with conversational English is a perfect pathway into relationship, and it only requires setting aside regular time to meet and talk.
These service opportunities are not pretexts; they’re legitimate ways to meet needs and show love. But what you’re aiming for is meaningful, life-integrated friendships.
4. Celebrate and champion this culture using your ordinary pastoral tools—like preaching, prayer, and membership interviews. If the pastor is responsible for keeping outreach efforts afloat through other kinds of administrative work, things probably won’t end well. Instead, cast vision and celebrate what God is doing in order to stir up others’ desire for the work.
So I look for opportunities in sermon application to encourage people in these relationships. I often focus on our outreach work in my pastoral prayers, sometimes praying for individual volunteers by name. And the new member interview—a frontline, culture-shaping moment—is a perfect chance to ask someone to consider taking on a relationship with a foreign-born individual or family.