diaspora missions

When the Nations Become Our Neighbors: Understanding Diaspora Missions

Just a few blocks from the east side of downtown Houston is the cultural home of a longstanding and historic Mexican-American community. Walls are decorated with murals that recount their history. Across town, just west of the first interstate loop is a small commercial district named the Mahatma Gandhi District, an official title granted by the city in 2010. Go a few miles further west down Bellaire Boulevard, and the street signs eventually turn into Chinese. Further still and the shops and restaurant signs all switch to Vietnamese as you come upon a large statue of a South Vietnamese soldier fighting alongside an American, a tribute by the large Vietnamese community here. Notably, Houston was one of the largest recipient cities of refugees after the Vietnam war. Continue driving, and you will run across countless mosques, Buddhist and Hindu temples, and neighborhoods where English is barely spoken. 

On a global scale, there are more people moving from one country to another than any other point in recorded history. And of all the countries in the world, the United States has the most foreign-born residents.

Admittedly, Houston is an extreme example, considering it is the most diverse city in the United States, but I use it to demonstrate a reality that is increasingly true across North America — cities much smaller than Houston are becoming hubs of international peoples. In 2019, church ministry looks very different than it did only a few generations ago for many, and it's bringing a concept to the forefront of North American missions: diaspora.

What is a diaspora?

The term is new to many, but it has some old roots. In fact, diaspora is a Bible term that means to scatter, like spreading seed across the ground. In the New Testament, it is the term used to identify communities of Jewish people scattered around the Mediterranean. The Jewish diaspora plays a prominent role in the New Testament. We see members of the diaspora returning to Jerusalem for Passover in Acts 2, gathering for Pentecost. As Acts continues, we find the Jewish diaspora communities taking pride of place in Paul's international church planting endeavors. Often, Paul's missionary teams would stop first at the local synagogue in a town in order to proclaim the good news that the Messiah had come (Acts 17:2). 

Since biblical times, the term diaspora has broadened to apply to any group of ethnic people that lives outside of their native land. Anthropologists and sociologists have adopted the terminology, and if you read carefully you will see it in the news. In fact, diaspora populations are a hot topic today, because immigration is a hot topic today. On a global scale, there are more people moving from one country to another than any other point in recorded history. And of all the countries in the world, the United States has the most foreign-born residents. This means that cities across the United States are developing their own communities of diaspora ethnic groups, just like I mentioned here in Houston. 

The swell of migration within the last generation creates new missional opportunities for the church as it seeks to fulfill the Great Commission. In this regard, a relatively new field of mission studies has emerged alongside the uptick in global migration. According to Chandler Im and Tereso Casiño, "diaspora missiology refers to the study of the geographic or demographic mobility of people in various parts of the globe viewed through the lens of God's redemptive plan for 'all nations' (panta ta ethne). It also refers to the exploration of how the body of Christ can participate in this redemptive purpose and work" (Im & Casino, Global Diasporas and Mission). For the local church in North America, these diaspora groups should be a big deal.

How does diaspora missions differ from regular missions?

Working with a minority people instead of working with a majority people in their home context changes things. In traditional cross-cultural missions, the missionary enters the home world of the group he or she is trying to engage with the gospel. They are the cultural outsider attempting to contextualize as a minority in their new setting. Most often, this relationship is flipped in diaspora missions. 

Additionally, diaspora groups exist in a "third culture." As diaspora groups are uprooted from their home culture, they are introduced to other cultures and eventually the majority culture of their new home. This will influence the diaspora group and begin to create a third culture. Effective missions to these groups will require fresh contextualization and cannot merely be based on assumptions from their host culture. 

The last two decades have created a “such a time as this” moment for the church in North America concerning the Great Commission. Many of the least reached peoples are now within arm’s reach of our churches. By reaching them here, we may be able to engage them back at home.

Finally, many of these diaspora groups (most in the United States), are actually Christian in background. In this regard, local churches should not assume all immigrant groups are objects of evangelistic missions but realize that many are new partners in mission.

Why is this important?

The last two decades have created a "such a time as this" moment for the church in North America concerning the Great Commission. Many of the least reached peoples are now within arm's reach of our churches. By reaching them here, we may be able to engage them back at home. Furthermore, global migration brings us Christian voices from around the world. If we learn to partner with these brothers and sisters in Christ, our churches in North America will only benefit from their diverse expressions of the gospel.

Keelan Cook is an Instructor of North American Missiology for Southeastern and serves in the Center for Great Commission Studies as the Coordinator of Diaspora Missions. He also serves as the Senior Church Consultant with the Union Baptist Association in Houston, TX. In previous years, he spent time as a church planter in West Africa with the IMB and doing ethno-graphic research in Washington, DC with NAMB. He and his wife Meredith live in Houston.

Trends in North American Missions Today that Excite Me

I first shared the trends in this article a couple of years ago, and I thought it would be interesting to revisit these trends today. I’m encouraged to say all three seem to have continued to develop, and I am encouraged by the growth of the North American church in these areas. There is still much room to grow, but I am hopeful.

The first three trends I shared previously, and they all concern the shifting face of the North American population. Increasingly, North American churches are realizing that North America is a mission field but many different mission fields. The staggering growth of the foreign born population in recent decades brought some of the least reached people in the world within arms reach of local churches. Furthermore, cities are increasingly diverse, and that means many cultures on top of each other that all need contextualized expressions of the gospel. Needless to say, churches must realize that no cultural expression of the gospel is “one size fits all.” Each of these first three trends take this new reality in North America seriously.

Churches must realize that no cultural expression of the gospel is “one size fits all.”
— Keelan Cook

The final trend is one that I am adding this time. For a long time, church planting has been a priority conversation in North American missions. For some, the traditional planter-pastor model of church planting is roughly equivalent to North American missions. However, the priority is changing as a renewal movement swells concerning the large number of unhealthy and declining churches across America. 

Diaspora Missions as a Church-based Missions Strategy

Diaspora missions is the fancy term for working with people groups when they migrate somewhere other than their home. For example, engaging unreached people groups in America would be considered “diaspora missions.” Of course, I am biased on this one, because it is what we do with the Peoples Next Door Project. In fact, it is what this website is all about!

Nevertheless, the rise of both awareness and activity concerning unreached peoples in the United States is one of the most exciting trends in missions today. Only a few years ago, it was common for the reality of unreached peoples in North America to never cross the mind of an average church member. That is a far smaller number today. In fact, it seems as though more and more missions agencies and local churches are talking about the changing face of America and the need to reach the growing number of international and unreached peoples.

Of course, various strategies are being developed, but I think local church-based strategies stand out among them as the most important. The old “find a guy and resource him” strategy is not the leading edge of this work. Instead, training and equipping local churches to discover and engage people groups around them with simple, reproducible church planting strategies seems to be the better road. Of course, there will always be places for that missions specialist or resourced pastor/planter. However, that model simply does not scale to the size of the problem. It usually leads to addition rather than multiplication. 

Moving forward, my hope is that we see a focus on local church equipping that (a) gives them a heart for the nations in their own community, (b) empowers them to actually go out and meet these people in a way where they can do cultural acquisition, and (c) gives them simple tools for leading Bible studies that can become church plants.

The Rise of “Apostolic” Church Planting Methods in North America

Alongside the above trend is the gaining momentum of “apostolic” methods of church planting in North America. In this model, the planter usually does not become the pastor of the church. Instead, they plant a church, help it move toward health and reproducibility, and then move on to start another. It is called “apostolic” because it is more akin to Paul’s model in the New Testament. This is, of course, different than the planter-pastor model where one or more guys move somewhere to start a church and eventually pastor it. I do believe there is a place for the more traditional North American Church Planting model, and I am excited about the uptick in that as well.

With that said, there are some important convictions I believe the apostolic approach brings to the table. First off, the model focuses on reproducibility and multiplication. In other words, this model is not about planting only one church but initiates conversations about reproduction from the very beginning. Second, the emphasis is on growth through conversion, not transfer. In other words, this model most often starts with a group of unbelievers in an evangelistic Bible study that can become a church. Comparatively, the more traditional church plants tend to grow primarily through transfer growth, or existing Christians who switch churches or move into the area. Finally, it shifts the paradigm of mission from a “come and see” model to a “go and tell” model.

Of course, apostolic models will have some hurdles in our context, and that needs to be stated. In the days ahead, I would love to see some good dialogue between advocates of both models so best practices can develop. If you want to know more about this, JD Payne wrote a helpful book on the issue fittingly titled, Apostolic Church Planting.

No Longer “The West to the Rest”

The third one is nothing new, but it sure does excite me. I have written before about how missions is changing, and this may be the most important way. Since the beginning of the modern missions movement some two hundred years ago, missions has largely been seen as a Western enterprise. In other words, developed nations in the West would send missionaries to developing, unreached nations in the East and South. However, this is no longer the case. Missions is from everywhere to everywhere now.

The US is being supplanted as the number one sender of missionaries, as countries like Brazil, China, and South Korea become missionary sending forces around the globe. Missions is no longer “the West to the rest.” When I served in West Africa, I worked with a whole team of Brazilian missionaries. They often made better missionaries than we Americans, too. They took a fraction of the money we used and did more imbedded missions work.

In addition, many of the international peoples that are coming to the US come evangelized. Much to most of the church planting in North America right now is not being done by us. It is being done by groups moving in from the Global South and starting churches for their own people. The question this raises for us is, how do we partner with them, both as they send overseas and as they come here and establish churches? How do we help equip and fan the flame without trying to control or manipulate their work?

The Rise of Replanting

In the past two years since I first named the above trends, a focus on replanting dying churches has emerged, and that is worth noting. Certainly, revitalization has been a topic for a while, but as the generational turnover and rapid cultural shifts in our nation are occurring, there is a resulting wave of declining churches. Among SBC churches, we regularly celebrate the fact that we are planting somewhere just over 1,000 churches per year, but many do not know that we are closing just under a 1,000 a year as well. Church planting is necessary and needed, but if we’re ever going to multiply, we have to close the back door. 

The process of replanting steps into that gap. Replanting is often a more radical process than traditional revitalization. Essentially, it’s the process of relaunching a church with a different identity and structure after a period of intense assessment and reconfiguration. Recently, Mark Clifton of the North American Mission Board noted that over 200 churches have been replanted through cooperative efforts by local associations and conventions.

Instead of just waiting for these churches to die out while trying to plant a new one next door, this concept of replanting and revitalizing existing congregations is gaining momentum. For me, that is an encouraging sign. It reveals that the care of existing congregations and the desire to see them once again involved in the Great Commission should, at least in some instances, take priority over expediency.