This paper looks at migration as an ancient reality and a growing trend. It addresses the important question of what happens when migration is missional.
Lightyear is a social researcher working in Southeast Asia, training governments in good practice and churches in cross-cultural mission.
Mission Round Table Vol. 12 No. 2 (May-Aug 2017): 4-8
Migration: a growing trend, an ancient reality
The massive migration of people . . . becomes a threefold challenge to Christian churches. It is a challenge to Christian compassion, to an educational task inside churches, and to a prophetic ministry to society at large. It also becomes a missiological challenge as migrants are open to new commitments of faith.
Migration is, and perhaps has always been, one of the most significant issues in Christian mission. Not only are migration levels at an all-time high in human history but the causes, patterns, and consequences of migration are also undergoing constant change. Much current discussion is around the “immigration” aspects of migration, with church leaders often at the forefront of protests against racially determined anti-immigration politics. However, a focus either on the “migration crisis in Europe” and church responses to the influx of refugees or on “diaspora communities,” obscures both the wider dynamics of the causes, effects, and nature of twenty-first century migration which is characterized by increasingly precarious existences, and the plurality of the migration experience, which in turn can potentially yield a much richer missiology.
In short, migration matters missionally for three reasons: firstly, because it matters to the people we live with (or will live with in the future); secondly, because it matters to the God whom we follow and worship; and thirdly, because people are increasingly absent from where we would expect them to be present, and present where we could not expect them (and the dynamics of this translocation have been, and continue to be, a rich contributor not only to the numerical growth and geographical spread of the gospel, but also to the theological, liturgical, and ecclesiological development of the church).
Whilst migration has been a feature of human civilization since the beginnings of human history, a combination of changing climate, massive population growth, and precarious livelihoods has resulted in significant increases in both the populations of migrants and the complexity of the politics of migration. Migration describes
the movement of a person or a group of persons, either across an international border, or within a State. It is a population movement, encompassing any kind of movement of people, whatever its length, composition and causes; it includes migration of refugees, displaced persons, economic migrants, and persons moving for other purposes, including family reunification.
Diaspora, refugees, migrants, and sojourners: when words matter
Recent nationalist political movements in Western Europe and the United States have been fueled by anti-immigration rhetoric. The subsequent debates on immigration tend to narrow the discourse to problematic arrivals rather than the wider conditions which are resulting in ever-increasing numbers of people moving from their places of origin. The issue of agency is also complex: reducing migration debates to “economic” or “political” or “forced” or “voluntary” reasons obscures or elides the interplay of multiple factors which exert “pushes” and “pulls” and which result in migration. For many, the “choice” to migrate is seldom more than Hobson’s: remain, where there are no jobs, where crops fail, and where dependents need feeding; or leave, with the risks and dislocations which inevitably occur.
Migration is viewed as one of the most significant socio-political issues of the day by most countries in East Asia, whether it be relating to large numbers of guest workers in countries such as Singapore, remittance economies in migrant-sending countries such as the Philippines, massive rural-urban migration in China, or generational depletion in rural areas of Myanmar. Again, binary analyses of whether migration is positive or negative miss the point: inevitably there are “winners” (a certain cadre of migrants and the businesses who benefit from cheap and flexible labour) as well as “losers” (workers who undertake significant risk, often accrue debt, and live in precarious conditions). But beyond this, there frequently exists a set of “trade-offs” in which monetary gain (higher wages) may be offset by social loss (separation from family, mental illness, and dislocation). The point is, migration is happening on a huge scale, with multiple and massive impacts on communities within East Asia. Like the tide, it is moving, drawing with it an array of people and groups.
The term “diaspora” has also been used to describe migrants. But whilst the original use of the term broadly encapsulated migration and colonization, literature has also identified multiple applications of the term, recognizing the different forms of transnational communities. Whilst diaspora communities may emerge from migration, not all migrants can be considered diaspora. Moreover, whereas migration describes the process and politics of people movement, diaspora is a term better used to describe the identity politics of those who have moved—and even there, not all migrants are diaspora. Here, I will use the term migration, as opposed to diaspora, for three reasons. Firstly, by considering migration we are able to take into account the social dynamics and politics of leaving, arriving, staying, and returning, whilst simultaneously considering the implications of these for those who did not migrate. The reality that some are left behind is critical in our consideration of missional migration. Secondly, the current trends in migration tend towards less “rooted” identities in the host country. This means that a large number of migrants do not develop any sense of diaspora identity. (Think of Myanmar migrant workers on fishing boats.) Finally, by considering migration, we are also able to dialogue with the issue using the terms in which it is being discussed in the world in which migrants themselves live and breathe, a world characterized by uncertainty, precarity, and increasingly narrow choices.
Taking a wider “transnational perspective” enables us to see international migrants
not as anomalies, but rather as representatives of an increasingly globalized world who have found it possible to have multiple localities and identities . . . who are anchored neither in their place of origin nor their place of destination.
Guest workers in Singapore on their day off
God on the move
Migration has, and continues to be, a major phenomenon in the lives of God’s people. In Migration Through the Eyes of Faith, Robert Heimburger describes “a Christian account of migration [arising] from a reading of Deuteronomy 10, circling around a God who migrates with God’s people, a God who loves them and calls them to love migrants”.
Taking the broad view of migration as including different degrees of voluntary agency, biblical examples abound. Abraham’s migration took place in response to God’s command (Gen 12:1–5), food insecurity (Gen 12:5), and conflict due to resource scarcity (Gen 13:7–18). Migration to Egypt (Genesis 46) and the great exodus from Egypt (Exod 13) presaged a prolonged period of statelessness before the Israelites entered the promised land. Exile (2 Chr 36, Dan 1:1–6) and return (Neh 2:11) nonetheless resulted in a significant dispersion (John 7:35), and the identity of God’s people became enshrined in liturgical language: “You shall say, My Father was a wandering Aramean” (Deut 26:5). “Dispersion,” described in the Hebrew Scriptures by seven different root words which encompass exile, winnowing, banishment, scattering, dispersing, scattering abroad, and separating and in the New Testament by two Greek words (diaspora and diaspeiro), describes a chequered history of voluntary and involuntary movement which had, by the time of the early church, resulted in a global Jewish diaspora. Viewed through the longer lens of Christian history, the dispersion is seen as a preparation for the gospel age, and fulfilment of Israel’s calling to be a light to the nations. As Enoch Wan says, “God used the Jewish dispersion to draw forth the understanding of God’s sovereign hand in the scattering and regathering of His people, in using them to be a witness to the nations . . . and in preparing the way for the coming of Christ.”
The early church was itself dispersed through persecution and command (Acts) and the subsequent spread of the early Christian faith is largely characterized as much by the missional activities of migrants and displaced persons, as by organized, intentional mission. In East Asia, for example, John England describes the entry of Christianity into Burma (now Myanmar) at least as early as the ninth and tenth centuries through Indian Christians who settled in Thaton, but were later captured by the Burmese king and put to work in temple construction, where they rather imaginatively left their mark through Christian-influenced frescos on the temple walls.
Migration has played a significant factor in the growth and global spread of religion, including the early and more recent spread of Islam and different forms of Christianity. In recent times this has notably impacted the global spread of Pentecostalism. Potentially, there are three “arcs” of mission with regard to migration: firstly, where migrants take their religion with them and establish “diaspora” faith communities; secondly, where outreach to migrants in their host countries is undertaken (perhaps the more traditional “diaspora ministries”); and thirdly, where returning migrants bring back a newfound, or renewed faith to their homeland. We can perhaps add to this two more “arcs”: firstly, the effect on communities of origin of mass out-migrations of younger, working aged people who would be the potential religious and community leaders of the next generation, and secondly, the growing phenomenon of more intentional missional migration to traditional mission-sending countries.
Arcs of missional migration: why it matters
Migration, therefore, matters missionally, firstly because it matters to the people where we live and work and minister. The context of migration itself—be it forced migration resulting in refugees, or economic migrants seeking some kind of security in the growing precarity of much of the world—shapes the identities of migrants and their families. This, perhaps more than anything, mitigates against overly simplistic categorizations of diaspora, which may elide huge differences between people of the same ethnicity but vastly different experiences. Moreover, many of the communities where we work may themselves be affected by either in or out-migration—resulting in social and economic dynamics which may significantly affect the way we approach mission and ministry. Beyond this are the “justice” elements of a missional consciousness. This perhaps alludes to the “prophetic” element of the challenges of migration described by Samuel Escobar, who believes that following the God we do inevitably draws us to question the structures and processes which lead to so much migration. Not only conflicts, but the more insidious cycle of how huge inequalities fuel rampant consumption, making ever-unsustainable demands on natural resources, which tend to be drawn from places inhabited by people with limited rights. Then the land becomes parched, and crops fail, and people move, and conflicts arise when resources are scarce. These may well describe countries in which we live and work.
Secondly, as a result of migration, the “maps” are being turned upside down. Not only are the people we want to reach often present where we least expect them to be, they may be, increasingly absent where we most expect them to be. Declining rural congregations often make church multiplication a challenge in rural areas, especially where some communities are left with few working aged adults. Rural churches which once could support pastors may now be struggling. Urban churches also face the challenge of reaching out to large numbers of migrants from rural areas. Most happily accept fellow believers (and their donations) but are less enthused with re-orientating well-established practices to make them more accessible to the newly arrived migrants living in precarious conditions in peri-urban slums and whose normal schedule does not allow for a pause between 10:30 and 12:00 on a Sunday morning. Missionally, then, this raises challenges in countries where large numbers of unreached people live in rural areas, but where declining rural populations make church planting less sustainable. At the same time, the very thing which brings on rural decline also results in urban growth, presenting an opportunity as well as a challenge.
Thirdly, dislocated persons and populations, away from the comforts and constraints of their communities of origin, frequently are more open to experimentation and alternative lifestyles and customs. This may lead to positive or negative results, such as alcohol and substance abuse or, on the other hand, increased or changed religious commitment which is significantly influenced by the degree of commitment to the new location. A longing for community, belonging, and safe spaces drive many to seek fellowship in communities not of their religion of origin, and this challenges churches in migrant receiving areas to be alert to the need for flexible and holistic approaches to mission in these contexts. Some Christian migrants who grew up in nominal homes find their faith regenerated by overseas congregations, perhaps because they are now unfettered by the pressures to conform in the home country.
Fourthly, and following the third arc, migration matters missionally because migrants, in addition to sending remittances home, also act as conduits for new things, through the process of “social remittances.” This enables the transmission of the gospel, through living vessels, back into those very rural areas where traditional mission has possibly foundered or become unsustainable. The departed one finds the gift, and, returning, brings it to his own household. Had the same gift been proffered by the hand of a stranger it might well have been rejected. Sadly though, the opposite may also occur as some are drawn into false teaching and others into destructive lifestyles, so that they bring back habits and potentially communicable diseases which wreak havoc on the families at home.
Finally, and drawing again on the work of Kim, Chen, and others, is the growing realization of the shifting centre of gravity of the church, as churches from the global South increasingly not only outnumber those of the North, but send missionaries and migrants alike, bringing renewal and challenge to churches in the North. The renewal is often a welcome influx of youthful, faithful congregants. The challenge is that these congregants are different, a situation that raises issues of integration and accommodation. Our thinking and practice are challenged by Passarelli who writes, “But despite the well-rooted Christian tradition of welcoming strangers a question remains: what happens when the strangers are here to stay? How to deal with someone who is different but is not an enemy?”
What happens when migration is missional?
Returning to Samuel Escobar’s statement at the beginning of this paper, we need to see that the challenge is social (one of compassion), educational, prophetic, and missional. I would like to draw on the final two of these four, outlining how mission can adapt to the reality of a world increasingly shaped by migration, in faithful discipleship to a migrant God. Here I draw on Wan and add a few additional observations.
- The church should actively engage to impart a missional sense to believers on the move. This intentional equipping of those who are already migrating—particularly those migrating to places where gospel witness is limited—is a critical response which begins to shift the “economy” of migration. As we have said before, Christian migrants—particularly economic migrants—often retain ties with and send remittances to the home country. By framing and actualizing their migration as more than an act of survival or economic strategy, but as a part of God’s mission, the “rewards” of migration are wider and deeper. This shift towards migrants as “Kingdom workers”—such as Filipino migrants in the Middle East—is in many ways not new, but becomes rather an iteration of an older trend reaching back to the early church. Does this call for, then, special attention to programmes which prepare would-be migrants, and networks which enable them to be connected to missional churches in their place of arrival? I believe it does.
- The church should equip and mobilize Christian migrants in their host country and nurture the spiritual growth of migrants for outreach in host countries and their countries of origin. This means mission by, and through the “diaspora” and others who are transnational in their identity. By linking with the first action, those who do migrate, and do so missionally, can be incorporated into missional congregations, where the arc can potentially be completed by those migrants who reach back into their own countries, to other migrants, or, as is often seen, successfully cross cultural and ethnic boundaries in their host country.
- The church should partner with related organisations in building networks to reach migrants. Whilst there are many potential iterations of this, one particular example is the growing need of urban churches to re-orientate towards the phenomenon of rural-urban migration. In China and also in much of Southeast Asia traditionally rural economies are rapidly being transformed, and much church growth takes place in the margins and shadows of large cities. Potentially, newer and less structured denominations can respond more effectively, but the challenges are many when integrating rural emigres into urban life, let alone into the church. Thus, a missional focus is needed, aimed at equipping urban churches to be keenly aware and able to adapt to the needs and challenges of migrants on their doorsteps—potentially in large numbers. This may require changes to church practice, potentially to embrace more relational and network-based models of congregational life—and this applies not only to “western” churches but also to many denominational expressions on other parts of the globe. This also calls for a holistic approach to urban mission, so that the need for community and belonging, and practical needs of navigating urban landscapes and bureaucracy—frequently a major part of migrant life—can be better addressed.
- The church should provide pastoral care for family members who remain behind.
- The church should be ever aware and prepared to speak and act prophetically where policies and practices, particularly of the church itself, contribute to the conditions of inequality and oppression which trigger migration, or which constrain proper Christian compassion on the “stranger”. This is particularly challenging in the current era, when the consequences of political and economic policies are denied and we refuse to care for those who may have been displaced due to our actions.
The current politics of demonizing the immigrant, on the one hand, and of holding up that demonization as an unacceptable challenge to the liberal consensus, on the other, tend to deny any space for the migrants to speak for themselves or for any other voices to be heard, for that matter. By understanding migration and immigration missionally, we also avoid three pitfalls. Firstly, by recognizing the hand of God in history, which shows that the church frequently grew and spread through migrants, we can be more open to what God is doing through migration, rather than, on the one hand, bemoaning the decline of our rural congregations, or, on the other hand, becoming uneasy as our own “type” becomes a smaller minority. The possibilities for new iterations of church and mission engendered by multi-cultural encounters and expressions of church enable us to engage a different horizon .
Following this, secondly, we are able to be delivered from much of the unhelpful and discriminatory, anti-immigration rhetoric, not primarily through any large-scale political action, but through depictions of a different way of seeing migration and the immigrant. These are, as Melba Maggay puts it, “the many small acts of integrity and goodness that many faceless people do every day . . . the daily practice of hope” which chip away at the pessimism and fear which surrounds the immigration issue. An understanding of missional migration gives us a way to hope, to speak, and to act in times which call for a very different discourse.
Thirdly, we are able to envisage mission in different ways. As workers find moving from one country to another easier and migrants are connected by increasingly efficient social media networks, mission can simply be done in very different ways, by very different people who don’t resemble “business as usual”. The notion of going to “where the people are” brings, as we have noted earlier, an awareness of unexpected absences and presences, and unexpected opportunities. This perhaps entails “moving with the movers” and shifting our own mission focus and methods to strategic approaches which are moving with the tide of migration.
 Samuel Escobar, “Migration: Avenue and Challenge to Mission,” Missiology 31, no. 1 (January 2003): 17.
 See Escobar, “Migration,” 17–28; Michael Pocock, Gailyn Van Rheenen, and Douglas McConnell, The Changing Face of World Missions: Engaging Contemporary Issues and Trends (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005); Thorsten Prill, Global Mission on Our Doorstep: Forced Migration and the Future of the Church (Münster, Germany: MV, 2008), available for download at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283118880_Global_mission_on_our_doorstep_forced_migration_and_the_future_of_the_church.
 Doug Saunders, Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History is Reshaping Our World (New York: Vintage, 2011).
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 Here an ‘arc’ refers to the way that a ‘story or movement’ can or will unfold. It shows the direction and trajectory of something.
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 Wan, Diaspora Missiology, 314–321.
 Wan, Diaspora Missiology, 373–379.
 Wan, Diaspora Missiology, 314–321.
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