Mission to, through, and from Diaspora: Foundations and Demonstrations Drawn from International Student Contexts

Terry McGrath and Victoria Sibley-Bentley share insights gleaned from years of ministry to international students in New Zealand and highlights the opportunities for the gospel to flow in multiple directions.

Terry McGrath is the Lausanne Asia-Pacific Regional Facilitator of the International Student Ministries (ISM) Global Leadership Network, Senior Consultant of ISM New Zealand (formerly the National Director), and International Chaplain Emeritus at Massey University.


Victoria Sibley-Bentley is Chaplain at Massey University and Vocational Deacon at All Saints Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand.

Mission to, through, and from Diaspora: Foundations and Demonstrations Drawn from International Student Contexts

Mission Round Table Vol. 12 No. 2 (May-Sep 2017): 15-19


Our thinking about missions invariably asks questions of what is the biblical and theological basis behind mission. The answers to such questions are long standing and well documented. Since God’s command to Abraham to “go” and be a blessing to all nations (Gen 12:1–3), there has been a succession of examples in Scripture and history of individuals influencing and being catalysts to God’s purposes amongst the nations. Amongst the many examples of mission available to us through the record of Scripture and the history of the church, there is a significant subset which stems from the movement of people across borders. Opportunities for the gospel are in many ways enhanced when people move across borders. Sometimes freedom from the constraints of one’s own social context allows a person to not only hear the gospel but to also act upon what is heard. Frequently, movements across borders enable non-Christian people groups to come into contact with followers of Jesus, and subsequently engage with the gospel, which many people respond to. Additionally, such movements carry believers as agents for the gospel from one place to another. Currently, there are 214 million people classified as international migrants, and a further 740 million as internal migrants or people who move within a country from within their people group, to live in the context of another majority culture.[1] By 2050, it is estimated that the number of international migrants worldwide will reach 405 million.[2] This unprecedented movement of peoples constitutes a unique opportunity for mission.

The biblical foundations related to movements of people across borders and from one culture to another are highly significant. In looking at biblical examples of people in such positions we see many outcomes with corresponding significance in furthering the gospel to the ends of the earth. It is often said that the concept of the “foreigner” within missions is two-fold: going as a foreigner to a people and coming as a foreigner amongst a people. Both dynamics are significant for the gospel and God’s purposes amongst the nations.

The concept of migration in the Bible begins in God’s command to Adam to “fill the earth” (Gen 1:28). God never intended his people to be restricted to one place or even one nation. In fact, the concept of a “sojourner,” “stranger,” “alien,” or “foreigner” in the Bible includes temporary and permanent migrants and means “to dwell for a time in another land which is not one’s own.”[3] The Old Testament provided instructions for caring for migrants and foreigners in the community (for example, providing for foreigners during the Passover in Exod 12:43–49). In addition, God commands his people to care for foreigners in their midst (e.g., in Lev 19:9, 33–34). Throughout the Old Testament, one common theme of mission occurs repeatedly: that God’s people are blessed in order to be a blessing to others. God not only desires that all people would come to know him, but desires that the care provided by his people to those yet to know him would be an avenue of witness, and this includes migrants, be they temporary or permanent.

In moving beyond Old Testament foundations, we discover that parts of the New Testament are built on this understanding of migrants/diaspora and the unique gospel opportunities afforded to and by them. This is exemplified particularly in Acts, and also in the great commission given by Jesus to the disciples in Matthew 28:19, to “go and make disciples of every nation,” and in Matthew 22:39, where he emphasizes that we are to “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Central to this, is understanding God’s heart for all people. We see this exemplified time and again, sometimes through the life of a key migrant becoming a blessing to the nation of sojourn. However, sometimes this is also through the very people from the nation of sojourn, being a blessing to migrants and also to their own people and nation.

Examples include:

  • Joseph: a son of Israel who was able to save Egypt from famine and ultimately provide for the preservation of Abraham’s progeny—the children of Israel—by his standing and credibility with Pharaoh.
  • Daniel: taken into captivity in Babylon, he experienced the value of Nebuchadnezzar’s policy of providing paths of opportunity for young forced migrants. In this context of positive opportunity for engagement in a new culture and context, Daniel takes his primary bearing from within his relationship with God. Throughout the years, this relationship with God remained firm and steady and led to opportunities for God’s purposes to be made manifest (Dan 6:16, 20–22).
  • The Antioch church: as described in Acts 11:19, this was essentially a church comprised of refugees. The church became one of the most significant and influential mission sending centres in early Christianity, possibly due to the experiences, migrant mindset, and awareness of its leaders.
  • The Apostle Paul: born in Tarsus, the capital of Cilicia and a Roman province, and sent as an international student to Jerusalem to obtain higher education, Paul comes into a context where he hears the gospel.
  • In the book of Acts, Paul pleads with Philemon to receive Onesimus, his escaped slave, as a brother in Christ. This is a unique example of the gospel crossing social and class divides within a diasporic context.
  • In Acts 24, 25, and 26 Paul stands before Felix and Festus. Both were influential Roman officials who were temporary migrants due to work and who heard the gospel from Paul in their line of duty.
  • Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18): itinerant business people who had experienced circular migration, having been forced to move from Rome to Greece when the emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from the capital, and who functioned as agents of the gospel and supporters of mission (through Paul).
  • Apollos (Acts 18): an example of an academic on the move, who came to fully understand the gospel and went on to fulfil God’s purposes for him as an enlightened teacher.
  • Lydia: a migrant business woman who came to Philippi from Thyatira. While there, she heard the gospel and shared it amongst her household and village, many of whom may also have been migrants.

Biblical examples of diaspora stories are significant as they show God at work in and through migrants. Often that work was wider than just the communication of the gospel in some form or another, as it may also have effected local communities, national contexts, and even international policy, so that they reflected the character and nature of God and his purposes. Note that the context into which the early church came into being was one in which a significant movement of people crossed borders for a diversity of reasons. Many of these movements revealed God’s purposes to bless the early church and those they came into contact with.[4]

From Pentecost at the beginning of Acts, diaspora have played a significant role in establishing the church and initiating mission. According to George Wieland, reading Acts missionally leads to the realisation that the examples of Scripture can influence and motivate people to leadership and action.[5] Being aware of such biblical examples can encourage individuals whom God has sovereignly placed or allowed to be in a position to influence policy outcomes for the gospel, in particular, the gospel in and through diaspora. The Seoul Declaration on Diaspora Missiology speaks of a “missiological framework for understanding and participating in God’s redemptive mission among people living outside their place of origin.”[6] It is of enormous strategic importance that we focus our understanding of mission to include mission to, through, and from, the diaspora of the world. We, the authors of this article, work among international students, a small but strategic subset of diaspora, and from this we draw some illustrations that reflect God’s work and purposes to, in, and through people who are part of diaspora movements, of which international education is but one.

The following returnee’s story from the International Student Ministries of New Zealand (ISMNZ) ministry context exemplifies this heart.[7] “Kai” came from a non-Christian background and from a family with influence in business in their local community. Kai’s country of origin had a population of some 70 million, and a small but growing church, whose numbers were estimated to be a little over 1 percent of the population and included in excess of one hundred unreached people groups. Kai’s degree in New Zealand was to prepare Kai for a role within the family business back home. Some students involved with ISMNZ became friends with Kai and as a result Kai joined an exploratory Bible discussion group. A few months later, after many questions and some struggles, Kai made a commitment to Jesus. The Bible studies continued, church was then introduced to the picture, and eventually one-to-one discipling. Student camps and other events provided added encouragement. Kai began growing and growing and growing. Jesus became important, indeed special, and he began changing Kai’s outlook on life. The ISMNZ worker, Kai’s church pastor, Kai’s Bible study cell leader, and Christian student friends all contributed to Kai understanding God’s call.

Graduation loomed but Kai did not feel “ready to go home and serve the Lord. My home, my city, my people are ungodly. I don’t feel strong enough.” So, [Kai] stayed and embarked on an ISMNZ ministry internship (ISMNZ offers internships, partnering with Pathways Bible College, to a few students who have a strong sense of God’s call on their lives.)

Kai was a great intern. After graduating from the internship, Kai started the journey of being a disciple of Christ at home amongst family and community in a culture that is foreign to biblical values. The looming struggle for Kai seemed to be insurmountable except for the biblical, spiritual, and ministry foundation afforded by the internship. A missionary serving in Kai’s home country provided a link with a church that encouraged and nurtured this transition. Kai found friends and adjusted to life at home, found a life partner and married, and then found a ministry context which flowed from a home group into a church planting initiative. Kai became a leader in that initiative and now today, twelve years later, is part of a pastoral team of five couples, providing pastoral oversight for a growing church of over 700 members with a significantly large footprint of outreach.

Stories such as Kai’s, are a common outcome of investment into the lives of international students. Such stories are encouraging, but only represent the tip of the iceberg for potential mission to, in, and through international students. International students are ubiquitous in this world and cross borders seeking advantages and opportunities for their lives, yet their greatest opportunity rests with hearing and responding to the gospel. Sometimes they may be the means for the gospel to be carried to the very people amongst whom they study. Think for a moment of the great sacrifice missionaries often make for the sake of the gospel and the considerable costs to the church associated with sending. No one begrudges these sacrifices and costs as they are made in response to the Lord’s call on our lives. Yet the Lord has also allowed other means for the hearing of the gospel and for engaging in mission, and that is mission based on returnees. International graduates are a great example of this. For the church to ignore God’s call to missions sending is bad enough, but to ignore when he calls foreigners to be amongst us, is completely disobedient, not to mention ignoring the logical, strategic, and cost-effective aspects to mission afforded by the diaspora in our midst, or as it has frequently been called, “the world at our doorstep.”

International students in New Zealand

There are many advantages to mission intentionally based on the potential of returnees. Returning graduates with a heart for mission have a number of advantages over cross-cultural missionaries, and some are immensely significant:

  • Returnees have a thorough knowledge and experience of the language and culture.
  • They are deployed at relatively low cost or no cost.
  • They have existing connections in communities.
  • Returnees are immersed in their communities, modelling incarnation.
  • Returnees do not face problematic visa requirements often experienced by external missionaries.
  • The length of service of a returnee is normally for a lifetime.

Returning international graduates who grow in mission involvement in their home countries can complement traditional mission approaches. It may not replace conventional mission sending, but it may offer a uniquely strategic approach that has the added advantage of providing the members of host churches a direct opportunity to engage in hands-on mission. The very process of engagement with international students provides indications and motivations for other forms of cross-cultural service, such as mission within local diaspora communities and preparation for other forms of missions sending.

Think how God’s purposes were met through returnees, such as Moses, Naomi, and Nehemiah, and how the early church was established in Antioch and Rome through returnees who responded to the gospel on the day of Pentecost.  During the Colombo plan[8] era of international education in New Zealand and Australia, many South-East Asian students returned home as Christians and over time matured into Christian leaders. One such leader is Jerry Dusing who came to Christ whilst a student at Canterbury University and who is now the senior leader of a church network in East Malaysia.[9] Many Malaysians studied in New Zealand and Australia during the 1970s and 1980s and have gone on, like Jerry, to become influential church leaders. Many began their working life following their field of study, but God later called them to be pastors, evangelists, teachers, and apostles in mission, as they saw the need and engaged with their societies. Many others could be listed, but some prefer not to have their names mentioned as they are working in restricted-access places.[10] Even so, two very high profile names spring to mind. The first is Dr. Patrick Fung, the current General Director of OMF. Patrick became a Christian whilst studying in Sydney, Australia. The other great example is Bakht Singh, who returned to India after studying in the USA where he became a Christian. Though his life is now over, his dedication to establishing the church in India has ensured that his legacy continues.[11]

Numerous advantages can be seen in mission engagement through returning international students. However, not all returnee stories are successful, and frequently returnees are far from being ready to engage. Hence there is much work that needs to be done to ensure high levels of success for this mode of mission. To this end, it is important that we focus workers into this aspect of the harvest field. In calling people to mission we need to recognise the extent and the avenue for mission amongst international students. For example, in our New Zealand context, international students, drawn from 180 countries, comprise 3 percent of the total population, yet the church does not set aside 3 percent of its outreach resources and personnel there. This 3 percent renews itself every three or four years, so is indeed a unique opportunity for mission. It is a wonderful and also cost-effective way of engaging in mission as well as in local outreach. High concentrations of international students can be found in many places and these can be identified as places where a focus can greatly impact mission. Furthermore, drawing from our New Zealand context, we find that a further 25 percent of the population are international migrants, which coincidently is almost equivalent to the million plus (ca. 25 percent of the population) of New Zealanders who live and work in other countries. The 25 percent of new New Zealanders (migrants) is both an opportunity to reach people of other languages and cultures and is also a means of renewing the church.[12]

New Zealand is a country like many others, built on migration, and within that context of people moving across borders, there is a rich history of mission to, through, and from diaspora. Many stories could be written to illustrate mission that features the diverse ways and means that God uses to call people into relationship with himself. To some, diaspora is a word that sounds like a pill we need to swallow to fix something wrong with us. And in reality diaspora missiology is like a pill the wider church needs to take so that the fog shrouding our vision might be lifted for us to see people as God sees them—diverse but his children, people within whom he can work, through whom he can work, and eminently loved and valued. So when it comes to diaspora, let’s think again.

This is not just a world trend, but a trend in which the Spirit of God is active. Recognising the strategic value that crossing borders affords for mission means recognising the significance of ministry to diaspora, as briefly illustrated with regards to international students and returnee graduates.

Think of this for one moment. Imagine what would happen globally if 10 percent of the 130,000 plus international students in New Zealand came to know Christ or had value added to their Christian commitment whilst studying here. Of these 13,000 believers, approximately one third (about 4,000 individuals) return home each year. Imagine what might happen if out of those 4,000 individuals, 10 percent progressed to being significantly involved in Christian ministry over the next five to ten years. That would be equivalent to the sending of 400 missionary units each year for lifetimes of service. It does not take much imagination to see why the international education aspect of diaspora movements is strategic for missions. Couple this with latter-day Daniels affecting societies amongst migrant communities and the renewal of churches in some countries with the spread of the gospel through migrant labour, and mission amongst, to, in, and through diasporic communities, and it is easy to see why this is an essential part of the mission of the Church today.

God’s Heart for Mission

As we have seen, God’s heart for mission is evidenced throughout the Old and New Testaments. For example, Isaiah 51:4 says that Israel is to be a light to the nations: a missionary force to all the nations. Also, in the book of Jonah, Jonah is sent to be a missionary to Nineveh and the Assyrians, to tell the people of Nineveh that God has seen their sins and that they will be destroyed. The result is mass repentance and sorrow on the part of the people of Nineveh; they believe God’s message, repent, and are spared destruction. The culmination of God’s heart for mission is found in the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19–20, “Go and make disciples of all nations!” Yet, as we have already seen, there is also a second dimension of mission. The command in Luke 8:39 to: “Return home and tell how much God has done for you!”

The account of Pentecost in Acts 1 and 2 highlights this dimension. Indeed, Acts 1:8 states that the disciples were to become “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In addition, we note that people from the many and varied cultures present on the day of Pentecost played a significant part in taking the gospel back to their home contexts. The churches in Antioch and Rome are famous examples of returnee-established churches.

To conclude, in our modern world, we need to be aware of trends in people movements and opportunities for the gospel to flow in the wake of such movements. International education, business, refugees, labour supply, and many forms of migration both within and outside of one’s home country offer unique opportunities for the Church to engage in mission: mission to, through, and from diaspora to a world that needs to hear the good news.

[1] International Organization for Migration (IOM), “Migration and the United Nations Post-2015 Development Agenda” (Geneva: IOM, 2013), 5, http://publications.iom.int/system/files/pdf/migration_and_the_un_post2015_agenda.pdf (accessed 31 July 2017).

[2] International Organization for Migration (IOM), “The Future of Migration: Building Capacities for Change,” World Migration Report 2010, 8, https://www.iom.int/files/live/sites/iom/files/Newsrelease/docs/WM2010_FINAL_23_11_2010.pdf (accessed 31 July 2017).

[3] Athena O. Gorospe, “What Does the Bible Say about Migration? Three Approaches to the Biblical Text,” in God at the Borders: Globalization, Migration and Diaspora (Metro Manilla: OMF Literature and Asian Theological Association, 2015), 126.

[4] Larry W. Caldwell, “Diaspora Ministry in the Book of Acts,” in God at the Borders: Globalisation, Migration and Diaspora, Charles R. Ringma, Karen Hollenbeck-Wuest, and Athena E. Gorospe, eds., (Mandaluyong City, Metro Manila: OMF Literature and Asian Theologica, 2015).

[5] George Wieland, “Reading Acts Missionally in a City of Migrants,” in God’s People on the Move: Biblical and Global Perspectives on Migration and Mission, vanThanh Nguyen and John Prior, eds. (Eugene, Or: Pickwick, 2014), 144–158.

[6] “The Seoul Declaration on Diaspora Missiology,” LCWE Diaspora Educators Consultation 2009, Torch Trinity Graduate School of Theology, Seoul, South Korea, 11-14 November 2009,  http://www.ataasia.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/JOY-TIRA-ATA-PRESENTATION-SUPPORT-DOCS-72016.pdf (accessed 1 August 2017).

[7] International Student Ministries of New Zealand (ISMNZ) is a missions group working amongst 132,000 international students drawn from 180 countries that have come to study in New Zealand.

[8] The Colombo plan was a post-World War II attempt to enhance the capacity of some developing nations in South East Asia by providing overseas education to some of its young people.

[9] Read more of the New Life case study in David Boyd, You Don’t Have to Cross the Ocean to Reach the World: The Power of Local Cross-Cultural Ministry (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Chosen, 2008).

[10] For some other illustrative stories see Peter Cossey, Changing Lives: Mission Agencies and Their Stories (Tauranga, N.Z.: Odon Media, 2009).

[11] T. E. Koshy, Bakht Singh of India: The Incredible Account of a Modern Day Apostle (Colorado Springs: Authentic Publishing, 2007).

[12] Andrew Butcher and George Wieland, “The New Asian Faces of Kiwi Christianity” in Asians and New Multiculturalism in Aotearoa, Gautam Ghosh and Jacqueline Leckie, eds., (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2015), 193-216.

Other articles on diaspora by the authors:

Terry McGrath, Victoria Sibley, Andrew Butcher, and George Wieland, “Mission to and from Diaspora: Influencing the Context for Mission” in Scattered and Gathered: A Global Compendium of Diaspora Missiology, Sadiri Joy Tira and Tetsunao Yamamori, eds., (Oxford: Regnum, 2016), 147-180.

Terry McGrath and Victoria Sibley, “Opportunities for Overseas Students” in New Vision New Zealand. Vol IV, Bruce Patrick, ed., New Zealand Christian Network, (Auckland: MissionKoru, 2011).

Andrew Butcher and Terry McGrath, “A Sin of Omission: New Zealand’s Export Education Industry and Foreign Policy” in Social Policy Review 23: Analysis and Debate in Social Policy, Chris Holden, Majella Kilkey and Gaby Ramia, eds., (Bristol: The Policy Press, University of Bristol, 2011), 256–275.

Recent publications on diaspora:

Charles R. Ringma, Karen Hollenbeck-Wuest & Athena O. Gorospe, eds., God at the Borders: Globalization, Migration and Diaspora (Manila, Philippines: OMF Literature, 2015).

Enoch Wan, ed., Diaspora Missiology: Theory, Methodology, and Practice, 2nd ed. (Portland: Institute of Diaspora Studies of USA, 2014).

J. D. Payne, Strangers Next Door: Immigration, Migration and Mission (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012).

Katherine Lorance, Borderless Prayer: An Advent Guide to Praying for the People on the Move (Aurora, Illinois: Reveal and Renew, 2016).

Luther Jeom O. Kim, Doing Diaspora Missiology Toward Diaspora Mission Church: The Rediscovery of Diaspora for the Renewal of Church and Mission in a Secular Era, (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2016).

M. Daniel Carroll R., Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2013).

Robin Cohen, Global Diasporas: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2008).

Sadiri Joy Tira and Tetsunao Yamamori, eds., Scattered and Gathered: A Global Compendium of Diaspora Missiology, Regnum Studies in Mission (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2016).

Available for free download :

Chandler H. Im and Amos Yong, eds., Global Diasporas and Mission, Regnum Edinburgh Centenary Series Volume 23 (Oxford: Regnum, 2014), https://www.global-diaspora.com/book-global-diasporas-and-mission-by-im-and-young/.

Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, Scattered to Gather: Embracing the Global Trend of Diaspora (Manila, Philippines: LifeChange, 2010), https://www.global-diaspora.com/scattered-to-gather-free-download/.

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