The Church was Saved by Refugees

3 minute read

Had it not been for refugees, the Christian faith would have died in Jerusalem.

At least, that is the argument made by Andrew Walls in his classic work, Missionary Movement in Christian History. Walls makes some excellent observations about the unique nature of Christianity, and one of those is its inherent translatability across cultural lines. Unlike many other world religions, Christianity is not at home in any one culture. Islam, for instance, has a specific religious language and culture, but not Christianity. Christianity has no “home” culture in the world. It started as a thoroughly Jewish phenomenon, but eventually became a European religion. If we Americans are honest, most of us think of it as tied somehow to our country. After all, we are the big missionary sending country, spreading the gospel around the world, right? Well, that was true at one point. Today, Christianity is the religion of the global south, of Africa and South America, more at home in those cultures than even North America.

Across the history of Christianity, it advanced and receded in different places and cultures. Always, though, it has spread through the crossing of cultures, as one group takes it to the next. Had this not been the case, Christianity would not have lasted.

Here is Walls:

The first Christians in Jerusalem, Jews to a man and woman, did not change their religion when they accepted Jesus as Messiah. To be a Jesus person was to be a Jew in a fuller sense; to find new delight in the law and in that temple to which they daily resorted. Then somehow, some people—we do not even know their names—introduced the Jewish national saviour to some pagan Greek friends in Antioch. Though this was to lead to some heart searching in the Christian community, its real significance was not clear until thirty years later when the Romans destroyed the Jewish state and the temple and the original Christian community faded into the margins of Christian history (Walls, Missionary Movement in Christian History).

Walls goes on to say:

The first Christian frontier breakers, those “men of Cyprus and Cyrene” in Antioch, were simply talking to their friends. They themselves were immigrants, indeed refugees, earning their living in new surroundings (Walls).

Walls is right, and we cannot forget religious persecution (Acts 8:1) was God’s initial means of spreading the gospel and planting the church outside of Jerusalem. Unnamed refugees who left Jerusalem to make their home in Syria founded the church at Antioch, the world’s first truly missionary church. This truth causes me to wonder if God is up to something similar today.

Many, if not most, of the refugees coming to the United States are actually Christians. In fact, many come here precisely because of persecution for their faith. In a time when Christianity is noticeably receding in the United States, God is moving scores of Christian communities from Africa, South and Central America, and Asia. There is not a little irony in the reality that the fastest growing Christian movements in our country are coming from areas where we used to send missionaries. These new Christian communities are brothers and sisters, a resource to our churches. Perhaps we should take the posture of learners when it comes to our interaction. We have much to learn.

I regularly write about the opportunities for the Great Commission provided by immigration here in North America. Christians are not the only immigrants. We have many coming from very unreached places too, and I believe we have a responsibility given by Christ himself to spread the gospel among our new neighbors. However, we are blind if we do not see this Christian majority of refugees as friends and not enemies. What if our spiritual renewal is brought, not by our megachurches, but by a group of unnamed refugees from “Cyprus and Cyrene.”