When I was first asked to write this article, I hesitated. It wasn’t because I knew nothing about how congregations of the Lord’s Church minister to immigrants and those new to an area (outsiders). I do. I am an immigrant who migrated first from my native Ghana to Canada before moving to the United States. But I realized I have something to share on this topic. So I hope to share my views on how local congregations could reach out to immigrants and engage them in the work of the Lord. I will try to articulate the elements I have found to be part of successful outreach to and integration of “outsiders” into the Lord’s work at the local level. And I also hope that this piece will start a discussion on this topic. For I am sure others have things to share too.
Let me start with a bit about myself. I was baptized in 1990 in Ghana, West Africa. I worshipped in various congregations in Ghana as my dad’s job, going off to college, and my own early career required moves. I then moved to Canada for graduate studies and worshipped at the Edmonton Church of Christ. I moved to the US two years later and worshipped at the Highway 63 South Church of Christ in Rolla, Missouri. I moved to California after finishing school and worshiped at the Central Church of Christ in Sacramento. A couple of years later, I moved back to Rolla, MO and rejoined the fellowship of brethren there (now the Rolla Church of Christ). I’m currently doing some work in the DC area and I have been worshipping at the Rockville Church of Christ in Rockville, Maryland. I say all this to show I have moved around a bit. And I have been an outsider in many of the Lord’s congregations.
I will draw most of my insights from the congregations in Edmonton, Alberta and Rolla, Missouri because I was involved in significant efforts to that ministered to “outsiders” in these congregations. In Edmonton, I coordinated a “Bible Talk” on campus that reached out to many international students. In Rolla, I served as coordinator for the congregation’s FriendSpeak ministry, which also reached out to international students (Rolla is a college town) who wanted to improve their English conversational skills.
Obviously, ministering to outsiders is important to God. As Jesus tells us in the parable of the lost sheep (Matt. 18:12-14), He and the Father are not willing to lose even one. We have all heard the stories of Christians who stopped being active once they moved to another location. Living in a college town, I see this all the time with new students who come for a few times and then stop coming until their parents visit. I heard of a Ghanaian who moved somewhere to the South. The shock of local congregations with members predominantly along racial lines was enough to make this guy stop going to church all together! Although these examples have other underlying problems beside the local congregation’s awareness of the needs of outsiders and its efforts to reach out, it shows the challenges and opportunities that such work presents.
The challenges a local congregation faces when it is faced with the work of reaching out to an “outsider” include cultural differences, the real issues of daily life that confront those who have moved into a different city, state or country, and language barriers. It is easy to get so focused on the reasons for your move (settling in and accomplishing those goals can take all your energy) that everything else falls to the wayside. Isn’t that what Jesus says in the parable of the sower about the cares of this life? So whether these outsiders are immigrants who have moved to a new country, students in a new college town, or families who have moved to a different part of the country, these challenges to their continued spiritual growth and involvement in the work of God can be very real.
On the other hand, the local congregation has many exciting opportunities with “outsiders.” Let me discuss three in particular. First, there is an opportunity to share the Word with many who may otherwise be out of our reach. Isn’t it amazing, for instance, how much Christians in the West spend annually sending missionaries to China and other parts of Asia? Yet, each year, many thousands of students travel to these same countries for their higher education. They are coming to us! Second, moving to a new environment can provide a need for fellowship in ways that are unimaginable. And when the Christian fellowship is used to fulfill that need, amazing things can happen to a person’s faith. My wife and I now live thousands of miles from our families raising our young kids, who were both born here. And yet we know we can count on our Christian family. And that affirms our faith. We speak fondly of the support of many Christians during our difficult pregnancy for our second child. We know we would have loved to have our parents there to help during that period. But our Christian family was amazing. One elderly sister actually took it upon herself to come into our home once a month and clean for us! And we had peace knowing that whatever time my wife went into labor, another couple was willing to take our three year old for us. We just had to call. For us, this period more than anything demonstrates what Christian fellowship is. We have been built up by such experiences. Thirdly, whole new groups of people can be reached when the local congregation reaches out to an “outsider.” As coordinator of the FriendSpeak ministry at the Rolla Church of Christ, I hear many edifying stories from the other Christian volunteers constantly. But this story is one of my favorites. One of our elders (who was also volunteering) had been working with this Saudi graduate student. They were reading the Gospel according to Luke to work on his English conversation. So they’ll meet once a week and read sections of the gospel and make conversation about it. The primary aim of FriendSpeak (much like our food pantry or clothing ministries) is to meet some need in the community (in this case, the need many immigrants have to improve their English conversation – try buying finding where to buy “pants” in Walmart when you’ve called them “trousers” all your life). But you can’t help to be impressed by the diversity of people learning about the gospel message through programs like these because some local congregation became interested in the outsiders in their area. This elder told me one time his student had graduated and gone back to Saudi. But the amazing thing was, this guy wanted to keep learning about the gospel via Skype! So they started doing their “meetings” via Skype! No missionary support required.
Now that I have presented some of the challenges and opportunities, let me turn my attention to what we can do to minister to the outsider. I will start by saying we all have a role to play in this. Whether you introduce yourself to a visitor in church or take the time to have a play date with the new student in your child’s class, you help minister to a stranger (Matt 25:38). However, my comments here will focus on elements of successful congregational efforts to minister to groups of outsiders in our communities. These elements are based on my personal experience and the programs I have been part of. These elements are:
- Our programs must meet the physical and emotional needs of the outsider (James 2:14-17);
- Share the gospel message in a loving manner to engender spiritual growth (including accepting Jesus, if they are not Christians);
- Facilitate peer-to-peer and peer-to-mentor relationships that allow important questions to be asked;
- Train (or retrain) them for the work of the Lord; and
- Put them to work!
It is important to show (not say) that we love the people we minister to. Outsiders have many emotional and physical needs that Christians can help with. They need to learn how things work here, need to learn how to manage their finances in this country, and many such things you take for granted. But they also need friends. This need is particularly strong. For instance, if you live in a college town, I can guarantee you that there are many spouses of international faculty and students who sit at home daily crying because they are in a new land and have no friends. I heard the story of this international student who had shopped half a suitcase full of gifts for all the new American friends she was going to make when she got here. One year into her studies, all her friends were on campus and from the same country as her. She was telling this story to the Christian sister who had become her friend and was the first recipient of one of those gifts!
We can never ignore the sharing of the Word. Without that we will not create spiritual growth. The outsiders who are Christians need the Word as much as those who are not. Spiritual growth comes by hearing and practicing what we are told in scriptures.
Cultural differences mean we are forced to address different issues in our faith. For example, most of my US brethren have never really had to deal with issues surrounding polygamy (e.g. what should a new convert do if she’s legally a second wife with legitimate children) the way I had to growing up a Christian in Ghana. Similarly, most of my Ghanaian brethren have not had to deal with atheism as a legitimate world view the way I know Christians in the US have to. When someone moves to a new culture, they have to address the new questions they are confronted with about their faith (this even happens within the US with varying attitudes about tobacco use, for instance). The mentoring relationships and (re)training are important to help outsiders re-affirm their own faith and also become useful to engage the new culture they live in now. I remember the preacher in Edmonton asking me before I started coordinating the Bible Talk on campus whether I had attended the evangelism class they did on Sunday mornings. I had not signed up for that class because I thought I didn’t need it. After all, evangelism was not new to me. Boy, was I glad he wisely guided me into the class! I had no idea the questions a college crowd in Canada will raise about faith prior to taking that class. And I was really glad I took that class before I started helping in that ministry.
I will like to end by emphasizing that this is work worth doing. All around us are outsiders that are struggling in their attempts to grow spiritually because we are not effectively ministering to them. And by paying attention to a few things, we can make a huge difference in their walk. And more importantly we will be helping save the soul of one who is important to God. Christ died for them too.
Finally, let me share part of my own story. I did not grow up in the Church of Christ. Most of what I can do now, some man took the time to teach me because my Dad couldn’t have taught me (he was not a member of the Church). But this became even truer when I moved outside of Ghana. I had to learn to become an effective Christian in this culture. This included the things you would think of as well as just how to be a good husband and father in this culture. For example, who would teach me how to deal with debt and finances? Where I grew up, personal finance pitfalls and tools are very different. For example, no one had access to a mortgage or car loan while I was growing up. So to learn to be a responsible Christian man, someone had to take the time to introduce me to the principles that work in this environment. Fortunately for me, a Christian couple who had raised two wonderful Christian men, decided it was worth mentoring me and my wife. My children today call them Ameri-Ma and Ameri-Pa (their American grandparents). If I don’t walk as I should, it is my fault. Because I cannot say no one took the time to “equip me for works of service” (Eph 4:12). Are you willing to equip someone else?
Kwame Awuah-Offei is a disciple of Christ, a husband and father. He hails from Ghana and was baptized into Christ by his older brother in 1990. He has been privileged to fellowship with Christians in local congregations in Ghana, Canada and the United States. And through it, he has found the meaning and comfort of the fellowship we have in Christ.