Despite the growing globalization of our world, there are still 7,266 unreached people groups (UPGs), ethnic groups with no indigenous Christian presence. The existence of these groups is a large part of why, as a church, we are seeking to plant 1,000 churches by the year 2050 in strategic areas around the world.
God has called all Christians to play a role in taking the gospel to the nations. What many of us may not think about, however, is that the technology of our modern world has brought the nations to us. For perhaps the first time in history, the flood of immigrants in the United States has given us an opportunity to fulfill the Great Commission in our own backyard.
In his recent book, Strangers Next Door, J. D. Payne points out how the migration of individuals and families from UPGs should change the way we look at missions. “Gone are the days when we should think only about sending missionaries over there; we must now consider how we can both get to the unreached peoples over there while simultaneously working to reach them over here.” For a variety of reasons, immigrants and refugees from remote areas of the world are coming to Western nations in growing numbers, giving us a unique opportunity to reach people from the very places we often send (or want to send) church planters. Many immigrants arrive intending to return to their nation of origin, creating a natural opportunity to equip and commission them to carry the gospel back to their home as they come to faith in Jesus here. While foreign missionaries may encounter significant obstacles of culture and language, these immigrants are singularly able to relate the gospel in ways that are simply impossible for us.
This trend is particularly noticeable in the Raleigh-Durham area. Data from the 2010 census revealed that more than 1 in every 10 people living in Wake, Durham and Orange counties are foreign-born. Within the past few years World Relief, a non-profit organization that provides community assistance and aid to refugee families, has resettled families from North Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East— families who belong to the exact people groups we send church planters to—right here in our backyard. That means there are members of unreached people groups in “closed” countries who are our neighbors, co-workers, and friends. There are an estimated 10,000 individuals living in Wake County who were born in India—again, one of our overseas partnerships. A report from the Brookings Institute ranked Durham as the metro area with the third highest demand for H1-B visas (issued to skilled immigrant workers) in the entire nation. The top employers for these visa holders were medical centers, universities, and tech companies, which means these immigrants are not going to be reached by ministry professionals, but by the doctors, students, and engineers in our church.
God cares about individuals, but he also cares about enormous demographic trends. And he often uses them to further his gospel. The persecution of the early church seemed like a devastating blow to the Christians in Jerusalem; but it turned out to be the vehicle that God used to disperse thousands of his people around the Roman Empire, spreading the gospel just as Jesus had promised (Acts 1:8, 8:1). As Payne says, “the Old Testament is filled with examples of people and nations on the move. Some of these migrations were the result of sinful acts; others were responses to famine or war. Some migrations were made willingly, others by force. Yet in each move of the nations, God’s hand was working out his plan of redemption and restoration in the world.”
We need to recognize the presence of immigrants in our midst as one of these God-ordained opportunities. As hundreds of thousands of individuals from unreached people groups stream into our neighborhoods, we can view this as an inconvenience, we can ignore the growing ethnic diversity around us, or we can seize the kairos moment that God has given us.
Ministering to the unreached people groups in our midst does not, of course, replace the role of sending full-time missionaries to unreached areas internationally. But sending church planters overseas doesn’t rule out the need for reaching the unreached right here either. Instead, both should form an integrated approach to church planting, as we seek to minister faithfully to our families, our community, and our world. How tragically ironic would it be to overlook the world as it comes to us?
Two thousand years ago, the Apostle John had a prophetic vision of “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev 7:9). In many ways, John’s prophecy is being fulfilled today: great multitudes of people from every nation, tribe, people, and language have already gathered in our cities. Will we be found faithful? Will we seize God’s kairos moment?