The Diaspora: Acts 8

1. “And Saul approved of their killing him. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.”

Try to imagine 5,000 people meeting one day and the next there are only 12. Everyone else has left. Moved out and leaving everything behind. That is the picture here. It is like what remains from a natural disaster. There are times like these of great success followed by sudden and radical dislocations we would not choose. Two days ago the church was booming and then with Stephen’s death it is as if someone has turned loose the dogs. We would rather have growth. But it is a famine that moves Abraham from Canaan – the land to which he was called – to Egypt. It is another famine that moves Jacob to Egypt from Canaan. It is another famine that moves Naomi to Moab and a sudden famine of another sort that scatters the church like seeds.

It does not say the church is broken up or shattered. It is scattered and dispersed but every seed contains the DNA of the church and that is still true today. The church is still being scattered by global persecution and forced migration.

“From imprisonment to torture to beheadings, more Christians worldwide live in fear for their lives than at any time in the modern era. That’s the message from Open Doors USA. Christian persecution reached historic levels in 2014, with approximately 100 million Christians around the world facing possible dire consequences for merely practicing their religion, according to the report. If current trends persist, many believe 2015 could be even worse.”

We’ve all seen the news about the persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt and Christians in Iran and Iraq. Whole villages have been rounded up, sometimes given a chance to convert and then tortured and beheaded.

“Most people in the West would be surprised by the answer to the question: who are the most persecuted people in the world? According to the International Society for Human Rights, a secular group with members in 38 states worldwide, 80 per cent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians. The Centre for the Study of Global Christianity in the United States estimates that 100,000 Christians now die every year, targeted because of their faith – that is 11 every hour. The Pew Research Center says that hostility to religion reached a new high in 2012, when Christians faced some form of discrimination in 139 countries, almost three-quarters of the world’s nations. A bogus dichotomy between religion and equality has been set up, resulting in a succession of comparatively trivial new stories about receptionists being banned from wearing religious jewelry or nurses being suspended for offering to pray for patients’ recovery. Adopting the rhetoric of persecution on such matters obscures the very real persecution of Christians being killed or driven from their homes elsewhere in the globe. Most of the world’s Christians are not engaged in stand-offs with intolerant secularists over such small matters. In the West, Christianity may have increasingly become embraced by the middle class and abandoned by the working class. But elsewhere the vast majority of Christians are poor, many of them struggling against antagonistic majority cultures, and have different priorities in life. The paradox this produces is that, as Allen points out, the world’s Christians fall through the cracks of the left-right divide – they are too religious for liberals and too foreign for conservatives.”

Just take Iraq as one example. The estimated numbers of Christians who were living in Iraq before 2003 vary from 1 million to around 1.5 million. But repeated attacks by Islamist groups pushed many to leave, and now they are estimated at less than 300,000. According to Iraqi Christians, the once vibrant Christian community in Baghdad, for example, no longer exists.

In a sense, the spread of the gospel is a wind borne seed or more like a viral infection – not a battle plan. It attaches itself to movement and the movement of Christians may surprise you as it did me. Where are they going when they migrate?

Here are the top five destinations for Christian migrants:
United States: 31 million
Russia: 6 million
Germany: 5 million
Spain: 4.5 million
Canada: 4 million

They are moving to places where they can find work and a certain amount of religious liberty. They are moving, like most migrants, to places where the population is aging and young Christian migrants are taking jobs the native population no longer wants. “Of the world’s 214 million people who have moved from their home country to live in another, about 106 million (49 percent) are Christians while around 60 million (27 percent) are Muslims. Of the 47 million migrants in the EU, 26 million (56 percent) are Christians, double the 13 million Muslim migrants, who make up only 27 percent of the total.” That’s not what we would think from watching the news. We would think it is only Muslims migrating to Europe and the UK. That’s who makes the stories we read and see but it is only a part of the story. Christians by the thousands are moving to Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Ukraine, and Australia.

2. If you follow the growth of the early church it was carried along trade routes and settled in centers of trade – and that is still true. The gospel still moves by trade and migration. As infectious as it is, it is mostly ignored and often not taken seriously. When you come back to the United States the customs entry form says, “Are you carrying any fruits or vegietables. Have you been on a farm or exposed to anything contagious?” They are concerned you might be carrying an infectious germ. They never say, “Have you been exposed to any Christians?” but perhaps they should because that is, for the most part, how the gospel slips past borders.

The early church had no intentional plan for growth. There were no sophisticated strategies. They never thought about capturing a city for Christ or creating a Christian culture. They were building life boats and not cruise ships. They were simply “preaching the word wherever they went.”

The gospel still follows commerce and trade partnerships. South Korea is a good example of this. The gospel is being carried into India by Korean business people. Chinese Christians are creating business relationships in Israel. Think about Nigeria. The Nigerian church is the fastest growing (and most persecuted) church in Africa and their top trade partners are the United States, United Kingdom and Brazil. Nigerian churches are being planted there and growing. The third largest population of Nigerians in the world is in the United States. Houston has 100,000 Nigerians and the largest Nigerian churches outside Nigeria itself. There are 30,000 Ethiopians living in North Texas and many of these are Christians. If you have any experience with health care you will have met many, many nurses and caregivers from these countries.

The gospel spread rapidly through immigration and persecution because it attached itself to people who travelled light. There were no buildings to maintain, no programs, no overhead, few language barriers and no expensive training and education before they went out. They were highly adaptable to new cultures and forms. There was no financial dependence on Jerusalem. They were immigrants and not colonists establishing outposts. In some ways, we have created an army model that needs enormous investment and maintenance. It’s a Roman structure of occupation and permanent enclaves of people and institutions. Those are not bad things and had we not done it there would be far fewer (if any) schools, hospitals, orphanages, and institutions. But it may be that time has passed.

The average expense of sending a trained missionary from the United States is $125,000 annually. That doesn’t include the organizations and supporting structures that have to be created. It would be like moving Philip and his family to Ethiopia instead of baptizing the one man and sending him back. Think of it as catch and release instead of building an aquarium. Today, there are 45 million Christians in Ethiopia and tradition has it that it all started with the Ethiopian eunuch.

3. And these traveling Christians have and will continue to have an impact on our religious landscape. Just as the African immigrant led churches in France are revitalizing and occupying dead churches, imported migrant workers in Spain and Germany, low paying labor from all over the world is carrying the gospel with them. Probably the #1 means of mission work among Saudis are imported Filipino housekeepers. We don’t think about them because they are invisible – and that is what makes them so effective. Did you know that the actor Stephen Baldwin became a believer through his housekeeper from Brazil? “After his first daughter was born, Baldwin said that a cleaning woman came to live with the family from Brazil. This woman told the Baldwin’s that she took the job because a prophet at her church told her that she would work for the family and that they would become Christians and get involved in ministry. His wife came to Christ through the housekeeper and then he followed.” I have a friend in Florida with the same story. In fact, Brazil ranks #2 in the number of missionaries sent out around the world (34,000) – oftentimes like the housekeeper and not as professional missionaries. In fact, nearly half of the world’s top missionary sending countries are now located in the global South.

But the surprise for me was the #1 destination of missionaries from other nations – the United States with over 34,000 international missionaries sent here. The Christian world outside the United States sees America as a mission field. While we read about people leaving the church or increasingly identifying themselves as “nones”, we are being renewed by the numbers of Christians coming to this country. In fact, according to “The Accidental Superpower” by Peter Zeihar, this is only going to increase. While he does not write about Christian migration per se, he makes the case for America’s continuing to be the magnet for migration in the world.

Others say more about the impact of migration on the American church.

“But it’s not just numbers that tell the story of Christian migration; it’s also the intensity of their belief and religious practice. In 1960, the U.S. was home to only 35,555 foreign residents from Africa. By 2009, that number had grown to 1.5 million (the vast majority of them Christian). Many exhibit a vibrant spiritual life nurtured by practices, traditions, and expressions of their faith that have been shaped in a non-Western context. At least 150 African immigrant congregations can be found in New York City alone. The greater Washington area is home to an estimated 250,000 Ethiopians, many of whom worship in 35 different Ethiopian churches. According to the 2010 Census, America is now home to 17.3 million Asian-Americans; in the last decade, the Asian-American population grew by 46 percent, a faster rate than any other racial group. Sociologists estimate that 44 percent of all Asian-Americans are Christian, and the intensity of their faith commitments is having a striking impact. About 13 percent of Catholic seminarians are from Asia, and many evangelical campus groups are led by growing numbers of Asian-American students. Of the 5,000 students at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena Calif., one of the country’s leading evangelical institutions, one in five is Asian or Asian-American.”

This week Tim Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City wrote an article in “The New Yorker” magazine about the future of evangelicalism in America. ”The enormous energy of the churches in the global South and East has begun to spill over into the cities of North America, where a new, multiethnic evangelicalism is growing steadily. Non-Western missionaries have started thousands of new urban churches there since the nineteen-seventies. Here in New York City, even within Manhattan, I have seen scores of churches begun over the last fifteen years that are fully evangelical by our definition, only a minority of which are white, and which are not aligned with any political party.

In my view, these churches tend to be much more committed to racial justice and care for the poor than is commonly seen in white Evangelicalism. In this way, they might be called liberal. On the other hand, these multicultural churches remain avowedly conservative on issues like sex outside of marriage. They look, to most eyes, like a strange mixture of liberal and conservative viewpoints, although they themselves see a strong inner consistency between these views. They resist the contemporary ethical package deals that today’s progressivism and conservatism seek to impose on adherents, insisting that true believers must toe the line on every one of a host of issues. But these younger evangelical churches simply won’t play by those rules.”

4. So it is not just financial commerce that carries the gospel. The gospel attaches itself to the commerce of ideas and education. There are almost 1 million international students at colleges and universities in the United States. We host more of the 4.5 million student total than any other country in the world. The latest report also found that almost 300,000 American students studied abroad last year. And organizations like International Students Inc. have capitalized on the fact that hundreds of thousands of non-Christian students are coming to this country. There is little need to travel there. Atlanta, Georgia has 8,000 international students from 140 countries. ISI is in 300 cities and 500 campuses with 22,000 volunteers. There is even an ISI branch in Tyler because of the increasing number of international students coming here. While traditional missionaries typically intentionally reach children who are poor or lower middle class, it is not these people coming to the United States to study. It is the professionals, doctoral students and the next generation of leadership.

5. We are in a period of historic economic and social disruption and dislocation. Migration across borders is increasing every year. Persecution is the highest it has ever been with millions of displaced Christian refugees becoming permanent residents in camps and shelters, trade wars and global imbalance, terrorism and the overall volatility of everyday life is sometimes overwhelming. Even in our own country we find ourselves being displaced and out of favor. We would all like to get back to normal. Everyone but God.

God uses dislocation and displacement to grow the Church in ways we overlook. He uses it to knock off the barnacles and get rid of some of the baggage we have collected that weighs us down. How much of all this do we really need? We may be living in the time of biggest change for the church since the earliest dispersion. They would never have chosen persecution or being forced from their homes. They could not control the changes in their lives. But, ironically, it was that change that saved the church from itself. It was less than a generation later that Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans and the Temple destroyed. Any religion that required a central place of worship could not have survived. Christianity as a part of Jewish religion would have not expanded. It was the earlier scattering of Christians all across the Empire that saved the faith. An even bigger irony is that the scattering was set in motion by one man – Saul of Tarsus. While he set out to destroy the church and kill the growth it was this very thing that saved the church in the long run.

In twenty years we are going to look around and see a church that is younger, browner, more enthusiastic, vibrant and international. It will be more like the early church than we would think. It doesn’t mean it will be perfect. There will be conflicts, misunderstandings, complaints, false teachers, frauds and heresies. It may well be in twenty years we will have had to scatter ourselves because we will have lost favor in Jerusalem. But, the Church will survive and grow. It is an anvil that has worn out a great many hammers.

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