Migration and mission are often woven together as key themes throughout Scripture. As migration continues in an increasingly global society, contemporary cities are emerging as nodes of transnational social networks, and urban missionaries face new opportunities to contextualize evangelism and church planting. This article highlights these emerging opportunities, offers concrete examples of ministries that are aligning themselves with these new realities, and identifies some key principles and practices for transnational evangelism in global cities.
By Jared Looney
Flip through the pages of the Bible, and we find a journey of faith that transcends borders. From Egypt to Canaan and from Israel to Babylon, Abraham’s children move from captivity to liberation and from conquest to exile. Whether taking a piece of Egypt with them on the journey to Canaan or maintaining their Hebrew identity as God’s people in Babylon, we find a story of a people living between cultures. The New Testament continues the movement across borders as the good news of God’s kingdom spreads from tiny Galilee to Rome, the center of world power. Migration and mission are so tied together in the story of the Bible that it should be no surprise that this union continues to be a theme of missions in our post-modern cities.
While in the past immigration meant breaking from home and assimilating to a new society, today diaspora peoples adapt to their host culture while remaining connected to home. Cultural identities exist in much more of a continuum. In light of the missio Dei, this transnational activity possesses an extraordinary potential for urban centers to grow in their strategic importance for worldwide mission.
Today, we live in an age of globalization where borders don’t have quite the same power that was intended. Like the stories of Israel and of the early church, cultural identities are regularly held in tension. In a world that is connected through modern transportation systems and advanced communications, migration often results in transnational identities. These transnational identities are “the multi-stranded social relations, along family, economic, and political lines, that link together migrants’ societies of origin and settlement”1. While in the past immigration meant breaking from home and assimilating to a new society, today diaspora peoples adapt to their host culture while remaining connected to home. Cultural identities exist in much more of a continuum. In light of the missio Dei, this transnational activity possesses an extraordinary potential for urban centers to grow in their strategic importance for worldwide mission.
The signs of a global society are everywhere. Nations do not just wage war with nations but battle international networks bound together by shared ideals. An economic situation in Greece puts pressure on Wall Street in New York. Pick up the phone and a call may get routed to Manila or Bombay.
My own family represents the bridge of transnational relations. My wife, of West Indian ancestry, was born in London and holds dual citizenship with the United Kingdom and the United States. I grew up in Texas, a few minutes’ drive from the Mexico border. She and I met in a multiethnic church in New York City and continue to serve together in the Bronx. Our families are spread around the globe. My wife uses her cell phone for a conference call connecting her family living in the Northeast United States and in Las Vegas with her father in Kingston, Jamaica, while my mother utilizes Skype to speak with my sister living in Bangkok, Thailand. Our church community in the Bronx represents nations from around the world including transnational family identities rooted in life experiences on two or three continents. This global connectedness is quickly becoming the common assumption–that this is just how things work.
While the most remote places on earth can now become connected through communications technology, cities continue to have a strategic importance for the missionary enterprise. The world is now more than fifty percent urban, having crossed that threshold sometime during the beginning of the twenty-first century.2 Furthermore, urban centers are becoming the hubs for diverse interactions on a global scale. Cities are becoming nodes of global activity and influence in a highly connected world.3 While cities were once strategic for urban missionaries to reach several international people groups in one location, urban centers are increasingly becoming strategic for reaching several people groups in many locations, and this presents significant opportunities for urban missionaries.
New York City has always been a destination for immigrants, and today international migration no longer means losing touch with home. “Immigrants may be deeply affected by and involved in life in New York, but at the same time they often maintain close ongoing ties with their home communities.”4 For instance, one of our leaders participated by telephone in traditional mourning with family members in Liberia, and our church baptized a Dominican woman who was personally assisting a presidential candidate of the Dominican Republic without even leaving the Bronx. It is becoming increasingly common for politicians to campaign among diaspora populations in New York City.5 “Today immigrants not only move back and forth between societies but maintain social relationships and networks which transcend borders. Rather than moving out of an old society and into a new one, they participate simultaneously in several social arenas located in several parts of the world.”6
Immigration and religious activity in New York City has often shared a common history7, but with the emergence of transnationalism, new possibilities arise for world missions in light of the transnational connections among diaspora populations in global cities. In the following paragraphs I will briefly mention three examples of ministries experiencing the emergence of transnational evangelism in New York City, a quintessential global city context.
From Harlem to the Village
Bob’s8 original intention was to work as a missionary in Africa, and his heart’s desire was to serve among unreached people groups. Several years ago, he moved to a village in a Muslim country in West Africa, but after battling life-threatening illness, he returned to the United States disappointed that his work among this unreached people group was facing a closed door. However, afterward he learned of an opportunity to conduct a missiological research project in New York City while leading outreach efforts among West African Muslims. Immediately after coming to New York, he began meeting people from the same people group among whom he had previously lived.
Bob soon began to contextualize gospel evangelism for first generation West African Muslims. Using oral story telling–both in person and giving out audio recordings–he began meeting Muslims on the streets of Harlem and the South Bronx. Gaining acceptance among his new neighbors, Bob discovered that not only was the Lord leading him into a ministry among the people group he once traveled overseas to reach, but now he was encountering several African people groups who remain some of the most unreached in the world.
Over time, some first generation immigrants came to believe that the biblical stories of God are true and that Jesus is Lord and much more than a prophet. Though many are slow to relinquish their cultural identities as Muslims, they possess a growing hunger for the truth of the gospel. Living and working incarnationally in the city, Bob has become a spiritual leader among many West Africans in the surrounding community. However, the impact of Bob’s evangelistic work is not merely local.
When he made a short term trip to a Muslim nation in West Africa, he stayed in the homes of men that he had been teaching in New York, and he gained permission to share the gospel with their wives and families. These men working in New York City have become “big men” in their communities due at least in part to their financial contributions sent back home, and as a result of their economic status, these families had become largely inaccessible to the missionaries living in that area. However, Bob was in a position to stay in their home, to open up a spiritual dialogue with them, and connected local missionaries with the families during his visit.
Contextualizing the gospel for West African Muslims living in Harlem and the Bronx, he is sharing the gospel with the heads of transnational oikos; these local relationships in New York City’s immigrant community extend back to villages in West Africa.
Working through the natural flows of transnational relationships, Bob is an evangelist to both North America and Africa simultaneously. Contextualizing the gospel for West African Muslims living in Harlem and the Bronx, he is sharing the gospel with the heads of transnational oikos [households], and these local relationships in New York City’s immigrant community extend back to villages in a Muslim state in West Africa.
The Academy to the World
Keith9 moved to Manhattan as a missionary in order to plant churches among people from countries in the least-reached 10/40 window. When he first began planting a house church network in New York City, he wasn’t a passionate supporter of the house church movement. Rather, he began by contemplating how to reach international students and visiting scholars studying at an Ivy League campus in Manhattan. Keith wanted to strategically reach internationals so that they could carry the gospel and continue the work of church planting when they finish their studies and return home. He recognized that conventional church planting strategies would likely not be reproducible for new believers returning home to largely non-Christian settings. If he were to see churches multiply through the social networks of new believers, he realized that what was modeled was at least as important as what was taught. He desired to demonstrate an approach to church planting that visiting students and scholars from non-Christian societies could replicate themselves while working in the academy, government, or the corporate sector and adapt fluidly to their context in Asian cities.
At the beginning of each semester, Keith and his team meet new graduate and post-graduate students as well as visiting scholars and invite them to their homes. They begin Bible studies with those who are receptive, and in recent years they have begun to see the vision for internationally planting new house churches begin to emerge. In recent years, they have begun to adapt Discovery Bible Study methods10 as a strategy for launching new groups on campus and overseas. New believers have returned to positions in businesses or academic institutions in major cities in China, Taiwan, and Japan. Keith regularly uses Skype to continue a mentoring and coaching relationship with converts as they share the gospel and start house churches in their home context.
Mission among the Diaspora
Pete11 spent five years working as a missionary in Albania. During that time, he learned the language and the culture, but he questioned the inherently Western and especially American approaches to planting a church in Albania. He felt a relational approach congruent with Albanians’ emphasis on family life was needed. After returning to the United States, he continued his work among this people group. Pete moved his family first to Staten Island where he spent his first six years in New York simply gaining trust among Albanians. With the help of church volunteers, he hosted cultural events and community meetings, and he spent time building friendships among his Albanian neighbors.
After six years of personal investment, Pete started a house church among Albanians in Staten Island. Soon after, a second Albanian-speaking church began in a home in Brooklyn. Pete eventually moved across the river to New Jersey where an additional Albanian church began meeting in a library in a church building where he also serves as a pastor.
Pete explains that the majority of Albanians don’t live in Albania and that missionaries must adjust their worldview to reflect contemporary realities. Many people groups are spread across the globe, and diaspora communities may become strategic networks for many missionaries while simultaneously staying connected to national leaders in the country of origin. While working in several counties and two states across Metro New York, Pete also regularly travels to Albania and Kosovo, training leaders and helping to plant churches. His commitment to this people group has placed him in a transnational reality bridging diaspora and local contexts.
Principles & Practices
On a local scale, each of these ministries remain small since they are working with highly mobile populations, but as they seek to have a transnational influence, their reach is extensive. By serving incarnationally in New York City, they are seeing the gospel move globally through family or professional networks. Surveying these ministries, there are key characteristics that enable their evangelistic efforts to naturally flow through transnational connections.
1. Simple and Reproducible
Each ministry chose an approach to evangelism and church planting that was simple and reproducible by lay people. These leaders are not building large organizations but are strategically sharing the gospel in easily transmittable forms among targeted people groups. They keep the medium simple and easy to use by laypeople. Bob uses oral storytelling and meets African Muslims in the locations most practical to them–whether on street corners, in shops, or in city apartments. It is difficult to overcome the long work hours among many immigrants; therefore, meetings are often in small groups and remain informal. For Keith, the vision of multiplying church planting through international students informed the strategic planning. It had to be kept simple if laypeople were going to reproduce new churches in their countries of origin, and his team only has a short time to develop new converts into leaders during their period of study in Manhattan. In some cases he is only working a few months with visiting scholars who believe, are baptized, and return home to share the gospel. Each of these ministries has recognized that forms must be simple if they are to be carried naturally across borders in the hands of new converts.
These missionary efforts are contextualized to the worldview of the people groups they are engaging. For example, Pete utilized celebrations of ethnic heritage to identify with his people group. Story telling among West Africans, practicing hospitality among visiting scholars in Manhattan, or evangelizing the family-oriented culture of Albanians–each of these missionary enterprises brings the gospel into the cultural world of their people groups. Despite their common simplicity, the contrast between each evangelism style represents intentional contextualization congruent to each of the target audiences.
3. Decentralized: Local and Translocal
Each of these ministries is decentralized locally. These communities represent networks of small groups, Bible studies, and/or house churches. Evangelism flows naturally through transnational relationships as an extension of their local decentralization. Decentralized patterns of evangelism are experienced in the local urban setting, and extending that experience to transnational relationships is a natural step in light of globally connected relationships and family networks. The possibilities of transnational evangelism are beginning to be realized in tangible ways in these ministries. Decentralized ministries lay the foundation for leading into evangelism through global connections.
Urbanization and globalization are adding more nuance to the missionary task of contextualization. “The increasing cultural diversity within Christianity, with the recognition of the local within the global and the global within the local, complicates the writing of church history in the twenty-first century.”12 Ministry in local neighborhoods continues to have great relevance; however, local ministry in multicultural cities may also have significant influence through transnational connections as well. Missionaries working in an urban metropolis are faced with the task of contextualizing for the local setting while keeping in mind the potential for evangelism beyond local contexts. As the world continues to shrink into a global village, cities become nodes of global connections, and these new Roman roads are once again pathways for the gospel to the nations of the earth.
1 Nancy Foner, ed., New Immigrants in New York (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 9.
2 David Clark, Urban World / Global City (London; New York: Routledge, 1996), 1.
3 Ibid., 12-13.
4 Foner, New Immigrants, 9.
5 Robert C. Smith, “Transnational Migration, Assimilation, and Political Community,” in The City and The World: New York’s Global Future, edited by M. E. Crahan and A. Vourvoulias-Bush (New York: New York Council on Foreign Relations Books, 1997), 115-116.
6 Johanna Lessinger, From the Ganges to the Hudson: Indian Immigrants in New York City, edited by N. Foner, The New Immigrant Series (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1995), 87-88.
7 Tony Carnes, “Religions in the City: An Overview,” in New York Glory: Religions in the City, edited by T. Carnes and A. Karpathakis (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 13.
8 Bob (not real name) interviewed in New York, NY, on April 11, 2008.
9 Keith (not real name) interviewed in New York, NY, on January 17, 2008.
10 See https://www.cpmtr.org.
11 Pete (not real name) interviewed in Bronx, NY, on April 28, 2008.
12 Dana L. Robert, “Shifting Southward: Global Christianity since 1945,” in The Study of Evangelism: Exploring a Missional Practice of the Church, edited by P. W. Chilcote and L. C. Warner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 131.