The New Diaspora
By Doug Priest
As the world becomes globalized, opportunities for evangelism multiply. Now is the time to develop new strategies for reaching dispersed people living in our own cities, towns, and neighborhoods.
Back in the 1970s, when I drove on the freeways in Los Angeles where I lived, I saw signs for “Little Saigon,” “Chinatown,” and “Little Korea.” I could go into the center of the city and find myself in neighborhoods of Mexican-Americans, Guatemalans, and Salvadorians.
Today the situation has changed. Go to any school district in Southern California and you will find 30 to 40 or more languages represented. What is true in Los Angeles is true for most large cities in America, and even the rural areas of our country are becoming diverse.
The term diaspora is an English rendering of a Greek word meaning “scattered” or “dispersed.” In the Old Testament, the Jewish people left Egypt and later entered the promised land. Generations later, many Jews were forcibly dispersed from their homeland during the Babylonian captivity. By the time of Christ, many Jewish people lived in the land of Palestine and many others lived throughout Asia.
The apostle Paul visited the synagogues or places of worship all over southern Europe on his missionary journeys. After the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in AD 70, the Jews who had become followers of Christ were persecuted and scattered all over the known world. As they went, they shared the good news of Jesus Christ. It was through such movements of people that our sovereign God made himself known to myriads of people.
Diaspora as used by the Greeks included such practices as migration and colonization. By the 1960s the term was used to refer to those Africans who were forcibly taken from their homelands to become slaves in the new world. Today the term has broadened in use to mean the dispersion of any ethnic group and “often implies a positive and ongoing relationship between migrants’ homelands and where they now work and live.”1
We are in the third period of major migration in our country. The first migration was when the Europeans came to America and supplanted the Native Americans from their homelands. The second major migration was when the (generally) impoverished Europeans came to this country because of economic hardships in their own homelands. (Think of the Poles, the Irish, and the Italians as examples.) The third major migration is going on now as the United States has opened its borders and roughly 1 million new people come here to live each year.
People are on the move today—or they are being moved. The movement may be internal, such as the rapid move of rural people to the cities all over our world. Or the movement may be international.
Most of those who migrate today come from the Majority World. They leave their countries looking for economic advancement, education, peace, or better health care. These migrants, some 70 percent of them, end up in the West—Europe and North America.
Others are forcibly removed from their homelands. These are political refugees, with the Syrians, Sudanese, and Somalis as the most glaring current examples. A generation ago it was the Vietnamese and Cambodian “boat people.”
What happens when these people come to America? Sociologists from the University of Chicago noted that the immigrants go through three stages. First, they have contact with the new culture. Many do not speak English or know their way around. They seek help wherever they can find it. They often settle in communities of their own kind. Many continue to use their mother tongue.
Next, they accommodate the culture. They learn their way around, begin to drive and use the bus system, and navigate the complexity of American life. Their children often adjust to America faster than their immigrant parents. These children go to school and are taught in English. They may or may not be accepted by their American classmates.
Third, they assimilate into the culture. Full assimilation often takes three to four generations.2 By the second generation, English is the primary language, and the children born here may not speak the language of their parents and grandparents. Most immigrants, with the exception of refugees, are gainfully employed.
Some people who come to the West do not assimilate. Instead, they become marginalized. They withdraw. They live in enclaves, seldom venturing far from their home areas. This may be due to their desire to do everything possible not to assimilate here because they find this country’s practices intolerable. Or it may be because they have been treated badly by the locals because they are different.
We acknowledge that certain people fear immigrants, believing some of them may be, or may become, terrorists. But getting to know our displaced neighbors presents possibilities for kingdom expansion and also contributes to understanding, peaceful relations, and the common good in our communities.
Globalization and Transnationalism
As the world becomes globalized, people move about at an even more frenetic pace.
Global business has become borderless. KFC and McDonald’s are extremely popular in China. There are about 4,000 7-Eleven convenience stores in Bangkok, Thailand.
People have become “deterritorialized.” They work in multiple countries and have extended family connections in more than one country. Many laborers take up work in another country, such as the hundreds of thousands of Filipino workers in the Middle East or the Bangladeshi laborers in Singapore. Entire economies are helped when these foreign workers send money back home to their families.
Many people today are transnationals. They “forge and sustain multi-stranded social relations that link their societies of origin and settlement.”3
A Unique Opportunity
Migration has changed our world. We live in the midst of diaspora. We in the church have been slow to seize the opportunity. We need to think of new strategies. In the past we have viewed mission as from the West to the rest. We have sent missionaries from America to outposts all over the world and have been reluctant to think of our country as a mission field. That can no longer be the case.
If one feels a call from God to minister to Afghans, one need not go to Afghanistan to do so. Rather, one can go to the Afghans residing in America. In Afghanistan it is illegal to “proselytize.” One can be thrown into jail or thrown out of the country. Not so in America.
First-generation immigrants are often open to the gospel because they are in a totally new situation. Jared Looney writes, “Migration represents an opportunity for proclamation among unreached ethnic groups that were previously difficult to access, and migrant families may represent soft soil that is ready to encounter the Good News of the cross of Christ.”⁴
Many churches are working increasingly in local public schools that are full of immigrants and refugees. As we help them, we help our “own” kids and schools.
Since God directs the movements of people, we should be quick to care for the resident aliens who are all around us. Enoch Wan has pioneered the concept of diaspora missions. He notes that “the theological assumption of diaspora missions is that it is God who determines where people will live at certain times so that wherever they are located, they can call upon God and find Him.”⁵ His classification system is helpful as we consider strategies for how to engage our neighbors:
Missions to the diaspora—reaching the diaspora groups in forms of evangelism or pre-evangelistic social services, then discipling them to become worshipping communities and congregations.
Missions through the diaspora—diaspora Christians reaching out to their kinsmen through networks of friendship and kinship in host countries, their homelands, and abroad.
Missions by and beyond the diaspora—motivating and mobilizing diaspora Christians for cross-cultural missions to other ethnic groups in their host countries, homelands, and abroad.
Missions with the diaspora—mobilizing non-diasporic Christians (like those reading this article) individually and institutionally to partner with diaspora groups and congregations.⁶
My friend Kevin Dooley lives near Indianapolis, Indiana. He and his family had lived and worked in North Africa before leaving the region due to political reasons. Not wanting to give up his love for Muslims and their evangelization, he decided to work with Muslims in Indianapolis.
He learned that the majority of the taxi drivers in the city were Muslims, so he formed a business to help these drivers purchase their own taxis over time. His family has forged strong relationships with the families of the taxi drivers. He is viewed as a valuable friend whom they know is a Jesus follower. (See related article, p. 25.)
This kind of creative engagement and thoughtful outreach is a model for the future as the new diaspora continues.
¹Enoch Wan, Diaspora Missiology (Portland: Institute of Diaspora Studies), 97.
²Michael Pocock and Enoch Wan, eds., Diaspora Missiology (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2015), 132, 133.
⁴Jared Looney, Crossroads of the Nations (Portland: Urban Loft Publishers, 2015), 166.
⁵Enoch Wan, Diaspora Missiology (CreateSpace, 2014), 100.
⁶Pocock and Wan, 217.
Doug Priest serves as executive director of CMF International and is a contributing editor to CHRISTIAN STANDARD.