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Diaspora – where migration and mission meet

January 2016

Do we believe that God is sovereign over migration patterns? And are we ready to respond? Steve Bell introduces the phenomenon of diaspora ministry.

There are a variety of reasons people find themselves in diaspora, or living outside of their original homeland. For some, it’s because of a ‘pull’ dynamic — people who voluntarily leave for reasons of economic aspiration, medical tourism or higher education.

But for others a ‘push’ dynamic is in play — for example, the need for refuge from political unrest, terror, persecution, or trafficking.

Dispersed peoples

The term diaspora is in fact a biblical one, which goes almost unnoticed in the Greek Septuagint version of the Bible, where the word is used to admonish the Jewish nation: ‘You will be a dispersion in all kingdoms of the earth’ (Deuteronomy 28:25).

Their dispersion from their homeland of Israel turned them into the first diaspora. Since then, the term has also been used of Armenians, Kurds and now many other ethnic groups.

A fascinating Bible study is to identify the material that was written from people in diaspora, and to people in diaspora.

Take, for instance, the ‘pilgrim’ theme of Abraham; the wandering Jewish community under Moses; the teaching about including the ‘stranger in the midst’. Don’t forget that Jesus himself was a refugee in Egypt, and of course many of the New Testament letters were written to dispersed Jewish churches.

In fact, the apostle Peter honours diaspora believers, referring to them as strategically placed for the transmission of the gospel: they are ‘chosen’ (elect); ‘migrants’ (exiles) and ‘scattered’ (diaspora) (1 Peter 1:1). Peter refers to these migrant believers as paradidymai, or those from ‘outside’ their birth-country, who have been placed by God ‘alongside’ the local body of Christ in an adoptive country.

Modern migration patterns

In the twenty-first century, mission really is ‘from everywhere to everywhere’. For instance, if you want to reach Pakistanis, you might think of going not to Pakistan but to Shanghai or Beijing, where a 100,000 Pakistanis are studying in an environment that is removed from the social restrictions of Pakistan, and consequently much freer and less resistant to the gospel.

Another example: if you wanted to reach Filipinos, you might think of going not to the Philippines, but to a sea port on the Pacific coast of America close to the Canadian border, where again hundreds of thousands of Filipino seafarers pass through each year.

Also, in most Gulf States, around half the population is not Emirati Arabs at all, but Asians from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines or Indonesia.

The patterns of diaspora are many and varied. For instance there is a thing called ‘intra- migration’. This is the case in India where 300 million Indians are dispersed as migrant workers within India itself. In China, 450 million Chinese are doing the same.

There is also the growing phenomenon of ‘trans-national migration’, where economic migrants stay overseas for several years but always intend to return home — this is the case with many Polish and Somali people in the UK.

Both have a clear, ‘transient’ mind-set which stops them integrating with British society, presenting an added challenge to gospel ministry, but also an opportunity if they come to Christ and return home.

Response of mission agencies

For all these reasons, it’s not surprising that diaspora mission is something of a rising star in the firmament of the worldwide mission movement.

A definition of ‘diaspora missiology’ has begun to emerge as ‘a missiological framework for understanding and participating in God’s redemptive mission among people living outside their place of origin’.

I recently represented Inter-serve at a Lausanne Movement consultation in Manila specifically on diaspora ministry, the fruit of which will be published soon.

Throughout its history, Inter-serve has ‘followed the diaspora’, as someone once put it to me. My first encounter with Interserve was in Egypt in the 1980s, where I associated with Vivienne Stacey, who was in and out of the region in a strategic bid to open up the way for Interserve to serve the South Asian community there.

Here in the UK 30 years ago, the Ministry among Asians in Britain (MAB) was a diaspora initiative driven by Interserve. It was ahead of its time and has now become our Country Team.

Our team is implementing the apostle Peter’s ‘prophetic’ insight: that migration patterns are strategic in the purposes of God and that migrant communities always include ‘diaspora churches’.

Envisioned disciples

People in diaspora are not merely here to be ‘reached’, but they are here to be envisioned and equipped to engage the gospel with their own community. We believe that as they do, they can have an impact not only here, but also back in their home countries.

If you’re interested in learning more about diaspora ministry, you might want to check out Scattered and gathered: a compendium of global diaspora missiology, soon to be published in the Lausanne Library Resource Series (www.lausanne.org).

First published in Go, the magazine of Interserve (www.interserve.org.uk), and used here with kind permission