I recently met a family of five who were on one of the last flights out of Kabul after the U.S. military’s 20-year presence there ended in August 2021. This couple and their three children, the youngest of whom is only five months old, had just arrived in Fort Worth after clearing security at an East Coast military facility.
It may surprise some, but the place where I met this family was at Southcliff Baptist Church in Fort Worth, where I serve as the share strategy pastor. In one month, this Muslim family went from sheltering outside of the Kabul airport to sitting in an English as a Second Language (ESL) class at a Baptist church in Texas.
Over 20 years ago, Southcliff volunteers began teaching ESL classes with only four students. Today, thousands of newcomers to America have been taught English at Southcliff. We host a variety of ministries targeted to newcomers to America, including Bible studies in Spanish, Burmese, Swahili, and Mandarin. In addition, we give seminary interns experience in cross-cultural ministry by housing them in apartments where refugees live.
A 2016 survey of pastors by Lifeway Research revealed that 86% of them felt that Christians have a responsibility to care for refugees and foreigners. However, 44% of these pastors revealed that there was a sense of fear in their congregations about refugees coming to the U.S. That may help explain why only 8% of these pastors had effectively led their churches to develop ministries to these families.
So how do church leaders bridge the gap between the belief that refugee ministry is important and the reality that so few churches have thriving newcomer ministries?
Set a personal example
Leaders must set the pace by personally engaging in ministry themselves. For example, when a pastor becomes a “family friend” to a Sudanese family through World Relief, people in the church notice. Likewise, when a church leader is seen giving driving lessons to a new Muslim friend, people ask questions.
Set a scriptural standard
Leaders rise above prejudices and politics and teach church members about God’s heart for all peoples. Being a Great Commission church means that Scripture guides our opinions of the lost, not social media or cable news.
Say yes to relational opportunities
Church leaders see opportunities that God puts before them and say yes. When a Burmese congregation asks to meet in your building on Sunday afternoons, try to make it happen. When a refugee from Congo, who speaks broken English, applies for a custodial position at your church, look for a way to hire him. When the children’s minister asks to hold the annual Vacation Bible School at an elementary school in an immigrant neighborhood instead of the church building, say yes.
Make it a budgetary priority
Finally, churches that want to develop effective ministries to newcomers will hire staff and budget for these ministries. Do you want to know if a church values teenagers? Check out their youth ministry budget and staffing. The hard reality is that creating new programs, recruiting team members, and training people in cross-cultural evangelism takes a lot of time and attention. Churches that see missions as something that is both around the world and across the street often make this commitment a reality in their church budget and staffing.
If you would like to know more about practical ways to reach out to newcomers to America, my book, “Reaching the World Across the Street,” will be available in 2022. Feel free to email me at email@example.com.