Why Immigration Is Good News for the Church (and Maybe Not for Secularism?)
Immigration is a controversial topic lately. In this post I don't want to delve into the particulars of illegal immigration. Thoughtful and compassionate people come to different conclusions on this matter, and many others are better qualified to write on this than I am. I would briefly point out that as Christians, at the very least we should begin such conversations by decrying all racism, xenophobia, idolatrous nationalism, the cruel separation of children from families, and any naive utopian world in which borders don't matter (that world will exist, but unfortunately will not in this age). But I'm getting off topic and beyond my point. The purpose of this post is to point out that the arrival of people from other nations to this nation is often a great blessing to the Church. Furthermore, while secular people are often very open to immigration, the influx of diverse people to an increasingly secular nation will no doubt present secularism with challenges for which it may lack to resources to navigate.
Let's begin with the blessing that immigration is to the Church. For one, the American church is what it is because of past immigrants. Many of our church bodies began as ethnic groups who immigrated to the United States for a variety of reasons. My own church body—The LCMS—began with German immigrants who came to the United States for the sake of religious freedom. I'm thankful that they were welcomed here.
We hear so much these days about the church dying. When I hear these panic-stricken gloom and doom forecasts, I often think to myself, "Only if you think the church is just a bunch of white, middle-class folks!" Yes, the church is experiencing decline among a certain demographic. However, not among many of the people who come to the United States. Many immigrants come from the global south—a place where Christianity is growing in leaps and bounds. Do you want to know where congregations are bustling? Go to the Hispanic church in Queens, or check out the Brazilian congregation in Boston. As long as immigrants are welcome in this nation, I believe the church will continue to grow, and secularism will not enjoy the unhindered progress toward the secular utopia it seems to be enjoying right now.
Furthermore, as brothers and sisters in Christ come to this country, they also breathe life and diversity into our life together—into our worship, our theology, and our mission. I'm convinced that one of the reasons we have blind spots in our churches is because we often lack diversity in leadership and theological discussions. What would it look like if the experience, the insights, and the concerns of Christians from Africa, Asia, and Latin America influenced our priorities and concerns within church bodies that are predominately white? We are all the richer when we are able to do theology outside of the confines of our own limited perspective.
In the district of the LCMS where I serve—the New England District—we recently saw the above points play out in a beautiful way. A group of Lutheran Christians from Africa who belong to the Oromo people are in the process of becoming a congregation of the LCMS. Many of the members of the Oromo community came from the Ethiopian Evangelical Lutheran Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY). After worshiping together in the Boston area, they realized that they have more in common with the biblical and confessional theology of the LCMS. As this group of believers—many of them recent immigrants—come into our fellowship, we experience the blessings of growth, energy, diversity, and perspective within our church body. For example, a friend of mine who has worked with the Oromo Church—Pastor Eric Sahlberg—has pointed out that prayer is incredibly important to their congregation. Whereas most congregations in the LCMS probably devote about five minutes to the prayers of the church, the Oromo congregation spends about forty-five minutes in prayer! Perhaps their different approach to time allows the incense of prayer to burn longer in their worship than ours. This is just one area among many others where our diversity can edify and help us live outside of our cultural comfort zones.
I suppose some would rightly point out that not all immigrants are religious, and even if they are, some are deeply committed to other religions. For example, many of the immigrants who have moved to the town where I live in Connecticut are either Hindu or Muslim. But we need to remember that this is also an opportunity for the Church. We are called to bring the Gospel to the nations. It is very convenient when the nations come to us. I think, for example, of the ministry of POBLO International. This mission group has responded to Muslim immigrants coming to the Great Lake states as an opportunity to fulfill the Great Commission.
Finally, a word about secularism—that worldview that has experienced what seems like unhindered success lately. I find it interesting that those who belong to the so-called "secular left" are often the most open to immigration. If many of those who come to this country are deeply religious, this also means that these same people will hold to values and morals much different than those of secular people. For example, it would be interesting to do a survey of immigrants from the global south regarding their stances on marriage and sexuality. Would there be a wide gap between secular values and immigrant values? If some secular people can barely handle the presence of Chik-fil-A in Manhattan, then how will they handle immigrants who, according to secular judgment, are on the "wrong side of history" because of their religious convictions? Doesn't this mean that some immigrants—especially the religious ones—are really a hindrance to progress? How will secular people handle this? Will they impose some kind of paternalistic education to enlighten these poor people enslaved to antiquated views on marriage and sexuality? This sounds like a secular conundrum.
Overall, immigration offers the Church a great opportunity—both for its own life as well as its mission. Whenever those on the "religious right" (which is in many ways a hidden form of secularism) take a staunch anti-immigrant stance, they may be standing against the very people whose presence pushes back the influence of secularism. If the nation they long for is some kind of white, middle-class, church attending utopia, then this is really just an anti-church that needs to hurry up and be exposed for the often nominal and compromising civil religion it really is. But if we really long for that beautiful picture the Holy Spirit gives us from the pages of Revelation—a great multitude of "every tribe, people, and language"—then we ought to approach immigration from a different perspective.
Pastor John Rasmussen—Our Savior Lutheran Church—South Windsor, CT