Building His Church in a Refugee Crisis

John Stanmeyer

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As she was browsing the children’s section of our local library last week, my wife, Stephanie, met a woman from North Africa named Fatimah. Fatimah has a gregarious personality, so they quickly struck up a conversation while our two daughters read books with Fatimah’s son, Mohammed.

When Fatimah was a girl, her country endured a brutal civil war that dragged on for nearly two decades and claimed half a million lives. As a result, her family fled their home and country and came to the United States. Fatimah is a refugee.

To the average person at the library that morning, Stephanie and Fatimah couldn’t have seemed more different. They had radically different upbringings, spoke different languages, and dressed and acted differently. Stephanie is an evangelical Christian. Fatimah is a Sunni Muslim.

And yet, because they share a common humanity, they are remarkably similar. They laughed as they talked about raising toddlers, swapped pregnancy and birthing stories, and shared tips on their favorite local parks and restaurants. Towards the end of their conversation, Fatimah shared that she was lonely most days. Stephanie invited her over for lunch and exchanged contact information with her.

And so, because of a bloody, senseless civil war, a Muslim from a remote village in North Africa found herself forging a new friendship with a Christian. By every account, her life seems a tragedy. She’s certainly a victim of great evil. But what is equally clear, for those with eyes to see, is that God is up to something good.

10,000 Refugees

On September 10, President Obama announced that he had decided to raise the number of Syrian refugees admitted into the United States during the next fiscal year to 10,000 — up from fewer than 2,000 last year. This decision was in response to the more than four million refugees who have left their country during the course of the Syrian Civil War (in addition to the 6.5 million internally displaced people within Syria). Just over a week later, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the United States would significantly increase the number of total refugees it accepts each year, so that the total would be at least 100,000 by 2017.

In the wake of terror attacks in Paris and Beirut, the response from Americans — even among Christians — has been as strong as it is divided. While many have called for Americans to follow their nobler impulses and respond in compassion, courage, and love by welcoming refugees, many others (including now a majority of the country’s state governors) have voiced their strong disapproval for accepting any refugees, citing significant security concerns. Many are asking, What does the vetting process look like for incoming refugees? Can we accept only Christian refugees but turn away Muslims? How do we bring together a desire to show compassion with the responsibility to keep our country safe?

In other words, the key question seems to be this: In light of terror attacks worldwide, is bringing 10,000 refugees from the Middle East really a safe decision?

10,000 Reasons

While we shouldn’t downplay these concerns, I do wonder what would happen if Christians stood counter to American culture on this issue, by asking fundamentally different questions. What if, while America was asking questions about safety and risk management, Christians were asking, What is God doing? What if, through the senseless evil of civil war, God was bringing unreached people groups to our cities? What if, through great tragedy, God was bringing about the triumph of the gospel?

Syria has over twenty million Muslims in eighteen unreached people groups. Christian missionaries have spent years praying, strategizing, and risking everything to go to these people. Now, God is bringing them here. After raising tens of thousands of dollars, undergoing extensive training, leaving everything familiar, and going through the grueling process of learning a foreign language — only then, could a missionary experience the breakthrough of having the kind of conversation Stephanie and Fatimah had just casually at our local library in Minneapolis.

Do you see the enormity of the possibility here? We have spent years plotting and praying to get missionaries into some of the most difficult places in the world. Now, four million hurting and broken people from at least eighteen unreached people groups are coming to the West. “Is it safe?” sounds like a question a government would ask. And it should ask; a government should seek to protect its people. But Christians ask, “What is God up to?”

So, as Christians, we may disagree about what’s best for America to do in this situation. But as Christians, we also recognize that this is not ultimately as important as the gospel opportunity represented in the refugee crisis.

God cares about these refugees suffering, and so should we. This is an opportunity for us to “do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow” (Jeremiah 22:3). The heart of our Father towards refugees is evident throughout the Scripture: “Let the outcasts of Moab sojourn among you; be a shelter to them from the destroyer” (Isaiah 16:4). When we feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, and clothe the naked, we do so as unto the Lord (Matthew 25:34–40).

While God cares about all suffering, he cares most particularly about eternal suffering, and so should we. God has blessed us so that his “way may be known on earth, [his] saving power among all nations” (Psalm 67:2). The refugee crisis is an opportunity for the nations — even Syrian, Sunni Muslims from eighteen unreached people groups — to sing for joy (Psalm 67:4).

In the faces of these refugees, we see 10,000 reasons for this tragedy. Men mean it for evil, but God means it for good.

So, how should a Christian think as a Christian about the refugee crisis?

1. Don’t react in fear, but with courage.

Let’s be bold for the sake of the advance of Jesus’s kingdom. Rather than thinking primarily of our own safety or comfort, let’s ask what gospel movements may be possible through our lives and churches if God allows it. Let’s pray and strategize and pray more. Let’s get behind good evangelical efforts to welcome refugees and minister to them the gospel of grace.

2. Think God’s thoughts after him.

One of the things that hinders Christian witness most is simply that the primary voice speaking in our heads, influencing our thoughts, and determining our behavior is not the Bible, but media pundits. We shut ourselves off so that we only hear voices from a narrow slice of the political spectrum, and then we listen to these voices day after day and week after week, so that they begin to shape our thinking in profound ways.

“How would we view Muslims if we were steeped in God’s words so that we were thinking his thoughts after him?”

How would we view Muslims if we were steeped in God’s words so that we were thinking his thoughts after him? What would be our perspective on the refugee crisis if the Bible, and not our favorite news channel, was guiding our thoughts and directing our behavior?

3. Pray that Christ would build his church.

The last one hundred years have seen a sweeping movement of the gospel across the Global South. Christ’s kingdom is advancing despite the fiercest attempts to stop it, because the Spirit blows where he wishes (John 3:8). So let’s pray — pray that the knowledge of the gospel will come to many unreached people groups for the first time as a result of this refugee crisis. Let’s pray that many Muslims will come to Christ. Let’s pray that the church in Europe and in the United States would be revived as we pray and love and witness.

God is building his church — through this refugee crisis — and the very hellishness of ISIS will not prevail against it.

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