Migration & Ethnic Conflict

In 50 years as missionaries, my wife and I have become familiar with immigration laws and offices in the countries where we served: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, the United States, and now Spain. As recently as 2007, in Valencia, we were standing in line for hours, filling forms and asking God for patience to cope with bureaucratic slowness. In those queues you hear amazing stories of joys, tragedies, dramatic expectations, and disappointments for migrant people.

Churches in Spain have had to face the challenge of a massive wave of migrants from Latin America, Africa, and Eastern Europe. It is a missionary challenge, forcing churches to go to the roots of their faith.

In 2002 in a town just outside Madrid, a group of skinheads burned down a Romanian evangelical church and painted its walls with swastikas and racist phrases. We do not make light of these challenges. Twice a week the Baptist church of Vallecas in Madrid provides food and medicine for 600 poor people, mainly immigrants from Morocco and Latin America. Most of the neighbours in the locality are understanding and sympathetic, but some have protested because of the long lines that form for three hours. In addition, groups of drunk hooligans have interrupted church services. All urban ministry opportunities can be costly.

For the 2004 Forum on World Evangelization hosted by The Lausanne Committee in Pattaya, Thailand, the group that worked on ‘Globalisation and the Gospel’ heard how churches in Canada and Japan were transformed as they responded to the missionary challenge posed by migration. ‘We cannot underestimate the sheer power global migration has on the interdependence of our daily lives and collective fates, creating our larger common horizon of experience,’ [1] their report read.

But the challenge and opportunity are nothing new. Migration was an important factor in the development of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. John Calvin was a migrant who had to flee his native France to become a refugee in Geneva, whose immigrants increased the population by 50% in those decades. Historian Fred Brown describes ‘the terrific task facing church and state in Geneva to take care of the waves of people inundating the city’ [2]. Calvin launched initiatives for the professional training of young people and the re-adaptation of adults to new jobs, and preached against those who wanted to benefit from cheap labour [3].

Migration and church planting

In the New Testament migration was a key factor in the advance of the church. Paul ends his epistle to the Romans with greetings to a long list of people he had met throughout the Roman Empire, who have all ended up in Rome. A constant migration took place within the Roman Empire, similar to our experience in the twenty-first century. Rome, the centre of cultural, economic, and political power, attracted migrants just as today, rich countries draw people from underdeveloped countries seeking jobs, security, and a future.

In the New Testament we see Christian mission taking place within the context of people on the move. The founders of the Antioch church (Acts 11:19) were people scattered by religious persecution. In other cases, voluntary migrants moved with a missionary purpose, as Paul himself sought to move from the eastern half of the empire to the west (Romans 15:19, 23-24).

Priscilla and Aquila (Romans 16:3) are key to understanding one early pattern of formation of churches. Acts describes Aquila as a Jew from the region of Ponto who had to leave Rome due to the persecution of Jews (Acts 18: 1-4). Priscilla and Aquila supported themselves through a specialized kind of work with leather, which used few tools: an ideal occupation for a travelling man like Paul himself. Paul ‘stayed with them and they worked together’ (Acts 18:3), and after ‘a considerable time’ (v. 18) the trio moved on to Ephesus. By the time Romans was written, this faithful couple had returned to Rome, where the Apostle praises them as people for whom he ‘and all the churches of the Gentiles’ are thankful (Romans 16:3).

Through their journeys, voluntary and involuntary, Priscilla and Aquila planted churches in at least three cities of the empire. The pattern continues in our time. British employees of a railway company planted many evangelical churches in Argentina in the early twentieth century. I have worshipped in churches developed by Korean businessmen in Brazil, Peru, and Spain. Spanish migrants planted Spanish-speaking churches in Germany in the 1960s, which are attended now by Latin American migrants. More recently, Filipino young people have planted churches in the United States, and Ghanaian migrants have done the same in the Netherlands.

Migration and welcome

Paul’s list of greetings (Romans 16) allows us to envisage at least five house churches in Rome, associated with Jewish and Gentile names. Big cities are melting pots where different races and cultures meet. Sometimes the meeting is traumatic. All of us are ethnocentric, and the acceptance of ‘the other’, the one who is different from us, may not be an easy step. Times of social or economic crisis bring out the ugly ghost of racism. This has also affected Christians throughout church history. In the New Testament we see that the encounter of cultures and races caused many problems in the early church.

Some of the house churches in Rome were made up of Jewish believers, and others were made up of Gentile believers, while some may have been mixed communities. Paul encourages these varied Christians to receive one another as brothers and sisters in Christ [4].  His exhortation has a definite theological connotation and a pastoral intention: ‘Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you for the glory of God’ (Romans 15:7). By pointing to how Christ receives those who come to him, this exhortation goes to the heart of the gospel in the first part of the epistle. Such mutual acceptance included the disposition to accept cultural differences, such as different eating habits and prohibitions (Romans 14:1-6). Paul’s missionary strategy included fostering this mutual acceptance: for example, in the collection that the Gentile churches gathered at Paul’s initiative to help the impoverished Jewish believers in Judea (Romans 15:25-29).

This welcome must also be reflected in the practice of hospitality, which became a mark of the Christian churches in the first century. Paul’s words of commendation for Phoebe illustrate this (Romans 16:1-2).

Today, churches in big cities flooded with immigrants especially need such a welcoming attitude. The amazing growth of popular churches in the cities of Latin America can be partly explained by their welcome for persons displaced from rural areas. In many cases the embrace that the migrant receives in church becomes a symbol and a prelude to the experience of being received by Jesus Christ and finding salvation in him.

A threefold challenge

Migration presents a threefold challenge to mission-minded Christians. The first is the challenge to Christian compassion and sensitivity. Churches are challenged to respond with funds and volunteers to a massive flow of people facing hunger, homelessness and marginalization. There is also the challenge to cooperate with secular NGOs patterned after the Christian model of volunteer involvement but suspicious of the motivations of Christian churches.

The second challenge is the need for the churches to take a prophetic stance in the face of unjust treatment of immigrants by society. Sometimes the biggest challenge is for churches to become a mouthpiece for the poor and downtrodden. This is unpopular in a society panicking in the face of waves of foreigners. The church must go back to the sources of her own faith and heritage of compassion, half-forgotten in the West.

The third challenge is seeing migration as an avenue for evangelism. Migrants are people in transition, who are experiencing the loss of roots and may be open to new commitments. Historically, missionary Christianity has often flourished in the context of migration precisely because of the two-pronged nature of the migrant experience. There is the painful side of homelessness and uprootedness, but also a new freedom. The presence of new believers as a result of such evangelism then brings pastoral challenges, as older church communities are forced to face ‘the other’ in their midst.

In the face of massive migration, the teaching of Romans is extremely relevant. If churches in Europe reflect the embrace of Christ rather than the exclusion of a frightened society, they may become better bases for a new evangelization of Europe. Churches in North America may become the kind of prophetic community that will deliver the church from a cheap form of civil religion. If new migrant churches in these parts of the world hear Paul in Romans, they will find ways to connect with long-established churches in need of a new missionary spirit. Meanwhile in Latin America, Africa, and some parts of Asia, where the church is growing and vital, enthusiasm must be matched by a striving towards maturity that will allow a faithful testimony in all areas of life. As in the first century, migration will be an avenue and a challenge that God uses for the accomplishment of Christian mission.


    1. David Claydon, ed. A New Vision, A New Heart, a Renewed Call. Vol. 1. (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2005), 23.

    2. W. Fred Graham. The Constructive Revolutionary: John Calvin and His Socio-Economic Impact (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1971), 105-106.

    3. André Biéler. Calvin’s Economic and Social Thought (Geneva: World Alliance of Reformed Churches-World Council of Churches, 2005) 134ff.

    4. New Testament scholar Paul Minear develops this theme in his book, The Obedience of Faith: The Purpose of Paul in the Epistle to the Romans (London: SCM Press, 1971).

This article was a part of a special series called ‘The Global Conversation’, jointly published by Christianity Today International and the Lausanne Movement in the months leading up to Cape Town 2010: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization to help prepare the global church for the issues to be addressed at the Congress. Each lead article had several commissioned responses, and was published by dozens of publications around the world. (View all Articles)

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Peruvian missiologist Dr Samuel Escobar has ministered in Canada and Latin America with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, of which he is also a past President. He was Chair of Missiology at Palmer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, USA. His books include The New Global Mission. He was a member of the committee that drafted The Lausanne Covenant in 1974. Presently he lives and teaches in Spain.