Diaspora is an unfamiliar word for most people. The following is a brief explainer of what is meant by the terms diaspora and diaspora missions and why they are so important for local churches in America today.
What is a diaspora?
Diaspora is a Bible word. It appears three times in the New Testament where it refers to the Jewish peoples who are scattered outside of their home country. The word’s root comes from the Greek word diaspeirein which simply means to scatter or disperse. When you think of a diaspora, you can think of the farmer who scatters seed across the ground or of the little girl who blows the seeds off a dandelion. These pictures capture the idea behind the word diaspora. However, both in the Bible and in modern usage, the term refers specifically to the scattering of peoples.
We can define diaspora as a group of people who live somewhere outside of their homeland. These groups of people are the result of unprecedented global migration in the last several decades. This migration of people groups from one country to another happens for many reasons. Some move because of war, famine, persecution, or natural disasters. Others move because of opportunities for education or career advancement. Some are forced out of their homes by oppressive governments. Some leave for fear of death because of their beliefs (Wan, Diaspora Missiology, 2011). With the ease of modern transportation, it is easier than ever to start the day in one country and end it in another. Add all of these reasons together and more people are moving around the world than any moment in recorded history.
Diasporas in the United States
These groups of people, or diasporas, leave their homes and establish new communities in other countries. These communities are often called ethnic enclaves. An ethnic enclave, simply put, is an area (usually a neighborhood) in a city where a large concentration of people from a similar ethnic background develops.
These diaspora communities are becoming very common here in the United States. The U.S. is far and away the biggest recipient country of global immigration and has more immigrants than any other country in the world. Over 40 million foreign-born people live in the United States, which means roughly 14% of the population was born in another country. In 2018, the Brookings Institute predicted that current trends would mean the white population would be a minority in the United States by 2045. However, Brookings has since suggested this may occur even sooner with the initial release of 2020 census data.
In short, the face of America is changing. Now more than ever, you are more likely to have a neighbor from another country who speaks a different language and quite possibly has a completely different religion. Immigrant communities are no longer isolated to big cities. Suburbs and even rural areas are developing ethnic enclaves of their own, and we now all live within arms reach of these communities of people from different cultures and places.
But the Bible makes it clear that God controls the movements of people. In Acts 17, Paul claims that God is the one who controls the boundaries and times of humanity’s dwelling. In other words, it is God who ultimately decides when and where people live. His all-powerful hand moves people all over the world. Paul even tells us why God does this in Acts 17. It is so those people can seek God and perhaps find him. If that is true, then God is currently causing the biggest migration of peoples all over the world in recorded history, and he is moving more of them to our communities than anywhere else in the world for a purpose: that they might seek him and perhaps find him.
What is diaspora missions?
At its simplest, diaspora missions is engaging in the mission of the church among people who are part of these diaspora communities. A more detailed repsonse is that diaspora missions is a unique kind of missions due to the unique nature of immigration. Unlike general international missions, which attempts to go to people in their own culture, diaspora missions attempts the reverse. People who have left their home culture now find themselves a minority in a host culture that is not their own. This creates unique challenges and needs for members of a diaspora. Cross-cultural ministry is still essential to diaspora missions, but it turns the concept on its head.
For a number of years, church leaders around the world have begun attempting to state and clarify the importance of diaspora missions. In 2009, a large group of these leaders gathered for the Lausanne Diaspora Educators Consultation and defined diaspora missiology as “a missiological framework for understanding and participating in God’s redemptive mission among people living outside their place of origin” (Scattered to Gather, 2010.). This group has since championed the incredible significance of immigration and these diaspora communities for the making of disciples among the least reached peoples.
In practical terms, these diaspora communities and ethnic enclaves are an amazing opportunity to spread the gospel to the very same groups of people we are attempting to reach through international missions. Many millions of immigrants in the United States are coming from the places in the world that are least reached by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Often, these places make it virtually impossible to enter the country to share the gospel. However, when these people immigrate to the United States, the church now has wide-open access to people who were previously closed off from the message of Christ.
What is a local church to do?
The rise of diaspora communities is a crucial opportunity for local churches in America. It is so significant that diaspora missions is an important consideration for every local church. However, unprecedented access to the least reached peoples does not equal ease of mission. While access may have increased, the cultural barriers are still there.
Diaspora missions means cross-cultural ministry, even if it is just down the street. Most local churches in the United States have little experience engaging in disciple making across culture and language barriers. Despite a lack of experience, local churches can engage in fruitful ministry to diaspora communities that shares the gospel in meaningful ways and makes disciples across cultural barriers. This is what the Peoples Next Door project is all about.
Local church ministry to diaspora peoples in their community consists of two broad categories: discovery and engagement. Using simple, reproducible methods, it is possible to equip regular congregation members with the skills necessary to begin discovering the various diaspora groups in their own community and then engage them in a healthy way that leads toward gospel understanding. Discovery is not as complicated as it sounds, and when it’s done well, it naturally leads to engagement.
This website provides many resources to equip local church members for this important work. Feel free to look around and use what you find to set your congregation on a journey to engage the least reached that are now in arms reach of your church.