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The Implications of Migration for God’s Mission and African Immigrant Congregations in the UK

Migration, a large movement of people, is not strange in human history. Whether voluntarily or involuntarily, population transfer, relocation, and displacements have, since their existence, marked the human condition. God’s mission has also always ridden on the back of migration. The mystery of incarnation immediately gives Jesus away as a migrant. The word of God took on flesh as he relocated to the earth to save humankind from their sins. This act of God’s movement into the human domain would only be the beginning. Biblical records reflect migration themes right from the ejection of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden (Genesis 3)—a case of involuntary migration—to the exile of John on the Island of Patmos (Revelation 1:9). Today, God’s Spirit remains a permanent migrant resident in every believer in Christ.

Since its inception, the Christian faith has ridden on the back of migration for expansion. In fact, Jesus’ charge to His disciples—often referred to as the Great Commission—to be His witness in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the far ends of the earth (Matthew 28:19), is with an implication of migration. This reality becomes even clearer as one reads through the records of Acts, Epistles, and other NT books. In these narratives, migration takes the early Church from its original Jewish base around the Mediterranean world from Antioch to Corinth, Rome, Philippi, and other well-known centres in the NT. By the 4th century CE, the gains of Christianity in Europe had begun to explode through migration, leading the continent to become the hotspot of Christianity between 500 and 1500 CE. Therefore, when the Great European migration began at the close of the fifteenth century (21 per cent of Europeans relocated elsewhere outside Europe, occupying more than a third of the inhabited world) and lasting over 450 years, Christianity was, again, on the move and shifting base. 

Africa saw the reintroduction of Christianity to its continent (in a third phase) in the hundred years between 1850 and 1950 while European missionary enterprise lasted. As African agents got more involved, African Initiated Churches, especially of the Pentecostal type, began to multiply, particularly from the 1970s, resulting in the exponential growth of Christianity in Africa to date. This growth of African Pentecostal churches is now spreading to the West with the new migration wave of non-Western nations. Of course, when Africans migrate, they bring their religions with them. Hence, the recent massive people movement to the West, especially the UK, has significant implications for church growth in the region.

First, the influx of Christian migrants can reinforce God’s mission in the fast-secularising UK if properly leveraged. While secularisation continues to eat deep into most (if not all) societal sectors in the UK, such that church buildings are even being demolished or sold, immigrant Christianity is quickly taking root. However, the growth of these immigrant churches has been largely homogenous, especially along racial lines. They still struggle to evangelise their host for many reasons. So, their survival remains mostly tied to the immigration of their kind. Yet, they are not giving up on their efforts to reach out to their host. Some are already becoming aware of the new strategies they may need to deploy in their missional endeavour. So, they will most likely achieve more with additional hands and appropriate methodology. The unabated decline of Christian influence in the UK requires as many mission agents as possible to join God at work to combat it. Indeed, “the harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few” (Matthew 9:37).

Second, existing immigrant churches, in particular, must prepare for distortions that may come with potential numerical growth. Rightly so, as people join the church from various religious traditions, seeking to continue practising their faith the way they have known from home, if not properly managed, the variant denominational biases, and thus, orientation to church life, may result in misunderstandings that are counterproductive for church growth. Therefore, every church must have a sound discipleship structure that helps new members learn the culture of God’s kingdom and that particular assembly. Churches must also prepare for distortions that may arise from space unavailability due to the increasing size of the congregation. Some may need to set aside funds for expansion (where possible), rent a bigger or additional property, or redesign the seating arrangement in the church. All these steps can unsettle some persons in the church who may already have preferred seats or feel that their finances may come under pressure. So, the church may experience growth just as it may lose some of its members.

Third, immigrant churches must not be so fixated on migration for their growth. Sometimes, the newly arrived are just looking for a place to aid their settlement. They may not ultimately join the membership of the church. Plus, migration policies are ever-changing. A church unprepared for this reality and does little or nothing to evangelise its host community may not be around for long, especially when immigration laws become more restrictive. It is deceptive for a church to quickly celebrate its growth just by the volume of new immigrants showing up at its worship services—at least not until they become committed members, a discipleship process that usually requires time and commitment from both the church and the potential members.

Fourth, while welcoming potential church growth through people movement is not out of place, this sort of numerical increase should only complement other missional efforts such that the church would continue to thrive regardless of immigration policies—harsh or favourable. For instance, pastors must keep the grass green for the sheep to remain, for God only makes His sheep “lie down in green pastures” (Psalms 23:2 NRSV). The word of God must remain fresh and address the wholesome needs of the people in the church if they would stay. In the end, the church would then be able to say like Paul, “In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed …” (Philippians 4:12 NRSV). 

Above all, the UK church should discern the recent wave of African Christians showing up in the country as the stirring of God’s Spirit to bring healing to the nation and His church (John 5:4 NKJV). God is activating the long-anticipated spiritual renewal (healing) of the West, and He is partnering with the spirit-conscious African Christians relocating to the UK. These believers cannot afford to be shy about their spiritual contribution to God’s mission in the UK, regardless of the secularisation of the environment. They must be bold to project the biblical teachings on divine healing, angels, visions, miracles, prophecies, dream interpretation, and other possibilities by the Holy Spirit—which have marked the spirit-centred expression of Christianity in Africa. The intentional God of missions is bringing unique gifts to His church in the UK, “treasures in clay jars” (2 Corinthians 4:7 NRSV) of African immigrants, to revitalise the body of Christ in the country. What a mysterious and strategic God!

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