Why The Church Should Care About Expats
Have you ever noticed how much Jesus liked to associate with firebrands? He didn’t pick high society people to run his ministry. He didn’t choose desk jockeys to do his work. No, Jesus liked to go after people with a heart for adventure, a passionate soul, and a willingness to accept risk.
He chose political idealists, blue collar workers, and religious zealots. He chose people who had everything to gain – people who understood the opportunity before them. In fact, Jesus mostly chose people whose interests were very different than his, but who had the kind of passion he required. He knew it was easier to redirect a fanatic than to motivate a laggard. He never played it safe. He needed people around him who could go where he was going.
one who has left his/her homeland and relocated to another country.
You know who else Jesus liked to choose? Expats – people who were living outside of their native culture. That’s right, all over the bible we see dislocated and relocated people being chosen for the work of God’s Kingdom. In fact, the very first act of the Holy Spirit after Jesus departed the earth – the initiation of the church of Jesus – was done in the midst of a crowd of travelers.
In the book of Acts, when the Holy Spirit comes to the disciples, it is during Pentecost (now celebrated as Shavuot), which is one of the Jewish pilgrimage festivals, where people from all over the known world were gathered in Jerusalem. And that new act of the Holy Spirit was directed specifically at them. As the disciples began praising God in different languages, those weary travelers heard the truth of God in their native tongue.
How sweet it must have been, after a long pilgrimage, to find a worship service you could understand – one that spoke not only a familiar language, but your heart language – the language you dream in.
Now, nearly 2000 years later, as I sit in a coffee shop in central Kenya, I know firsthand what that kind of “heart language experience” can do for a person. To be sure, I have enjoyed my time spent in Kenyan churches, worshiping in various languages, experiencing culturally-contextualized expressions of worship. But at the end of the day, what I long for is something familiar – something I don’t have to translate linguistically or culturally. I want a place where I can worship with abandon.
I’m not alone. Here in Kenya and all around the world, you can find expats – people who have relocated for one reason or another – who long for the worship experience of their homeland. Even those who have no grid for church still have a hunger for the familiar – for a community of people where they can let down their guard, if only a little.
Some of these people are fortunate enough to live in a city with an international church. The term international church is one typically used for what used to be called expat churches. Most of these churches started as bible studies in the home of a culturally displaced person – a place where friends could gather and decompress. To be honest, a lot of them started as cultural bubbles where foreigners could get away from the surrounding locals.
Even today, some international churches function this way and are careful not to let local people inside the bubble. However, there is a growing movement of churches who recognize the value of every tongue, tribe, and nation worshiping together. This is what a true international church looks like.
And in these international churches, you find a lot of the type of people Jesus loved to hang out with. From long-time missionaries with a passion for God’s work to diplomats on a short-term assignment. From Type A international businesspeople to upwardly-mobile locals. These culturally-displaced people represent an under-reached, under-utilized portion of the global population.
By and large, the church has written off these renegade world travelers. The missionaries are left to fend for themselves, both socially and spiritually. The diplomats and businesspeople are dismissed as too career-oriented to be of any use in God’s Kingdom. The locals are viewed through an uniformed and discriminatory lens which leaves virtually no room for them to exist outside of preconceived cultural boundaries. (“What do you mean you don’t like tribal music? Aren’t you African?”)
But I think we have an opportunity to change that. I think we can, through a concerted effort, not only engage expats and culturally displaced people around the world, but mobilize them in their unique wiring for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
Think about the qualities that we find in the expat population:
1. They are risk-takers
Expat life is inherently risky. Whether in country on assignment, or by their own free will, expats are people willing to say yes to the unknown. They live and work in non-native cultures daily, and they’ve learned how to embrace the challenges that come with their surroundings. Some face risk of physical harm. Others battle the emotional risks that come with social (and sometimes physical) isolation. If they have kids, there’s a whole other set of risks they are taking. Just look up the term “third culture kids” and you’ll get a sense of what expat parents face every day.
These risk-takers are just the kind of people Jesus surrounded himself with – people willing to say “yes” when he told them to drop everything and follow.
2. They understand diversity
Whether they truly embrace and value people of other cultures, or simply tolerate the differences, expats understand what it means to live and work in diverse environments. As a matter of survival, they have learned to adapt to the cultural expectations of others and to hold loosely to their own. Most expats have come to love and embrace at least some parts of their surrounding culture, and have developed an affinity for the idiosyncrasies discovered among a diverse set of friends.
This understanding of diversity is an essential part of the modern church. As more and more people relocate globally, churches need to inform themselves and embrace a more global church landscape. Expats live on the front lines of multiculturalism, and there is much the church can learn from these trailblazers.
3. They know how it feels to be an outsider
Whether your an American in Angola or a Brit in Bangkok, as an expat, you just don’t fit in. In fact, even in cultures where physical appearance is similar, (a European living in the U.S., for example) expats still report a sense of feeling like they’re on the outside looking in. The foods are different. The sports are different. The accent, the slang, and the every day word usage is different. Even things like parenting or work etiquette are highly cultural. Being surrounded by cultural norms and assumptions that are different than yours automatically creates boundaries and hurdles that you must overcome. Expats experience this nearly every day, and thus, no matter how popular they may have been back in their home country, they suddenly know what it feels like to be an outsider.
Jesus loves outsiders. He actually turns his Kingdom over to them. For the church to learn to embrace “the other” we need people who know how it feels to be an outsider. People who have lived it.
4. They are missionaries in waiting
If Jesus calls us to be “on mission” wherever we are, and if that makes us all “missionaries,” then expats are truly missionaries in waiting. They are people who, by training, experience, or both, possess the kind of social skills, cultural awareness, and tenacity needed to forge new ground for the Kingdom of God. Expats keep going when others give up, and they can navigate complex and nuanced systems like no other.
The church is in desperate need of people with that kind of backbone – people who can, all at once, be persistent without being offensive. We need people who can get the job done while fostering positive relationships. We need missionaries in our local cities and towns, and in every nation around the world, who can navigate cross-cultural waters with precision.
WE NEED EXPATS.
That’s part of the reason we’ve chosen to plant an international church. We recognize that the expat community is hungry for the type of relational community that a church can provide, and that they are primed to be mobilized to do God’s work in the world. Within the expat community, truly the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.
Join us in raising awareness of this valuable demographic, and helping to encourage the planting of international churches around the world. If you want to explore this idea further, please EMAIL US and let’s begin the conversation.