By Gordon L. Heath
Recently I was reading in 2 Chronicles about a migration associated with the post-Solomon breakup of the Kingdom of Israel. 2 Chronicle 11:16-17 reads: “Those from every tribe of Israel who set their hearts on seeking the Lord, the God of Israel, followed the Levites to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices to the Lord, the God of their ancestors. They strengthened the kingdom of Jerusalem…” (my emphasis)
Oddly enough my experience at a dinner event last week reminded me of this passage. One of the people at my table was a student of McMaster Divinity College, as well as a pastor of a local Chinese church. Over the course of the evening he shared with me about how his thriving and growing Mandarin-speaking congregation had recently taken over a church building that had belonged to one of Canada’s shrinking mainline denominations. The original congregation had slowly declined to the point where they decided to sell the property and shutter the ministry. At that juncture talks were initiated, and the church building was sold to the burgeoning Chinese congregation.
This local story is a microcosm of a larger pattern in the post-Christendom world.
For decades Christian immigrants – or refugees – have arrived by the millions to the West. And while some discourse among Christians has been fearful of “immigrants” or “foreigners” and what their arrival means to the “Christian West,” what is often missed is the fact that many of the those very immigrants are Christians.
In the recent past there has been a mass migration of Christians from the Middle East (especially Iraq and Syria) to the West. The Iraq wars, sectarian violence, Syrian civil war, and most recently the rise of Daesh (ISIL) have tragically made life too unsafe and unbearable for Christians. The ongoing genocide of Christians (along with other minorities such as Yezidis) often means certain death for those who remain. As a result, homes have been vacated, churches abandoned, and holy sites forsaken in order to find a place of safety to live and worship.
Of course, not all Christian immigrants are fleeing horrors, and some come to the West for more positive reasons. Many also come from other regions. Waves of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, are Christian. As are those from Asia and Latin America.
This is not a new revelation. Philip Jenkins has already noted how the “religious impact of immigration is unmistakable”1 in places such as Britain, and how those very immigrants provide hope for the future of church in the West. As for the church in Canada, Reginald Bibby has identified how the immigration of Christians to Canada has played an important role in bolstering the numbers of churchgoers.2 The boost is more than mere demographics. Many of the new immigrants bring a vibrant charismatic and missionary-oriented faith. They also are living examples of the transnational, multi-ethnic nature of the Kingdom of God.
Not surprisingly, the flip side of Christian migration is that some regions are increasingly being denuded of Christians. For instance, ancient Christian communities in the Middle East are disappearing, and the work of building a church in the region is next to impossible in some places.3
Yet the good for the churches in the West is that their flagging numbers are being bolstered by the arrival of waves of Christians. Just as the Southern Kingdom was “strengthened” by the arrival of the faithful from the north, the oft-struggling churches of the West are bolstered by these new Christian communities. Not only are immigrant communities coming to the rescue of flagging churches in Hamilton, they are coming to the rescue of the post-Christian West.
1. Philip Jenkins, God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis (Oxford University Press, 2007), 91. This work is a must-read for anyone interested in Christian and Muslim migration and its impact on Europe.
3. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/26/magazine/is-this-the-end-of-christianity-in-the-middle-east.html?_r=0; http://www.newsweek.com/2015/04/03/new-exodus-christians-flee-isis-middle-east-316785.html
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of McMaster Divinity College or the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.*