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The Nations in Our Own Back Yard

The dynamics of our communities are changing. Scratch that—they have changed. The nations are no longer “over there” but are in our own back yard.


Two passages come to mind as I reflect on the challenges and opportunities of our new world. The first passage is Luke 6:31, better known as the Golden Rule. Here Jesus tells those around him, “Just as you want others to do for you, do the same for them.” This verse is more than a quaint saying to paint on a sign in your kitchen; it is a category-bending statement about loving your enemy and living in the kingdom of God. 

Jesus commands us to love our neighbors, regardless of who they are, their background, and our personal prejudices.

The second passage is Luke 10:25–37. In this passage Jesus is being tested in a question-and-answer session with an expert in the law. During this Q and A, the expert summarizes the whole law: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus affirms this summary and then tells the parable of the Good Samaritan in response to the question about who one’s neighbor is. The answer Jesus gives in the parable is countercultural. The Samaritan had every reason to pass by the robbed, beaten, and battered Jew on the side of the road. There was no love lost between Samaritans and Jews in Jesus’s day. They were hostile toward one another socially, ethnically, and religiously. Despite all of these reasons to keep going, the Samaritan instead goes out of his way to care for the Jew in his immediate need AND gives extravagantly to take care of any future needs. This parable is a wonderful picture of practicing the Golden Rule.


So, what do these two verses have to do with the nations in our back yard? Jesus commands us to love our neighbors, regardless of who they are, their background, and our personal prejudices. Just like the Samaritan, we have a choice. We can either pass by our international neighbors or stop and minister to them.


Some of these new neighbors we may encounter in our back yard are international students and refugees. At the end of 2023, international student enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities was almost 1.1 million students. These students from around the world are coming to study and live in the U.S. for at least four years. While that presents a tremendous opportunity to welcome in the nations to our communities, churches, and homes, many international students do not have that experience. Roughly 75 percent of international students indicate that they have not been invited into an American home during their time in the U.S. Further, an astonishing 80 percent indicate that they have not entered or been invited to a church. 


Refugees are those who are forced to leave and cannot return to their home country due to some form of threat or persecution based upon ethnicity, religion, or war, or due to natural disaster. The United Nations estimates that there are around 110 million forcibly displaced people globally with over 36 million refugees. Of that number, 52 percent originate from just three countries–Syria, Afghanistan, and Ukraine. 


Additionally, people are living and working outside the country of their birthplace like at no other time in human history. These people make up what is termed “diaspora populations.” India, Mexico, China, and Russia have large populations of diaspora people around the world, and many of them end up being our neighbors.


While the reality of having the nations in our own back yard presents perplexing challenges, I want to focus on four missions opportunities it offers for you and your church:


1. Unprecedented access to hard-to-reach peoples and places

The great movement of people due to both migration and the growing refugee crisis is opening up unprecedented access to the nations, often in our very own communities and back yards. Instead of having to travel great distances, we can spend the day in our own community getting to know someone from another country. 

We cannot always choose our neighbors, but we can determine to know and love them.

It is estimated that there are over 350 unreached people groups in the United States. Being unreached means that gospel access to these people groups is restricted in some way within their home country, but, fortunately, we do not have those same restrictions here. Additionally, over 40 million foreign-born people live in the United States, which means roughly 14 percent of the population was born in another country. Practicing cross-cultural missions is easier than ever thanks to the proximity of the nations to us. Crossing cultural and linguistic barriers may be as easy as going down the road to Wal-Mart or an international restaurant.


2. Raising awareness and personalizing our prayers

Getting to know the nations in our own back yard transforms peoples from “over there” to “our neighbors.” Our prayers move from general requests for a country, people, or religion to specific intercession for people we work with, study with, and meet in our own community. Remember, migration has not caught God by surprise: “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries for their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26). We cannot always choose our neighbors, but we can determine to know and love them.


3. Solidarity with the persecuted church

Welcoming the international student and the refugee allows us to stand in solidarity with many of our persecuted brothers and sisters around the globe. Many international students and refugees are from places where the church is vibrant but faces persecution, isolation, and other challenges. We can practice hospitality and demonstrate Luke 6:31 by ministering to the nations in our own back yard.

Imparting a global vision can begin with reaching the nations right in front of us.

4. Catalyzing a global vision starting at a local level

Engaging the nations in our own back yard provides exciting opportunities for equipping people in our churches and sending missionaries. Cultivating the posture of a learner, developing cultural awareness, and practicing cross-cultural evangelism no longer require a passport or an international flight. Imparting a global vision can begin with reaching the nations right in front of us.


Our world is closer and more interconnected in ways that require us to think and act like a missionary in our communities. When we look for opportunities to love and minister to the nations in our own back yard, we are living out the Golden Rule.

 

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