Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 8, no. 1 (Winter–Spring 2017)

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Transnationalism: New Pathways for Mission

Jared Looney

Today, the twin forces of urbanization and globalization are reshaping the context of global mission. The realities of transnationalism provide strategic opportunities for the spread of the gospel through the natural relational flows of connected peoples beyond borders. Evangelists desiring to make a global impact through their international neighbors not only must learn to ride the wave of transnational relationships but also must be able to navigate urban dynamics on a daily basis. And, more than anything else, ordinary Christians must rediscover what it is to love our culturally different neighbors as ourselves and liberally sow the seed of the gospel, knowing that the winds of globalization could carry this precious seed even to the ends of the earth.

Some years ago, I was listening to a colleague in New York City tell his story. He had originally moved to Africa as a missionary to a Muslim people group—one of the least reached in West Africa. Now he was in New York working among Muslim immigrants from West Africa. Reflecting on the two contexts, he felt like he was more of a pioneer to unreached groups working in New York City than when he was the only Christian in a Muslim community in Africa. While living as a missionary in an African city, he explained, he found that he did not have relational access to any of the leaders of the community, nor did he ever receive a welcome into the homes of any of the homeowners in his neighborhood. After extreme illness nearly took his life and he was forced to find a new ministry context, a series of circumstances led him to New York City, where he began reaching out to West African Muslims. He quickly discovered that many of the homeowners and community leaders from his African town actually lived and worked in New York. Because they labored in a well-known city and provided financial capital for their extended families, they gained valuable social capital among their families in their homeland. As a result, his new African friends opened doors for him as an evangelist in the same communities that were originally closed to him when he had lived there as a missionary. His African neighbors in New York City now gave him access to declare the gospel to their home country. He has since spoken on national television of a Muslim nation, stayed in the homes of community leaders during short-term trips to West Africa, and shared the gospel message repeatedly with extended family members. After many months of evangelistic labor, he began to see people come to faith in Jesus Christ among this unreached people in West Africa. By moving to a global city, he had increased his access and built bridges to this community. Essentially, he had to move to New York in order to start churches among an African people group.

Several months ago, I sat with a friend, Sung-ho, in Koreatown in Midtown Manhattan. As a seeker, he was exploring Christian discipleship, so I introduced him to one of our missionaries working with Global City Mission Initiative (GCMI) in the city. The two of them exchanged numbers and began meeting together for a Discovery Bible Study. We were excited to watch as Sung-ho grew in his confidence to pray, to embrace an emerging faith in Christ, and to facilitate group discussions around the Bible in the Korean language. His personal transformation bloomed as his tiny Bible study group gathered each week and participants were challenged to apply what they were learning from God’s word. Four months later, Sung-ho returned to Seoul. We knew he would only be there for three months before returning to the United States to continue his education in California. However, we encouraged him to gather friends and start a new Discovery Bible Study there in Seoul as well, which he did. His friend in New York—a Mission Catalyst with GCMI—continued to coach him through Skype. Three months passed, he relocated to California to enroll in college, and once again, he began to share his faith with both Japanese and Korean friends, forming another new community.

Ministry in a Mobile World

During my first years as a church planter in New York—the United States’ largest and most international city—I would regularly chat with other church planters, and we together would lament the highly transient nature of the city. We were each attempting to build a stable base for establishing a located church. However, it was challenging to begin developing a leader in a new church plant only to see him follow the outbound migration to South Florida a few months later. It was disheartening to finally begin integrating a new member into our faith community after months of reaching out only to bid her farewell as she moved back to her home in Nigeria. It was difficult to see progress with a new leader interrupted while he was away for six months to a year in the Dominican Republic addressing a family emergency. By the middle of our second year into what we intended as a neighborhood church plant, our modest membership roll was spread across four counties and had involved plenty of farewells.

Over time, I reflected on the transient nature of life described in the Mediterranean world of the New Testament in contrast to the frustrations my colleagues and I felt. We know that the trade routes of the Roman Empire were heavily traveled, and during the early decades of the church Jewish Christians faced persecution or exile resulting in further spread of the gospel. Although a much more ancient backdrop, it, too, was a world on the move. I thought about how the mobility during the time of early Christianity in the Roman Empire contributed to the exponential spread of Christianity. How different from today when we, church planters, were feeling the stress and anxiety of such mobility because it inhibited the constancy of our church projects. I began to realize that what I had seen as an obstacle was, in fact, a pathway for mission. Eventually, I stopped mourning the challenges caused by doing ministry in this highly mobile society and instead began thinking about the opportunities presented by a world that is highly mobile and increasingly connected. I shifted my mindset to celebrating the many populations of urban dwellers who represented relational pathways for mission and pursued strategies that led to a viral spread of the gospel. I slowly realized that we were operating in the mission field of the near future.

Transnationalism: A New Context of Global Mission

Today, the twin forces of urbanization and globalization are reshaping the context of global mission. Globally, the mission field today is a different place than it was only twenty years ago. Diaspora communities (i.e., various types of immigrant communities) in cities represent a new arena for mission where local and global overlap. Such communities represent pathways for evangelism that are multidirectional—within the city, to the migrant’s homeland, and to new destinations throughout the host country as new residents resettle in various regions in their new country. In the words of Jehu Hanciles, globalization is leading us to see “the world as a single place” with greater and greater connectedness between once-distant locations. Borders between nation-states are becoming less and less of a barrier to religious, cultural, and commercial exchanges. Time and space are being compressed through information, communication, and travel technologies.1 This global compression means that international migrants can maintain relationships in more than one place. People are now connected like never before, and local churches increasingly find themselves confronted by global realities just down the street.

Today, the twin forces of urbanization and globalization are reshaping the context of global mission.

In the past, immigrants came to a new country and began to find ways to identify with their new nation. International migrants would make the occasional long-distance phone call, mail letters home, and, if they were fortunate, find a way to visit their homeland every few years. However, in today’s world, one of our missionaries working with GCMI meets with his Hindu friend just a short bus ride away in New York City, and they speak in real time with his friend’s Muslim family members, who join the discussion through online video from their home in Bangladesh.

“The global village we’ve grown used to inhabiting is a new reality for humans. The ancestors of most Americans lost contact with those they left behind in the old country. . . . Today, immigrants to America can choose to maintain their links to the people they leave behind. We can and do keep in touch.”2 The barriers to maintaining cultural connections are far more surmountable than they once were, and contemporary migration often means living between worlds, or in both at the same time, rather than leaving one in the past. Indeed, many migrants today share what social scientists refer to as transnational identities. Once upon a time, immigration meant leaving everything behind. One’s old home faded into the background as one moved toward assimilation into the new culture. That unidirectional pattern of migration is no longer a singular choice for international migrants. Today, international migrants live in multiple worlds. They do not quite break with their homeland even as they build a new life in a new country. They essentially live “in between Home and home.”3

This has significant implications both for missions around the world and for the local church in the ever-increasing international diversity of North America. “Transnational families, networks, and communities . . . strike at the heart of traditional missiological reflections on home, power, identity, and subjectivity.” Historic mission strategies that focused on traditional societies are facing new social patterns. Transnational communities in cities create space to embody “home” in the midst of fluid relationships and movements.4 The context of global mission is experiencing a profound transformation. This strange new world certainly presents challenges to the mission of the church, but I would insist that the opportunities far outweigh the challenges. The realities of transnationalism provide strategic opportunities for the spread of the gospel through the natural relational flows of connected peoples beyond borders.

Strategic Opportunities

As the leader of GCMI, I am sometimes asked about the value of investing in evangelism in the diaspora neighborhoods of global cities versus conventional missionary platforms. For Americans supporting mission work, it’s a question that grows out of a desire for responsible stewardship. The essential question being asked is: What’s the bang for the buck? For me, living at the global intersections, the answer is fairly obvious. For instance, you could send a missionary to the Dominican Republic, another one to Colombia, and yet a third family to Ecuador, and these would all be valuable endeavors. Or you could send one Mission Catalyst to Roosevelt Avenue in Queens (NYC) to seek open doors connected to every single nation in Latin America. If the missionary methods utilized are replicable, working at global intersections may lead to a far-reaching impact beyond borders. Another church may desire to send a mission team to a least reached people group in one of the world’s more challenging regions, such as Yemen, where missionaries must navigate civil war, American military intervention, anti-Western outcries, and laws against proselytism, all while wading through visa issues and building a creative-access platform in order to operate within the country. Or they might sponsor a catalyst to the tens of thousands of Yemeni in New York City who are sending remittances to friends, family, and associations while building social capital back in their home nation. Many unreached peoples are forming new communities in globalized cities and simultaneously maintaining connections to their homeland. Oftentimes they are building retirement homes in their countries of origin and increasing their clout in their cultural community or network. These relational connections are natural pathways for the gospel. These unreached diaspora communities may or may not represent receptivity, but they do represent the potential for greater access.

In our network, we often talk about mouth-to-ear evangelism. In other words, we want it to be possible for someone to reproduce any of our evangelism efforts with someone else in their social world just an hour later. When members of our team study the Bible with international students and visiting scholars at Columbia University in Manhattan, we gently encourage them to share what they are learning with others in their life. Quite often they are calling or “skyping” home to Shanghai, Beijing, Taipei, or other urban centers in Asia to share the new stories they are learning. It is not uncommon for us to hear that they shared testimonies with their family back home on the other side of the planet, explaining how Jesus is transforming their hearts. While starting a Discovery Bible Study, a new believer from China once said, “We see these stories [in the Bible] as nice fairy tales that make a good point, but we do not believe them.” However, a year later the same new believer declared, “I visited my family in China, and I told my parents: ‘The stories in the Bible are not fairy tales. They are true, and Jesus has changed my life.’ ”

When I began conversations with Kevin King, director of International Project in New York City, that led to our ministries partnering together, he shared his story of reaching international students in New York City. He explained that over a decade ago his team realized that they had to help internationals experience forms of church that would be reproducible in nations that are legally closed to the spread of the gospel, so they formed a network of house churches. They recognized that no matter how many times they verbally encouraged new believers to reproduce ministry within their culture, they actually needed to provide experiences of church and Christian life that could be reproduced across borders. They eventually incorporated Discovery Bible Studies and have seen new churches begin in countries in Asia—following bathtub baptisms in Harlem. Through weekly conversations on Skype, King mentors new leaders who have returned to their homes in Asia and started new house churches.

Mission at Global Crossroads

Urban missiologists have argued for the strategic importance of serving the city for years. Now, in the context of globalization, international migration, and transnationalism, planting the seeds of the gospel in cities representing global intersections is more important than ever. Today, cities are hubs of global activity and influence in a highly connected world.5 By working at the global intersections of increasingly diverse cities, there is a multidirectional potential for the gospel to impact a mosaic of cultures and nations. A couple of years ago, I was lecturing in a mission course at a large church in Harlem. During the class I invited anyone interested in getting involved in training on evangelism and church multiplication strategies in the city to meet with one of our Mission Catalysts. An African-American woman signed up to be coached for evangelism in her community. Right away, we discovered that one of her new Bible studies was with a group of Fulani Muslim women. It was a natural connection because they shared life together in their workplace. By working with urban Christians in a globally connected city, we are constantly in close contact with some of the least reached peoples in our world. Cities, as nodes in the global network, are the new context of global mission. Cities represent the space for transnational interactions and relational flows throughout the global network. As nodes in a global network, urban centers provide the geographical connection points for the flows of production and information between once-distant cultures.6

Of course, engaging urban settings has not often been the primary focus of the church in North America despite the distinctly urban history of the early church. However, we now live on a planet where the majority of occupants live and work in metropolitan areas. Despite our rural history, we are now faced with the task of navigating urban networks that increasingly close the gap between once-distant places. One of the significant challenges facing American Christians within the emerging context of global missions is a renewed focus on urban settings. Many of the opportunities for pursuing evangelism through transnational connections will lie at the global intersections of urban space. Evangelists desiring to make a global impact through their international neighbors not only must learn to ride the wave of transnational relationships but also must be able to navigate urban dynamics on a daily basis.

Despite our rural history, we are now faced with the task of navigating urban networks.

The Church and Transnationalism

New ways of thinking about missiology and practicing evangelism will need to come into play for the church to embrace emerging opportunities for the advance of God’s mission. Existing paradigms are being confronted by a world constantly on the move. However, this is an amazing opportunity for launching viral movements of the gospel beyond traditional boundaries. Ministry leaders will need to incorporate strategies that extend the reach of the gospel through relational pathways both locally and globally.

Transnational citizens linking cities in a global network provide new avenues for Christian witness. Contemporary strategies for church multiplication have led to making disciples and planting new churches in the homelands of transnational migrants, but to see these sorts of stories increase, conventional church growth paradigms must face the new global realities of mobility and fluidity. The assumption that local communities can remain monolithic is short sighted in light of current global realities. Furthermore, individual believers are more mobile than we have ever encountered in history. The gap between distant places is not as great as it once was, even as the cultural gap in local settings seems larger than ever. Church models and structures will need to take such mobility and fluidity into account while grasping opportunities for a more expansive global witness. Change is a constant, and urban contexts are regularly being reconstructed. The rate of change now confronting urban missionaries is truly dizzying; however, opportunities for global evangelism shaped by transnationalism are unprecedented. Engaging contemporary contexts for mission will require the church to flourish in a networked society.

Opportunities for global evangelism shaped by transnationalism are unprecedented.

The opportunities facing the church in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere are beyond precedent. This means embracing new challenges, as well. The church will need to rediscover her identity as a missionary people. Leaders of this missionary community will need to seek the resources for equipping members to be ambassadors of Christ across cultures. Education and training once reserved for professional missionaries will become increasingly practical for those in the pew, as the basic skills of cross-cultural ministry are relevant in city and suburb alike. Furthermore, in an interconnected world, organizational structures that dichotomize domestic and foreign mission will need to reevaluate their approach to the contemporary mission field.

The opportunities of transnational evangelism emphasize both the importance of geographic context as cities form the connection points in global networks and the ability to transcend historical geographic barriers through ever increasing connectivity in a global world. Everything is changing, and there is certainly much to consider for leaders and evangelists who desire to be increasingly effective participants in God’s mission. Transnational networks present emerging opportunities for the seed of the gospel to bring transformation and hope beyond the boundaries of nation-states. More than anything else, ordinary Christians must rediscover what it is to love our culturally different neighbors as ourselves and liberally sow the seed of the gospel, knowing that the winds of globalization could carry this precious seed even to the ends of the earth.

Dr. Jared Looney is the executive director of Global City Mission Initiative (http://globalcitymission.org). Serving in NYC for 15 years, he has worked in evangelism, church planting, and teaching in multicultural communities, and has spent several years training new missionaries in NYC sent from multiple missions agencies. Jared is the author of Crossroads of the Nations: Diaspora, Globalization, and Evangelism (Urban Loft, 2015) and co-author (with Seth Bouchelle) of Mosaic: A Ministry Handbook for a Globalizing World (Urban Loft, 2017). He currently lives with his wife and daughter in Tampa, Florida.

1 Jehu Hanciles, Beyond Christendom: Globalization, African Migration, and the Transformation of the West (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008), 15.

2 Albert-László Barabási, Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 39.

3 Oscar García-Johnson, “Mission within Hybrid Cultures: Transnationality and the Glocal Church,” in The Gospel after Christendom: New Voices, New Cultures, New Expressions, ed. Ryan Bolger (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 116.

4 Gemma Tulud Cruz, “Expanding the Boundaries, Turning Borders into Spaces: Mission in the Context of Contemporary Migration,” in Mission after Christendom: Emergent Themes in Contemporary Mission, ed. Ogbu U. Kalu, Peter Vethanayagamony, and Edmund Kee-Fook Chia (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 80.

5 David Clark, Urban World, Global City, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2003), 12–13.

6 Jordi Borja and Manuel Castells, Local and Global: Management of Cities in the Information Age (London: Earthscan, 1997).