Matthew Soerens has served with World Relief, the NAE’s relief and development arm, since 2007. He is currently the U.S. director of church mobilization, and seeks to help churches understand the realities of refugees and immigration and to respond in ways guided by biblical values. He also serves as the national coordinator for the Evangelical Immigration Table. Soerens is co-author of “Welcoming the Stranger” and “Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis” and holds degrees from Wheaton College and DePaul University’s School of Public Service.
I speak to evangelical congregations and conferences in the United States quite frequently on this topic, and I know that audience pretty well. My anecdotal experience confirms the findings of recent LifeWay Research polling: In a typical room full of American evangelicals, only a small percentage (12 percent) think about refugees and immigration primarily from a biblical perspective, significantly fewer than have been informed primarily by the media. It’s also likely that most are not actively connected to refugees resettled in their local communities, and that many of them have significant fears regarding the arrival of refugees, particularly in the current polarized political climate.
I understand those fears. I see an image like the horrific photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, washed upon a Turkish beach after a failed attempt to reach safety in Europe, and I think immediately of my own son, who wears similar Velcro shoes. I feel deep compassion for Alan’s father, of course — but then my mind goes to the evil that would compel a parent to make that dangerous journey, and I wonder if such terror could reach our shores. At a time when terrorism seems to have become commonplace, it’s quite natural to be afraid.
Presuming my audience in Germany felt this same wariness — or even greater, given the much larger scale of their refugee crisis — I spent the first half of my talk making the case that, as Christians, we are called to love our refugee neighbors (Luke 10:25-37; Leviticus 19:18, 33-34), to welcoming strangers (Matthew 25:35), to seek justice for vulnerable foreigners (Deuteronomy 10:18-19; Jeremiah 22:3), and to recognize an opportunity to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). And then I spent the rest of my talk highlighting some facts, arguing that welcoming refugees really is not the security or economic threat that many suppose.
The response to my talk was uniformly gracious — but I was a bit puzzled that this topic didn’t seem to be controversial.
Of course our response to these mostly-Muslim asylum seekers should be one of welcome, they said. After all, we gather each Sunday to worship a Middle Eastern refugee (see Matthew 2:13-18).
Of course this is an opportunity for the Church: We’ve prayed for the Muslim world for years, and now they are coming to us.
Of course we, as evangelical Christians, should advocate for our governments to protect and help integrate these vulnerable people, even if others in our society want to keep them out.
Over the next few days, I had several new German friends relate how their churches had heroically and sacrificially embraced the refugees arriving in their communities — and also how many, made curious by this warm welcome, were asking questions about Jesus. Some have already made the decision to follow Christ. The church in Germany, faced with an unprecedented global crisis, is shining like a city on a hill — and people fleeing darkness are being drawn in.
It remains to be seen whether the U.S. church will respond in similar ways, but I think we have some things to learn from our German brothers and sisters. As my colleagues Stephan Bauman, Issam Smeir, and I write in our new Moody Publishers book, “Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis,”
Faced with a global refugee crisis unprecedented in recorded history, now is the moment for the church to shine, not to hide our light. Millions of displaced people, desperate for hope yet reviled and feared by many, will decide what they think of Jesus based on how His followers throughout the world respond to this crisis, whether with welcome, love, and advocacy, or with apathy, fear, and scapegoating.
While the National Association of Evangelicals and other evangelical institutions, like Christianity Today and the Southern Baptist Convention, have spoken out on behalf of welcoming refugees in recent months, polls find that American evangelicals as a whole are divided in their views toward refugees. A Pew Research poll found that white evangelicals are actually more likely to oppose resettlement of Syrian refugees than the American population as a whole. Whether, as a whole, we allow compassion or fear to rule our hearts could have enormous impacts for generations to come.
That’s why we’ve written “Seeking Refuge,” a discipleship tool for local churches as they engage the global refugee crisis, to help provide a biblical foundation, set the facts straight, and challenge us to see this crisis as an important moment for the Church to “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).