A global issue

It’s become a political hot potato across the world. The flood of refugees from one country to another polarises populations; even Christians. High walls, navies and harsh legislation will not stop the flow.

Two years ago, just after the worst of the crisis of millions fleeing civil war in Syria, I spoke at a conference to those involved in ministry to migrants. I warned that this Syrian flood has no rainbow. Its end will not be the last refugee flood, but the precursor of many more over the coming 30- 40 years. Since then we have seen millions of refugees fleeing civil wars in South Sudan, Yemen and from ISIS-assailed Mali, Burkina Faso and the Middle East, and from a dictatorship in Venezuela.

The figures are staggering. In 2019 an unprecedented 68.5 million people have been forced from their homes. Among them are nearly 25.4 million refugees who have had to flee from their homelands. According to figures from the UN High Commission for Refugees, displaced people now make up 1% of the world’s population.

The prospects are not good. Nearly every country with a Muslim majority is likely to see serious warfare over the next generation, between the extremist ideologues and the entrenched ruling classes, and involving the hatred between the two main branches of Islam – the Sunni and Shi’a. Climate change could lead to serious water shortages in the Sahel, Pakistan and Yemen, and cause further millions to flee famine.

The recent rise of autocratic populism in Europe, the Americas and Asia is eroding the once-seemingly successful democratic/capitalistic system that emerged after the end of the Cold War, and this will further stoke the suppression of dissent. Persecution of Evangelical Christians has hugely increased in China, Russia, India, Nepal, Indonesia and Iran in the last few years. The world’s press try to embarrassedly dodge by saying little about the uncomfortable realities of this persecution and naming it as ‘intercommunal violence’. All will increase the present flow of refugees seeking asylum.

Refugee: Someone who has left their home country to escape war, natural disaster or the fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality or political opinion; AND has been registered as such in a receiving country.

Refugees - Illegal?

Sadly, the very word refugee conjures up negative impressions: they may take jobs from the indigenous population, they may become criminals or terrorists, they become people traffickers, or they are too different and won’t integrate, and so on. There is some truth in these, but this should stir us to action to befriend them and love them into the Kingdom. Even our terminology is biased. How often we speak about “illegal” immigration. There is illegal immigration when normal procedures are not followed, and criminal gangs have made fortunes smuggling their unfortunate victims into other countries. But what is illegal about fleeing war, famine, tyranny or persecution? Our governments avoid providing facilities in troubled countries to invite people to apply for asylum. Desperate refugees have to make their way by whatever means, and go through extraordinary abuses and dangers, to gain entry to their desired country of flight to apply for asylum. This could mean risking slavery, being trafficked, death by drowning or extreme hardship by walking across Europe or across the Sahara. Often the root causes for present refugee flows were originally set in motion by our “illegal” colonial imposition of country borders, or by our ill-considered military interventions or craving for addictive drugs. The mistakes of our forebears come back to haunt us.

Asylum seeker: Someone who has claimed asylum under the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees on the ground that, if they are returned to their country of origin, they have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political belief or membership of a particular social group.

Refugees - A Christian responsibility

We Christians cannot remain aloof from the implications wherever we live. Whatever our view might be on the solutions goverments cobble together to limit this flow, we still have a moral responsibility to care for the traumatised victims of war, famine and oppression, and to address the issues that cause them to flee. We also have a spiritual responsibility to give them the Good News of Jesus and welcome those who do come to our country.

There were two key and growing city churches in Acts - Jerusalem and Antioch. In Jerusalem the Jewish culture dominated and the internationals were patronised and marginalised. In Antioch it was multi-cultural from the leadership down and it became a blessing to the world by releasing missionaries for service. Too many of our churches are of the Jerusalem type. The 21st Century is increasingly urban and multi-cultural. We should model Antioch.

Scripture is plain in its exhortations in Old and New Testaments that we are to love, welcome and care for the strangers and disadvantaged. This is a daunting task. Two years ago, my wife Robyn and I moved to the city of Derby in the UK and become part of a church fellowship that took on the challenge. It all started with bringing into the fellowship a struggling international church - mainly comprising Iranians - and then launching a successful effort to welcome migrants in the city and engage with their desperate needs. The results have been encouraging. Now about a quarter of our church family of around 600 is made up of former Muslim Iranians, Afghans and Kurds.

Refugee ministry should not be a little tag-on ministry for a local church, but seen as a significant component of a globally strategic outreach to a specific people group which may not be accessible by any significant outreach at this time. So, the big challenge comes: Are churches willing to deliberately change from being a Jerusalem Church to an Antioch one? Are we mission agencies willing to sacrifice some of our resources to enable churches to be effective in that transition and fruitful as a result?

Refugees are strategic

In 1984 our WEC International Leaders’ Conference made the decision to move away from the idea of traditional country fields and focus on People Clusters like the Kurds, Persians, Fulbe/Fula, and so on, each comprising multiple related languages and cultures. The outcome was a proliferation of new trans-national fields. This gave great flexibility and strategic possibilities for welcoming, discipling and church planting. It also meant that workers who had to leave a homeland of their chosen people would most likely have migrant communities of the same even in their own homeland. We probably now have around 80 of our front-line workers ministering among refugees and migrant communities in nine or ten countries. We have ministry among North Africans, Arabs, South Asians, Middle Easterners and East Asians in these lands. With today’s ease of communication these migrants are in constant touch with families and friends in their homelands.

Refugees are people

Robyn and I are part of the team in our church that interviews those who want to be baptised. It is heart-wrenching to hear their stories of tragedy and joy: the Iraqi Kurdish man whose entire family was murdered by ISIS; a Hazara Afghan who fled and who has been separated from his family for years while he tries to get his asylum request accepted, officially gain refugee status, and then apply for his family to join him; a restaurant owner who had to flee Iran because he hosted a secret house group above his restaurant and lost everything for Jesus.

Refugees are coming to Christ

Who would you think are the people most receptive to the gospel in the world today? Some of you might say the Berbers of North Africa, or Iranians, or Chinese, and so on. I would respond that globally it is actually refugees, who would include the above. I will give an example.

In 1982 I wrote a leaflet for WEC on the Kurds. At that time I could only find evidence of around ten Kurdish believers in the Lord Jesus - several in Germany, Turkey and Iran. There were no churches, Bible translations in any Kurdish language, or specific outreaches to the, then, 25 million Kurds. Out of this initiative came our WEC Transnational Kurdish team, working in a number of countries where Kurds live. Here in our church we have a lively group of about 30 Kurdish believers. Some of these recently went with a multi-cultural team to Northern Iraq for ministry, and every evening they were entertained with a meal in the homes of relatives or friends of our Kurdish community in Derby. What church planting possibilities! In that area there are many churches springing up and there are New Testaments in several Kurdish dialects!

Four years ago, I did a now widely available survey (https://www.academia. edu/16338087/Believers_in_Christ_ from_a_Muslim_Background_A_Global_ Census) giving a reasonable estimate for the number of believers in the world from a Muslim background (BMBs). We reckoned that in 1960 the world total of BMBs was around 40,000-60,000. In 2011 we estimated this had increased to 10 million, but now some calculate this could now be over 20 million. The very rise of jihadist Islam is opening hearts to consider the dangerous step of openly believing in Christ; and many of these are refugees looking for a better way than that of their forbears that brought such misery. We find that many of these refugees began their journey to Christ because they were so repelled by the cruelty, hatred and discrimination they experienced.

Let us mobilise to take hold of this amazing day of opportunity and gather the harvest among the refugees in our midst!

Patrick Johnstone


Patrick served overseas for 17 years in Africa and on the OM ships, where he also wrote a number of successive editions of Operation World. He has also authored, among other books, Serving God in a Migrant Crisis and The Future of the Global Church. For 34 years he has been part of the WEC international leadership, and was overseeing many of WEC’s advances in the ‘80s and ‘90s. He and his wife live in Derby, England. Patrick is busy writing two books, mentoring, speaking and discipling in his semi-retirement.