by Dan Schmidt
The need to initiate and expand dependable, extensive evangelistic work among expatriates can no longer be disputed.
Three hundred kilometers north of my suburban San Jose neighborhood is a community virtually untouched by a vibrant Gospel witness. When word came of interest there in having a church begin, we jumped at the opportunity. My full-time job keeps me closer to the capital city, but now I am part of a group that leads services in that newly opened area twice a month. We have started looking for a full-time resident pastor who can fan the glowing sparks.
It is a beautiful spot, nestled into one of this Latin country’s premier beach resorts; when we go, we stay in homes with views suitable for a Club Med brochure. The people there have the usual acute personal challenges and aching spiritual needs; they are experienced, open, hopeful, jaded. It is a fluid community, too, and in just a few months, several have moved both in and out. Enthusiasm for this new church is building, and those who are part of it speak often about others they think would benefit from it. The speech they use is English.
A generation ago, finding English speakers "abroad" was unusual. A few enormous companies considered opening "foreign" branches or buying subsidiaries that denizens of the home office might visit occasionally. But typically the English speaker in the foreign capital, bush or outback was an adventurer, political representative, recluse or missionary. Today, with an increasingly globalized economy and rapid technological advance, the world is much smaller. People from various cultures mix in developed cities and on the outskirts of sleepy towns to do business, escape pressures and discover new ways of living. Often these "expatriates" speak or have learned English as a lingua franca.
"Expatriate" commonly refers to employees sent "abroad" by multinational companies as diverse as Blockbuster, Microsoft and Home Depot. But the term easily covers all those who live outside their home country or culture. There are retirees (old or young) who move permanently or establish a part-time residence "overseas;" foreign service and military personnel who change countries or continents every 2-3 years; and students, long-term tourists, travelers, social workers, and e-commerce entrepreneurs that shift, settle and re-settle frequently. Missionaries, especially those who do not integrate fully "on the field," qualify as expatriates. So do members of local, privileged families who travel extensively for business and education but stay involved with national enterprises or politics.
While interest with spiritual issues runs high among these diverse "outsiders," few enjoy consistent exposure to matters of Christian faith or discipleship. Mission agencies tend to pass over these people, favoring instead those judged more indigenous. They also seek to counterbalance the vast resources already expended on the English-language world. Churches embracing the local language and culture create a different kind of barrier. And while newspapers in the larger foreign cities advertise worship services in English, these congregations tend to be small. Expatriate populations in these cities run far ahead of average church attendance and involvement.
Statistics describing expatriates are difficult to acquire, given their sheer mobility and varying motives. Kenneth Prewitt, director of the US Census Bureau said in an address given June 9, 1999: "the American overseas population is very complex and I do not believe anyone has made a thorough study to identify and examine all of the problems and concerns associated with counting this population." That leaves reckoning to more anecdotal sources. So, for example, both Crown Relocations and Allied International, only two of many firms specializing in moving people and their belongings around the world, reported 40,000 such moves last year. Internet portals with chat rooms and webzines advertising house swapping, tax advice and travel tips for expatriates are proliferating. International schools, offering curricula based on American, British and local education models, flourish in and around capital cities.
The expatriates created by and contributing to globalization have an increasingly discernible heft. As the most cursory investigations indicate, they routinely enter the news (recall the recent US presidential election, which turned in part on the votes of citizens overseas), sponsor conferences and are recipients of niche marketing. The need to initiate and expand dependable, extensive evangelistic work among them can no longer be disputed. A similar appeal could be made on behalf of many groups, since white fields continue to outpace harvesters, but this is a particularly needy sector ripe with possibility.
One of the key elements in ministry to expatriates is the international church. Traditionally a few denominations have had prominent representation overseas, and some mission groups have started churches that draw expatriates tangentially. But the expanding number of these world citizens requires increased interaction so that international churches can be supported by, and then in turn help to bolster, individuals, groups and networks.
Mission agencies might consider intentional partnering with extant international churches or aiming personnel toward planting them. Missionaries loosely connected by attendance at special services or through children enrolled for occasional events offered there could morph casual awareness into active involvement. What might happen if mission agencies used their skill, experience and resources to build churches composed of expatriates? Partnerships could occur: underemployed missionaries could flow into a church’s program; agencies might recruit on behalf of international churches; workers could assist as Sunday School teachers, small group leaders or committee members.
Consider a case like this: a young couple called to missions links with an agency for overseas ministry. After three years of preparation, they are ready for language school, where they study diligently and demonstrate progress. They also accept invitations for local ministry. One is from a youth group originally started by missionary families eager that their teens have opportunities to fellowship with others. These days, it operates under a church’s leadership and consistently draws kids from several international schools. Students at nearby universities stop by occasionally or serve as small group leaders. The meetings happen in English primarily, but many nationalities are represented.
The couple goes to speak and lead worship. They are encouraged by what they see; the group appreciates them. They return and even chaperone a retreat. During that time, they detect a deepening affinity for these young people. Eventually they are asked about helping regularly, and then, to consider serving this group full-time. Language school will end in a month, and now there is a crisis.
This couple came to minister cross-culturally, an expectation shared by both the agency and their supporters. But now? The couple’s mission could clamp down on any further involvement, insisting they honor their original intention to "serve overseas." But there is another possibility. In the process of interviewing the couple and representatives from the youth ministry, agency representatives could detect not just a change in but a sharpening of the call. Recognizing this couple’s effectiveness among these English-speaking kids, the agency could arrange for this to occur. Imagine the kingdom expansion that results from leveraging mission resources in this way.
Parachurch specialists in youth ministry, urban development, relief provision, translation services and others can undertake joint ventures with expatriate churches for new initiatives. Their particular ministry niche can be an asset to and expanded by international congregations. Young Life, for example, with its growing commitment to international schools, will depend on expatriates for its parent committees, and should be able to strengthen the teen programs of those churches. HCJB has had a long-term symbiotic relationship with the international church in Quito.
The same might be said for "home" churches intent on being active outside their immediate settings. They can challenge their members who are moving overseas to seek out and participate with international congregations once they relocate; they can send groups to assist fledgling expatriate congregations. An international church in Chile was planted by a family who transferred there from the suburban US, because their home church had laid into their hearts a deep desire to see kingdom ministry expand. A church in Poland grew when a congregation in one country released their pastor to serve in another.
There is room too for a stronger web among the international churches themselves. Those in geographical proximity might arrange for joint seminars (highlighting mid-life issues? third-culture realities?) or retreats. Churches spread more widely can inform one another of migrations, and help to pave the way for current congregants moving to new areas.
Expatriates characteristically are multi-cultural; they tend to be highly educated, competent and passionate. Addressing their spiritual concerns in sensitive, stimulating ways will not only encourage personal spiritual development; it will also ready them to demonstrate grace and spread the Gospel broadly. Churches that nurture them will bless many.
Corporate executives or government representatives who interact regularly with people generally not attuned to the sound of the Gospel are commonly part of expatriate churches. When they are discussing hiring policies and trade relations with local officials, directing employees, meeting in the "home office" or hosting members of the diplomatic corps, their commitment to Christ shapes the values they espouse. Others notice.
Ignited by an intentionally "missional" church, they readily form a new sector of insightful supporters who might expedite short-term missions teams, or consider part- or full-time mission service themselves. These outsiders often think of retiring early, or changing jobs; they welcome challenges. As they move or are transferred, they can plant ideas in many places.
"Trailing spouses," like retirees, students and travelers, form a cadre of skilled, motivated people. Since they do not usually pursue a career in the host country, they have time and expertise available for involvement with other projects. Their interest with orphanages, reading programs, housing concerns, newcomer adjustment, medical assistance and the like can flow through the church, as well as extant mission-sponsored programs, to demonstrate grace in the local community.
"Local expatriates" who discover and are embraced by the international church become vital to its life and health. Those committed to a long-term residence can knit stability into a frequently fluid environment. Churches and parachurch groups are wise to involve them organizationally because of this. They have deep sensitivity to local needs and ways; their relational webs in the country also give them access to still another group of spiritually darkened people. They also create some interesting bridges, as when a person of the local culture marries one from outside. These "mixed" marriages have their own particular needs, and make possible links to people otherwise blurred by a welter of language and custom.
International communities are notorious for underserving teenagers, and contribute to the difficulties faced by "third culture kids." Young people dropped on to unfamiliar terrain when a family moves can find the attention they deserve in the international church that cares for rootless kids accustomed to shifting locales and insulating themselves from significant relationships. As these young lives incline toward the Lord, they are likely to affect their peers, some of whom come from local families among which there has been little Gospel awareness.
The needs and potential of these young people deserve fuller attention than is possible here. It bears noting, for instance, that expatriate teens resemble closely the sort of staff mission agencies hope their extensive training programs will produce. Multilingual and transcultural, these young "outsiders" already have acquired some key skills for cross-cultural mission work.
International churches can assist mission agencies with "member care" by including missionaries in the life of the fellowship. Their work can be prayed for regularly; their lives can intersect with others sharing similar surroundings. Friendship and support mediated through a church sustains those pressed and stretched by ministry. At our church, for instance, missionary families come regularly because of what we offer their kids. They find as well opportunities to worship in English and to use their gifts without the additional burden of translation. Does this dissipate their effectiveness for the role they are supposed to play on the field? To be honest, it can, but it can also energize those slogging through difficult circumstances. And it can be wonderfully encouraging for those of the church to see seasoned saints engaged around them.
Much of what those committed to "missions" hope to accomplish can occur in and through the international church. A word of caution, however, is in order, because the expatriate church is not simply a suburban North American church transplanted. Sensitivity to the local situation is essential, as is awareness of the expatriate milieu. It must be considered, for instance, that a number of expatriates will live in an area for no more than two years. What does this imply for church leadership? What will it mean to have very few choices for church in a community composed of people who in other circumstances would refuse to interact? What about families where each spouse is from a different country, and their children are being raised in still others? How important will theological differences be among those representing the spectrum of possibilities? Can the church maintain its integrity in settings where morals and business practices differ so widely from biblical standards?
As we ponder our fast-changing world, considering the implications of everything from e-mail to post-modernism for mission and ministry, we must reflect on the potential for extensive influence in and through the expatriate church. Like Cornelius, or the Macedonian of Paul’s vision, these "outsiders" are the neighbors whose presence we can no longer ignore, and whose situations make them receptive to the good news of God’s love and grace.
And by the way, there’s still a beach church for expatriates in Costa Rica that needs a pastor.
Dan Schmidt is currently serving Escasu Christian Fellowship, an interdenominational, multicultural church outside San Jose, Costa Rica and has been a pastor in Illinois, Maryland and Chile.
Copyright © 2002 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.