As much as refugees need fame; as much as they need freedom from political, economic, and social oppression; as much as they need food, water, and shelter; we know—as Christians and as Christian humanitarians—that at the end of everything, they need Jesus most of all. He has power beyond any NGO. He has authority and grace beyond any in the Church. He feeds the hungry and satisfies the thirsty (John 6:35). He forgives all our sins and heals all our diseases (Psalm 103:3). He literally brings the Kingdom to those in need (Matt. 11:28).
The Church, having rejected Gnosticism long ago, must care deeply about bodies, structures, physical needs, and material oppression. We must also care deeply about souls—and seeing them saved. For many of us who are concerned with quelling the deep distress and meeting the lack faced by so many displaced people, we are focused more on the body than the soul.
Such a preferential perspective is wrong.
Salvation, freedom, the life that is truly life—these are eternal goods. Therefore, we should not be shy about the gospel. We should not resist the reality that Jesus changes people and changes situations. Oppression, prejudice, market forces—these problems are too strong and too deep to tackle without God. He loves to take them on. His promises to refugees are the same as his promises to the rest of us—to set free and to send out.
Let us be thoughtfully brave in discussing the evangelism and salvation of nonchristian refugees and the people and forces that make them. For everything is spiritual. The ills of society are spiritual, just as the great goods of this world are spiritual. Everything—and everyone—in between is spiritual too.
It is impossible to offer even the briefest analysis of how the Church can relate to the root problems of refugeeism without addressing the spiritual causes and the need for the salvation of souls. Evangelism is a call for all Christians, not only a few. For my part, I am a big proponent of Christians moving oversees for the sake of the gospel—not necessarily as missionaries in the traditional sense (e.g. training preachers and handing out tracts), but just as neighbors in a new land. Live among refugees and in the circumstances that create them. Christians can be aid workers, counselors, teachers, doctors, social workers, businessmen, or, yes, pastors abroad, working for reformation in the world and growing in likeness to the lowly. My favorite manifestation of the Great Commission, though by no means the only one, is this: just move to a new country and be a regular Christian person, making disciples through service and organic relationship.
I will not speak here about strategies for spreading the Word, except to say that we in the Church must do it and do it joyfully. Disciple-making, sewing seeds, sharing the gospel, working as tools of the Spirit for the salvation of others—such are the missions of all Christians. But there are better ways and worse ways to do this. I am concerned here with a way not to evangelize, particularly as it relates to refugees.
When I used to tell people I worked for a Christian organization doing humanitarian aid work and, later, resettlement, I was often met with the eureka response: “Oh, you’re a missionary!”
Typically, I would confess that I did not identify as a missionary (except in the sense that all believers are missionaries), and this would often disappoint my audience. Seemingly incapable of understanding how I could live in an impoverished country and work with the poor without being a missionary, they would proceed to ask if I was bringing many refugees to Christ. To this I always said that I did sometimes sees unbelieving refugees come to know Jesus as God, but that this noble purpose was not my primary objective. My primary objective was serving people’s needs, listening to them, and loving them as Jesus did. If that prompted faith discussions or opened the door to Jesus stories, which it sometimes did, great! But if it didn’t, that was okay too.
Still, numerous people with whom I had this conversation were unable to accept that I, a Christian, could care for refugees in a gospel-rooted way without seeking their conversion to Christianity. This relatively frequent exchange demonstrated to me a peril for the Church: the temptation to soul vulturing.
Soul vulturing is the practice of seeking out refugees—or down-and-outers in general—in their most vulnerable moments and then striking with evangelism.
Unashamedly I say, if the gospel is true, if we are to view history with eternal rather than temporal eyes, it must also be true that the saving grace of Jesus Christ is the most desperate need of every person in the world. But that does not mean the Christian witness is best served by looking to pounce on people in the hour their desperation is most keenly felt. What good is it to teach a man metaphysics when his house has just collapsed? Who does it really serve to hand out Church literature or preach Christian axioms on the day a mother has lost her children?
Theology and sermons are not what is most needed on the day of the cataclysm. It’s on those days, when the world is at its most brutal, that people need the serving hands of Christ and the embracing arms of Christians, not a tract or a rebuke or even an invitation.
As believers, we should have no doubt that Jesus does some of his best work when the night is darkest. Out of poverty and crisis, the Spirit sows seeds of redemption. It is no surprise that some of the greatest spiritual revival happens in the places of greatest material need, and some of our most powerful testimonies spring from the nethermost valley.
But if we are truly to be like Jesus, we must care for people, not just their souls.
In fact, caring for people—their bodies, their well-being, their physical and emotional needs—is caring for their souls.
Many refugees have lost everything but their religion, which is the one thing many Christians most want to change about them. It’s a difficult thing because we really should want to see people come to Jesus, the only one who can meet all their needs, but there is such a thing as an abuse of the gospel. There is a way to share with people without really caring for them.
Imagine, if you can, that your house has burned down. You’ve lost nearly everything and you don’t know where to turn. Imagine also that the same fate has befallen all of your friends and neighbors. You cannot seek shelter down the street or in a hotel because few roofs are left standing, and those that are may burn down at any moment. What do you do?
Maybe you collect what possessions you can and make for a city in another part of the country. Maybe you head for the border. Maybe you just start walking. Maybe you stay put and hope for the best.
Your children are crying, your parents are grieving, your whole family is on edge, and everyone around you is stressed, sad, and afraid. More fires may strike at any moment; more homes may collapse, and the heat and ash is overbearing.
This is the closest thing to hell you can imagine.
Now imagine that, in the midst of your trouble, a gang of people you have never seen from a place you have never visited approaches you on the road or in your makeshift camp or in the ruins of your smoldering home. These people look well-to-do; they look clean and even compassionate. They ask how they can help and seem to genuinely mean it. But within an hour of meeting you, after they have given some water and a few words of comfort, they start telling you stories about Jesus.
The words, of course, are absolutely true and always important, but in those precious, painful moments, you are not lifted or persuaded by stories. You simply need someone to be there with you, to grieve with you, to help with your kids and meals and laundry. You need someone to come alongside you and feel your broken heart.
On the heels of the mammoth 2015 earthquake in the Himalayas, which killed thousands of image-bearers of God across Nepal, India, and Tibet, and displaced millions, some Christian humanitarians did well to remember the humanitarian portion of their Christianity. Others did less well, skipping over empathy, compassion, and service, and jumping straight to conversion. I’ll not soon forget (nor will some Nepalese) ensuing tweets that suggested the earthquake epicenter had become a field “ready for the harvest” or praying that “not a single destroyed pagan temple” would be rebuilt.
With such a mindset, are Christians actually loving people, or objectifying them?
In the aftermath of disaster, when refugees are in flight and when children are fleeing bombs, suffering people should not have to worry that, in their moment of need, the Christians are coming to convert them.
We are not meant to be soul vultures.
We do not wait for disaster to strike so that we can swoop in like Christian supermen, saying, “Here we have a catastrophe! Let us go and bring the gospel!” If we begin to care for people only after they have suffered great loss, do we really care at all?
Soul vultures see war and persecution, earthquakes and floods, tsunamis and famine as an opportunity to bring the gospel. While this may seem noble, it may serve both victims and the Church better to see such calamities as an opportunity not to bring the gospel but to live the gospel.
Absolutely, Christians should be the first to be send aid and support and presence to those suffering in refugeeism and disaster around the globe. All these in addition to our prayers. But we are not to be grateful for this destruction, the violence that uproots millions and brings down other religions’ temples—and with them many houses. We are to be sad with the sorrowful, and then to help them. That is our best witness.
It is well to pray that the gospel light shines brighter in refugee camps and uniquely broken places, that stories of grace and peace come out of ruins, and that Jesus’ name is ultimately magnified. It is good to pray that the Spirit moves in sweeping revival.
But not because we got them when they’re down. Not because we took advantage of their upheaval.
We must be sensitive, wise, discerning, loving, and compassionate, before we are opportunistic. Disciple-making is not first an outward strategy; it is a condition of the heart.
It will be a blessing if, in all the trembling tumult of our fallen world, a Bible is given or an injured child hears the name of Jesus. But in the moment of the temblor, and while the aftershocks still boil and bombs still fall, it will be as wonderful if people in need see Christians being salt and light, serving, helping, risking; not just waiting for the chance to charge in.
The Spirit of God did not come as a vulture, but as a dove.