Reaching Immigrants

Scripture is quite clear about the Church’s responsibility to the foreigner:

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt” (Lev 19:33-34);

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt” (Deut 10:18-19).

Why do we plant churches that reach immigrants? We do these things because it matters to God that we care.

As more and more newcomers make their homes in places other than their countries of birth, and as we who engage in local church planting find our demographics more and more diverse, it is helpful to become familiar with some standard terminology. The contents of this blog are excerpted from a new book released by Linda Bergquist and Michael Crane, with Urban Loft: City Shaped Churches: Planting Churches in the Global Era (p. 91-95)


We use this word as a general term for people who have relocated to a new country for any cause. Note that emigrants are the same as immigrants, but viewed from the opposite perspective. These are people who have left for a new country. For example, some Tamil people emigrated from India and immigrated to London.


This word refers to people who have left their home countries to escape any kind of persecution, trafficking, war, natural disaster, etc. and have been legally processed and registered as refugees in a receiving country. In 2016, half of the world’s refugees were from three countries: Syria (4.9 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million), and Somalia (1.1 million). The top three host countries for refugees were Turkey, Pakistan, and Lebanon. They hosted 30% of the world’s 21.3 million refugees in 2016.

Internally Displaced Persons

This term refers to those who have fled their homes but are still living within their own country’s borders. IDPs accounted for two-thirds of the 65.3 million people in the world who were on the move in 2016. The largest numbers of these came from Colombia (6.9 million), Syria (6.6 million), and Iraq (4.4 million). According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), this level is the highest ever recorded.

Asylum Seekers

These persons are similar to refugees but have not yet been officially evaluated. They apply to governments in their destination countries for asylum. As this book is being written, South Africa is by far the number one place of refuge for asylum seekers, Germany is second, the United States is third, Turkey is number four, and Kenya is fifth. China is the number one country of origin for U.S. asylum applicants, with 34% of the 25,000 individuals granted asylum in the U.S. in 2013 coming from there.


With roots in the ancient Babylonian exile that moved Jews from their homeland, this term means the migration or scattering of a people away from an established or ancestral homeland. With some groups, the diaspora population is greater than the number of that group remaining in a country of origin. For example, more Jews from Yemen now live in Brooklyn, New York, than in Yemen. The scattering of the peoples of the earth means that Christians are now living in places that are relatively untouched with the gospel; it also means that peoples who are relatively untouched with the gospel are now living in places where the Church is still strong. In either case, the challenge is to accept God’s mission to share the Gospel with all.

International Student

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) defines an international student as “an internationally mobile student has left his or her country, or territory of origin, and moved to another country or territory with the singular objective of studying.” According to the Migration Policy Institute, the United States (19%), the United Kingdom (10%), and Australia now host more of the world’s 4.1 million international students than any other countries. The top sending country for students to all three of the above countries is China. For the last six years, educational migrants from China have been the number one source of foreign students to the United States. They number more than the next four countries (India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Canada) all counted together.

Temporary Work Visa Holders

These are professionals on temporary employment visas. In Korea these are called E3, E7, or E4 depending on the employment. There are other designations for temporary workers set by different countries. In the United States, these workers need the H-1B visa, which is a non-immigrant visa allowing employers to temporarily employ foreign workers for specialty occupation jobs. For example, many H1B visa holders are STEM workers (science, technology, engineering, math). Over 85,000 specialty occupation workers have been admitted each year, for a maximum of six years, which means more than a half million H1B visa holders have resided in the United States at any given time. Over 41% hold bachelors degrees, 40% have a masters, almost 13% have completed a doctorate, and around 6% hold professional degrees. About 72% of the approved are between 25 and 34 years old.

Undocumented Worker

Though there are many opinions about this terminology, here, the word undocumented worker is used to refer to people who enter a country without authorization from that country’s government or to those who overstay their visas and intend to stay in the country for the long term. Some wish they could return to their homelands, but for various reasons, cannot. The term is preferred by immigrant rights groups, as well as by most immigrants themselves, as opposed to the term illegal immigrant.

Strategies for reaching and starting churches among temporary work visa holders are not the same as strategies for reaching refugees, but there may be overlaps between reaching H1B visa holders and international students. The latter are processed for short term stays, and usually refer to educated, English speaking, upwardly mobile younger persons. In each case, the work of the church and the mission of the church may be different.

About the Author

Linda Bergquist

Linda has been involved in church planting for 38 years, 36 of which have been in urban areas. She is currently a church planting catalyst for the North American Mission Board and has served as an adjunct professor in several seminaries. She co-authored the books Church Turned Inside Out, The Wholehearted Church Planter, and City Shaped Churches and authored the Exponential ebook: The Great Commission and the Rest of Creation.

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