Migrants as missionaries

The Netherlands is preparing for the arrival of at least 50,000 Ukrainians, and possibly even double or multiple that number. Meanwhile, people of other nationalities continue to come to our country, hoping to be recognized as asylum seekers and to get the opportunity to build a new existence here. The movement of large groups of immigrants, and all the challenges associated with this, is a worldwide phenomenon of all ages. In the past the Netherlands had to deal, time and time again, with the arrival of large numbers of foreigners. One of the largest groups that ever had to be accommodated were the Belgians who fled to the Netherlands during the First World War, when their country was at war while The Netherlands had remained neutral. Their number was more than one million, while our country had “only” about five million inhabitants at the time.

Large-scale migration changes the demographics of a region or a country. This has been the case in the Netherlands since the Germanic tribes “invaded” our country via the Rhine two thousand years ago. Over the centuries, all kinds of new groups followed, including significant numbers of Jews and Huguenots. In the last half century, people from the former colonies (Indonesia, Suriname and the Antilles) arrived, along with hundreds of thousands of guest workers from southern Europe. The fact that there are two Polish supermarkets in the place where I presently live indicates that the migration phenomenon has not by-passed my hometown, with a population of about 22,000.

I am currently writing a review of a book in which migration plays a very important role. It emphasizes that, worldwide, migration has been a major factor in shaping the course of history. However, the author (see below) of this fascinating, but rather complicated and detailed, book is mainly concerned with one particular aspect of migration. His thesis is that the spread of Christianity owes more to migration than to the formal mission activities of churches and religious organizations, and to political and military factors. When people–alone or (usually) in groups or as a whole nation–move to another region, they take their religious beliefs with them. In ancient times, it was often Christian slaves or prisoners of war who ensured that the gospel reached places where it had not penetrated before. Constant migration ensured that the Christian faith did not assume the same form everywhere and that theological differences could also spread. Migration, according to this book, therefore had consequences not only for the geographical distribution of the Christian faith, but also for a growing diversity of rites and theological views.

In the Netherlands we have seen how in many places migration has altered the religious landscape of an area. The Bijlmer (South-East Amsterdam) is perhaps the most striking example of this. When Joop den Uyl, as one of the aldermen of Amsterdam, was in charge of planning for this new district, he believed that no land needed to be reserved for church buildings. After all, we were on the eve of a totally secularized world, in which people would no longer go to church. But now, some sixty years later, this part of Amsterdam is the most religious place in the entire country! The immigrants who came mainly from Suriname and the Antilles, but also from Africa and elsewhere, made sure of that.

What religious impact the arrival of large numbers of Ukrainians cannot be predicted. It is possible that this will at least strengthen the Greek Orthodox element in our religiously diverse country. Much will depend on whether many Ukrainians will live among us for the long term or even permanently.

For the worldwide Adventist community, migration is undoubtedly a determining factor. In many countries, members who have come from outside the country’s borders are in the majority. This is particularly the case in the United States, and this trend is likely to continue. In many European countries, the Adventist Church would have declined in membership had it not been for migration. Tp say yhat this has not created any problems would be a denial of the facts, but the arrival of church members from other areas has allowed the church to still grow a little or at least remain stable in terms of its membership. Moreover, this migration has resulted in greater diversity and in many places also in a new vitality of church life. The thesis of the author of the book I am to review, that the spread and the growth of the church owes more to migration than to institutionally directed missionary actions, has, at least for some decades, also been true for Adventismin the Netherlands.

Jehu J. Hanciles, Migration and the Making of Global Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI (USA): Eerdmans, 2021)