Author: Paul Woods has served with OMF both in the UK and in Asia. He is currently writing his PhD thesis on ‘The alien among you: a theological response to Chinese migration’.
“So what do you do then?” a zealous local employee at OMF’s headquarters in Singapore asked me a few years ago. She knew I was a member of OMF, then serving in the UK. But I was not a regional director or a mobiliser, or finance person or media specialist. So what else could I be?
When I described myself as a missionary she protested, “But you aren’t based in East Asia”. When I explained that I worked among East Asian students in the UK, and it was not health issues or aged parents that kept me in the West, I was able to introduce her to what OMF calls “Diaspora Ministry”.
For a mission with a geographical focus such as OMF, Diaspora Ministry (DM) is a newer effort targeting people from some of our target countries who live in our home nations rather than in Asia. Ministry focuses on those known to us who remain culturally and linguistically distinct, or who come from nations where political, religious, or even cultural norms bring restrictions on ministry. Some mission groups carry out DM among Japanese, for example, as they may be more open to the gospel while in the West than when they are at home.
In recent years the profile of Diaspora Ministry in OMF and other mission agencies has been raised and its value acknowledged. But in too many people’s minds, even among the informed and committed Christian public, DM remains somehow second-class, either a Cinderella yet to make it to the ball, or even a ministry ugly sister close to retirement. My wife and I served in DM for four years in the UK before moving to Asia in 2003. When we left home we saw an increase in financial and prayer support; in the eyes of at least some, getting on an aeroplane had made us ‘real missionaries’.
We retain our interest in DM and still meet church people here and in East Asia who feel that a person is only a missionary if they have left their own country. Missio seems to have more to do with being sent to a country than with being sent with a message.
A little biblical input may be helpful. If mission is the transmission of the Good News from the haves to the have-nots, then the locus of gospel ministry is the interface of faith and no-faith, or faith and other-faith. This will resonate with classic mission texts such as Matt 28:18-20 or Acts 1:8. There is much going in missions, but the core of God’s purpose is bringing people into the kingdom and discipling. Further, even the scope of Acts 1:8 includes ministry in a local context; you don’t have to go to the ends of the earth. Paul’s ministry combines reaching out to Jew and Gentile, and in the New Testament record we often encounter both in the same geographical context: without advocating an excessively narrow or prescriptive people group focus we can say that physical location was less significant than cross-cultural communication across a faith interface.
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