Ahead of Election, Evangelicals Want Sermons on Immigration | Sojourners

Ahead of Election, Evangelicals Want Sermons on Immigration

Migrants rest outside a church as shelters have run out of space due to the arrival of hundreds of migrants, in downtown El Paso, Texas, U.S., May 9, 2023. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez 

Brian Clark wanted to be clear. Posting to Facebook in September 2023, Clark shared a meme he hoped his pastor would see.

Proclaiming “THE BIBLE SAID IT ALL,” the picture features a fat, pink highlighted rectangle around the text of Deuteronomy 28:43-44: “Foreigners who live in your land will gain more and more power, while you gradually lose yours. They will have money to lend you, but you will have none to lend them. In the end they will be your rulers.”

For Clark, a 54-year-old Riverside, Ca., resident, the verses reflect what “is happening right now in the U.S.” with immigration and he’s disappointed that more pastors aren’t talking about it. “Our borders are bleeding, people are dying and I haven’t heard a single sermon about it,” Clark told Sojourners via private message. “With the Bible being so clear, I am surprised at the silence from America’s pulpits.”

As the 2024 election looms, immigration is a top concern for voters. And according to recent research from Lifeway, a lot of evangelicals like Clark want to hear more about it from their pastors.

The report — sponsored by evangelical organizations including the Evangelical Immigration Table, World Relief, National Association of Evangelicals, National Latino Evangelical Coalition, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, and Bethany Christian Services — said more than 4 in 5 (82 percent) evangelicals say they would value hearing a sermon that teaches how biblical principles and examples can be applied to immigration in the U.S. Among self-identified evangelicals, 81 percent said they would value hearing such a sermon. That is higher than results from previous Lifeway studies in 2022 (77 percent) and 2015 (68 percent).

Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, said the results show an increasing interest from everyday evangelicals — even urgency — to receive guidance on the issue from the pulpit.

“More and more evangelicals are looking to scripture and what it has to say about the immigrant, the refugee, and the stranger,” he said. “Evangelicals want to move beyond just political talking points and be discipled on immigration reform.”

As a result, many evangelical organizations, including the report’s sponsors, are offering resources to guide pastors and congregants on what scripture says about immigration — with conclusions that might challenge parishioners like Clark.

‘Biblical, compassionate welcome’

The evangelical humanitarian organization World Relief offers sermon notes, training, and learning guides for pastors interested in teaching on immigration with a theme of “biblical, compassionate welcome.” Included in their resources are family devotional guides to help parents talk to their kids about migrants and refugees or sermons like Amber Díaz Pearson’s on how “the story of scripture is both a story of migrants … and the story of God’s faithfulness in protecting his migratory people and establishing a home for them.” 

The Evangelical Immigration Table — a collective of religious leaders calling for bipartisan immigration solutions — also produces a range of resources to prompt Christians to think more biblically about immigration. Among them are prepared sermon outlines, helpful quotes, and examples of teaching related to immigration to help preachers “craft a biblically-faithful message that reflects God’s heart for immigrants.”

The website features examples of immigration-related sermons, including messages by Jenny Yang at Wheaton College in 2019,  Ann Voskamp at Moody Bible Institute in 2020, and one from Daniel Montañez, theology professor and director of the Migration Crisis Initiative for the Church of God denomination. Montañez’s message, entitled “On a Theology of Migration,” tries to shift talk of “legal or illegal migration” to the biblical reality of “human migration, the movement of peoples.” Citing Genesis 1:28 and its imperative for humans to “fill the earth” as the first mention of migration in the Bible, Montañez says, “For humanity to fill the earth, they must first move.”

From the very beginning, Montañez says in the video, the Bible is concerned with people on the move across borders. More than mere description, the mention of human movement in Genesis hints at more divine intimations for Montañez. “God’s original intention for human migration was for it to be a blessing, for it to result in the flourishing of all humankind,” he said in an interview with Sojourners. But with the fall came the displaced, the refugee, and the mistreatment of the migrant.

“As part of God’s redemption and restoration,” Montañez said, “we are called to show hospitality as fellow sojourners along the way.”

Part of that hospitality, Montañez said, is for pastors to place the issue of immigration firmly in their pulpits, preaching on how our readings and understanding of scripture should influence the way we engage in politics.

“Too often, it’s the other way around, starting with political stances that inform our reading of scripture,” he said.

Challenges for pastors

Despite ample resources for pastors looking to preach on immigration, delivering a sermon can still be challenging. Sociologist Brad Christerson of Biola University said Christians of all kinds have long called for comprehensive and compassionate policy reform and provided assistance to migrants as part of the biblical mandate to care for the stranger. But with both U.S. political parties making immigration a key electoral issue, politics within local congregations can diverge widely.

Pointing to Matthew 25:35-40, Christerson said, “In terms of message, it couldn’t be more clear: Jesus says, ‘I was an immigrant and you welcomed me.’ It doesn’t get more black-and-white than that.”

In the current political climate, however, Christerson said it can take courage to speak that message. As part of his research for the co-authored book God’s Resistance, Christerson spoke to pastors across southern California. He said the environment of anti-immigrant rhetoric can reach fever pitch and prove destructively divisive for local congregations.

“There are pastors who preach about it with conviction and then they lose people,” Christerson said. “One guy lost 40 percent of his congregation after starting to talk about welcoming migrants.

“That’s not always true,” he cautioned. “But if you preach on this issue right now, you have to be willing to lose a chunk of your church.”

With all the alarm and anger around immigration, Montañez said in an interview that religious leaders should take time to address the concerns people have and avoid one-sided perspectives.

“As media and politicians use the issue to mobilize the masses, we should always be careful,” he said. “As Christians it’s important to figure out how to move people from a place of fear to faith.”

One of the more powerful strategies for having those kinds of conversations can be to invite immigrants to share their own stories. In her 2022 book Beyond Welcome, Karen González wrote how centering immigrants in Christian response to immigration means making room for their stories, creating space for people to “bring their full selves into every space even as they are adapting to a new country.”

“People who are leaning one way on this issue aren’t going to be swayed by statistics,” Christerson added. “But when you spend time listening to people with a story, it can be really powerful, transformative even.”

At one congregation, Christerson watched as a Baptist pastor told his own story of being kidnapped in Guatemala, escaping across Mexico, coming to the U.S. without documentation, converting to Christianity and becoming a pastor only to be detained and deported.

“Hearing that kind of story, even the most hardcore anti-immigrant churchgoers are going to open their minds and ask, ‘Hey, what are we doing here?’”

In the end, however, Montañez said the conversation around immigration needs to go beyond the pulpit to really be effective.

“It may be the primary place pastors can speak from, but it isn’t necessarily the best place to have these conversations,” he said.

“Leaders will need to convene opportunities for small groups to discuss the issue, provide weekend trainings or get involved volunteering with organizations already doing the work,” Montañez said. “Leaders have a responsibility to help their people not focus on the problem but find proactive ways to be part of the solution.”