Southeast Asian refugees had left their world behind in search of a safer one. On their journey, some of them found the Creator of the world.
Fourteen thousand refugees in Southeast Asia are waiting to transition to Australia, Canada and the U.S. for resettlement. The majority of the refugees are Afghani and Somalian. The timeline for their resettlement was once much shorter. But, with a backlog of people seeking asylum and resettlement, compounded with COVID-19, the wait for the refugees’ new world became much longer. However, the extended wait creates time for evangelism, church growth and personal development.
Justin and Camille Franssen* have been involved in refugee ministry throughout all stages of the process. Before moving overseas to serve with the IMB, Camille worked at a refugee resettlement agency in the U.S. The Franssens first worked in a country from which many refugees flee. Now, the Franssens minister in Southeast Asia to refugees waiting for resettlement.
When the Franssens moved to Southeast Asia, they had no intention of working with refugees. But, the international church they attended asked if they would be willing to join church members who were ministering to Afghani refugees. The Franssens now partner with the church, an American businessman and an Iranian believer named Dana* to minister to refugees. The Franssens, Dana and their partners work primarily with Afghanis and Iranians. However, they have Somalian, Sudanese and Ethiopian small groups as well.
In the past five years, from the area’s roughly 7,000 Afghani refugees, the Franssens estimate 500 have committed their lives to Christ. The ministries of local and international churches, Christian ministries and outreach by IMB workers and national partners facilitated those decisions.
When the Franssens first began their ministry, refugees were, on average, in their city for two years. Now, the wait time is seven to eight years.
Initially, the Franssens hosted believers in their home for regular gatherings. Soon the group to more than 70 people. After the Franssens attended a training event that emphasized church growth through small groups, they decided their group needed to split. “[The training] taught us that accountability happens in small groups,” Camille said. The Franssessens separated their group into smaller groups of eight to 12 people. They began training leaders to lead the new small groups.
The Franssens and the Christians meet as a church on Sundays, but that is not the focal point of church growth. “We emphasize, ‘This isn’t where your true spiritual growth is. This is not where you should be getting meat,’” Camille said. “We can come together and be part of a larger community, but your home group is where you have accountability, where you have discipleship, where you have growth.”
The beauty and effectiveness of the Franssens and Dana’s evangelism ministry lie in their approach. Their evangelism occurs in community, rather than one-on-one. Many Middle Eastern and African cultures are communal, so learning in a close-knit group is highly effective. “When people come to Christ individually, they don’t ‘group’ because they’re afraid to ‘group’ with other people,” Justin said. “If they’re listening to all the same stuff together, they immediately get into groups.”
If several people express interest in learning more about the Gospel, the Franssens and Dana form small groups. The groups study the Trinity, the inerrancy of Scripture and Bible stories from creation to Christ. The small group meetings foster discussion and interaction. After three months, those who are still attending the group meetings and choose to believe are given a chance to be baptized. The group then becomes a discipleship group.
“One of the hardest things for these refugees is they don’t have a lot of choices. They have no control over their lives, which is hard for us to understand, but I think even a lot of Americans may have more of an inkling of that idea since COVID hit because we had this illusion of being able to plan stuff and most of it has gone out of the window,” Camille explained.
Many Americans may feel they are in a holding pattern because of COVID-19. “That’s how a lot of these refugees feel. They’re just in this holding pattern, waiting for a call from the [United Nations] saying they get to go to a new country, and that holding pattern might last six months. It might last eight years. It might last a lifetime,” Camille said. She said that extra time resulted in mature and well-trained leaders who will start small groups in whatever country they are placed.
Justin and Camille’s ministry is now multi-generational, and they have passed the mantle to local leaders. The people they have trained are training others and have taken leadership and ownership - the goal of IMB church-planting strategies. “We’ve had our first jump from our church to another church where one of our guys that was very well-trained started a ministry,” Justin said. “They’ve been able to reach people we have not been able to reach before.”
*Names changed for security.