Preaching Articles

“Historic.” “Unprecedented!”

            These are the words people use to describe today’s bigger-than-ever flood of global refugees and migrants. But people have been on the move since the very beginning of human history. The Bible tells me so.

            Jesus was a refugee. So was Abraham. So was Moses. Jews and Christians have been on the move for a long, long time.


The First Wanderers

“We need to move!”

            The first husband to utter those upsetting words to his wife was not an Iraqi or a Somali. Nor was he a Vietnamese in the 1970s, or an Austrian Jew in the 1940s. Long before, back near the dawn of time, it was a farmer by the name of … Cain.

            “Why?” his wife cried out.

            “Because God said so,” replied the exasperated firstborn son of Adam and Eve, who themselves had been banished from the Garden of Eden.

            “He’s upset about what happened the other day in the field. He said in so many words, ‘You will be a restless wanderer on the earth’ (Genesis 4:12). Believe me, I tried to argue with Him—I told Him that was out of proportion to what I’d done—I tried to talk Him down. But He held His ground.”

            Scripture records the result: “Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod [the name means ‘wandering’], east of Eden.” In time the couple had a baby; “Cain was then building a city, and he named it after his son Enoch” (Genesis 4:16-17).

            The first human family migrated to a better place, and the human race has been following their example ever since.


Faithful and On the Move

Abraham moved his extended family some 500 miles from Harran to Shechem, because God had promised blessing in the new place.

            Joseph was an unwilling immigrant after his brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt.

            The lengthy Exodus of perhaps as many as three million people is one of the epic migrations of human history, the subject of dramatic films and Jewish ceremonies to this day. What must it have been like to trudge through the desert day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year? The ecstasy of escaping Egypt quickly faded.

            Jesus endured His own period of forced migration. I like how Jon Hirst summarizes the experience:

            I’m thinking of Joseph and Mary of Nazareth with little Jesus in tow. Why were they fleeing? Their plight came on the heels of the Christmas miracle, which turned into an unimaginable disaster. Once, kings had bowed down to their little one; now a different king had sent troops to kill that child with a viciousness comparable to what we have recently seen from groups like ISIS. Joseph and Mary wanted what so many on the roads of this planet today are searching for: safety and a better life for their child.

            David Roller, a former missionary and now a bishop in the Free Methodist Church, says Christians need to address two interconnected matters: One is “immigration,” the other “immigrants.”

            “The former is about economic policy; the latter is about people,” says Roller. “The former is about a country’s right to establish laws; the latter is about the treatment of people, especially undocumented immigrants.”

            But Roller says these two matters are not morally equivalent: “The Christian’s care for people operates on a higher moral plane than the Christian’s concern for economic policy. This higher plane is established in the gospel where we discover the dignity of every person and the presence of the Lord, who made Himself one with the immigrants when He said, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’” (Matthew 25:35).

            God had long ago made clear His care for the outsider through His prophets. Jeremiah was sent to tell the king of Judah: “This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place” (Jeremiah 22:2-3, emphasis added).

            Several hundred years later, the prophet Malachi reinforced God’s passion about this issue: “So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against … those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty (Malachi 3:5, emphasis added).


Transcending Fear

Many people are concerned about terrorists sneaking in among refugees. It’s a legitimate concern in some parts of the world, but not a good reason to extinguish our compassion.

            “Of course we want to keep terrorists out of our country,” says Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals (U.S.), “but let’s not punish the victims of ISIS for the sins of ISIS.”

            The needs of real people—God’s highest creation—must always trump political arguments and personal fear.

            Are you willing to follow Christ into the mess of today’s migrant crisis and do your part to help the strangers among us? If you are, God will guide you as you serve Him.

This article was excerpted from Serving God in a Migrant Crisis: Ministry to People on the Move by Johnstone and Merrill. It is available online at or on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Patrick Johnstone was brought up in England as the eldest of six siblings, children of an Irish father and a Dutch mother. He was converted to Christ in 1959 during his first year as a student at Bristol University, while reading Chemistry in preparation to become a research scientist. At a Christian Union meeting, he heard Glyndwr Davies speak about the evangelistic work of the Dorothea Mission in urban townships in southern Africa, and he rose to the challenge and committed his life to serve as a missionary evangelist. He went to South Africa in 1962, completing his theological training at the Dorothea Mission Bible College in Pretoria.


It was during this time that he met Jill Amsden, a fellow worker from the UK serving in the Dorothea Mission. Patrick and Jill eventually were able to marry in 1968 on their first home leave. Thereafter, they served together in Zimbabwe, where their three children, Peter, Timothy and Ruth, were all born. 


During his first six-year term on the field, Patrick served in Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). In the last of these, he led the first Dorothea Mission team in evangelistic outreach in towns and cities across the country. He learnt a number of African languages, including siNdebele, chiShona and Afrikaans, and also became involved in translating part of the New Testament into chiNambya, a language spoken in northwest Zimbabwe.

It was during this time that he also began the work of gathering data about the world both to inform prayer and for the first editions of Operation World. The first printed booklet with that title, which came out in 1965, was just 30 pages long. The second edition appeared in 1973 and covered nearly every country of the world. It was reprinted several years later by Ralph Winter of the USCWM, and also prompted George Verwer to set in motion an OM-backed rewrite of the book for global distribution. This was completed in 1978 and led to many openings for wider ministry. The impact of Operation World is incalculable. Over 2.5 million copies have been distributed around the world in seven editions and some 16 languages, and the book has played a key role in developing the global vision of African, Latin American and Asian missions.

The 1978 edition also led to some big changes in Patrick's ministry. The first was to join the OM ship, the MV Logos, for a year in Asia and the Pacific in 1979. The second followed an invitation to become part of the leadership team of WEC International, a large pioneer church-planting mission. Patrick's main responsibilities in 1980 were strategy and research and he worked in that role for the next 22 years, playing a part in the considerable growth of the mission as it addressed new unreached peoples and countries. For six years, he was also WEC's deputy international director.

Patrick was long involved with the Lausanne Movement. During the 1980s, he was a member of the Strategy Working Group that helped to formulate many of the definitions for its ethno-linguistic peoplegroup databases. In the '90s, he was co-leader with John Robb of World Vision of the "unreached peoples track" of the AD2000 and Beyond Movement. He has worked closely with David Barrett and Todd Johnson of the WCE and other researchers in sharing information and developing databases, and also played a part in the formation of Global Mapping International (GMI) and the Joshua Project and its listing of people groups.

Jill became ill with cancer in 1990 but she continued to write her children's version of Operation World and had almost completed it by the time of her death in 1992. The book was published as You Can Change the World, and later (by Daphne Spraggett) as Window on the World


In 1995, Patrick married Robyn Erwin from the US, who had been a co-worker with Jill before her death. Patrick and Robyn now live in Cambridgeshire, England, where they currently serve as regional directors for WEC's European bases.

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