It doesn’t take a genius to recognise that asylum seekers have a fairly obvious reason for wanting to obtain membership of your local church that isn’t directly related to any love for Christ. Hardly a church I know who regularly work with Asylum Seekers haven’t had to deal with the question of how to assess those who are genuine. It is a frequent reminder of the need for robust membership processes.
There are some who try to circumvent the problem. They determine not to welcome any asylum seekers into membership until such time as they have received their right to remain. Whilst this approach does remove any sense in which people are using the church to bolster their claims for asylum, it has the rather less excellent consequence of granting the keys of the kingdom to the Home Office. It is a position that feels neither very Biblical nor especially equitable.
Others, however, take the inverse approach. The bar for entry to membership quickly gets lowered when asylum seekers are involved. Unclear testimonies and a seeming lack of gospel understanding are quickly glossed over. I was chatting with another minister recently – who has dealt with similar such issues – about why this happens. Here are some of the reasons that we, between us, suspected lead to this from time to time.
Lack of regular fruit
Oftentimes, there is nothing more than a simple desire to see the person saved. When people come into the church and show themselves interested, even professing faith, the underlying desire to see people come to Christ leads some to assume they have, indeed, been saved. The perfectly laudable desire to see people enter the kingdom, especially if there has been a distinct lack of fruit, leads some to seize upon professions of faith with abandon. Sometimes, a lack of gospel fruit leads some to view any profession with a charity that would otherwise be viewed as credulous.
Lack of experience
Sometimes, although robust processes would normally be in place, asylum seekers and immigrants coming into the church are treated in their own special category. The language barrier is deemed a ground on which to gloss over unclear testimonies and lack of gospel understanding. Other times (because it can be hard to make ourselves understood), fewer questions are asked and more answers are given. When people merely nod or assent to what they have been told, we take this for a credible profession when we have put the words into their mouths. Otherwise, we can just be overly charitable. We assume that nobody would profess faith who didn’t mean it and we simply wave people into membership who say they love Jesus and turn up each Sunday, irrespective of whether there is much evidence they really understand what that means.
Pouring into the few in our midst
It is not at all uncommon for churches with few asylum seekers to leap upon those who turn up. I was in one very white, middle class church in which – the moment the one and only asylum seeker I ever remember coming into the church turned up – competitive compassion kicked in. Who could show themselves most caring toward the one and only guy in the room in any sort of need? I am not knocking that. I think it is great that so many people wanted to help and show that they cared. There is an evident rightness to that. But if everyone is able – almost desperate – to pour into needy people that way, it is often a short step from that to willing them into the kingdom. When we have poured into people so much, we are quick to will people in because of the time and energy we have poured into them.
Sometimes, we are just patronising. We are fine with the native English speakers among us but we suddenly find ourselves lowering the bar for foreigners. Depending on who is coming in, we either look at their background and assume they have had bad teaching, or we look at their lack of any Christian input and assume they couldn’t possibly grasp the full gospel. We may not quite articulate this, we may not even realise we are doing it at all, but we implicitly lower the bar and gloss over problematic testimonies or gospel misunderstanding. We effectively imply these foreigners couldn’t understand the full gospel so we must lower the bar to take account of their minimal, almost non-existent, gospel grasp.
Lack of gospel understanding
Uncomfortable as it may be to admit, some of the time we just don’t understand the gospel ourselves. Somebody comes along and professes faith and, by whatever measure we judge it, we determine they are genuine. But in other gospel preaching churches, concerns are raised. Sometimes, we consider certain professions of faith to be genuine because we don’t understand the gospel ourselves. We fail to grasp it and so we admit those who have also failed to grasp it.