Stories from

the Heartland

Immigration Task Force

Shifts Within the Evangelical Community

Each week, Spanish-language services draw about 1,100 worshippers to the 20,000-member Willow Creek Church in the Chicagoland area. Many are undocumented immigrants, a group also credited with helping grow the church’s care center—which provides everything from basic needs such as groceries...


Each week, Spanish-language services draw about 1,100 worshippers to the 20,000-member Willow Creek Church in the Chicagoland area. Many are undocumented immigrants, a group also credited with helping grow the church’s care center—which provides everything from basic needs such as groceries, shelter and education to employment guidance and legal consultation—into a full-service enterprise serving 17,000.

New immigrants are the fastest growing segment of evangelical church membership nationally, according to Chicago-based Matthew Soerens, co-author of the 2009 book, Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate. “National church leaders are realizing this is the best hope for the growth of our churches,” he says. For some, welcoming immigrants is also an issue of faith. Soerens compares immigrants to other vulnerable populations that the Bible addresses with compassion and concern, such as orphans and widows.

In the past decade, there has been growing interest in human rights and other social justice issues among evangelical communities, a shift which large evangelical organizations have both influenced and supported. In 2004, the National Association of Evangelicals publicly called its constituents to greater civic engagement. Hispanic evangelical groups spoke out for immigration reform in 2006. In 2007, two Christian evangelical organizations—Sojourners and Evangelicals for Social Action— collaborated to create Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. In 2009, the National Association of Evangelicals wrote a formal resolution for reform.

Ministering to undocumented immigrants can be complicated. Some church members, “have found it very challenging to think about having any compassion for someone who came here illegally,” says Heather Larson, director of Willow Creek’s Compassion and Justice Ministries.  When pastors have addressed immigration from the pulpit, the message has been mostly negative, according to research by Ruth Melkonian-Hoover at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. Hoover also found that more than half of white evangelicals surveyed feel immigrants are a drain on the nation’s resources and a threat to its customs and values.

Willow Creek, like a growing number of evangelical churches, has begun to educate members, staff, and elders on the church’s changing demographics, the growing number of immigrants attending, and the challenges they face in becoming citizens. It enlisted Soerens, a church trainer for World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals.  In 2010, he addressed roughly 3,000 people, explaining why it is next to impossible for the undocumented to obtain legal status, and drew a standing ovation. In his speech, he included facts such as forty-four of forty-six economists surveyed by the Wall Street Journal believe immigrants are good for the U.S. economy, and a third of undocumented immigrants have a U.S. citizen in their households.

Alex, a 34-year-old Willow Creek member who asked that his last name not be used, is married to an American woman he met in church.  They’re expecting their first child. At 19, he crossed from Mexico into Arizona to find work in order to provide for his ill parents and younger brother and sister still in Mexico. Though marriage to a citizen is grounds for citizenship, if Alex steps forward to apply, he could be detained and deported as punishment for coming to the states illegally in the first place.

He would like to see the church push even harder, and forge more interactions between English-speaking and Spanish-speaking members. His prayer is one for compassion: “Let us be less political and more Biblical.”

Soerens reassures people they are not legally prohibited from providing services to the undocumented, or required to report them to immigration authorities. In September, Christianity Today ran a cover story entitled “Meanwhile, Love the Sojourner,” highlighting how Christians in Phoenix are helping illegal immigrants.

In June of 2012, an association of more than 170 influential Christian leaders from across the political spectrum launched the Evangelical Immigration Table to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform. The week after President Barack Obama’s re-election, it called on him to keep a promise from his first campaign to reform the nation’s broken immigration system, writing, “We commit to supporting you as you fulfill this promise.”

The current immigration system, wrote the leaders, “doesn’t reflect our commitment to the values of human dignity, family unity and respect for the rule of law that define us as Americans.” It is signed by the presidents of most significant evangelical denominations and of key Christian colleges and seminaries.

In January 2013 the Evangelical Immigration Table launched the “I Was a Stranger Challenge” calling on evangelical faith leaders and more than 100,000 churches across the nation to read 40 passages in the Bible about immigrants and immigration during the first 92 days of President Obama’s second term. Participants are also being asked to pray that these passages will evoke the political will to create a just immigration system that better reflects Christian values. To promote the Challenge, The Table unveiled a three minute video featuring high-profile Evangelical leaders reading from the 25th chapter of Matthew, from which the challenge gets its name.

As political leaders grapple with a political solution to immigration, churches have recognized their role in highlighting the human side of the issue. Melkonian-Hoover believes that evangelical leaders’ efforts are making a difference. And while there is still some lingering uncertainty in the church, Soerens has seen a shift in five years, and believes most white evangelicals who aren’t actively pursuing change already are now open to “taking a positive approach to immigrants.”