When the going gets tough, the tough stay put

Emigration has been thrust into discussion in our circles lately with two of our younger ministers deciding to depart for Australia. The latest is a good friend. I have been asked to comment on this (more than once), though I wanted to leave it alone, so apologies to those who might feel any implied rebuke more deeply.


In addition to this, please let me emphasise that the circumstances of the individuals concerned are not being taken into account in this post, and there is much that is weighed up in a decision of this magnitude. I am not personally aware of all of the underlying factors that have motivated these people, and there may well be things that outweigh the concerns that I am about to outline. Please take the following as it is intended: a list of arguments against emigration in general, and not a veiled condemnation of individuals. This is something to add to a list of ‘Cons’, but it says nothing about the list of ‘Pros’ that might be legitimately motivating any one potential emigrant.

In most countries, emigration would not be an issue. Heck, it’d probably be called ‘missions’. In post-apartheid South Africa, everything is more complicated. For Christians it is more complicated still.

Living in a relatively dangerous country is taxing on anyone, particularly families with small children. From an individualistic perspective, it is a matter of freedom to choose where you want to live, and not a directly moral issue. However, having the freedom to make a decision either way is not the same as saying that it’s a neutral decision. Viewed communally, there are a few reasons why Christians should curtail their personal freedom for the sake of their compatriots.

In General

Unlike many African countries, emigration from South Africa is not usually the refugee leaving everything and running for his life (in fact, refugees normally come here for refuge). In South Africa, emigration is typically motivated by fears over personal safety, or the related concerns regarding political stability. Those who leave tend to be affluent whites seeking security, mostly satisfied that their skills and education will be sufficient to earn them comparable wealth and comfort in their host countries.

For non-Christians who labour consciously for their own ‘kingdoms’, emigration to a better spot in greener pastures is a model of success. Christians, however, belong to a different kingdom, and this should change our priorities. I think that the following ought to be weighed very carefully when Christians want to leave, especially those of us who are of the richer, whiter variety.

Selfish motivations
God is a God of the heart, and so he cares (perhaps more than anything) about our motivations. We have a Great Commandment and a Great Commission, both of which are supposed to trump our self-seeking and our personal comforts. We praise the ‘great men’ of the faith and the martyrs who were content with poor circumstances, or even faced torture and death, because labour for the gospel was their joy. We shouldn’t praise them and yet regard them as a different species. Their calling is our calling, and even if we lack the courage or ability to match them step for step, we shouldn’t consciously walk in the opposite direction.

Gospel need
South Africa is nominally Christian, but theologically desperately weak and shallow. There is tremendous need for evangelism to the countless ‘Christians’ here who aren’t aware that there is such a thing as being born again, or who merely draw Christ into ancestral religion. We belong to South African culture and are well placed to be missionaries to our own land. Unless emigration is actually mission to a needier place, then Christians are needed at home. The fact that so many depart for wealthy Western countries where Christian teaching is at least as strong as ours appears deeply suspect. Emigration is not usually being driven by gospel need, though it is sometimes framed in these terms.

We’re not refugees
South Africa is dangerous, and we’re confronted with any number of sensationalised horror stories in the media. It is a powerful motivation to go. While a valid concern, any threat to our families now is potential not direct. Random acts of violence are always possible, but this remains true in other countries (albeit in lesser degree). As we should be aware, such acts are also not random. God is ultimately the one who governs our safety, and sparrows fall both here and in Australia.

Problem solvers are no good to us in Australia
Problems in this country are not going to be solved without people of integrity and education to stand for what is right and to help create solutions. We all know that corruption and family breakdown are massive culprits in our social problems. What good does it do if strong, ethical families keep fleeing?

Skills are needed
In general, skills and training are necessary for the development of this country. Political and social problems are linked to the economy, and the economy is strained when positions are vacant or filled with inadequately skilled people.

Furthermore, your skills and education have been supported by government subsidy (at the massive expense of the poor if you are white and were educated during Apartheid). So, when skilled people leave, it impoverishes the country in a few ways, and in some respects, you might consider it a duty to return to your country what was invested in you.

The Gospel is about love and justice
It is a Gospel responsibility to be concerned for social justice. Whites in general have a reputation for moaning about injustice (except of course when we were the beneficiaries thereof, only two short decades ago), and for leaving instead of doing anything about it. Surely if wealthier, influential Christians leave at the sight of injustice, it is abdication of responsibility? Social justice is about defending the defenceless. If Christians go, it just means that there are fewer people to stand up for those who are without the resources to stand up for themselves.

It does not show incarnational love for the poor to seek better fortunes, when (a) we are presently among the wealthiest and happiest in the country, and (b) the poor are unable to seek even a different fortune, let alone a better one.

And finally, it plays straight into the hands of racial stereotypes when whites flee. Christians should not exacerbate that. Whites are always being accused of departing back to their ‘homelands’ now that we’re no longer the recipients of unjust privileges. Emigration ruins our credibility in nation building, and robs us further of a voice to chastise current leaders or structures.

For Ministers

Christian ministers have added responsibility to their communities, as they are paid servants and prominent representatives of the church.

Demoralising to the church
It is demoralising to congregations when prominent Christians abandon their communities at the first hint of difficulty. There is an expectation of Christians that we should suffer for the sake of Gospel. There is an expectation of ministers of the Gospel in particular to excel in courage. If a good sea captain refuses to invoke the privileges of his rank and ‘goes down with the ship’, how much more should Christian leaders labour through difficulty for the sake of their congregations?

What message does it send?
I’m not sure what message the emigration of a pastor leaves with those who stay behind. Some will view it as a good personal opportunity; some will not care. However, the minister was paid by his community to lead them in God’s Word. Now he has a better offer in a cushier country, so he uses the congregation’s salary to flee? This would be casting emigration in especially unfavourable light, but is it hard to believe that the congregation would see it something like that? Would it be unjustified if they did?

God puts the government in place and dismantles it too. But no less does God place church leaders within their communities and all of us in our stations of life for a reason, and we should not lightly consider those circumstances to be disposable.

An important caveat

This is the case against emigration as I see it, particularly as regards white South Africans. However, it is important to note that this is a survey of the phenomenon at large. Any individual instance of emigration should be taken seriously, but it is not fair to place on it the burden of the whole. In other words, the widespread emigration of Christians might be influential upon the downfall of the country, but that is not to say that one person’s decision to emigrate ought to bear the guilt of the destruction of our entire country!

To those of us who have determined to stay, let us not also abdicate from our calling here by walling ourselves off, and ignoring the responsibilities that we have to justice and to the love of our compatriots. The temptation to serve one’s own kingdom instead of God’s defies borders, and it remains a danger to us all. Even if we do not have the gifts or the opportunity to affect massive social changes, we can all do more than we think.


7 thoughts on “When the going gets tough, the tough stay put

  1. fromthepianostool says:

    Thanks so much for such a balanced, Christian, holistic treatment of the phenomenon.

    I have also been surprised lately by the intentions of some to immigrate, especially when I have recently arrived in a wave of young ministers coming from England to South Africa to invest the gospel in this country.

    I find an alarming tendency amongst Christians, some very mature, to focus on the negative potential of our country, in favour of other countries with supposedly positive potential. This is incongruous with the Bible, which really only makes the distinction between the world and heaven.

    That said, I do believe firmly that individuals must make their plans before God and allow him to guide them to wherever he will take them, even it is to another country. We can’t equate this to Jonah running away this side of the Cross.

    In England I had some interesting experiences. One was almost having my wallet snatched by a small teenage boy, presumably from a wealthy family, in a wealthy London borough whilst he was out with 20 friends drinking on the pavement. So much for cushy lifestyles. This has never happened to me in Durbanville.

    And also, so many people I met in ministry in England are excited about the gospel potential of South Africa. Some of them are itching to come here and work, if they weren’t called to spread the gospel in England.

    We must realise the positive potential of ministering in South Africa. Whilst much of the Western World is post-Christian, South Africa is still Christian inasmuch as people are in churches. We have captive audiences, whereas many overseas ministries are trying to get the gospel out to a people who have consciously decided against everything to do with the Christian church.

    And all those captive audiences need are Bible teachers to teach them.

  2. Screamer says:

    Cool article. I think it’s a great reminder to be heaven-centred and take our eyes off of own conveniences. Too often, we’re happy to say that we trust God for our health and safety but wonder if our families are really safe here (as if God did not govern our safety as much as if we were in another country).

  3. ColJude says:

    Thank you for a clear and concise exposition of this “hot topic”. I know of two christian families who have recently emigrated to Australia and New Zealand…wish I could email them this link, but not sure that would be acting in love!! We came back to SA a few years ago to try and do just what you said (“return to your country what was invested in you”). It’s not an easy thing to do and I thank you for the reminder that we shouldn’t be “walling ourselves off, and ignoring the responsibilities that we have to justice and to the love of our compatriots…we can all do more than we think.”

  4. Taryn says:

    Thanks for the insight into your thinking Jordan.

    Thank you too for your disclaimer in the beginning.

    Knowing those who are leaving and knowing their decision-making process: involving months (years) of prayer, discussion, counsel, self-interrogation re: motives etc and more prayer over everything you’ve raised here and then some … and knowing their heart’s cry to do what God wants best and their honest seeking of that – I’ve come to realise that this issue is more complicated, more specific to each individual and/or family and more heartbreaking than I had ever before considered.

    May God’s will dictate every action of ours.

  5. Michael says:

    Okay, so if those are the cons, what are the pros?
    The argument that say i’m going as a missionary must acknowledge that you are going as a cross cultural missionary, for no matter what country you go to you will be less effective that in your own country.

    Every country has a unique culture and common knowledge which is peculiar to that country. Without that knowledge, and let’s face it, you _will_ be less effective.

  6. Phillip says:

    I think you make a good argument all-in-all but I suspect your focus is too narrow.

    I would argue that we are more free as Christians with regards to leaving SA than your post suggests. Still the cosiderations you mention are very valid and important and should not be ignored.

    • Jordan Pickering says:

      It is admittedly narrow in that it is the negative case only. I also agreed that it is a matter of personal freedom, but freedom that should probably be curtailed in most cases. I would think that these reasons are sufficiently valid and sufficiently serious to warrant careful consideration.

      In what other ways am I being too narrow? If anything, I’m flinging the doors far wider than people usually do. We usually think individualistically and leave it there (which inevitably means that it doesn’t really matter where you live, as long as there is Christian fellowship), but South Africa forces social concerns on us that should not be ignored. The trouble with our thinking about social issues is that we are quick to make them someone else’s fault and someone else’s problem, neither of which is true. Emigration is in most cases the extreme expression of that.

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