The international student: a young man left home to study in another country, and there he came across dedicated followers of Jesus. His first reaction to them and their strange beliefs was extremely negative and he opposed them vigorously and sometimes violently, until he met Jesus for himself and became an amazingly effective missionary and Christian leader.
The foreign business owner: a woman moved to another continent to look after the sales end of the family export business, and there she started meeting with some other women to pray. When a Christian mission team turned up at their group and explained about Jesus, this woman became a believer. From then on her home was open not only to the team but also to others who were becoming believers, and it was soon the meeting place for the first church in that city.
The refugees: a couple had no option but to leave their home and business and try to start over again in another country when an unjust political regime turned on people of their ethnicity. They came across another migrant from a similar background and invited him to join them in their home and their work. He turned out to be an eager follower of Jesus and, before long, their home in their new location was functioning as an informal mission centre. What they learned there they put into practice in yet another city, this time as intentional pioneer missionaries.
The runaway: things had got so bad that one man decided the only solution was to leave the mess behind and get away to somewhere where he could be anonymous. It didn’t work; his life went even further downhill and he ended up in a foreign prison. Remarkably, that’s when it started to turn around. One of the other prisoners was a Christian, shared his faith, and when he got out of jail the runaway headed back home to put things right and start again on a very different basis.
The second generation: when a girl from a migrant family got involved with a local boy who wasn’t of the same culture and religion it caused tensions in the migrant community, and the child born of the relationship was not fully accepted by them. When both mother and son became believers in Jesus they found themselves part of a new, welcoming community that saw their God-given value. Furthermore, the bi-cultural young man now had a new motivation to work at rebuilding the relationship with his mother’s people so that he could take the good news to them.
The missionary: it wasn’t necessarily where he would have chosen to go, but the pastor of a thriving new church that he had helped to form and to nurture had taught the new believers to be attentive to God. So when God asked them to release their most valued leaders for a wider participation in mission, what could they do but place them in God’s hands? They set off into an unknown future, available to and depending on God.
God was in every one of those journeys. Saul, Lydia, Priscilla and Aquila, Onesimus, Eunice and Timothy, Barnabas – read about all of them and many others in the New Testament. Sometimes the people involved knew it and cooperated gladly with it. Sometimes they had no idea of any significance beyond their own immediate lives and circumstances, but each of these moves from one location to another became part of the great movement of God’s good news around the world.
Today in Aotearoa New Zealand we have our own stories. International students, business people, refugees, people hoping to get away from something or returning to make a fresh start, second and third generation migrants who are bi-cultural people in complex relationship to the different parts of their identities, and people who have come to this country in intentional obedience to a call of God. I can put faces and names to each of those categories just from people I have come across in our NZ Baptist churches, and as a family of churches we could build a list of thousands who have been on the move and now find themselves here and part of this family.
Can we believe that God has been in those movements? I was recently in a service in one of our Baptist churches during which seven brothers and sisters in Christ were welcomed into church membership: apart from one Māori brother whose rootedness in this land reaches back for many centuries, all had arrived relatively recently from Asian countries such as Korea, Japan, Singapore and the People’s Republic of China. All of them see God at work in bringing them to New Zealand, which is where most of them have come to know Jesus, and all have now become part of the community that gathers around Jesus in this place.
This is not to say that God is manufacturing circumstances that impel people to move. Some, such as educational or economic opportunity might be positive, but others such as war, inter-ethnic conflict, severe hardship and societal disruption are evil.
What we can affirm, however, both from what we see in the New Testament and from what we hear in the current experience of many migrant people, is that God is able to work even through such circumstances.
So what are we to do, as a family of New Zealand churches at a time when migration to New Zealand and the resultant diversity of peoples is increasing? I suggest that we do what the first generations of followers of Jesus did – struggle! But work it out, drawn by a vision of a kingdom and family of God that transcends all human divisions.
After the exhilaration of the birth of the diverse community of believers at Pentecost (Acts 2:37-47) came tensions when those more recently arrived in Jerusalem felt themselves to be sidelined and disadvantaged by those who had a more secure local identity (Acts 6:1-6).
They struggled, but they worked it out as a community, empowering the newer group by recognizing the qualities of several non-local believers and commissioning them to share in ministry with the local apostles.
Despite the bold proclamation that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21) even the preacher himself, the great apostle Peter, needed a lot of divine persuasion before he could overcome his discomfort and enter the home of someone who was of a different race and culture. But when he did he discovered to his surprise that God was at work there in the same way as Peter himself had experienced (Acts 10:1-11:18).
Glad as they were that the good news of salvation was for all nations, when people of differing backgrounds and cultures were together in the cosmopolitan city of Rome there were difficulties and the tendency was to separate off into groups who shared the same food customs and other ways of practicing their faith, most of them related to the cultures in which they had been brought up.
That was not good enough for Paul; he wanted the diverse believers in the empire’s capital city to be a visible demonstration of the power of God to save all kinds of people.
That would be achieved when the African, Middle Eastern, Asian and European believers, female and male, slaves and free people, servants and high status aristocrats, were sharing life in a God-honouring way and worshipping together (Romans 15:5-13).
Those are also our challenges: to take the opportunity presented to us through migration of cross-cultural relating and mission, in which we shall discover God at work in people who are different from ourselves; and to embrace the challenge of working out what authentic intercultural community will mean as followers of Jesus from all over the world welcome each other, as Christ has welcomed all of us, for the glory of God.
– George Wieland
Carey Baptist College Director of Mission Research and Training