A 21st century nation of migrants

A few days ago the NZ Herald ran a story with the headline, Asians set to make up one quarter of New Zealand population by 2043: Stats NZ.[1] 

The category “Asian” is very broad, incorporating people who trace their family origins to various parts of the Chinese diaspora, India, Korea, Japan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, the Philippines, and much more. Nonetheless, it does represent a shift in the general perception of the composition of Aotearoa.

Massey University professor Paul Spoonley was quoted as saying,

“It’s one of those transformative moments in New Zealand’s population. This is a complete reversal from our colonial history. We worked very hard to keep Asians, particularly Chinese, out and then didn’t give them rights once they were over here. We’re now, in the 21st century, seeing a country that’s increasingly Asian. It challenges people to think about what their country is like and who’s here.”

To those questions must be added others for people who worship a God who made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and … allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him (Acts 17:16-17). What is this God of mission doing as an increasing number and diversity of people find themselves at home here? And how may we participate in it? 

A New Testament City of Migrants

To approach the Bible with those questions is to shine a floodlight on the activity of God in and through migrations of individuals, families and nations from Genesis through to Revelation. There is one particular episode, however, that I have been reflecting on in relation to our increasingly diverse Aotearoa.

The city of Antioch, 24km inland from the Mediterranean in Roman Syria, was considered to be one of the four most important cities in the Roman Empire in New Testament times. Situated at a meeting point of several trade routes, it was a city in which many peoples and cultures co-existed. Many languages would have been heard in its streets, markets and public spaces. There was a significant Jewish population, possibly due in part to an exodus of some wealthier families from Judea at the time of the Roman occupation. It was to this city that a number of the believers in Jesus fled when the Jerusalem church experienced harsh persecution (Acts 8:1; 11:1). Those refugees witnessed first to Jews, then also to Greeks, and a new kind of community was formed, intercultural with transnational connections (Acts 11:20-21). This church was soon at the forefront of witness to Jesus throughout the world (Acts 13:1-3).

Could Aotearoa be an Antioch for the 21st century? Perhaps one of many Antiochs in this era of unprecedented movement of people and peoples across the world? Let’s consider some of the characteristics of that astonishing Jesus community, and how they might fire our imagination for participation in the mission of God in this age of migration.

Birthed through the witness of refugees

This church was not founded by the powerful who enjoyed the patronage of people at the centre of society. It came into being as a result of the witness of the most marginalized, refugees who arrived with neither place nor position, dependent on the hospitality of others. The power of their witness came from what their allegiance to the risen Jesus as Christ and Lord had cost them.

Among the 1,000 refugees who are received into Aotearoa each year are many whose faith in Jesus has cost them dearly or has sustained them through extreme loss and hardship. Those of you who have been at Carey during the past 10-20 years have studied, worshipped and prayed with some of them and been inspired by their faith and faithfulness. Where are the refugees in your neighbourhood or region? Get to know them. Some of them may be evangelists, church planters, and catalyzers of more authentic forms of Christian community.

Nurtured by bicultural people

The refugees arriving in Antioch had by necessity to learn to belong in more than one place. Many of them, however, were already at least bicultural by the time they had joined the diverse crowd of people who were gathered into the Jesus community in Jerusalem. It was specifically people from the Mediterranean island of Cyprus and Cyrene on the North African coast who were responsible for the most significant paradigm shift in the story of Christian mission when they witnessed about Jesus the Christ not only to Jews but also to Greeks (Acts 11:20).

Bicultural people bridge two worlds and are ideally placed to bring the gifts of one of those worlds to the other. The churches of multicultural Aotearoa have been gifted many bicultural people. It is tragic if they are made to choose one or the other to fit into a church. Let’s value them, affirm all that God has made them, and let them lead in mission amongst people whom others in our churches may not understand or have access to.

Look for grace, not conformity

The community emerging in Antioch looked, sounded and even smelt different to the gatherings in Jerusalem. And the reports that came back were troubling to those who had embraced Jesus as messiah within a specific cultural context. Barnabas, hugely respected for his spiritual sensitivity and wisdom, was sent to check it out. If he had looked for alignment of this new church with the form that faith in Jesus had taken in Jerusalem he would probably have come up with a long list of concerns. What we are told, however, is that he “saw the grace of God” and rejoiced (Acts 11:23).

When new communities of genuine diversity come into being they do look different to the forms more monocultural churches have taken. But those forms are not templates by which all that God does are to be judged. We, like Barnabas, have to cultivate the attentiveness to God and to others that enables us to discern God’s grace at work, especially in different and surprising ways, and to welcome new intercultural communities with joy, not judgement.     

Search out pastors and teachers with a call to the nations

Barnabas recognized that this new community needed to be guided in its faith and life by someone whom God had called to participate in God’s mission to the nations. He remembered Saul, fierce opponent of the Jesus heresy whom God turned completely around and commissioned as apostle of Christ to the nations. He sought him out, and as his sponsor and mentor encouraged him in his developing teaching role (Acts 11:25-26).

Intercultural churches need missional pastors. In the mission of God, especially in the age of migration, the distinction between a “pastoral call” and a “missionary call” is artificial. Wherever the location, we need servants of Christ, the gospel and the church who have a vision of what God is doing in the world, and how their ministry in a specific location is a participation in that mission.

Gather diverse leadership and ministry teams

Barnabas, Saul (soon to be Paul), Simeon Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who was associated with Herod’s family (Acts 13:1) – none of them were actually from Antioch. With this geographical and cultural diversity, those leaders and the church they served were able to hear and respond to God’s heart not only for their current place but for every place. This involved responding in love and generosity to practical needs back in Judea (Acts 11:27-30) and releasing their most valued leaders for God’s work beyond their own location (Acts 13:2-3).

It is tempting for a church leadership group to replicate itself in new appointments, but in the increasing diversity of Aotearoa a monocultural leadership is not only excluding other gifted people of faith whom God is certainly bringing into the community, it is also missing the opportunity to see beyond that immediate place and community and to participate more fruitfully in what God is doing in the world. 

Discover the church’s true identity

The new community bursting into life in Antioch was an enigma. It couldn’t be just a Jewish faction – there were gentiles in its membership; and it wasn’t a Greek mystery sect or another Roman religious organization – Jews wouldn’t be part of those. Their very diversity compelled curious onlookers to identify them by the one common factor, Christ. So it was for this intercultural community that the name “Christian” was coined” (Acts 11:26).

What do observers see as the defining characteristic of our churches? In diverse Aotearoa we have the wonderful opportunity to welcome people who are different from the majority, and to make the very diversity of our communities of faith a powerful witness to our core identity, which is our allegiance together to Christ. IN the process, we may well rediscover it for ourselves.  

Live towards the truth of the gospel

For all the promising beginnings, the radical unity in diversity of the church in Antioch did face challenges. Paul refers to them in Galatians 2:11-14. To be one in Christ was not merely a theological affirmation. It meant that they shared life together, and that of course involved sharing meals. Jews and Gentiles eating together was a contentious matter, including for many of the Jewish believers. The great apostle Peter had visited Antioch and had entered fully into that shared life. He was criticized for it, however, and under pressure from traditionalists he stepped back from the shared meals. Paul was incensed, and, though he was by a long way junior to Peter, he called him out for this hypocrisy. The actual term Paul uses in Gal 2:14 is orthopodeō. The ortho has the sense of “right/correct” (as in “orthodox”) and the podeō means to walk. The compound term orthopodeō has the meaning, “walk rightly” and particularly “walk in a straight path towards.” That was the problem. By refusing to enact unity by sharing food with gentiles Peter was failing to move towards the truth of the gospel, and in fact he was walking away from it.

There are two crucially important considerations here for us as we try to live faithfully in intercultural relationships. One is theological – what precisely is the truth of the gospel? And is that truth confined to a particular cultural form or is it greater than that? And the other is utterly practical – in our daily interactions are we moving rightly towards that truth, or are we moving away from it, and thereby clouding our knowledge of and witness to the gospel?     

A key bicultural relationship to resolve

A final observation. In Antioch there was a key bicultural relationship to resolve out of which the flourishing of diverse intercultural community, translocal relating and world-wide mission could flourish. It was between Jews and Gentiles (Acts 11:20; Gal 2:12). Until that was addressed the Christ-centred identity and the universal truth of the gospel were obscured, and the mission of God to all peoples and places was severely impeded. When it was resolved, the life of the community flourished and its participation in God’s work in the world flowed out unhindered.

In Aotearoa we also have a key bicultural relationship to address, between the covenant partners in Te Tiriti o Waitangi. If the church in Aotearoa is to be an Antioch for the 21st century, we need to resolve the issues that have impeded the godly flourishing of that relationship. This is not instead of local and global mission but as a means of unlocking our faithful and fruitful participation in that mission and welcoming all both into our diverse, intercultural communities of faith in Christ and into the flourishing of our service and witness throughout the world. 

Students from various parts of the Chinese diaspora on Carey’s Mission of God course, taught (in Chinese) by a Zimbabwean.

[1] https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/asians-set-to-make-up-one-quarter-of-new-zealand-population-by-2043-stats-nz/2UKDT6LLNYT2RUEFHASXZ27GN4/ NZ Herald 1.6.21 (accessed 11.6.21).