Aotearoa New Zealand is undergoing profound demographic change. This means, as New Zealand Baptists, we are in a changed—and changing—mission context. How are we to live, witness and serve amidst this bewildering movement of people and peoples? George Wieland takes us to the Book of Acts for some clues.
Our nation’s changing demographics are particularly noticeable in the hyper-diverse city of Auckland, almost half of whose inhabitants were born in other countries. However it is experienced nationwide, whether it be seasonal workers in rural areas, skilled trades people brought in to participate in the Christchurch rebuild, or international students in Invercargill.
The Book of Acts is a superb and timely resource for precisely that challenge. From beginning to end it involves journeys and people in motion. Whether those people are purposely fulfilling mission roles, travelling for quite different reasons or indeed bent on opposing the new faith, time and again people on the move turn out to be significant in the story of mission. Here are some of them.
Foreign-born residents (Acts 2:5-6)
“Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem” (2:5).
If it seems that there are people “from every nation under heaven” or at least from multiple places of origin in our own context, it is encouraging to note that the church’s Spirit-empowered witness to the risen Jesus began among immigrants. The Pentecost account highlights the significance of migrants and their transnational networks as the witness to the risen Jesus was unleashed on the world. From Aotearoa, as from Jerusalem, the good news is travelling to many nations.
International students (Acts 7:58; 22:3)
Although he lived in a prominent university city, the eager young man and his family knew that for the best education in his field of study he would have to journey from Tarsus to Jerusalem and enrol with Gamaliel. Unknown to him, this relocation had put him in the place where he was to encounter the Jesus movement. He was appalled by this new sect and set about opposing it violently (8:1-3; 9:1-2), until he was stopped in his tracks by the exalted Jesus himself, and reoriented towards spreading the faith he had tried to destroy.
The story of Saul opens up the missional potential represented by the tens of thousands of international students that Aotearoa receives every year. Some arrive with absolutely no prior knowledge of Jesus or Christian faith. They are often intrigued to encounter people for whom this faith is evidently so important. Many meet Jesus here, and find their lives reoriented to a direction of faith and service very different to anything they had anticipated when they decided to come here for study.
Spiritual seekers (Acts 8:26-40)
The visit to Jerusalem of a senior foreign official might be expected to be a matter of state business. Perhaps it was, but what Acts notes is that “he had come to Jerusalem to worship” (8:27). As he returned home, the Ethiopian carried a biblical scroll whose content he was anxious to understand (8:28-34). Philip obeyed God’s prompting to go to a particular place on the road, and then to get alongside that traveller. He found himself in conversation with someone in whom God was already at work, and faith and commitment, expressed in baptism, soon followed (8:36-38).
In a baptismal service that I attended a woman stood up to tell her story. She was in the city as a member of a business delegation from overseas. Seeking meaning and truth, she had acquired a Bible and, through reading it, had come to believe in Jesus. She had also discovered that her new faith should be expressed in baptism but she did not know how that might be accomplished in her home environment, where it was difficult to express Christian faith openly. She had therefore seized the opportunity to join the delegation to New Zealand because she knew it to be a “Christian country” where she could find a church and be baptised.
The episode of the Ethiopian eunuch encourages us to be alert to the possibility that the visitors we come across may actually be here on a quest for truth, and to be attentive to the promptings of God to accompany them as God works in their lives.
Refugees (Acts 11:19)
The narrative of Acts shifts from Jerusalem to Antioch, capital of the Roman province of Syria. The new church there was the first to include both Jews and people from outside the Jewish community, the result of bold, boundary-crossing witness (11:20-21). Its leaders themselves represented considerable diversity: Barnabas, a wealthy Cypriot Jew; Simeon Niger, presumably black and probably of African origin; Lucius of Cyrene, in North Africa; Manaen, evidently a member of a social and political elite judging by his close association with the court of Herod Antipas; and Saul, who had been brought up in Tarsus, round the coast from Antioch in the Roman province of Asia Minor (13:1). This church was the first to organise an international relief effort (11:27-30) and it was from here that Barnabas and Saul were sent out in mission (13:1-3).
Remarkably, those who founded this astonishing church were refugees, “those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen” (11:19-20). The arrival in Aotearoa of refugees who have learned to depend on God when they have lost everything, and to live and witness faithfully in the face of hostility, is a great gift to our churches and our nation, bringing an injection of fresh life and joy.
People on business (Acts 16:14-15; 18:1-4)
Lydia, a woman running the sales operation of her family business in the Roman colony of Philippi, was the first to respond there to the good news about Jesus. Immediately her home became the hub of a new faith community (16:14-15, 40). Priscilla and Aquila, a mobile Jewish couple, were making a living at their tent-making trade in Corinth. Their home-workshop became Paul’s base for mission in that city, and they went on to establish a missional household in Ephesus, preparing the way for Paul’s extended stay (18:18, 24-28).
Read Acts and look for people on the move who get caught up in the story of God’s mission. And look for ways in which the same God is continuing the same mission in and through people on the move into, in and from Aotearoa today.
Story: Dr George Wieland
George is Director of Mission Research and Training, Te Kareti Iriiri o Carey. He, his wife Jo and their family came to New Zealand from Scotland in 1999 after mission in Brazil, a pioneer pastorate in the North of England, further study in Aberdeen, and church and community ministry in Edinburgh. George was Lecturer in New Testament at Carey before taking on the role of Director of Mission Research and Training in 2012. A few months ago George and Jo moved to Papamoa where they share a home with their daughter Lindsey, son-in-law Rich and three grandchildren. George is currently experiencing migration and mission again, travelling weekly between Tauranga Moana and Tāmaki Makaurau.
Some of the material in this article appears in a different form in George’s chapter, “Reading Acts Missionally in a City of Migrants,” in Nguyen vanThanh and John Prior (eds.), God’s People on the Move: Biblical Perspectives on Migration and Mission (Pickwick, 2014).
Scripture: Unless otherwise specified Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.