In 2017, I joined a group of Christian anthropologists, missiologists and theologians to produce the book, “On Knowing Humanity: Insights from Theology for Anthropology.” My contributing chapter was titled, “Calling: Implications of the Transcendent for Love and Purpose in Migration.” My argument in that chapter had to do with the sense of calling that Christian immigrants often experience in their new contexts and how this can give them a sense of purpose in the midst of an often immigrant-hostile environment. As one of my interviewees from Colombia who had migrated to the Basque Country of Spain put it, he and his wife had felt God calling them to migrate for the furtherance of the Kingdom—that is, to be missional. He stated, “We didn’t come here to earn money, but rather to win souls” (“No vinimos aquí a ganar dinero, sino a ganar almas.”) In Spanish the same verb – ganar – is used for both “earn” and “win.”
I use migration as an example of calling for a couple of reasons. First, in recent years we have seen more and more groups of Christians from the Majority World migrating to the West, as well as other parts of the Global South, to be missional in their new contexts. Second, I believe the call in the Great Commission requires migration in order for it to be fulfilled. Jesus told us to GO and make disciples of all nations (i.e., peoples). Historically, the West has understood this to mean that we must migrate to other parts of the world to take the gospel. Yet, as we in the West are now viewed as an important mission field, there is often a negative reaction when those from the Majority World sense that same calling to come into our “neighborhood” in order to evangelize us.
I would argue that being “called” to participate in the Missio Dei, the Mission of God, often, perhaps most of the time, involves movement, i.e., migration. Sometimes this can be a direct sense of calling, as Abram experienced in his interaction with God. That he was being called to create a new nation in a new place meant that he had to leave kin and safety for a place that, at the time, he didn’t know. God was “calling” him to act on the fact that He was faithful in what He was calling him to do. This faith in the calling was further tested when God told him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham remained faithful to the call that he had received.
But sometimes the sense of calling only becomes apparent “after the fact” of migration. Here we can look at the experience of Joseph in Egypt, who was sold into slavery by his brothers and, after a number of years of exaltation and imprisonment, was able to say when confronting his traitorous brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20, NIV).
We see the importance of movement in God’s purposes throughout the Old Testament as well as the New Testament. One of the key elements that assisted the spread of the gospel in the first century was the Diaspora (i.e., immigrant) Jewish communities that had spread throughout the Middle East. Paul grew up in one of these communities, Tarsus, which, because of the mix of cultures he experienced, made him a perfect “third culture” person who was able to cross cultures in his world and contextualize the story of the gospel for each group (see Acts 17 as an example).
Andrew Walls, Scottish theologian and historian of missions, identified two main principles throughout the history of the church – the Indigenizing Principle and the Pilgrim Principle. The former deals with the fact that, when individuals become Christians, they do so within particular sociocultural contexts. As a result, they want to experience church as a “place to feel at home.” The latter, the Pilgrim Principle, recognizes the fact that, throughout church history, God has called His people to be pilgrims, where, as Walls puts it, the Spirit “whispers to him that he has no abiding city, and warns him that to be faithful to Christ will put him out of step with his society” (The Missionary Movement in Christian History, 1996, 8. Gender exclusive language in the original). Pilgrims wander; they move.
Calling is nothing to take lightly, but, as Christopher Wright has reminded us in “The Mission of God’s People,” we are all as believers called to participate in God’s mission. It’s not “if” but “how” God is calling us. This often means that God is calling us to move from where we feel comfortable, whether that be physical or cultural, and to recognize the transcendent relationship we have with God, which should always lead us to love and purpose.