illustration of mother and child

Migration in World Christianity: Hospitality, Pilgrimage, and Church on the Move

In Matthew’s description of the last judgment (Matt 25:35), Kosuke Koyama noted, Jesus himself was the hungry, thirsty, naked stranger—and he also suffered for loving strangers (Rom 5:6–8). Koyama was one of the first to suggest that, since Christians do as Christ did, mission could be defined as “extending hospitality to strangers.” In fact, the Greek word for hospitality—philoxenia—literally means “loving the stranger.”1 Unfortunately, all too often the reaction to the stranger is better described by another Greek word: xenophobia. Perhaps this is why the theme of welcoming the migrant—or hospitality— has been the most common mission theological approach to migration. In this article, I shall explore the mission theology of hospitality. However, ultimately, I find that it is inadequate to meet the context of world Christianity and the testimony of Scripture. Hospitality needs to be rethought and it needs to be complemented by a theology of migration.

Mission Theology of Hospitality

The most sustained theological treatment of Christian hospitality to date is Christine Pohl’s 1999 work, Making Room.2 Pohl points out that hospitality and table fellowship are a moral imperative in many traditional societies—as shown, for example, in the account of Abraham’s welcome of the three travelers at Mamre (Gen 18:1–8), which turned out to be welcoming angels unawares (cf. Heb 13:2). To this story, she juxtaposes the unfortunate experience of Lot (Gen 19), who was unable to fulfill his obligation to strangers in a lawless and degraded community. Israel’s laws to protect sojourners or aliens (gērīm) who joined themselves to the community were founded in Israel’s memory of being aliens themselves in Egypt (Exod 22:21; Lev 19:33–34; Deut 10:19; 26:5, 12), and were an expression of the covenant relationship of Abraham’s descendants with God who brought them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.3

Jesus challenged the people of Nazareth to an inclusive understanding of the good news by noting how non-Israelites, such as the widow of Zarephath and the Shunammite woman, showed hospitality to prophets (Luke 4:25–27). This unconditional hospitality to the poorest and neediest was a distinctive Christian virtue that contrasted with the reciprocity demanded in Hellenistic society. Christian hospitality, centered on the home, was a means of transcending differences in the early church, as well as one of the marks of a Christian leader (cf. Titus 1:8; Rom 16:23; 1 Tim 3:2; 5:9); it met the needs of traveling missionaries, exiles, the poor, and the sick; it fostered family-like ties and reinforced a new identity because it was closely linked with worship, which also took place in the home.4 For Pohl, hospitality is conferring dignity and recognition (cf. Luke 10:30–36) and the host may empower those at the margins. Hospitality changes stranger into guest, and even— in the supper at Emmaus—into host (Luke 24:28–35).

The practice of hospitality was an important factor in the spread of Christianity across the Roman Empire and into Europe. Pohl traces Christian hospitality through the centuries in the form of hostels for travelers, hospitals for the sick, monastic hospices, and guest houses for pilgrims. However, from the Middle Ages onward, hospitality became mainly a domestic or a municipal responsibility in Europe and many traditions of Christian hospitality were lost during modernity, with its secularizing processes and reduction of families and homes. Pohl urges the recovery of an understanding of churches as centers of hospitality—the “making room” of the book’s title. In so doing, she evokes an image of the church as home. She identifies two key New Testament texts to support the view of the church as home: Luke 14:12–14—the banquet for the poor—and Matthew 25:31–46—the welcoming of the stranger by the sheep of the last judgment. As Pohl points out, the Eucharist, which anticipates the heavenly banquet to come, is the central symbol of hospitality and Christian table fellowship in the church as home.

“Mission as hospitality” has been developed in the context of a settled Christian majority in the global North and West receiving migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. It has helped to justify, biblically and theologically, a mission of welcome to diverse communities that is in many respects costly and countercultural. However, the description of the church as home also points to a weakness of the hospitality approach. These predominantly White churches see themselves as already established and as hosting others—mostly people of color—who are migrants. If mission to migrants is construed in the West only in terms of hospitality, it may perpetuate paternalism and other colonial attitudes. Hospitality may be reduced to merely meeting needs rather than “helping strangers to flourish.”5 The tendency to paternalism and benevolence may even be inherent in the concept of hospitality. As Tobias Brandner explains, the host has “power to . . . exert control over the people hosted.” In his view, “this means that hospitality is always linked to power, ownership, creation of boundaries, and exclusion. In fact, hospitality constructs an otherness that is in turn received as a guest.”6 Even when hospitality is offered by a minority group, as it was in the early church and many other biblical examples, it is easily misunderstood as a claim to power over others. At the World Council of Churches assembly at Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2006, a document was considered on “Religious Plurality and Christian Self-Understanding” that had been developed as a “call for hospitality.”7 Although it was stressed that the hospitality between faiths should be mutual, it seemed to imply that in any situation one religion is host and the other is guest. But this is an extremely sensitive matter, for example in the Middle East, and the document could not be accepted.

Those who offer hospitality may feel benevolent toward migrants, as if they are doing them a favor. Yet Susanna Snyder points out that Western nations, and especially the Christians within them, might be expected to feel some obligation to host migrants from countries they have colonized, controlled, or otherwise intervened in.8 However, this is often not the case. Anthony Reddie gives the example of the essential workers recruited after World War II from the Caribbean by the British government. Most of them were communicant members of the Church of England, yet they were often shunned by English congregations whose “faith adherence was relegated behind subliminal Whiteness.”9 Not only are they unwelcoming to those who make it to their shores, Western nations are hosting relatively few of the neediest migrants globally. Migration is also taking place on a huge scale within continents and regions. Refugees, for example, are disproportionately hosted by poorer countries in West Asia (Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran) and in Africa—the East, Central, and the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad).10 See the sidebar on p. 47 for facts and figures about refugees and host countries around the world.

Rethinking Hospitality: Christ as host

There are several ways in which we might seek to overcome the difficulties of a theology of hospitality, and especially the host mentality of Western churches. The first could be by rethinking what is meant by hospitality and the definition of host and guest. If we return to the story of Abraham, we notice that he did not entertain his three visitors from a settled base. He was in his tent. So, the migrant may also be the host. Today, what we call “migrant churches” provide hospitality to other migrants. An example is the 7 million-strong Korean diaspora which, due to the turmoil of the last century on the Korean Peninsula, is spread across Eastern and Central Asia, the Pacific, the US and the other Americas, and Europe also. Sometimes whole Christian communities left Korea together to start a new life, planting model Christian villages in Manchuria in the 1920s, for example. Diaspora churches functioned as social centers welcoming new arrivals; they provided Korean education, news from home, and also links with the international community. Diaspora Korean communities continue to provide natural bases for Korean missionaries and their work.11 Yet research shows that this self-sufficiency of Korean communities presents a problem for settled congregations in the Church of England, to take one example. The legacy of colonialism and development is such that if migrants do not present an obvious need, many English clergy and churches do not know how to relate to them. They do not see people from the rest of the world as having anything to offer to Europeans. They can only approach strangers as the hosts.12

However, there is a strong tradition in Scripture that strangers bring life and blessing: Abraham, Joseph, David, and the Good Samaritan, to name but a few.13 In the case where Christians do not believe they have anything to receive from another (which may be the case for the Koreans as well as the English in the above example), rethinking hospitality to recognize Christ as the host implies an education in ecclesiology, ecumenism, and world Christianity. The initiative of “receptive ecumenism,” led by Paul Murray, calls the Catholic Church to adopt a learning posture toward other churches and ask what it may receive from the other traditions. Through “responsible hospitality and dynamic integrity,” Murray suggests, this reception will be transformative within each tradition.14 Such exchange of gifts between guests should extend also to the worldwide Christian community and even to people of other faiths and no faith.15 Gift-giving in mission is mindful that we give from what we have been given. God in Word and in the Spirit created this world and made us to live in it. The Eucharist is a reminder that creation is a sacrament, a gift, for which we give God thanks by the service of our lives. Transformed by the renewing of our minds, we discern “what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:1–2).16

If our vision of hospitality is a dinner party, then the roles of host and guest may appear incompatible.17 However, as Brandner shows, “hosting and visiting” form a dialectic, and this is “a central thread” of the Scriptures. For example, Jesus washed the feet of his apostles (John 13), but Mary of Bethany washed his feet (John 12:1–8).18 Furthermore, there is an “intermingling of guest and host roles in the person of Jesus” at Emmaus, or at the homes of Zacchaeus or Cornelius.19 It could be added that—like the 70 whom Jesus sent out—it is the common experience of missionaries, or church planters, to be both guests and strangers at the same time, in that they receive hospitality from those they go to invite.20 Furthermore, in the biblical image of the banquet, none of us is host. We are all guests; we are all invited (Luke 14:23). Brandner concludes, “A Christian understanding of hospitality keeps in mind that the host is also a guest, as there is properly speaking only one host, Jesus Christ, who calls us into his celebration and fellowship.”21 This conclusion is confirmed by the 2013 World Council of Churches’ statement on mission and evangelism, Together towards Life, which responded to the earlier difficulty around theology of hospitality thus: “God’s hospitality calls us to move beyond binary notions of culturally dominant groups as hosts and migrant and minority peoples as guests. Instead, in God’s hospitality, God is host and we are all invited by the Spirit to participate with humility and mutuality in God’s mission.”22

Church on the Move: Mission as Migration

The example of migrant churches above suggests that a second way to challenge a host mentality is to undermine the idea that churches are necessarily settled and that being a “migrant church” is an anomaly. The settled church is a perspective from Christendom. After the 16th-century Council of Trent, Europe became a patchwork of bounded parishes, each with their church building, often built in stone, immovable in the center. The phrase “church planting” also implies that a church is permanently in one place. However, this is far from the truth. From ancient times churches and whole Christian communities have been “on the move.”

The migration of the people of God is a prominent biblical motif. In fact, “one can justifiably speak of the Bible as collection of texts written by migrants to other migrants, often dealing with the issue of migration.”23 The Bible has exile at the beginning—from Eden—and at the end—on the island of Patmos (Gen 3:23; Rev 1:9).24 Migration is implied in God’s command to “be fruitful” and “fill the earth.” The book of Genesis, which sets out the human condition, is a book of migrations from Adam and Eve leaving the garden, Cain’s wandering, the aftermath of the Tower of Babel, Abraham’s call, Lot’s departure, and Jacob’s flight to the story of Joseph. The next book of the Bible records the migration we call the Exodus, and subsequently in the Old Testament we read of exile and return. Put together, the missiologist Andrew Walls finds examples of almost every known form of migration: “fugitives (Jacob), transported slaves (Joseph), famine victims (Joseph’s brothers), migrant workers, even one with an unresolved claim for residence (Ruth), refugees, traders, invaders, prisoners of war, deportees, and returnees.”25 These stories reflect contemporary migrant experience, too: Abraham, for example, found it difficult to trust the locals (Gen 11–15, 20).26 Joseph, as an unskilled migrant, was wrongly accused and falsely imprisoned. Daniel and friends in Babylon were well-educated migrants able to help build up a foreign country.27 The Hebrew Bible also offers comfort for migrants through the psalms and lamentations of a people in exile.28

The Bible challenges the host mentality by its mission theology of migration. Tim Naish points to biblical themes of migration which are found in the Old Testament and taken up in the mission theology of the New Testament. These include the theme of the wilderness as an unsettling site of displacement and also salvation, the debate in exile about whether or not to integrate in a foreign land (Jeremiah 29 vs. Psalm 137), and the demand for justice for the alienated and the marginalized.29 Most prominent is that Yahweh is a migrant God; God keeps moving his people and he also goes with them, as signified by the tent of meeting and the Ark of the Covenant. He resisted the building of the temple and made it clear that he could not be contained in a house of stone.30

Migration often leads to the establishment of diaspora, immigrant, or expatriate communities as people look to their compatriots for practical support, familiar language and cultures, and links with home.31 Daniel Carroll argues that using the lens of diaspora helps us to understand Old Testament faith;32 the same applies to the New Testament. From Pentecost, the existing Jewish diaspora communities provided networks for Christianity’s spread and the new churches provided hospitality for slaves (Philemon), sailors (Acts 27), traders (Lydia), itinerant workers (Paul, Priscilla and Aquila), and many others who traversed the empire spreading the gospel.33 In the book of Acts, we see how the church becomes a migrant community through scattering (Acts 8:1, 4; 11:19) as well as by commissioning.34 The Johannine community may have been displaced35 and the references in 1 Peter to the Christians being resident aliens are probably not only metaphorical (1:1; 2:11).36 The Apostle Paul follows his master as an itinerant missionary, and other early Christian writers also describe themselves as sojourners or migrants.37 The Christianity of the first seven centuries continued to be “restless” as it spread across the world in migration, pilgrimage, and mission.38 By the late second century, the differences between the various migrant Christian communities in Rome, such as over the date of Easter, made it necessary to appoint the first bishop of Rome to regularize practice among them.39 A growing body of research shows the extent to which, in the first millennium, churches traveled not only westward around the Mediterranean and northward into Europe but also eastward, spreading the faith right across Asia, as well as southward into Arabia and the Horn of Africa.40

Most of the Europeans who migrated around the world for half a millennium after 1492 were so-called “economic migrants.”41 Both the economic migrants and those who were sent as missionaries extended Christendom further across the globe. It is only since the Second World War that migration out of Europe has declined and patterns of movement have been reversed.42 Jehu Hanciles draws attention to another great historic diaspora: “the Black Atlantic,” created by the slave trade.43 This African diaspora was the basis for modern African transnational mission, which goes back to the late 18th century when African American missionaries were sent from the West Indies and later the US to West Africa. As African emigration continues to grow today, Hanciles claims that “every African migrant is a potential missionary.”44 (See his sidebar on p. 67.) Just as among Israel in exile, migration prompts missionary consciousness.45 Moreover, like the Apostle Paul, African pastors develop a “Macedonian” understanding that they have “come over to help.”46 Hanciles and others show how African churches are building strong congregations in the West with a vision for outreach that are also hubs of transmigration.47 Migration is what has created the diasporic community we call world Christianity.

Hanciles goes so far as to argue that in the biblical narrative, “settledness” breeds religious decay whereas the gospel context is one of “constant mobility.”48 It is sometimes claimed that migration is the foundation of Israel’s faith. As they look forward to the Promised Land, the people are to remember that “a wandering Aramean was my father” (Deut 26:5). However, in context, this recollection is one of hardship in Egypt, and it is contrasted with the blessing of the land that they are going to settle in. Theologically, migration is portrayed as punitive (as in the case of Adam) as well as redemptive (as in the case of Abraham),49 added to which there are strong themes of rest and land in the Scriptures.50 The kingdom of God is where “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid” (Mic 4:4). Although migration, diasporas, or globalization may be a source of blessing, this is often born out of suffering. Migration is often forced and involves abuse and exploitation. The role of migration in the contemporary spread of Christianity should not be celebrated without also raising questions of justice for the migrants themselves and for unsupported hosts. Catholic Social Teaching, for instance, has a balance between insisting on the right to migrate for economic, social, political, or religious reasons and on the responsibility of wealthy nations to receive migrants, while also imputing responsibilities to the migrants themselves and seeing borders as good in so far as they foster stability.51

Pilgrimage: Discipleship as Migration

Most mission activity can be thought of as a form of migration, although the boundaries to be crossed may not be geographical, but linguistic, cultural, or social. David Bosch once defined mission as “the church-crossing-frontiers-in-the-form-of-a-servant.”52 In this sense all churches are “aliens and exiles” (1 Pet 2:11) on the way to their heavenly home and living between what Andrew Walls called the “indigenizing principle,” which encourages us to put down roots, and the “pilgrim principle” that moves us on.53

Pilgrimage is a third way to challenge the host mentality. It was a feature of pre-Tridentine European Christianity that expressed the journeying nature of the Christian life.54 Developing the concept is one way to explore what Emma Wild-Wood suggests is “the continuum between movement and stasis, to travel and to settle, to be at home and to be a stranger” and to integrate these concepts through “a contextual spirituality of hospitality appropriate for missional migration.”55

Jesus is the chief migrant in the Bible. In the Gospel stories, he is known to the people around him with whom he grew up, yet he had a strange conception, he was born in the context of displacement to Bethlehem, he was a refugee in Egypt as an infant, and he demonstrated his otherness as a 12-year-old in the temple. He came from Galilee, a peripheral region; he wandered in the wilderness, and chose homelessness and a peripatetic ministry.56 In Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus withdraws, it is into Galilee of the Gentiles and its liminal spaces of migration.57 Jesus, “God’s migrant worker,” ends up with the poor, oppressed, and outcasts outside the city. The Jesus of the Gospels is constantly on the move to fulfill his mission.58 It compels him to journey from Galilee to Jerusalem and sometimes into surrounding Samaritan and Gentile regions. His disciples follow and are also sent out on missions. The homelessness of Jesus is in solidarity with the poor and oppressed and challenges the comfortable and settled.59 Jesus’ “life can be seen as an attack from the margins against centralized and static ways of seeing and being.”60 As he washed his disciples’ feet, Jesus Christ was conscious that he was journeying: “he had come from God and was going to God” (John 13:3). The church that continues in the incarnation by being the body of Christ cannot be any less conscious of its temporal and transient nature. To be a migrant is to be in imitatio Christi—imitating Christ.61

Christian faith is centered on the God who came and “moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, MSG), the Savior who is sent in love for the world (John 3:16), and the Spirit who blows at will (John 3:8). Theologically, going forth, or procession, is the essence of the triune God. As the pioneer Indian theologian Keshub Chunder Sen wrote, the Trinity is “the Still God, the Journeying God, and the Returning God,” the God who “descends and touches one end of the base of humanity, then running all along the base permeates the world, and then by the power of the Holy Ghost drags up regenerated humanity to himself.”62 In that it is trinitarian, all Christian theology is a theology of migration.

The fact that “God comes to us as a migrant—a stranger, a missionary” should shape our theological understanding of mission. It is seeking God’s way in the world, on the margins, engaging diversity, in the vulnerable position of being guests, and trusting God’s providence.63 In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus commissions the disciples to make disciples, so discipleship, following Jesus on the way, is the essence of the Christian life. In Mark’s Gospel, the disciples are to return to Galilee (16:7) to follow again in the footsteps of Jesus.64 In Luke-Acts the disciples become witnesses of Christ to the ends of the earth, and in John’s Gospel, the Son sends his disciples into the world as he was sent to participate, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the mission of God (John 20:21–22). Michael Gorman’s commentary on John is tellingly entitled Abide and Go. The title is taken from John 15 where the language shifts from the verb “abide” or “remain” to “bear fruit,” from spirituality to mission.65 Secure in the love of the sending, coming, and returning God, disciples are journeyers, sojourners, pilgrims, itinerants, strangers, foreigners, exiles . . .  migrants passing through this world.

A theology of migration as “pilgrims in the wilderness” cannot but be intercultural.66 In each of the Gospel commissions above, the expectation is that, now that Jesus’ death and resurrection have broken down the barriers between human beings, the disciples will gather a diverse community as they go. The Apostle Paul demonstrated what kind of communities this meant as he travelled across Eurasia gathering Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, male and female. Pentecost gives the vision, and the book of Revelation the hope, for churches that are multicultural and many-colored.67 As we travel through this world, we will meet others on the way. Like the wounded man by the Jericho Road, our neighbors are fellow travelers—actually or figuratively. Stephen Bevans reminds us that coming to the aid of the stranger is “touching the person of God” (Matt 25:31–46) and that therefore migrants are the body of Christ. They are in mission toward the settled church, calling it to recognize its migrant nature.68 As we love our migrant God, we are called to love our neighbors and ourselves as migrants—whatever the reason and whatever the way we are on the move. When we show hospitality to our fellow travelers, as the disciples did on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:28–35), Jesus is the one who breaks the bread. He is both the guest and the host; it is his home, and ours, for that night.

Written By

Kirsteen Kim is the Paul E. Pierson Chair in World Christianity and associate dean for the Center for Missiological Research. She joined Fuller’s faculty in 2017, coming from her native UK, where she had been full professor at Leeds Trinity University since 2011. She began her career as a theological educator in South Korea, where she taught English Bible study and cross-cultural skills. Between 1993 and 1997 she lectured in missiology at Union Biblical Seminary in Pune, India, as a missionary of the Presbyterian Church of Korea. She is the editor of the journal Mission Studies and of the book series Theology and Mission in World Christianity, both published by Brill (Leiden). Her research interests and networks include theology of mission, pneumatology, world Christianity, Korean studies, and development studies.

In Matthew’s description of the last judgment (Matt 25:35), Kosuke Koyama noted, Jesus himself was the hungry, thirsty, naked stranger—and he also suffered for loving strangers (Rom 5:6–8). Koyama was one of the first to suggest that, since Christians do as Christ did, mission could be defined as “extending hospitality to strangers.” In fact, the Greek word for hospitality—philoxenia—literally means “loving the stranger.”1 Unfortunately, all too often the reaction to the stranger is better described by another Greek word: xenophobia. Perhaps this is why the theme of welcoming the migrant—or hospitality— has been the most common mission theological approach to migration. In this article, I shall explore the mission theology of hospitality. However, ultimately, I find that it is inadequate to meet the context of world Christianity and the testimony of Scripture. Hospitality needs to be rethought and it needs to be complemented by a theology of migration.

Mission Theology of Hospitality

The most sustained theological treatment of Christian hospitality to date is Christine Pohl’s 1999 work, Making Room.2 Pohl points out that hospitality and table fellowship are a moral imperative in many traditional societies—as shown, for example, in the account of Abraham’s welcome of the three travelers at Mamre (Gen 18:1–8), which turned out to be welcoming angels unawares (cf. Heb 13:2). To this story, she juxtaposes the unfortunate experience of Lot (Gen 19), who was unable to fulfill his obligation to strangers in a lawless and degraded community. Israel’s laws to protect sojourners or aliens (gērīm) who joined themselves to the community were founded in Israel’s memory of being aliens themselves in Egypt (Exod 22:21; Lev 19:33–34; Deut 10:19; 26:5, 12), and were an expression of the covenant relationship of Abraham’s descendants with God who brought them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.3

Jesus challenged the people of Nazareth to an inclusive understanding of the good news by noting how non-Israelites, such as the widow of Zarephath and the Shunammite woman, showed hospitality to prophets (Luke 4:25–27). This unconditional hospitality to the poorest and neediest was a distinctive Christian virtue that contrasted with the reciprocity demanded in Hellenistic society. Christian hospitality, centered on the home, was a means of transcending differences in the early church, as well as one of the marks of a Christian leader (cf. Titus 1:8; Rom 16:23; 1 Tim 3:2; 5:9); it met the needs of traveling missionaries, exiles, the poor, and the sick; it fostered family-like ties and reinforced a new identity because it was closely linked with worship, which also took place in the home.4 For Pohl, hospitality is conferring dignity and recognition (cf. Luke 10:30–36) and the host may empower those at the margins. Hospitality changes stranger into guest, and even— in the supper at Emmaus—into host (Luke 24:28–35).

The practice of hospitality was an important factor in the spread of Christianity across the Roman Empire and into Europe. Pohl traces Christian hospitality through the centuries in the form of hostels for travelers, hospitals for the sick, monastic hospices, and guest houses for pilgrims. However, from the Middle Ages onward, hospitality became mainly a domestic or a municipal responsibility in Europe and many traditions of Christian hospitality were lost during modernity, with its secularizing processes and reduction of families and homes. Pohl urges the recovery of an understanding of churches as centers of hospitality—the “making room” of the book’s title. In so doing, she evokes an image of the church as home. She identifies two key New Testament texts to support the view of the church as home: Luke 14:12–14—the banquet for the poor—and Matthew 25:31–46—the welcoming of the stranger by the sheep of the last judgment. As Pohl points out, the Eucharist, which anticipates the heavenly banquet to come, is the central symbol of hospitality and Christian table fellowship in the church as home.

“Mission as hospitality” has been developed in the context of a settled Christian majority in the global North and West receiving migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. It has helped to justify, biblically and theologically, a mission of welcome to diverse communities that is in many respects costly and countercultural. However, the description of the church as home also points to a weakness of the hospitality approach. These predominantly White churches see themselves as already established and as hosting others—mostly people of color—who are migrants. If mission to migrants is construed in the West only in terms of hospitality, it may perpetuate paternalism and other colonial attitudes. Hospitality may be reduced to merely meeting needs rather than “helping strangers to flourish.”5 The tendency to paternalism and benevolence may even be inherent in the concept of hospitality. As Tobias Brandner explains, the host has “power to . . . exert control over the people hosted.” In his view, “this means that hospitality is always linked to power, ownership, creation of boundaries, and exclusion. In fact, hospitality constructs an otherness that is in turn received as a guest.”6 Even when hospitality is offered by a minority group, as it was in the early church and many other biblical examples, it is easily misunderstood as a claim to power over others. At the World Council of Churches assembly at Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2006, a document was considered on “Religious Plurality and Christian Self-Understanding” that had been developed as a “call for hospitality.”7 Although it was stressed that the hospitality between faiths should be mutual, it seemed to imply that in any situation one religion is host and the other is guest. But this is an extremely sensitive matter, for example in the Middle East, and the document could not be accepted.

Those who offer hospitality may feel benevolent toward migrants, as if they are doing them a favor. Yet Susanna Snyder points out that Western nations, and especially the Christians within them, might be expected to feel some obligation to host migrants from countries they have colonized, controlled, or otherwise intervened in.8 However, this is often not the case. Anthony Reddie gives the example of the essential workers recruited after World War II from the Caribbean by the British government. Most of them were communicant members of the Church of England, yet they were often shunned by English congregations whose “faith adherence was relegated behind subliminal Whiteness.”9 Not only are they unwelcoming to those who make it to their shores, Western nations are hosting relatively few of the neediest migrants globally. Migration is also taking place on a huge scale within continents and regions. Refugees, for example, are disproportionately hosted by poorer countries in West Asia (Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran) and in Africa—the East, Central, and the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad).10 See the sidebar on p. 47 for facts and figures about refugees and host countries around the world.

Rethinking Hospitality: Christ as host

There are several ways in which we might seek to overcome the difficulties of a theology of hospitality, and especially the host mentality of Western churches. The first could be by rethinking what is meant by hospitality and the definition of host and guest. If we return to the story of Abraham, we notice that he did not entertain his three visitors from a settled base. He was in his tent. So, the migrant may also be the host. Today, what we call “migrant churches” provide hospitality to other migrants. An example is the 7 million-strong Korean diaspora which, due to the turmoil of the last century on the Korean Peninsula, is spread across Eastern and Central Asia, the Pacific, the US and the other Americas, and Europe also. Sometimes whole Christian communities left Korea together to start a new life, planting model Christian villages in Manchuria in the 1920s, for example. Diaspora churches functioned as social centers welcoming new arrivals; they provided Korean education, news from home, and also links with the international community. Diaspora Korean communities continue to provide natural bases for Korean missionaries and their work.11 Yet research shows that this self-sufficiency of Korean communities presents a problem for settled congregations in the Church of England, to take one example. The legacy of colonialism and development is such that if migrants do not present an obvious need, many English clergy and churches do not know how to relate to them. They do not see people from the rest of the world as having anything to offer to Europeans. They can only approach strangers as the hosts.12

However, there is a strong tradition in Scripture that strangers bring life and blessing: Abraham, Joseph, David, and the Good Samaritan, to name but a few.13 In the case where Christians do not believe they have anything to receive from another (which may be the case for the Koreans as well as the English in the above example), rethinking hospitality to recognize Christ as the host implies an education in ecclesiology, ecumenism, and world Christianity. The initiative of “receptive ecumenism,” led by Paul Murray, calls the Catholic Church to adopt a learning posture toward other churches and ask what it may receive from the other traditions. Through “responsible hospitality and dynamic integrity,” Murray suggests, this reception will be transformative within each tradition.14 Such exchange of gifts between guests should extend also to the worldwide Christian community and even to people of other faiths and no faith.15 Gift-giving in mission is mindful that we give from what we have been given. God in Word and in the Spirit created this world and made us to live in it. The Eucharist is a reminder that creation is a sacrament, a gift, for which we give God thanks by the service of our lives. Transformed by the renewing of our minds, we discern “what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:1–2).16

If our vision of hospitality is a dinner party, then the roles of host and guest may appear incompatible.17 However, as Brandner shows, “hosting and visiting” form a dialectic, and this is “a central thread” of the Scriptures. For example, Jesus washed the feet of his apostles (John 13), but Mary of Bethany washed his feet (John 12:1–8).18 Furthermore, there is an “intermingling of guest and host roles in the person of Jesus” at Emmaus, or at the homes of Zacchaeus or Cornelius.19 It could be added that—like the 70 whom Jesus sent out—it is the common experience of missionaries, or church planters, to be both guests and strangers at the same time, in that they receive hospitality from those they go to invite.20 Furthermore, in the biblical image of the banquet, none of us is host. We are all guests; we are all invited (Luke 14:23). Brandner concludes, “A Christian understanding of hospitality keeps in mind that the host is also a guest, as there is properly speaking only one host, Jesus Christ, who calls us into his celebration and fellowship.”21 This conclusion is confirmed by the 2013 World Council of Churches’ statement on mission and evangelism, Together towards Life, which responded to the earlier difficulty around theology of hospitality thus: “God’s hospitality calls us to move beyond binary notions of culturally dominant groups as hosts and migrant and minority peoples as guests. Instead, in God’s hospitality, God is host and we are all invited by the Spirit to participate with humility and mutuality in God’s mission.”22

Church on the Move: Mission as Migration

The example of migrant churches above suggests that a second way to challenge a host mentality is to undermine the idea that churches are necessarily settled and that being a “migrant church” is an anomaly. The settled church is a perspective from Christendom. After the 16th-century Council of Trent, Europe became a patchwork of bounded parishes, each with their church building, often built in stone, immovable in the center. The phrase “church planting” also implies that a church is permanently in one place. However, this is far from the truth. From ancient times churches and whole Christian communities have been “on the move.”

The migration of the people of God is a prominent biblical motif. In fact, “one can justifiably speak of the Bible as collection of texts written by migrants to other migrants, often dealing with the issue of migration.”23 The Bible has exile at the beginning—from Eden—and at the end—on the island of Patmos (Gen 3:23; Rev 1:9).24 Migration is implied in God’s command to “be fruitful” and “fill the earth.” The book of Genesis, which sets out the human condition, is a book of migrations from Adam and Eve leaving the garden, Cain’s wandering, the aftermath of the Tower of Babel, Abraham’s call, Lot’s departure, and Jacob’s flight to the story of Joseph. The next book of the Bible records the migration we call the Exodus, and subsequently in the Old Testament we read of exile and return. Put together, the missiologist Andrew Walls finds examples of almost every known form of migration: “fugitives (Jacob), transported slaves (Joseph), famine victims (Joseph’s brothers), migrant workers, even one with an unresolved claim for residence (Ruth), refugees, traders, invaders, prisoners of war, deportees, and returnees.”25 These stories reflect contemporary migrant experience, too: Abraham, for example, found it difficult to trust the locals (Gen 11–15, 20).26 Joseph, as an unskilled migrant, was wrongly accused and falsely imprisoned. Daniel and friends in Babylon were well-educated migrants able to help build up a foreign country.27 The Hebrew Bible also offers comfort for migrants through the psalms and lamentations of a people in exile.28

The Bible challenges the host mentality by its mission theology of migration. Tim Naish points to biblical themes of migration which are found in the Old Testament and taken up in the mission theology of the New Testament. These include the theme of the wilderness as an unsettling site of displacement and also salvation, the debate in exile about whether or not to integrate in a foreign land (Jeremiah 29 vs. Psalm 137), and the demand for justice for the alienated and the marginalized.29 Most prominent is that Yahweh is a migrant God; God keeps moving his people and he also goes with them, as signified by the tent of meeting and the Ark of the Covenant. He resisted the building of the temple and made it clear that he could not be contained in a house of stone.30

Migration often leads to the establishment of diaspora, immigrant, or expatriate communities as people look to their compatriots for practical support, familiar language and cultures, and links with home.31 Daniel Carroll argues that using the lens of diaspora helps us to understand Old Testament faith;32 the same applies to the New Testament. From Pentecost, the existing Jewish diaspora communities provided networks for Christianity’s spread and the new churches provided hospitality for slaves (Philemon), sailors (Acts 27), traders (Lydia), itinerant workers (Paul, Priscilla and Aquila), and many others who traversed the empire spreading the gospel.33 In the book of Acts, we see how the church becomes a migrant community through scattering (Acts 8:1, 4; 11:19) as well as by commissioning.34 The Johannine community may have been displaced35 and the references in 1 Peter to the Christians being resident aliens are probably not only metaphorical (1:1; 2:11).36 The Apostle Paul follows his master as an itinerant missionary, and other early Christian writers also describe themselves as sojourners or migrants.37 The Christianity of the first seven centuries continued to be “restless” as it spread across the world in migration, pilgrimage, and mission.38 By the late second century, the differences between the various migrant Christian communities in Rome, such as over the date of Easter, made it necessary to appoint the first bishop of Rome to regularize practice among them.39 A growing body of research shows the extent to which, in the first millennium, churches traveled not only westward around the Mediterranean and northward into Europe but also eastward, spreading the faith right across Asia, as well as southward into Arabia and the Horn of Africa.40

Most of the Europeans who migrated around the world for half a millennium after 1492 were so-called “economic migrants.”41 Both the economic migrants and those who were sent as missionaries extended Christendom further across the globe. It is only since the Second World War that migration out of Europe has declined and patterns of movement have been reversed.42 Jehu Hanciles draws attention to another great historic diaspora: “the Black Atlantic,” created by the slave trade.43 This African diaspora was the basis for modern African transnational mission, which goes back to the late 18th century when African American missionaries were sent from the West Indies and later the US to West Africa. As African emigration continues to grow today, Hanciles claims that “every African migrant is a potential missionary.”44 (See his sidebar on p. 67.) Just as among Israel in exile, migration prompts missionary consciousness.45 Moreover, like the Apostle Paul, African pastors develop a “Macedonian” understanding that they have “come over to help.”46 Hanciles and others show how African churches are building strong congregations in the West with a vision for outreach that are also hubs of transmigration.47 Migration is what has created the diasporic community we call world Christianity.

Hanciles goes so far as to argue that in the biblical narrative, “settledness” breeds religious decay whereas the gospel context is one of “constant mobility.”48 It is sometimes claimed that migration is the foundation of Israel’s faith. As they look forward to the Promised Land, the people are to remember that “a wandering Aramean was my father” (Deut 26:5). However, in context, this recollection is one of hardship in Egypt, and it is contrasted with the blessing of the land that they are going to settle in. Theologically, migration is portrayed as punitive (as in the case of Adam) as well as redemptive (as in the case of Abraham),49 added to which there are strong themes of rest and land in the Scriptures.50 The kingdom of God is where “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid” (Mic 4:4). Although migration, diasporas, or globalization may be a source of blessing, this is often born out of suffering. Migration is often forced and involves abuse and exploitation. The role of migration in the contemporary spread of Christianity should not be celebrated without also raising questions of justice for the migrants themselves and for unsupported hosts. Catholic Social Teaching, for instance, has a balance between insisting on the right to migrate for economic, social, political, or religious reasons and on the responsibility of wealthy nations to receive migrants, while also imputing responsibilities to the migrants themselves and seeing borders as good in so far as they foster stability.51

Pilgrimage: Discipleship as Migration

Most mission activity can be thought of as a form of migration, although the boundaries to be crossed may not be geographical, but linguistic, cultural, or social. David Bosch once defined mission as “the church-crossing-frontiers-in-the-form-of-a-servant.”52 In this sense all churches are “aliens and exiles” (1 Pet 2:11) on the way to their heavenly home and living between what Andrew Walls called the “indigenizing principle,” which encourages us to put down roots, and the “pilgrim principle” that moves us on.53

Pilgrimage is a third way to challenge the host mentality. It was a feature of pre-Tridentine European Christianity that expressed the journeying nature of the Christian life.54 Developing the concept is one way to explore what Emma Wild-Wood suggests is “the continuum between movement and stasis, to travel and to settle, to be at home and to be a stranger” and to integrate these concepts through “a contextual spirituality of hospitality appropriate for missional migration.”55

Jesus is the chief migrant in the Bible. In the Gospel stories, he is known to the people around him with whom he grew up, yet he had a strange conception, he was born in the context of displacement to Bethlehem, he was a refugee in Egypt as an infant, and he demonstrated his otherness as a 12-year-old in the temple. He came from Galilee, a peripheral region; he wandered in the wilderness, and chose homelessness and a peripatetic ministry.56 In Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus withdraws, it is into Galilee of the Gentiles and its liminal spaces of migration.57 Jesus, “God’s migrant worker,” ends up with the poor, oppressed, and outcasts outside the city. The Jesus of the Gospels is constantly on the move to fulfill his mission.58 It compels him to journey from Galilee to Jerusalem and sometimes into surrounding Samaritan and Gentile regions. His disciples follow and are also sent out on missions. The homelessness of Jesus is in solidarity with the poor and oppressed and challenges the comfortable and settled.59 Jesus’ “life can be seen as an attack from the margins against centralized and static ways of seeing and being.”60 As he washed his disciples’ feet, Jesus Christ was conscious that he was journeying: “he had come from God and was going to God” (John 13:3). The church that continues in the incarnation by being the body of Christ cannot be any less conscious of its temporal and transient nature. To be a migrant is to be in imitatio Christi—imitating Christ.61

Christian faith is centered on the God who came and “moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, MSG), the Savior who is sent in love for the world (John 3:16), and the Spirit who blows at will (John 3:8). Theologically, going forth, or procession, is the essence of the triune God. As the pioneer Indian theologian Keshub Chunder Sen wrote, the Trinity is “the Still God, the Journeying God, and the Returning God,” the God who “descends and touches one end of the base of humanity, then running all along the base permeates the world, and then by the power of the Holy Ghost drags up regenerated humanity to himself.”62 In that it is trinitarian, all Christian theology is a theology of migration.

The fact that “God comes to us as a migrant—a stranger, a missionary” should shape our theological understanding of mission. It is seeking God’s way in the world, on the margins, engaging diversity, in the vulnerable position of being guests, and trusting God’s providence.63 In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus commissions the disciples to make disciples, so discipleship, following Jesus on the way, is the essence of the Christian life. In Mark’s Gospel, the disciples are to return to Galilee (16:7) to follow again in the footsteps of Jesus.64 In Luke-Acts the disciples become witnesses of Christ to the ends of the earth, and in John’s Gospel, the Son sends his disciples into the world as he was sent to participate, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the mission of God (John 20:21–22). Michael Gorman’s commentary on John is tellingly entitled Abide and Go. The title is taken from John 15 where the language shifts from the verb “abide” or “remain” to “bear fruit,” from spirituality to mission.65 Secure in the love of the sending, coming, and returning God, disciples are journeyers, sojourners, pilgrims, itinerants, strangers, foreigners, exiles . . .  migrants passing through this world.

A theology of migration as “pilgrims in the wilderness” cannot but be intercultural.66 In each of the Gospel commissions above, the expectation is that, now that Jesus’ death and resurrection have broken down the barriers between human beings, the disciples will gather a diverse community as they go. The Apostle Paul demonstrated what kind of communities this meant as he travelled across Eurasia gathering Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, male and female. Pentecost gives the vision, and the book of Revelation the hope, for churches that are multicultural and many-colored.67 As we travel through this world, we will meet others on the way. Like the wounded man by the Jericho Road, our neighbors are fellow travelers—actually or figuratively. Stephen Bevans reminds us that coming to the aid of the stranger is “touching the person of God” (Matt 25:31–46) and that therefore migrants are the body of Christ. They are in mission toward the settled church, calling it to recognize its migrant nature.68 As we love our migrant God, we are called to love our neighbors and ourselves as migrants—whatever the reason and whatever the way we are on the move. When we show hospitality to our fellow travelers, as the disciples did on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:28–35), Jesus is the one who breaks the bread. He is both the guest and the host; it is his home, and ours, for that night.

Kirsteen Kim

Kirsteen Kim is the Paul E. Pierson Chair in World Christianity and associate dean for the Center for Missiological Research. She joined Fuller’s faculty in 2017, coming from her native UK, where she had been full professor at Leeds Trinity University since 2011. She began her career as a theological educator in South Korea, where she taught English Bible study and cross-cultural skills. Between 1993 and 1997 she lectured in missiology at Union Biblical Seminary in Pune, India, as a missionary of the Presbyterian Church of Korea. She is the editor of the journal Mission Studies and of the book series Theology and Mission in World Christianity, both published by Brill (Leiden). Her research interests and networks include theology of mission, pneumatology, world Christianity, Korean studies, and development studies.

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