Search
Close this search box.
Fuller Article 169 (1)

God on the Move

Fuller Magazine | Originally published November 27, 2023

Sam George is the director of the Global Diaspora Institute at Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center and is the global catalyst for diasporas for the Lausanne Movement. He teaches and writes about global migration, diaspora missions, and world Christianity and is the editor of Fortress Press’s three-volume Asian Diaspora Christianity series.

Jerome Blanco: Earlier this year, you were a featured speaker at Fuller’s Asian American Center’s annual Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Celebration. Listening to your talk, I was struck by what you called an “omnidirectional, hyperconnected, hypermobile model” of missions. I’m keen to hear you share more about this. But before we jump in, would you share a bit about the work you do, to frame our conversation for our readers?

Sam George: I currently direct the Global Diaspora Institute at Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center. We’re involved in researching, writing, publishing, and consulting with and coaching leaders in the North American church to help them connect with the global church and understand how migration is reshaping Christianity worldwide. I teach both here in the US and in a few countries in Asia, Africa, and South America. So, I say I teach “global Christianity globally.” My varied engagements line up with my role within the Lausanne Movement, where I serve as the global catalyst for diasporas. Studying migration and diaspora, understanding how those things are changing the trajectory of Christianity in the 21st century—that’s what I do. I’m constantly traveling, teaching, and writing to understand God’s work in the world and how we can be part of it.

JB: What is a key idea we should be thinking about when it comes to how migration and diaspora ought to shape or reshape our understanding of mission? Let me also briefly acknowledge that while FULLER has a global readership, our readers are primarily in the West, and especially in the US. So, perhaps, what I am asking about is a key idea that reorients a Western understanding of mission.

SG: In Lausanne circles, we call migrants and diaspora peoples “people on the move.” People on the move see God on the move. The idea of God on the move, we call Motus Dei. Unfortunately, we can have a very static imagination of God. Our conception of the doctrine of God and understanding of Christian theology have too often become, what I call, idols. We tend to idolize God; idols are static and immobile, and they make their devotees lifeless and immobile as they are. The prophet Jeremiah made a mockery of the idols of his times, saying, “They have legs, but they cannot walk” (10:5). Idolatrous societies are insular, and their sentiments are parochial, imprisoned to a locale. To have a dynamic understanding of a God who is living, who is active, and who is at work in the world . . . for that we need a theology that conceives of God in motion.

We tend to imprison God, especially in Euro-American Christianity. But it happened also when Solomon built the temple—this beautiful structure, the center of the universe. “Everybody from everywhere, come and make a pilgrimage here! Come to the temple!” And God was trapped in the Holy of Holies; you could only meet God there. God allowed his holy temple to be destroyed. But earlier, in Exodus, we see the tabernacle, God living among the people in a pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire. And where the cloud goes, you’re supposed to pull up your tents and start moving. So, mission is often about syncing our wandering steps with the God who’s on the move.

Because at the very heart of our faith is a God who is living and moving. In Jesus, God moved into my neighborhood and pitched his tent and lived among us—I call this divine displacement. And he’s still moving: Jesus Christ rose again. He conquered death. He isn’t in a tomb, lying somewhere that we need to venerate or do a pilgrimage to, like in other religions. He’s a living God—on the move. The Holy Spirit is moving over the land, over the waters, over cities and villages, across the street, and around the world. Christian doctrines need to be conceived afresh in motile and relational terms. Since migration is a theologizing experience, migrants are reimagining soteriology, ecclesiology, and missiology for this age of migration. And, eschatology is our final move to be with God forever.

JB: What does this idea of Motus Dei look like on the ground? How does a theology of movement play out in migrant or diaspora communities? Of course, I imagine this looks different for different peoples and contexts.

SG: The Christian faith is diasporic at its core. Displacement is part of the biblical story all through the Old Testament and the New Testament—which are either written by migrants or about migrants. This is what we call “diaspora hermeneutics.” Migration is the story of Christianity. Displacement is at the heart of it. Jesus was wandering about his entire ministerial life—“I have no place to lay down my head” (8:20). To his disciples, he said, “Come follow me.” That means he was going somewhere. That’s how he called his disciples. We become mobile people, because mission has motion at the heart of it. That’s a sign of life.

In North America, most of us are either immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Different waves of migrants from different parts of the world have formed and reshaped North American Christianity throughout its history. They interact with each other over decades and generations to renew and transform Christianity continually while also reengaging with the rest of the world with new vigor and connections. The United States is an immigrant nation, and American Christianity is diasporic at its core.

I see it as this big river. If you go along a river, every now and then, you see a stream coming in and joining, and every stream uniquely enriches the river and strengthens the flow. Great vigor and great energy happen when the streams join the river. But when fewer streams join the river, the river becomes shallow and eventually lifeless. Likewise, immigration enriches the American church. Two-thirds of immigrants to the United States are Christians, and they bring their distinctive culturalized Christianity, which catalyzes American Christianity. Because of immigration, the American church is more globally relevant and globally needed. We need to see how God is globalizing the American church with Christians from other parts of the world and how immigration reshapes American Christianity’s involvement around the world.

JB: How would you describe the state of the river today? With increased migration and displacement globally—streams feeding into the river—how is missiology being transformed?

SG: There has been a spectacular growth of the church in Africa, Latin America, and Asia in the last 50 years or so. In the language of Andrew Walls, there is a shift in the center of gravity of Christianity. Recently, I told the New York Times, “Christianity is looking more Black, brown, and yellow. It is not white as it used to be.” At the turn of the 20th century, nearly 80 percent of Christians lived in Europe and North America. Now, almost 70 percent of Christians are living in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Countries in Africa are sending out missionaries all over the world. Korea, the Philippines, India, China, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Peru are sending missionaries. Missional engagement is not exclusive to the West. And even if they don’t use the language of mission like the West, they expand Christianity to other people. Jesus said, “Go to the ends of the earth,” and for many, the “ends of the earth” means the US. This shift is fundamentally about who represents Christianity and who does the mission work. A Nigerian can be a missionary in America because Americans also need to be saved.

We are reimagining our idea of “go” and “send” with a sense of mutuality. Go and come, send and receive, depart and arrive. When most Christians lived in Europe and America, all the missionary action came “from West to the rest.” Today, it’s a different era altogether. Now, mission happens from everywhere to everywhere. Mission has multiple centers and multiple directions—what we call polycentric and omnidirectional mission.

We are also entering into an age of hypermobility. More people are on the move than ever in history. Mobility enables connectivity, and connectivity allows for spiritual influences and spiritual connections across geographies, cultures, and time zones. In the 21st century, more people will move to more places, more frequently in their lifetimes, than ever before. Society, economics, world politics, development, oppression, wars, climate change, and ecological disasters—all of that will lead to more people on the move. We’ve seen the war in Ukraine pushing out millions of people. There are refugee camps in Greece and Syria. A record number of people are displaced today—110 million worldwide—and their displacement is shaping the future of Christianity.

All of this doesn’t mean the American church’s role is reduced, but it is not going to be what it was in the 20th century. Then, we saw ourselves as a solo singer. Now, we are going to sing in a choir. We drove the mission “agenda” around the world, through agencies, funding, programs. Now, our fellow choir members are from Africa, Asia, South America. They all have different musical traditions and approaches to singing. What does it mean for all of us to be under God, the conductor? The Motus Dei conductor who keeps us all together? We have to come under the leadership of the Lord, who calls us to follow him, and create together this global sense of Christian community. Because in the process, God is preparing us for heaven—among a great multitude that nobody can number, from every tribe, language, nation, and people of the world.

JB: The image of a choir is a beautiful one, though I fear we’re often not very good at singing together. The church seems to need a lot of practice. How do you think we can arrive at singing together well?

SG: Doing life together with different people on a regular basis. Rubbing shoulders. Getting to understand each other. Because people are all different. We all operate on the subconscious level. We do things and say things because of who we are, how we’re brought up, and which culture shaped us. There’s no shortcut to relationship. We have to increase our intercultural competence, increase our understanding and empathy for each other. We can’t project ourselves as perfect—with our power, titles, degrees, money, where we live—and we need to not see each other as perfect people. These kinds of things create more division. We need a kingdom mindset, and we need the Spirit to unite us. We need a great sense of grace and freedom to fail and let others fail. A sense of compassion, empathy, and, above all, love for other people. It doesn’t come easy.

At the local church, in your home, in your neighborhood, in your classroom, cultivate that sense of global thinking and the ability to connect with people. A heart for the world and the sense that you belong to a global culture must be nurtured. Help people to interact with each other, hear one another’s stories, eat with them, invite them to each other’s homes, and expand your heart. To have a heart like Jesus that will connect with anybody and everybody at any time—that is part of discipleship. As a local pastor, my heart is that all of my people’s hearts be transformed into the likeness of Jesus.

On a wider societal level, race, politics, and economics divide us. We have to break out of those divisions and be united under the leadership of Christ. That sense of spirit has to be nurtured and cultivated, and you have to be intentional about it. Otherwise, we go into our respective silos, and “everybody else is wrong.” That’s not kingdom thinking.

JB: Is there a final word of encouragement you have for the church at this time?

SG: I think we are at a very crucial juncture in the history of Christianity, particularly here in the United States. In the second half of the 20th century, the American church and academia and scholars and practitioners and church leaders significantly contributed to the global church. Now, with the rise of the global church and growth in many different parts of the world, it is time to reconceive the American church’s role. We are not at the head of the table, calling all the shots. We have to learn to serve alongside others and work together with people who are unlike ourselves. Together, we can accelerate mission work globally.

Seeing God as a God on the move will help us reconceive Christian missions in the 21st century—with a global framework and a postcolonial mindset. It’s exciting. But we have to change quickly. And change is not going to be easy for everyone. I believe Fuller has a very unique role to play in helping people reimagine Christian mission and theology in the age of motion. I am excited. I am hopeful. I am seeing God at work.

Sam

Sam George is the director of the Global Diaspora Institute at Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center and is the global catalyst for diasporas for the Lausanne Movement

Jerome Blanco

Jerome Blanco (MDiv ’16) is editor in chief of FULLER magazine and FULLER studio.

Originally published by Fuller Magazine

November 27, 2023