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1. Biblical and theological reassurance

The Bible encourages us to set off on voyages of discovery – it tells us about people on the move: from Adam and Eve to Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Esther and Ruth. From the Israel’s exodus from Egypt to Babylonian captivity, or from the mobility of Jesus to the journeys of Paul…

1.1 The Bible as a witness to migration and wandering

Worldwide there are over 68.5 million refugees today. The Bible reads like a book of migration stories. People wandered from place to place, from country to country. There are stories of people who set out to live somewhere else. Biblical narratives and memories can also encourage new departures today…

When – in the midst of the diverse migration realities of the present – we look into the Bible, we encounter familiar stories – and are challenged to read them with new eyes. Precisely for the established churches in Europe, this gives an opportunity to rediscover the fact that – from the first to the last page – the Bible is a book about migration experiences, memories and hopes.

The Bible is a book about itinerant and mobile people. On the one hand, it shows how tough this is. But, on the other, it is a book about dignity, gifts, strength of faith and the blessing of migrants. Herein lies a double reminder – for the present time and for the question about the church’s life and work in a migration society.

While migrants at present are often only perceived in the context of shortcomings and problems, the Bible stories in the center of the Judeo-Christian faith tradition tell of their coping and flourishing. Without concealing the hardship and misery of migrants, the biblical texts speak of persons who do not just suffer their migration as fate but shape and change it, rendering it fruitful, knowing that they are led, sustained and gifted by God in so doing.

The faith stories in the Bible are mostly also stories of movement, wandering and foreignness. That memory changes the one-sided view of refugees and migrants as being lacking in something. Moreover, it leads to questions about our well established and deeply rooted mainline churches. To what extent are we flexible and ready to accept new beginnings, processes and people?

Density of experience

The wealth of biblical migration texts reflect, firstly, the fact that people have always been on the move. Secondly, they show that the biblical landscapes were always the scene of struggles, wars and conflicts of interest among the ancient imperial powers. From the warring campaigns of the Egyptians through the empires of Mesopotamia to the conquests of Alexander the Great and the Romans, the people and small states were exposed for centuries to almost uninterrupted foreign rule, siege, conquest and occupation, with often thousands of deaths. Above all, however expulsion, deportation and forced labor belonged to the reality of ancient empires. Particularly influential for the faith and texts of the Hebrew Bible was the experience of the great exiles in the 8th and on the threshold of the 6th century BC. Hundreds of thousands of inhabitants of Israel and Judah were deported or forcibly resettled in Assyria and Babylon. Besides the actual hardship, there was the spiritual and religious challenge in the foreign land to keep their own beliefs alive and sustainable, so literally to rethink everything about ‘God and the world’.

Migrant figures like Jacob, the refugee, Joseph, the slave, or Esther, the migrant, at the court of the Persian king, intensify this reality for whole generations and the memory of migration of a whole people. Yet they do not just report facts, they compact them into experience, hope and the certainty that God’s own strangeness can be experienced in precisely such stories and realities of foreignness. In them, people are enabled to live and have faith. Moreover, God is shown to be one who goes with them.

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4 Replies to “1.1 The Bible as a witness to migration and wandering”

  1. EKvW

    Translated from German

    Comparing migration of our days with stories of the Bible appears a little bit naïve to me. “Stories tell of coping and flourishing of migration…the biblical texts speak of persons who do not just suffer their migration as fate but shape and change it, rendering it fruitful, knowing that they are led, sustained and gifted by God in so doing”. How should someone who sticks in a camp in Libya or lives in the streets somewhere in Italy render this migration fruitful?
    That is already difficult enough here in Germany when the resident status doesn’t permit any continuing education and or job. What we consider as faith base may seem as mockery to uprooted people.

    Author: Beate Ullrich

  2. EKvW

    Translated from German

    That is typical of our too intellectual church. The heading of the chapter:” Biblical and theological reassurance” is a linguistic monstrosity, that can hardly be understood by non-theologians. Why could the heading not be “Examples from the Bible”?
    Also the term: “The Bible, a book of wandering” is misleading. The Old Testament does not speak about wandering but about land grabbing (i.a. stories of forefathers) about land defense (i.a. stories of kings), about expulsion (i.a. Babylonian captivity).
    Of course it is about God’s people and the aspect of protection by the God of Israel – but it is really impossible to call this wandering (wandering is the miller’s delight).
    It is urgently necessary to think about the words that are used in ecclesiastical texts. That is especially important concerning the subject of migration and flight – as it is about personal fate of people.

    Author: Hansjörg Mandler

  3. Batara Sihombing

    It is really sad to know that there are more 60 millions people moving around or migrating to other parts of the world due to various reasons. It is a reality faced by Churches everywhere, in Asia or Europe, for example. I can share the experiences of many women in Indonesia who have to go to overseas as domestic workers. There are more than 7 millions Indonesian migrant workers in overseas. They have to abandon their children, husbands, and parents for sake of their income. As a matter of fact, many of them face brutal experiences such as no salary, torture, rape, human trafficking, and even death. Here I would like to highlight the need of the Churches in Singapore, Malaysia, Korea, Taiwan, Hongkong, and Middle East, to encourage their respective members to practice hospitality to strangers, the migrant workers. Apart from that, the Churches in those countries need to keep speaking out to the public: please welcome the migrant workers hospitably.

  4. EKvW

    Translated from German

    The histories of migration in the Bible also show what people are afraid of in our days. From a minority in Egypt with a co-liability (Joseph, who later on makes his starving brothers join him) a great people emerges with own religion and culture which is not integrated. It remains strange, comes into conflict with the rulers and migrates to the Holy Land. After a long period of peregrination they settle there but not without conflicts with the locals.
    Forms of fanaticism occur, that means everything of the conquered (“handed over to the spell”, that means to kill also women, children and animals). Also Esther stands for a bloody conflict between expatriated and locals. Therefor not everything should be blurred. Otherwise we don’t take the justified fears seriously which were entered into discussion in a populistic but successful way by a (former?) social democrat Thilo Sarrazin in the bestseller “Deutschland schafft sich ab” (Germany abolishes itself).

    Author: Oliver Vogelsmeier

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1.2 Israel’s great narratives

“You shall love the alien as yourself,” (or “You know the heart of an alien”). These laws of Moses are found in the Book of Leviticus. “Locals” are reminded not to forget that they themselves were once strangers. Yet not everyone was friendly to foreigners back then either…

The narrative of being driven out of Paradise (Gen 3:23–24) and Cain’s going “east of Eden“ (Gen 4:16 ff.) shows that the biblical authors basically imagine human history and the development of culture and civilization as a migration event.

But biblical Israel also tells its own story – and Judaism follows it to this day – as one of multiple migrations. This applies above all to the stories of the mothers and fathers of Israel, the ‘arch-parents’, to their paths out of Mesopotamia to Canaan and their lives as ‘strangers’ in the Promised Land. From the beginning of the narrative we are aware of Israel’s self-awareness of having been chosen by God and called to follow its own path, under the blessing, that God gives with this special story to “all the families of the earth” (Gen 12:1–4).

In the context of this sending, the texts also contain the intention and religious duty to preserve their own identity in the foreign country by living among themselves, their relatives and families – as Judaism lived for millennia and as can be found in many migrant communities to this day.

At the same time, however, and on this basis, the arch-parent stories (Gen 12:50) mostly tell of peaceful conflict resolution; they describe cooperation and respectful border drawing towards others and underline also the mutual religious communication between the family of Abraham and the other inhabitants of the land. The latter recognize the special relation to God of the arch-parents (Gen 23:8; cf. 14:18), and the former learn that the fear of God is also there where they least expect it (Gen 20:14), and that they are called to pray for the good of the others (Gen 20:17).

The Exodus story, Israel‘s second great migration narrative, is more political and combative. It bears witness to God’s option for the oppressed slaves of the state of Egypt and shows how necessary it is for freedom to depend on law and precept. The Torah – i.e. all the law that is to apply in Israel – relates to this experience of liberation and journeying. It serves freedom and is the gift from the God of freedom (Ex 20:1).

Particularly in texts and stories dealing with the memory of the Exodus and the occupying of the land of Canaan we are struck by the sometimes openly hostile tones towards certain other peoples. These texts frequently mirror the brutal experiences of oppression and violence that Israel itself suffered under the different ancient empires.

Foreignness and law

Foreignness and lawIt is remarkable, however, that “the strangers” in the Torah certainly have their own rights. Apart from another word meaning an alien passing by, the Hebrew word for “foreign” (ger) means people who permanently live in a place but do not stem from there. They do not belong to one of the resident clans and therefore have no rights as full (male) citizens with their own property. The different legal traditions of the Torah lay down in detail the way aliens have to hold to the religious customs of Israel – e.g. to rest on the Sabbath – and under what conditions they are allowed to take part in Israel’s worship services.

Second, the greatest value is attached to how the members of Israel must behave towards the aliens. Here aliens are, so to speak, a yardstick of just social legislation (Ex 22:20-23:9). Because of their weak position – like that of Israeli widows and orphans – special protection against economic, social and legal attacks, and special welfare regulations apply to the guaranteeing social assistance of the kind received by needy Israelites (Deut 14:29).

As a reason and motivation for loving the alien like yourself (Lev 19:33) there is multiple emphasis that “you [i.e. Israel] were aliens in Egypt” (Ex 22:21). “You know the heart of an alien” (Ex 23:9).

The heart of biblical ethics regarding strangers therefore beats the rhythm of memory. Precisely when you are enjoying the wealth and gifts of your own country you should remember that you yourself were not always there and are not alone there now, either. The local people receive the commission to keep remembering their own life as aliens – even if they have been sedentary for generations.

Just like today, this was probably not the rule back then either. Otherwise there would not be such strict emphasis on protection (Ex 22:20), participation and the ideal of equal treatment of the aliens (Num 15:15f). The reality in biblical times was not idyllic for foreigners. Otherwise the biblical texts would not contain fantasies of the strict subjugation of aliens or even ideas about strictly excluding them from Israel (Neh 13). Here we sense a severe and anxious view of aliens. It reflects negative fears or experiences, inner tensions, the feeling of threat to their own identity and the wish to protect it. In the background is the culturally and politically troubled situation of the Jewish community under the pressure of ancient empires. There is a tangible concern that marrying ‘foreign’ women could lead to a falling away from God (Deut 7:23) and to the loss of Israel’s special identity.

Shifting borders

Yet this view does not remain without contradiction in Israel’s Hebrew Bible and our Old Testament. This is shown, for example, by the story about the two widows, Naomi and Ruth. Naomi, an Israelite, returns from the neighboring country of Moab with her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth. During a famine she had been well received there and found wives for her sons.

Due to a certain view by Israel of the past and its identity, marrying the members of this people was clearly contrary to the will of God (cf. Ezra 9–10; Neh 13:23–27). In the case of the Moabites, the Torah (Deut 23:4) states that the Moabites had once refused Israel bread and water when they were on their way through the wilderness.

The story of Ruth reports the opposite and so undermines the basic assumption of exclusion as required by the relevant verse of the Torah. Ruth, the Moabite, looks after Naomi, the Israelite. Her solidarity sets in motion a whole flow of human goodness and overcomes borders. God acts (Ruth 2:10-12). They both – a ‘national’ and a foreigner – benefit from their gifts of mutual goodness.

Not only is Ruth, the foreigner, able to stay in Israel. The story likewise underlines that Naomi, the socially disadvantaged Israelite (Ruth 4:14-15), flourishes again and there is an increase of blessing and well-being in the whole of Israel.

The final note in the book of Ruth (Ruth 4: 17-22) takes this up. She, the migrant, is the great-grandmother of David, i.e. of the greatest and most glorious king of Israel. And the beginning of the New Testament continues this line of thinking by explicitly naming Ruth as an ancestral mother of Jesus (Mt 1:5).

There are 2 comments on this section. Discuss with them.

2 Replies to “1.2 Israel’s great narratives”

  1. EKvW

    Translated from German

    It is good to see how multilayered God and people of the Old Testament dealt with the experience “migration”. Never putting aside the respect of the fact that people are created in the image of God one has to find the balance between own identity and obligation of social justice also towards “the stranger”.

    Author: Claudia Boge-Grothaus

  2. Batara Sihombing

    Yes it is true that in the Old Testament the people of Israel are asked to love the aliens as themselves. My question is : why the aliens should be loved by the people of Israel? The reason is because the aliens do not enjoy the rights and the privileges as the local people have. They are strangers or aliens. This is the condition of being stranger everywhere, in the past and in the present time. This experience used to be faced by the people of Israel when they were strangers in Egypt and in other places. To those who are weak and to those who need help and protection we are encouraged to love them. This means that when the strangers come to our land the first question should we rise is: how should we love them? We should not accuse them of planning to take our jobs or to penetrate their beliefs. These should be out of questions. Yes of course when we love the strangers it means that we will learn their social background, culture, belief, and so on. In so doing, we can help them in appropriate ways.

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1.3 Jesus Christus – on the move and a stranger

The New Testament also tells of being foreign or even homeless. Yet the first Christian communities “brought people from the Jewish tradition together with people of other ethnic, cultural, political and religious traditions”. What conclusions should churches and Christians draw today when they refer to Scripture?…

Pictures and realities on the way

The people around Jesus and the early Christian communities lived with and from the Bible of Israel. They knew its symbolism of being on the move and trusted it. On this basis they interpreted their experiences with Jesus the Messiah.

The gospels describe the earthly Jesus as a person who is normally moving around. His path mirrors God’s coming closer (Mk 1:14). His journey and that of his disciples maps out Israel’s journey with God and takes it further (Mt 2). Jesus’ coming, staying and going to the Father are, particularly in the farewell addresses of John’s gospel (Jn 13-17), basic descriptions of the being of God’s Son and the power of faith.

Ethnic boundaries like those between Israel, the People of God, and the other peoples are known in the gospels and in some cases even emphasized (Mt 10:5). But, at the same time, Jesus also learns how to cross boundaries (Mt 15:21–28), to people’s great surprise. Not only they, but also Jesus learns along the way, as the gospels describe. And the risen Christ extends the learning community to embrace all nations (Mt 20:28)

The Acts of the Apostles tell of how it is God’s will, guided by God’s spirit, that faith in Christ also reaches non-Jews (Acts 10). At the same time it becomes recognizable that the new “Way” (Acts 9:2) was actually able to turn the believers into migrants (Acts 11:19–20). Like the well-planned missionary journeys, fleeing and persecution (Acts 18:1–3; cf. Rm 16:3–4) were also part of the story of the emergence and dissemination of early Christianity.

Even though crossing over from Asia to Europe, i.e. from today’s Turkey to the Greek mainland, was probably not so important culturally in antiquity as it is today, the book of Acts underlines this step (Acts 16:9–40). Interestingly, when the Apostles and the message of Christ arrive on the European mainland in the city of Philippi (Acts 16:11–15.40) they first find hospitality and then faith in the person of a cloth dealer called Lydia, who – as her name suggests – probably came from Asia, i.e. from the western Turkish region of Lydia. This not only shows the extent to which migration determined everyday and working life in antiquity. The dawn of “Christian Europe” was hence marked by the hospitality of a migrant, and, according to the story in Acts, Europe’s first Christian was from Asia Minor.

The young congregations brought people from the Jewish tradition together with people of other ethnic, cultural, political and religious traditions. Engaging with different traditions and thinking was part of daily life. That also led to fierce conflicts (Rm 14; Gal 2:11–14; 5:1–6), e.g. regarding the food laws or circumcision, and to various compromises (1 Cor 8; Acts 15). Paul’s teaching on justification by faith is also rooted in this struggle for unity in diversity. Baptism creates unity and equality between different persons (Gal 3:28). Those who belong to Christ and belong in him are not decided by the restrictions of ritual purity and social exclusion as laid down by the Torah for Jews. The dividing wall of being strangers to God has been broken down. Christ and his death also make non-Jews into members of the household of God (Eph 2:12–19).

Christ in a foreign country

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me/did not welcome me” (Mt 25:35.38.43). That is what Jesus says of himself in his parables – he the son of man and king who has come to judge the world. The message of the parables is plain and subtle at the same time. It is plain because – as with the behavior towards the hungry and thirsty, naked, sick and prisoners – the kingly judge of the world will, at the end of time, also take personally the action or non-action towards strangers, “the least of these who are members of my family”. The foreigners are here grouped with other socially disadvantaged persons, who then cannot be played off against each other. The parable speaks neither of preferring nor of disadvantaging strangers over other needy persons.

According to the Old Testament, whoever oppresses dispossessed persons also despises the creator (Prov 14:31), as they are made in the image of God. Likewise the judge of the world in the parable of Jesus also relates the (dis)respect for the least of the “members of my family” to himself. It is this view that places each low and needy person in a new reality by relating him or her to Christ.

The message of the parable is subtle, as well, since it plays with the aspect of surprise. The righteous people ask, “When did we see you as a stranger and did not welcome you?”

Strangers – whether sick, hungry or prisoners – should therefore not be co-opted right away for Christ, or even as Christ, but it is right always to expect to be surprised by Christ in the stranger.

Being Christian as being a stranger – the itinerant people of God

The New Testament letters, in particular, constantly stress that being a stranger, or even having no home, is part of the life of faith. The young congregations recognize themselves in the migration and stories of being strangers of the Hebrew Bible, in the concepts and the images of being on the move and of migration. For example, the author of 1 Peter uses the word “exiles” to address the congregation. Christians are strangers and elect (the Greek word for church is derived from the same word) – these are two sides of a coin (1 Peter 1:1.17; 2:11).

The letter to the Hebrews develops this with particular depth. It roots Christian readers profoundly in the migrant narratives of Israel. It takes them along a path that began there but is not ended. Just as Israel once hoped (and still hopes) for the arrival and rest (Deut 12:9; Ps 95:11) that God promised (and still promises) with the Exodus from Egypt, those who believe in Christ are on an exodus journey and traveling towards the fulfillment of the promises of God for rest (Heb 4:9). As Abraham, who set out obediently “for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance” (Heb 11:8–10), the Christians “here … have no lasting city, but … are looking for the city that is to come” (Heb 13:14). That gives rise to an attitude of yearning, seeking and looking from afar (Heb 4:11 and 11:14).

The community with and on the way to God turns the believers into migrants, so to speak. Their hopes and actions, their attitudes and behavior are not fulfilled in the here and now. They are, as Paul writes “citizens of heaven” (Phil 1:27; 3:20) and therefore “not of this world”. The church, and faith, look with the eyes of “spiritual migrants”, perceiving the reality of migration and the faith of migrants as in a mirror that reflects their true identity before God.

The question to us is: where are we still strangers, and where have we long become settled? In what direction do we want to set out and what do we want to look out for?

The people that walked in darkness…


Based on conversations with surviving refugees, Francesco Piobbichi has drawn a series of pictures depicting their memories of the shipwreck. Photo: Dirk Johnen


In the late evening of 3 October 2013 a cutter ran aground off the island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean. On board were over 500 people from Eritrea and Somalia. The islanders heard the desperate screams but in the darkness mistook them for the screeching of seagulls. The boat sank within only a few minutes. The survivors trod water for five hours. Of the 368 people who drowned that night, 108 were close up in the hold. They included an approximately 20-year-old woman from Eritrea, who had just given birth to a baby before they both died. Some of those people are buried on Lampedusa. A small shop front displays items they had with them – garments, water bottles, Bibles and Korans, photos of relatives. A few goods and chattels that found their way into our world and bear mute witness to the ghastly gap extending between those in the land of the shadow of death and us, in the countries they were yearning to reach, in their eyes the Promised Land.

“The people that walk in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:1)

We are very familiar with this as an Advent reading, but how unrealistic, even cynical it sounds when we remember those who live in darkness. Martin Buber’s translation brings it out even more: The people who wander in the dark see a great light and it shines brightly over those who live in the land of the shadow of death.

How may that sound in the ears of those startled out of sleep by the heavy boots of soldiers, who search in dusty rubble for something edible for their children, who wander around in the desert? Are the promises of the Old Testament prophets more real or less real for them than for us? How do they feel on their journey, in the dark nights?

Many who set out, impelled by hardship, cling to their faith. The Bibles and Korans they bring with them witness to that. Their faith is their only hope, and at the same time, a driving force. Hope is the motor of migration. In it lies the germ of the new life, the power to leave everything behind and start anew. What a huge effort that means! How strong must the vision be, the faith that after setting out from the land of the shadow of death, God will show the way that my feet can go?

Those who come to us testify to the faith that moves mountains, and to the hope that in the power of the Holy Spirit will overcome many kinds of obstacle.

They tell us about the great light that will one day drive away all darkness. They have seen it and say to us: the light is coming!

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1.4 The church of Jesus Christ in God´s mission

God is no respecter of persons, i.e. shows no partiality. Why then should we? In the stranger we meet Jesus Christ. The church is not an end in itself but is meant to help to transform the world…

God‘s love for the world took shape in Jesus Christ. God’s kingdom has broken out in his person and his life – puzzling, incredibly new and liberating. His resurrection broke the finality of death and gave all suffering a prospect of hope.

Through his spirit, Christ draws people into his work. He enables people to live and act as sisters and brothers, as friends of Christ, and to realize God’s good intentions with God’s creation. Classical theology puts it as follows: Whoever believes has a share in the “kingly rule” of Christ. This king is a brother and friend who wants to win over his friends to share in this “rule”. Through often inconspicuous acts of love, acceptance and the strengthening of their fellow humans, this rule becomes attractive and powerful. One of its basic features is love of the neighbor. This is about help in need and about physical or spiritual suffering. Yet it is also about encounter at eye level, the effort to understand the other, to accept him or her in their difference, and about willingness to learn from one another. That way God’s kingdom takes shape through unspectacular love of the neighbor.

Yet the life of Jesus is not only the life of the one who kindly accepts people, calls them to the table of his community and frees body and soul from suffering. The life of Jesus is also that of a prophet, who names salvation and evil, malice, lies and truth, and arouses enthusiasm for the quest for truth and justice. Jesus Christ wants to win us humans for this critical and self-critical existence. His cross makes it terribly clear how powerless and helpless people can become when they do not trust the powers of the kingdom of God. The world power Rome turns against him and God’s loving work in him. The dominant religion turns against him and his proclamation. Secular and religious laws are invoked for his downfall. Public morality and opinion shout “Hosanna!” and cry “crucify” him. In such a web of power and confusion of voices it is hard to keep a clear head and a calm prophetic voice. Yet Christ, who wants to win us through his spirit for God’s coming kingdom trusts us to seek paths of justice and peace. He trusts us to win others and convince them of how reliable, liberating and satisfying these ways are.

Finally, with the example of his life and in the power of his spirit, Christ allows us to share in his “priestly existence”. “For” – as Martin Luther said – “whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that he is already consecrated priest, bishop and pope…” Through the spirit of Christ people are enabled to bear witness to God in words and actions and to orient themselves and others to God, who is a God of love, goodness and mercy. They become able to trust God, who is all-powerful in that God can create something new and good out of suffering and hardship. This includes turning away from all attitudes that propagate hate and practice hard-heartedness and ill will. It is comforting and liberating to see that the presence of Jesus Christ in the power of his spirit and the coming of his kingdom are not distant dreams. The “good powers” often go unnoticed among us and yet are at work through us. Precisely in the inconspicuous, cautious nature of the coming kingdom lies its great power, inviting all people in.

The theological concept of missio dei overcomes all feelings of superiority. It leads to the centre of faith in the God of the Bible and the Koran that we will (only) find our future in trusting God. […] The experiences of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and all the prophets, which are handed down to us in the Koran and the Bible, are a strong encouragement for us today.

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Müzeyyen Dreessen, social worker and educator, Muslim, for decades involved in intercultural and interrligious dialogue, Gladbeck

God has plans for the world. That is why the church does not exist for itself but is intended to enable God‘s plan to transform the world. In the ecumenical movement the concept often used for this is missio dei (God’s mission). God draws us in Christ into God‘s mission. Participating in missio dei and Christ’s reign of peace, in his prophetic and priestly existence, is expressed in how we (1) are church together, (2) celebrate faith together, (3) pass on and witness to faith together, and (4) shoulder responsibility. This leads to the questions in chapter 3 about practical ideas for the church and congregations.

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