The first two years were exciting, and for us as project leaders intimidating and daunting. We were all on a journey without knowing where it would lead us and whether it would work. Theo Marais will tell you that he realized we invited congregations on a journey that we had not been on – and quite frankly did not have the slightest idea what it was all about. You should ask him why he joined?
After two years the anxiety was mounting for us as the management team – we could not see results. Pat Kiefert and Pat Taylor-Ellison came and did a presentation on hitting the wall, and that left us, as it felt at that stage, with a bloedneus.
And then an unexpected turnabout: It was a pastors’ meeting on the Friday in the Western Cape. The 30 plus of us were sharing our experiences and after we had finished going round the circle, I was about to ask the next question when Johan van der Merwe asked me: “And you Frederick, how do you feel?” Before I could gather my thoughts, I said: “Johan I have never been so unsure; I cannot sleep at night; I do not have any answers any more; I do not know if this is going to work.” He then replied: “Thank you, Frederick, this is the most helpful thing you have said on this journey.” And there, at that moment the real conversation started. A conversation of partners who did not know but who listened intently to each other – helping each other to discover how God is working in and through our vulnerability.
It was a turning point for me to realize that it is not you who take people on a journey, it is the Holy Spirit leading us when we dwell in the Word and listen to each other when we come together as a faith community.
Slowly the conversations started to turn, cluster after cluster we started to realize the transformation we were looking for was already happening to us, on condition that we were willing to allow the Holy Spirit to open our eyes when we dwell in the Word and in the world. I can still remember the feeling when I first realized that the work of the Holy Spirit is a reality in our present time and in every local setting. At first I did not trust myself to use Trinitarian language to describe it – and tried to explain it in terms of dynamics process – and then lose it. Later on I started using the language and, in that situation, expecting to experience God at work – it was there all the time.
After three years the missional culture started to settle amongst us and we were ready to start new clusters. Gordon invited people on the journey all the time and two new clusters were formed in the Western Cape and in Gauteng. Synods, like Highveld, started to show an interest. BM gave us a grant to print our material and translate Pat Kiefert’s book. The Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University came to us and with them we developed an MTh programme to build missional leadership capacity.
And then we hit the second wall! We could not build enough capacity at the management office to run the partnership effectively. Our money dwindled and we realized that we had to rethink our whole operation. Looking back, I think this was the point where the real incluturation happened. We made two decisions: we would only be able to survive if all of us were willing to serve as volunteers and secondly we needed to empower the regions to take control of their own affairs in the regions.
It was painful for us to end Gordon’s contract with the partnership. However, we had to down-size. In Africa, we realized, we have to learn how to build missional systems without money, and how to build networks of people who are willing to carry the vision not as an extra thing they are paid to do, but as part of what they are already doing. That was when we were forced to inculcate missional thinking and practices into our excising systems.
Where are we now? 2009 is a year full of celebrations. We celebrate Calvin’s 500th birthday this year. At Stellenbosch we celebrate the 150th year of the Theology Seminary. These are such big events that our celebration of the five years of PMC in Southern Africa is almost insignificant. It should serve us a warning that what we do this week is within a much larger historical perspective. In the tradition of H Richard Niebuhr, I see my task as not to provide you with a historical overview of events in the formation, founding and growth of the SAPMC, but to ask questions about God, and to be more specific about how God’s Reign breaks into historical events, into the everyday lives of ordinary people in Southern Africa. I do this with great humility. It is not our history, it is not our church, it is not our kingdom, it is God’s story, the Kingdom of God and, of course, God’s people.
The breaking in of the Reign of God
It is today 20 years ago, on the 9th of November 1989, that the Berlin wall fell. It is no coincidence that we gather on such an important historical day. We all know that it changed our lives in South Africa significantly. The unfolding of dramatic and fundamental events took place immediately before the breaking down of the Berlin wall, not only in Europe, but also in South Africa. The political climate in our country changed significantly and paved the way for FW de Klerk to unban the ANC and free political prisoners – including Nelson Mandela. The rest is history.
When the Reign of God breaks in it takes us on journeys that we cannot imagine. When the Kingdom of God is near, as Luke 10 teaches us, we can ignore it and in doing that, destroy ourselves, or be converted by the event. To be honest, how many of us would have received the peace from these 70 non-ordained strangers?
After much reflection, I think the best way to describe the unfolding story of SAPMC is as the journey of people who try to understand where and how God’s Reign is breaking into the world and how we are continuously converted or changed by this breaking in of God’s Reign.
I want to conclude with four conversions that came to my mind while reflecting on the unfolding story of SAPMC
1. Conversion from the church to God … who owns the harvest – the ecclesiastical conversion
The missional calling is not an ecclesiastical but a theological vision. It is about God, not about the church. It is not a survival of church growth package; it is about a re-discovering of God. According to Bosch: Mission is not the task of the church – it is an attribute of God. We have been converted from focusing on our own efforts to a focus on the Missional God who is not only present, but continuously breaking into our reality through the work of the Holy Spirit. This conversion has everything to do with the matter of agency; who is the agent at work and who is participating in that? Our conversion was a discovery that we do not have to bring the energy, it is not about our wisdom, it is not about us, it is about God, the primary agent, and we invited to participate in what God is undertaking.
The irony is that the harvest is plentiful. God’s harvest is plentiful, it might be that the harvest of the church is currently small, but if we keep on looking we will discover a harvest waiting for us to be harvested.
2. Conversion from ideas about God towards a journey with God. Where He intended to go – the theological conversion
This is not about understanding God; it is about journeying with God while practising spiritual disciplines. I remember so many theological discussions where we tried to understand, frantically defending our positions when our experience of what God is doing amongst us does not fit into the existing theological frames. And so it should be. We should continuously be converted from our fixed ideas about God – as if we can at all understand God – towards a new attitude of expecting to be surprised by God.
If this change of attitude does not happen, then we as the church, as theologians and ministers and leaders, will remain the stumbling-blocks that prevent our faith communities to participate in the coming of the Kingdom.
3. Conversion from power to vulnerability – like lambs among wolfs … the personal conversion
Mission was not a new concept to any of us. We all understood that the church should reach out across its boundaries, but it was most of the time a power movement from those who have, to those who do not have. The missional vision was submissive to that, and it challenged us to follow Jesus into His vulnerability – to empty ourselves from the power that we inherited as church when we plunge a community without power. (Phil 2:5) Then we are confronted by our unwillingness, or even worse, our inability to interact with people without our power position in the church. But it was in putting down the power tools of the church that new communities has emerges.
4. Conversion from extraordinary to the ordinary … eating and drinking that every day is provided for us: the conversion to public life
We stumbled across the habit of dwelling in the World it our effort to reflect on how God is present in our ordinary public lives. And what wonderful discoveries have we made? God was waiting for us everywhere, if we only had eyes to see and ears to listen. The irony, wonderful irony, is that the Holy Spirit is at work in the ordinary rhythms of every day. When we work, when we eat, “eating and drinking” that every day provides. The extraordinary is that the Missio Dei is present in the ordinary of the everyday public life of our communities. God is at work in the streets and shops, the offices and the construction sites waiting for us to participate in what God is already doing. There is no such thing as a spiritual live apart from our daily lives; the continuous incarnation of God is taking place in every town en city. There is no such thing as a ecclesial calling that is not send into the world.
During the conference you will hear story after story of our discovery of unexpected in breaking of the Kingdom and the self conversions that we as congregations had to go through to participate in what God is doing.