What has become of the Mission in Western Culture (MiWC) project?
The MiWC project came to Lusaka as the brainchild of the Allelon network for missional leaders ably led and nurtured by Alan Roxburgh and his team and equally ably internationalized through the innovative Allelon website. The thesis was launched and enthusiastically embraced by an international group of missional leaders at Lake Payette, Idaho, USA (June 2006). It was further consolidated but also given the North American Christendom treatment at Skamania in Oregon (July 2007), but Frederick Marais’ instinct that the project could be totally re-birthed and reconceived in an African context proved prophetic. The thesis is simple, it is the missionary challenge bequeathed to us by Lesslie Newbigin, namely, that a truly viable, creative and transformative project of cultural engagement with modernizing, global, secular ‘multiple modernities’ has yet to be properly conceived and executed. That last sentence reflects some of the new thinking introduced to the project at Lusaka so let’s reflect on just what happened to us during that memorable week (2nd -9th August 2008).
The Successes of Lusaka
The Indaba Groups
Undoubtedly the main success of the Lusaka consultation, as was also true of the Anglican bishops at Lambeth in London in July, was the Indaba community groups. To spend a good part of every day of the consultation, talking, sharing and debriefing in small groups of five or six people, all from different countries, some from different continents and most from totally different cultures was itself potentially a life changing experience. Once again we were indebted to Fredrick Marais from Stellenbosch, South Africa for providing us with the ground rules of deep listening, deep vulnerability and deep affirmation that made our times together equally deep and rich in cross cultural experience. The Indaba groups were the glue that held the process together as well as holding us all accountable to each other as we tried to grapple with the complex issues of planning and executing an international project of this nature.
A new Leadership Team
In order for any consultative process to work effectively and produce new thinking and new objectives it must be chaired and managed creatively, openly and appropriately. Lusaka saw the new leadership team of Alan Roxburgh (Canada), Neil Crosbie (UK) and now also Japhet Ndhlovu (Kenya), vice chair of the All Africa Council of Churches, work superbly well and manage a complex process that involved a whole new set of participants. Much planning and deliberation had proceeded the consultation but the creativity by which the leadership team kept the process both on track yet also open to new developments and possibilities was itself a lesson in the creative management of complex processes.
New African Voices
The consultation saw the return of familiar faces from Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Canada and South Africa. We also had two young representatives from South Korea who, along with other young leaders from that country, have seen clearly that the American based church growth model of the 1980’s which enjoyed phenomenal numerical success in South Korea, is actually irrelevant and inadequate to the new task of radical cultural engagement in countries now thoroughly held captive to the cultural mores of late modernity. What was new of course was the broadening of the African contingent of delegates to include representatives from the following countries.
1. South Africa
Unfortunately, due to transport and finance difficulties, other delegates from Ghana, Namibia and Lesotho were unable to attend. Clearly we now have the possibility of building a truly representative African delegation which we hope will further integrate the needed contribution of African women theologians, missiologists and church practitioners.
A clearer grasp of the underlying theological and methodological presuppositions of the project
At this consultation we had a paper from Colin Greene that sought to show how the Newbigin challenge of a creative missionary engagement with Western culture remained the same but the missional context had changed dramatically, so much so that talk of a monolithic Western culture was now obsolete as we have now entered the era of ‘multiple or alternative modernities’. The suggestion that we had also moved from an age of reason to a new age of imagination reflected the European bias of the paper and was rightly challenged by Uma Onwunta a missiologist from Nigeria. The ensuing vigorous discussion reminded us all that much of the Enlightenment intellectual framework Newbigin isolated, for instance the private public divide, had never successfully taken root in indigenous African cultures. So while the evidence of multiple modernities and new social imaginaries are everywhere to be seen in Africa they are undergirded by different intellectual, social and cultural frameworks of belief.
One of the highlights and creative transitions of the consultation was when the African contingent met on their own to consider just what those intellectual, social and cultural frameworks actually were and the rest of us realized in light of this discussion that the whole project had to be renamed. So ‘Mission in or through Western Culture’ for the time being is no more. We do not as yet have another suitable anagram but we have a descriptor which more accurately describes what we are all about which is ‘Discerning the mission of the Spirit: Hearing the voices of God’s people amidst globalizing cultures’. Underlying this new descriptor is the African experience of starting with the missio dei rather that intellectual analysis and then discerning the movement of the Holy Spirit amidst the stories and narratives of the local people.
Clearly then there is much commonality between the methodological objectives of the project and the faith aspirations of indigenous African cultures. The research undertaken and published by Michael de Certeau after the 1969 student riots in France, the philosophical and hermeneutical deliberations of Paul Ricoeur, Alastair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor all point to something which Africans have always believed, namely, that any exercise in social reconstruction or genuine cultural engagement must begin with the stories and narratives that contain the hopes, aspirations and social imaginaries of ordinary people. It is in the practice of daily living or what de Certeau called ‘making do’ that we can discern the ways and wonders of God’s spirit at work. We still require further theological and missiological clarity in regard to this project particularly on how the biblical narrative comes into play at the intersection of at times competing and colliding cultural narratives. But that is part of the task for the rest of this year and 2009.
The possibility of new local initiatives and agreed international strategies and frameworks
A project of this nature has to learn to live with the creative tension of allowing local initiatives to be genuinely local while at the same time arriving at agreed international frameworks of research and design. I think in Lusaka we caught sight of what this could all look like for the first time. We agreed that the African delegation working through existing missional structures would design and implement a strategy of what we called narrative transformation. In others words finding good local contexts, probably to begin with in Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa, and designing a process that genuinely enables researchers and missiologists to get into and under the local stories and narratives that sustain a common life and praxis but also contain the seeds of hope, experiment and social imagination embedded in the biblical story and birthed by the Holy Spirit. The design of an appropriate research methodology that can facilitate such an important task will be the responsibility of a new task force headed up by Andrew Menzies from Australia, Steve Taylor from New Zealand, Fredrick Marais from South Africa, DT Banda from Zambia and possibly Mary Publicover, one of the Together in Mission team in England. Alongside this group another group of research advisors such as Sara Savage (Cambridge, England) and Dr X Simon from Stellenbosch, South Africa will seek to make sure that these local strategies become transferable international research methodologies. It is hoped that we will be able to utilize these procedures to facilitate similar local research projects in Britain, North America, Australia and New Zealand. Finally, we recognised that there was a need to stabilize the annual consultation in terms of missional leaders and entrepreneurs operating in the respective countries now involved in the project. Clearly there will be other countries and groups of people who will see the potential of such a project and want to be part of it – the enabling and facilitating of this aspect of the project, however, becomes the responsibility of the overall leadership team.
So much was indeed reconceived, reconfigured and reconstructed in Lusaka. The combination of good African hospitality, accommodation and humour all wonderfully present during our time at the Justo Mwale Theological College, Lusaka. The recognition that Africa holds the key to many of our problems in the West and the appreciation of the sheer energy and vitality of the church in this tumultuous continent wracked as it is by the HIV/AIDS pandemic and other equally devastating issues of systemic poverty and ecological threat left us all thinking and praying the same refrain: Veni Creator Spiritus, come creator Spirit and liberate us from our Christendom slumbers to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.
– Dr. Colin J.D. Greene
WHAT THEN PRECIPTATED THIS SUDDEN, AMAZING CHANGE?
A few preliminary remarks:
Firstly, a huge hermeneutical shift occurred.
Story after story were told of the new found ability to see God at
work in the world – in many ways, but mostly in little things. Whereas
people expected God’s presence in big schemes and projects in which the
whole congregation would be enthusiastically involved, now suddenly –
on the road of missional practices – God was discovered in small
beginnings, in the miracle of peace being shared on a personal level or
in smaller settings.
God is often in the unexpected, in situations of extreme pain,
displacement, rejection and disillusionment. Experiencing his presence,
learning to accept his peace and healing in those situations, is good
news. Previously, one person said, we were blindfolded, but now we
start to see God.
Secondly, concrete missional practices made a huge difference.
The effect of staff covenanting and the implementation of adaptive
change practices made being missional a new reality. Doing and
reflecting, in an emergent fashion, created new learning experiences.
Thirdly, peer-to-peer mentoring between congregations and pastors went a long way to facilitate deep transformation.
Struggling and searching for new ways of being, the plot suddenly comes together.
– Different experiences and insights suddenly merge into a meaningful new framework as we tell our stories to one another.
– A-ha moments are created when we start to see God at work in the other’s struggle to find missional meaning.
That helps us to find focus on God’s work in our own setting, to recognize his call in our congregational life.
Christendom gives way to new cultural realities, including widespread secularism and religious pluralism. New attitudes are developing toward the whole phenomenon of religion: that it is strictly an option; that it is a purely individual decision; that there is no reason why the children of believing parents should be considered potential members of religious communions; that religion may be useful, but truth does not apply to this category, and so on.
Although some semblance of Christendom may find a new home in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, its period of Western dominance is over.
The status of the confessing church is no longer one of singular power and influence but that of a peripheral voice. Precisely as such, however, this voice may be a prophetic one.
Denominations behave as if nothing had happened – as if we were still living in a basically Christian civilization; as if the Christian religion were still quite obviously the official religion of the official culture; as if we could go carry on baptizing, marrying, and burying everybody as we have always done; as if governments would listen to us, and educational systems would respect us.
Too many confessions of faith do not succeed because they still assume a Christendom framework. They speak as though from positions within the power centers of society. Therefore they almost always fail to convince anyone outside the fold or even to raise significant questions.
The church’s responses to the end of the Christendom era
If not expanding the church’s sphere of influence and territory, what are churches for?
The most common answer that is presently given is a concentration upon the congregation itself: The church’s purpose is to be a fellowship, a “friendly church”. In cities and towns that are large and impersonal, the church is a meeting place where people “get to know one another” and to “care”. In the livelier congregations, programs are developed for every age and stage of life. This is accompanied with outreach and social programs. Strangers making their way into the fellowship should be welcomed, and they should be encouraged to attend, because of the fellowship. But only rarely, it is felt, would it be appropriate to approach others as disciples of a quite explicit faith tradition. Even Christian preaching must honor the rights of others to believe what they will.
Christians are called not only to serve their neighbors but to confess their faith. Congregations have to be communities, not only of fellowship but of discipleship – not only of behavior but also of Christian confession.
Concentration upon fellowship has definite limits. Its success is dependent upon its location among a constituency that places high premium upon such fellowship; hence its strong identification with suburban, racially and economically homogenous churches.
The problem with the friendly church model is that those who are looking for meaning (the most gripping search of humanity in the modern context) are not likely to find it. The main reason for this is that consistent friendliness goes hand in hand with the avoidance of deeper human concerns.
If Christians want to preserve their faith and not just some of its moral and aesthetic spin-off, they are going to have to become more articulate about their basic beliefs and about the manner in which these beliefs, when taken seriously, distance them from many of the values and pursuits of society at large.
Our theological task: Disestablishing the church
God is offering us another possibility, a new form, indeed a new life. But we may accept this gift of the new only if we relinquish the old to which we are stubbornly clinging.
We must relinquish the social status that belongs to our past: the comfortable relationships with ruling classes; the continuous confirmation of accepted social values and mores by means of which we sustain those relationships; the espousal of “charities” that ease our guilty consciences while allowing us to maintain neutrality with respect to the social structures that make such “charities” necessary; the silent acceptance of racial, sexual, gender and economic injustices, or their trivialization through tokenism; the failure to probe the depths of human and creaturely pathos by confining sin to petty immorality or doctrinal refinements drawn from the past, and so on.
We must give up the redundant role of official religious cult in society. We must disengage from the dominant culture. This is the necessary precondition for a meaningful engagement of that same dominant culture or society.
Intentional disengagement from the dominant culture means that every Christian should learn how to distinguish the Christian message from the operative assumptions, values, and pursuits of the host society. The Christian message is not just a stained-glass version of the worldview of that same social stratum.
This disengagement is aimed at the reengagement of the same society. There are no shortcuts. We must begin with the basics. Without a deeper understanding of what Christians profess, it is absurd to think that ordinary folk will be able to distinguish what is true to the Judeo-Christian tradition from the mishmash of modernism, postmodernism, secularism, pietism, and free-enterprise democracy with which Christianity in our context is so fantastically interwoven.
Instead of catering exclusively to what are usually described as “pastoral needs” (though the term often cloaks institutional busywork), ministers today are recalled to the teaching office.
The Christian Movement in a Post-Modern era. Being Salt, Yeast, and Light
The end of Christendom could be the beginning of something more nearly like the church – the disciple community described by the Scriptures and treasured throughout the ages by prophetic minorities.
To grasp this opportunity, however, we must relinquish our centuries-old ambition to be the official religion, the dominant religion, of the dominant culture. We must disengage ourselves from our society if we are going to reengage our society at the level of truth, justice, and love. We must stand off from the liberal middle-class culture with which we have been consistently identified; rediscover our own distinctive foundations and the ethical directives that derives from them; and allow ourselves, if necessary, to become aliens in our own land.
In this way we find ourselves in an awkward situation vis-à-vis our society. We are a disciple community distinguished from the world (Rom 12:2) as well as sent decisively into the world (Matt 28:19). The church is in the world just because it is not simply of the world.
Christian disengagement from the dominant culture is not to be confused with the abandonment of that culture. The end that we are to seek is the redemption of our world – the world that is truly ours and of which we are ourselves part.
If we are faithful and imaginative enough to disentangle our authentic faith tradition from its cultural wrapping, we will have something to bring to our world that it does not have – a perspective on itself, a judgment of its pretensions and injustices, an offer of renewal and hope.
We will be able to bring this to our world
• while actively discerning how God wants us to live in the world,
• while engaging in the formation of a community which breaks the homogeneous mold that churches still project,
• while searching for God “in the midst of life”, therefore engaging in the quest for transcendence and mystery, and
• while searching for meaning, carrying our emptiness and yearning into the presence of the Holy One.
Our role as Christians is precisely what Jesus said it was: to be salt, yeast, and light. Our Lord’s metaphors for his community of witness were all of them modest ones: a little salt, a little yeast, a little light.
Christendom wanted to be great, large, magnificent. It thought itself the object of God’s expansive grace; it forgot the meaning of its election to worldly responsibility.
Today we are constrained by the divine Spirit to rediscover the possibilities of littleness. We are to decrease in order that the Christ may increase. We cannot enter this new phase without pain, for truly we have been glorious in this world’s own terms. It seems to many of us a humiliation that we are made to reconsider our destiny as “little flocks”.
Can such a calling be worthy of the servants of the Sovereign of the Universe? Yet, if that Sovereign be the One who reigns from the cross, could any other calling be thought legitimate?
Some of this coaching and teaching has a formal character to it; that is, pastors should regularly offer in service training and learning events. Sometimes, this will have the pastoral doing most of the teaching, other times the pastor invites others in to teach, still other times, the pastor asks members of the staff team to teach. However, since a missional congregation is a learning organization, a critical task for the missional leader is this formal job of creating and leading learning events.
Most of this coaching and teaching is informal in character; that is, the missional leader will walk along side those who are learning to engage in some ministry. Or, they will invite a person along in the basic ministry engagements so more and more staff and others learn those habits. The pastoral missional leader is always multiplying capacity.
Some time stewardship principles
Americans are starving for time. Or, so recent studies on how Americans experience time report. We have found that most church staffs feel the same way. They believe they do not have enough time to do what they must.
While we admit to having the same experience, we believe that God has given us all the time we need to do what he calls us to do. However, since we seldom create our to do lists on the basis of what God is calling us to do, we tend to make lists too long. Further we ignore or forget that God has offered us eternal life and what we do between now and then is to be seen in the light of eternity. The first act of stewardship, then, must be spiritual discernment, such planning in light of eternity and the gift of eternal life.
planning = managing our attention
Such spiritual discernment allows us to make short lists. Short lists of things to do are the easiest way to make sure that we get things done. The shorter the list, the more likely it will get done. Learning to turn our spiritual discernment in to short lists is critical.
Learning to create a plan for managing our attention on our short list is the next discipline of stewardship of staff time. And, of course, if we don’t use the plan to manage our attention, all of the above disciplines fail to bring the fruit that God intends.
Of course, there is no clearer way to see how far short of God intentions we fall than to take seriously this process of spiritual discernment regarding our time. Such discernment always finds us making promises we cannot keep. Such promises, make in good faith, and often in moments of inspiration and excitement often become emotional weights, guilt trips, or sources of conflict within a staff. As a staff we will all make promises, we do not keep. We will all have promises made to us that we counted on that will not be kept. We can simply ignore such broken promises, pretending we are a no fault god or we can learn to how each other accountable and forgive and move on.
In the end—and I do mean our final end– our debt to time, our amounting debt of promises unkept, need to be handed over to Christ who takes them all away.
Just recently I received a great story from my friend Rick Paashaus who serves as pastor of worship at Calvary Bible Fellowship Church in Coopersburg, Pennsylvania. After a bit of arm-twisting, Rick agreed to let me share his story with you.
Two months ago I was reading through Deuteronomy and kept hitting up against those phrases about “the aliens within your gates.” Kept thinking…yeah, right…Coopersburg [PA]…the only aliens here are those of us who don’t happen to be Pennsylvania Dutch…and maybe one or two black families and one or two adopted Korean kids. But then I went to the diner for lunch and was cared for by a Mexican, saw another Mexican refilling the salad bar, and noticed a Greek immigrant cook on his break. It really got my mind going. Where do these folks live? Who is showing any interest in them? What about the staff of the diner in general, folks who are Greek Orthodox but rarely darken the door of a Church anyway?
My wife and I came up with a plan to invite THEM to a dinner, just to say “thank you.” And they responded. We provided a full course dinner with tablecloths and china and candlelight, and 35+ of the staff from the diner came and enjoyed it immensely. We took some pictures over the past weeks and secreted out some shots from over the years and put together a surprise video before the meal. No preaching. No handouts or signup–just our way of saying thanks and getting to know the staff better. Many of our own people were there to help, serve, mingle, listen. The diner people loved it. Some were tearful when they arrived and couldn’t stop saying, “I can’t believe you guys would do something like this.” They stayed for three hours and left with containers of leftovers. We even sent 12 dinners over to the staff that had to work and couldn’t attend.
Don’t know what the results may be–perhaps nothing visible–but at least the server from Mexico who is living above the pizza place while his wife and child remain across the border felt valued and cared for one night. And the waitresses who so often serve us and wait while we linger over a third cup of coffee realized that they were appreciated. It was the right thing to do, and the Lord was glorified without too many words.
There are several points to be made from this story.
- First, the starting point was a fresh reading of the biblical text from a missional perspective. By this I mean an interpretive stance which presumes that the unifying theme of Scripture is a narrative about Yahweh, the missionary God, who reconciles the world to himself through the promised Messiah. This perspective highlights certain points of the text that might otherwise go largely unnoticed; it raises questions that move beyond merely historical or exegetical concern. Who are the aliens in our community? What are their greatest needs? How is the Spirit leading us to extend hospitality to them?
- Second, a missional reading of the Bible encourages a distinctive way of “seeing” our communities. For many of us life is too busy to allow us to see what God wants to do through us. Will and Lisa Samson observe that life in the suburbs seems particularly designed to perpetuate our blindness: “The burbs are safe, but they are safe at the price of keeping out questions of need, questions of poverty, questions of insufficiency. In fact, they are designed to maintain an illusion of a particular life, the American dream, where no one is needy, where there is a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage….” Of course the tendency to look past kingdom opportunities is not new. One thinks for example of the disciples traveling through Samaria with Jesus. Their concern is with the challenges of the journey and the logistics of finding food. Jesus, on the other hand, speaks of having food that they know nothing about even as he ministers profoundly to a woman they would as soon look past or disregard (Jn. 4:31-35). I love Rick’s story because it reminds me that we need to see through the eyes of Jesus.
- The third observation is that actions speak as loud as or louder than words. This is especially true in our post-Christian culture. The church now finds itself playing an away-game. The fans who watch the game no longer view us as the home team. They are neutral at best and sometimes downright hostile.
David Kinnaman surveyed perceptions of Christians among outsiders to the faith, ages 16-29. Among the 440 people in the sample, only 10% had a “good impression” of “born-again Christians” and only 3% had a good impression of Evangelical Christians. In another survey Kinnaman reports that only 20% of outsiders “perceive Christian churches to be loving environments, places where people are unconditionally loved and accepted regardless of how they look or what they do.”
In this context cynicism runs high and words–including gospel words–are regarded with suspicion. So actions become the metaphors of the gospel. Not that we never speak. Words are still necessary, but we have been too much about words–words as theories, words without deeds, or even words with the wrong kind of deeds. As Hugh Halter and Matt Smay have observed: “Christianity is now almost impossible to explain, not because the concepts aren’t intelligible, but because the living, moving, speaking examples of our faith don’t line up with the message. Our poor posture overshadows the most beautiful story and reality the world has ever known.”
Kinnaman talks about the need “to articulate a ‘kinder, gentler’ faith–one that engages people but does not compromise its passion for Jesus or its theological understanding of him.”
What we need right now are churches that put both words and deeds in the service of the mission of God. And we need leaders who can encourage this balance–leaders like my friend Rick who can help us to think more creatively about the opportunities that surround us.
 Justice in the Burbs (Baker, 2007), p. 59.
 Unchristian (Baker, 2007), p. 25.
 Unchristian, p. 185.
 The Tangible Kingdom (Jossey-Bass, 2008), p. 41.
 Unchristian, p. 16.