In 1989, Kathy and I moved to South Africa, when Apartheid was still in full swing. Up to that point, I would have said I had limited knowledge of issues in South Africa beyond reading The Covenant by James Michener and general knowledge from media coverage through the 70s and 80s.
Shortly after arriving, I heard this spoken word performance by one of the students in the seminary where I was teaching. I would say that I was profoundly moved and affected by this in a way that books and scholarly articles could never do. The author/performer was Tshokolo Marra. It was shortly after hearing this that Nelson Mandela was released from prison in early 1990. (I was going through file boxes the other day and found this -- which prompted this reflection)
By the Rivers of Apartheid
By the rivers of Apartheid we sit and weep
When we at the flow of blood look
There on the fast-growing stubbornness of government
The violence arises
And the blood of martyrs of peace and justice
is daily shed... by the rivers of Apartheid
For there our rulers declared the state of emergency
Our oppressors quoted Scripture
And said: "Be subject to the authority,
For authority is established by God" ... by the rivers of Apartheid
How can we be subject to government by minority
Which makes Christian fight Christian
Africans betray Africans
Whites distrust Africans
And live in constant fear and anxiety? ... by the rivers of Apartheid
If we keep quiet Christians
Better for us not to have been saved
Than to be saved and sit and wait
For the coming kingdom
While our families, relatives and friends
Are destroyed... by the rivers of Apartheid
If we do not announce the Good News
To the blind, the poor, oppressed, prisoners
And if we do not denounce Evil
(Evil done in the name of Law and Order)
Who else will do it? ... by the rivers of Apartheid
Remember, O Christians, remember
Where peaceful demonstrators met with resistance of SADF
Which killed and murdered people... by the rivers of Apartheid
Remember, O Christians, remember
Nineteen Fifty Three
The establishment of Bantu Education
Education for the poor and oppressed
Which makes them suffer from inferiority complex... by the rivers of Apartheid
Nineteen Seventy Six in Soweto
Thousand of school children were arrested
Many were killed, others fled the country
But the mystery remains
Where are the others? ...by the rivers of Apartheid
Saints, look, think and speak
You are ambassadors of Christ
To stop the ever-flowing river
Which breeds violence, disorder and exploitation
...by the rivers of Apartheid.
Just about finished The Patient Ferment of the Early Church by Alan Kreider. Toward the end of the book, he draws a contrast between the practices of the early church in regard to formation and witness, with the emergence of imperial influence (Constantine) on those practices.
When Roman Emperor Constantine began to identify with the Christian faith (around 312AD) subtle shifts emerged in Christian theology and practice which have continued to be factors to the present day. Constantine refused to submit to the normal catechetical practice of the Christian community -- a process of formation, over several years, which focused on reformation of behaviour to match the teachings of Jesus, then baptism and entry in the faith family via the Lord's supper, when biblical teaching and theology moved to the forefront of the ongoing formation process. Constantine said, "thanks, but I will figure it out through my own study." Effectively moving belief to the forefront and behaviour as optional. Constantine was only baptized shortly before his death because he felt the submission of his behaviour to Christian community and teaching might be incompatible with the tasks required of an emperor.
So what changed because of the influence of Constantine and the emergence of Christendom? Kreider suggests 5 areas.
Kreider's summary thought is that it became very difficult for Christian leaders to maintain their beliefs, values and practices once they were presented with power, resources and legitimacy.
...for those with ears to hear...
I'm digging into Alan Kreider's new book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. Think of it as a major update on Michael Green's classic from several decades ago, Evangelism in the Early Church -- a book that profoundly impacted my thinking and practice.
"If the early church had strategies for converting people, they did not teach these or write about them. As Origen put it in a Sunday sermon:
"You catechumens -- who gathered you into the church? What goad compelled you to leave your houses and come together in this assembly? We did not go to you from house to house. The Almighty Father put this zeal into your hearts by his invisible power."
"How then did the church grow? Scholars have seen the church's growth as coming about through something modest: "casual contact." Contact could come about in innumerable ways through the translocal networks of family and profession in which most people participated. Masters interacted with slaves; residents met neighbours; and above all believers networked with relatives and work colleagues. In all these relationships "affective bonds" were formed. The most reliable means of communicating the attractiveness of the faith to others and enticing them to investigate things further was the Christians' character, bearing, and behaviour. The habitus of the individual Christian was crucial."
Good books, whether fiction or non-fiction (and I read a lot of both), 1) keep your attention -- you want to see where the story is going to take you, and 2) they give you pause to reflect on your own story and memories -- you feel the story because it resonates, somehow, with your own. That is what reading Jared Siebert's book, Gutsy: (Mis)Adventures in Canadian Church Planting did for me. I like the front cover picture even -- a kid in a superhero costume diving into the deep end of the pool!
(Disclaimer: Jared is a long-time colleague of mine with whom I have worked on a lot of projects over the years, including him being the denominational overseer for the faith community experiment my wife and I have been involved in for the past 7 years.)
This book kept my attention because Jared gave an update and an analysis of a story that some of us have been following over the past couple decades in Canada. The story of real attempts to birth faith communities that resonate with people living outside Christendom in our Canadian context. I have met a good number of the church planters in his book and know something of their stories. And I have been involved in trying to respond to some of the same concerns they were exploring as they planted.
This book also gave me pause to reflect on my own story -- it resonated as authentic. My wife and I were involved in the successful planting of a missional, multicultural church in urban South Africa in the 1990s. "Successful" in the sense that a continuing congregation was birthed; that we met the goals and intentions of the original vision; and that we both had a positive experience of leading a supportive, encouraging core team. The book also gave me pause to reflect on our second, more recent experience that has been markedly different. A key factor, of course, is that South Africa is still profoundly impacted by Christendom -- doing a few things differently and well, meant that people joined in with us. Canada, on the other hand, and the city we have been living in, has left Christendom behind. We did not attempt to engage with church people, or people with Christian memory, we have been engaged with people having no religious affiliation, perhaps even mildly hostile to the Christian story. And so the stories in Jared's book resonate deeply with me. Our work has largely been an experiment in imagining how different forms and approaches to Christian community will connect. Very similar to the stories in the book.
Chapter 7 in the book, "Do you know what success looks like?" was helpful. He says, "It is most important that church plants have a clear sense of their collective calling... your calling can be found in the reasons you decided to plant in the first place." That prompted my memories back to the first urges my wife and I had in 2009 about what we felt the Lord was calling us to do.
Thanks for your service to the Canadian church and church planters in doing this work, Jared.
I just finished reading my friend and missionary colleague Chris Payk's great little book, Grace First: Christian Mission and Prevenient Grace in John Wesley. It is the product of his master's thesis a few years ago, with a foreword by Howard Snyder. Chris and family are have been living in Taipei, Taiwan for some years and he is starting work on a Ph.D -- courses conducted and dissertation to be completed in Mandarin Chinese.
According to Wesley, prevenient grace is given by God to draw, enlighten, and convict persons. Church leaders would be wise to analyze the church's ministries in order to determine whether or not the divine-human relationship in each ministry is the primary concern, so as to identify where ministry energies are being mobilized, and to what extent the church's social, cultural and worldview models are culturally sensitive in light of the transcultural character of prevenient grace. This would help the church to be as effective as possible in communicating the realities of the gospel. (p91)
These Wesleyan insights have helped shape content for the study curriculum that my colleague Jared Siebert and I have developed over the past couple years, Bearing Faithful Witness. One of the sessions explores the Cornelius story in Acts 10, where God had been preparing him in various ways for the visit of Peter, who had likewise been prepared in advance to engage with this outsider to the Jewish tradition. Chris Payk urges us to "pay attention, to notice" where God has already been at work, because that helps us to shape our conversations as we build bridges between God's prevenient activity and the fuller revelation of the Jesus story.
I have been reading Alan Roxburgh's book, Missional Map-Making: Skills for Leading in Times of Transition. He makes some interesting connections to the field of biomedicine. Dr Arthur Kornberg received the Nobel Prize (1959) for his work in isolating the first DNA polymerizing enzyme. A long-time professor at Stanford University, in 2000 he had this to say:
With regard to medical research, the best plan over many decades has been no plan at all. ... the pursuit of understanding the basic facts of nature has proven throughout the history of medical science to be the most practical, the most cost-effective route to successful drugs and devices... Investigations that seemed irrelevant to any practical objective have yielded most of the major discoveries in medicine: X-rays, MRI, penicillin, polio vaccine.
He suggests that the way to "discover" solutions is to:
Of course, we should probably apply those insights to how we need to imagine the way forward for Christian witness in these in-between times that we find ourselves in.
Over the years I have been involved in numerous faith "communities." Some lasted for a summer and were profoundly formative. Some lasted for a year or so and taught me stuff about myself that I would have rather avoided. Some lasted for years and didn't form me or teach me anything.
The last 7 or 8 years I have been part of a small faith community that has challenged me, formed me, taught me stuff about myself that I would have rather avoided, provided for times of receiving forgiveness and giving forgiveness, been full of great joy and deep anguish. And given me glimpses of what God was imagining with this business about his kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven.
I came across this article by Karina Kreminski entitled: Four Everyday Practices you must have to Experience Community, that I found helpful and challenging.
She starts the article by saying: "I'm tired of Christians using the word community without meaning it."
Her 4 practices:
The Discipline of Stubborn Loyalty
How can we practice this “stickability” in a culture which is distracted, transient and essentially does not value loyalty? Can we express a kind of faithfulness and a constant reliance on one another and to the place where we live that will make the world gasp at our manifest fidelity?
The Discipline of Kenosis
We have to be willing to let go of our own selves in order to create true community. Truly surrendering to each other feels like we are losing our sense of self to some extent, and in our narcissistic society where individualism reigns, this is anathema.
The Discipline of Interdependence
what I found impressive was the awareness that each person had regarding fostering community. They realized that they affected one another. It was not just about the individual but each person keenly observed that the individual was a part of a community and so had responsibilities towards that community.
The Discipline of Welcoming "the Other"
We have a long way to go in order to learn the discipline of truly welcoming the other. Women, singles, marginalized people, ethnic minorities, refugees, these should be feeling at home in our congregations. Yet usually I hear the opposite. Many of these groups of people I have just mentioned crave community yet they leave the church gathering often feeling more lonely than when they walked in.
Pete Scazzero shared this helpful graphic and a few thoughts on disciplemaking in a recent newsletter.
Yet we have programs to run, meetings to lead, people to pray for, money concerns, attendance to monitor, administration to be done, messages to prepare, strategies to execute, visions to cast, and crises that won't wait till tomorrow.
We live in the great tension of the big and the small -- a tension I carry with me each week as I set priorities. How do I focus on the few, my Twelve, when modern culture demands the big! and now?
It helps me to remember that so much in and around me resists focusing on the few. Why?
Discipling the few is slow. The kingdom of God is a mustard seed and always will be.
Discipling the few is hard. People are complex and formation is messy.
Discipling the few is limiting. Limits and rebellion are closely related. We have been resisting limits since the Garden of Eden.
Discipling the few demands a lot from me. I cannot give what I do not possess, and cannot help but give what I do possess. It requires I keep growing and learning.
Rick Hiemstra, a researcher, from EFC recently had some comments on evangelical congregations in our Canadian context.
Essentially, we're increasingly finding ourselves on the periphery of culture. That is because there is a fairly aggressive civil religion emerging - WYRA (who you really are). The central notion is not that humans are separated from God, but that we lack knowledge of our true identity. Our culture proclaims that when we discover who we really are, we will discover a superhero or someone who has all the pieces put together. The orthodox Christian story is that who we really are is broken, warped people who need to meet Jesus and through transformative grace and healing come to look more and more like him. This is the heart of the conflict we are experiencing with our culture, differing views of our essential character and identity.
Questions about where we root justice and what's right and wrong are answered with: "right or wrong is based mostly on what I feel." So this emerging civil religion is built around personal subjectivity.
Christians need to find means for inserting an alternative story to this dominant motif. That God created good things, which we broke through our self-centred search for identity within ourselves. Restoration calls for re-orienting our lives around Jesus and a focus on God's kingdom concerns, rather than our own. And this is the foundation of social justice not rooted in personal subjectivity.