Monday, February 20, 2012

meeting other missionaries

Perhaps early in this new term with Mennonite Mission Network, I'm being told to learn something from other "resident aliens" in South Africa.  That is, I've encountered two separate pastors or missionaries recently from other African countries from whom I've learned something of the challenges of ministry.  I'll restrict my comments below to one of the two persons of whom I speak.

I met an African missionary who is going about the city doing evangelism--praying with people, preaching to people, "saving souls", in his words.  He comes, quite predictably, out of the Charismatic/New Pentecostal stream of Christianity which is so prevalent in this part of the world.

I find myself challenged simply by listening to the details of his story.

First, the predicament of his missionary situation:  The missionary is married with children, but he has left his family behind in his home country to be here.  How different that is from my missionary situation.  Our senders do not ask such a thing of us and, indeed, I cannot imagine being here--I would not be here--without my family.  They are the source of my strength and sanity, and I theirs.  I ask, is that what God asks of us?  Is this what Jesus meant when he talked about forsaking "wife and children" among others for the sake of the gospel?  I recently made some peace with that text, but encounters with persons such as this missionary force me at least to ask the question.

Second, the method of his missionary practice:  He calls himself a "missionary" which is self-evidently to him about doing primary evangelistic work, in his words, "saving souls".  He looks for an opening in his walks around town, perhaps identifying a "sick person" or a youth who is smoking.  Those conditions bespeak some need in the person which the missionary then addresses by praying for the person and asking them if they want to "receive Christ".  The missionary is full of stories about "miracles" which have occurred at his hands, of people being slain in the spirit as he prays, of people with long-standing conditions being healed.  He speaks of receiving "a word of knowledge" when he preaches, a word divinely-given to address the particular needs of people listening without him having prior knowledge of their situation.  I ask, am I as open to encounters with strangers, to people I pass on the street?  Am I closing myself off from learning something new about myself and about God in such encounters with others?

Third, the urgency of his presence: I'm sure this man is convinced he's living in the "last days".  He said so when we prayed together in my office.  I think it is in part that conviction that drives him on to seek the salvation of people.  Do I expect that God is about to do anything new in history, let alone bring about the redemption of the whole creation?

So if I ask such questions of myself, I still have some other questions.

What is the goal of the missionary's "soul-saving" mission?  He does speak of "gathering the souls he's saved", but this is in order for him to more easily "monitor" them on an individual basis.  I ask the question, "Who will take over the work after you leave?"  He intimates that there would be others from his church who could come to lead a church.  As for him, he knows not how long he can stay here, since as an evangelist it would seem that his job is to impart the bare minimum amount of knowledge a person needs to get going and move on to the next location.

I feel that there is quite a large gap between what I believe I am here to do and what this man believes he is here to do.  I am here to engage people deeply in the scriptures, to help them to know and to find their lives within that broader story of God's people.  I am here to do discipleship.  I believe that the goal of discipleship, that salvation, is the community called the church which God has ordained as the here-and-now sign of his coming kingdom.  I believe that essential to the redemption of the creation is the capacity of the church to live out its calling as the people of God's peace in the midst of the world.  I am trying to form those peace-minded disciples of Christ in my work.  Yet something about my encounter with this missionary seems to call that very approach into question.  I suspect that for him my approach must feel too long-term, possibly too structural, perhaps not urgent enough, since the "present form of this world is passing away" (1 Cor 7:31).  I would reason rather that, since we "know neither the day or the hour" (Mk 13:32), we might as well settle in for the long-haul and do the kind of thorough discipleship that I understand Jesus to have been about in the gospels.  I might characterize the gap I perceive as having as one's goal the saving of the individual versus having as one's goal the creation of a people.  This is not to say that the two are opposed; indeed, the salvation of individuals makes up the formation of community.  Still, I sense a basic difference in orientation.  The church is central, not peripheral, to my understanding of salvation.

That question aside, I sign off with one final challenge for me.

Even if I could reason myself into believing that I am the one who, as above, articulates the authentic "Anabaptist vision", I am hounded by the suspicion that my friend resembles the sixteenth-century Anabaptists more than I resemble them (I understand that being "like the Anabaptists" is not the goal--nonetheless I do believe in the vision).  Many of them were also convinced of the imminent end.  They also went around preaching and baptizing, probably in a fashion that would seem too haphazard to our modern, "settled," western Christian sensibilities.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

on biblical literacy and leadership

Last night was week #2 of the discipleship class I'm leading at a local church.  I was relieved that it actually happened since, last week--only one week into the course--it was canceled for a "church meeting".  The cancellation, of course, led me to wonder how seriously the course was being taken, in spite of the fact that the opening of the course was not our own initiative but the pastor's.  It is not unusual for things to start out with a bang, only to fizzle out when the challenges of living life "on the edge" get in the way.  Or else that which is somewhat outside conventional "church culture" in this setting gets squeezed out by more conventional forms--evening prayer services, revivals, "meetings".  Another pastor from one of our partner churches elsewhere in South Africa recently articulated this phenomenon to me.  Speaking of his town, he said,

"churches in the Pentecostal stream from which I come don't do Bible study anymore.  We used to do it, but now churches just hold services during the week."

The comment came in the flow of the pastor's own case for the value of biblical education, especially for leaders in the church.  For those of us who come from rather "flat" leadership structures in the church (as opposed to hierarchical) and believe it should be that way, we may want to protest at the line, "especially for leaders in the church".  Why, we might ask, should "leaders" be valued more than laity if the type of community to which Jesus and the apostles pointed was that in which no one on earth should be called "father", since "you have one father, your father in heaven"?  Shouldn't we just expect, independent of human experts, to be taught by our heavenly Teacher as we gather together in the community of faith? (see Mt 23:8-10).

Ironically, such questions merely mirror that which they often oppose, since the ultra-hierarchical forms of church in the Pentecostal-Charismatic mold also--like their "flat" "free church/believers' church", "Anabaptist" brothers and sisters--often exhibit a kind of confidence in the "spirit" to guide apart from the illumination of the "word".  Regardless of whether or not modern Anabaptists from the global north would use the language of the spirit to speak of their church structures (we are more likely to use the language of "democracy" and "equality"), the ultimate effect is the same as the Charismatics: the erosion of literacy/fluency in the Bible.  

On the South African Charismatic side (the AICs also are not immune to this) this can take the form of leaders who insist that they need not study or seek higher biblical training because their Spirit-conferred authority is sufficient for them.  I once attended a funeral for a Zionist church member in which my presence as representative of a Bible School spurred this very debate over lunch among the leaders assembled there.  One old man was particularly adamant that it was completely unnecessary for him to attend school because he had the spirit.  The pastor quoted earlier likewise lends credence to this phenomenon when he makes the following point about his Pentecostal context.

"In the secular world, people are trained thoroughly for their professions.  But it is not that way with leaders in the church."

It is against such a backdrop, therefore, that the call for biblical education, "especially for leaders in the church", is apropos.  Facility in that source which holds such wisdom for our practice as a people faithful to God, serving the cause of justice and peace in our world, must begin somewhere.  Why not begin, therefore, with men and women specifically called, trained, and equipped to lead the church in unlocking the wonders of the word?  There is still a need for such leaders in the church on either hemisphere.


Saturday, February 11, 2012

back at BBS in 2012

Last weekend was our first Bethany Bible School conference of the new year. The topic on Friday was Introduction to Biblical History.  Saturday's topic was Reconciliation.  For a reflection on what transpired on Friday, see

Below are a few pictures from the weekend.

Vivian Booi, a student and member of the BBS executive committee, assisted by Mavis Tshandu, narrates the story of Jesus and the disciples in Gethsemane as illustrated in this print from the Jesus Mafa collection.

Representatives from one of the four small study groups present their images.   Mama Booi here holds a depiction of Samuel anointing David as king of Israel.

Tata Mbana, also a member of the committee,  dances  up to the camera during the pre-teaching singing.