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Exciting Times

The church today faces many difficulties both within and beyond the confines of the believing community, yet theses are exciting times to be the people of God. For we live in a world were people are longing for meaning, searching for spirituality and craving for love and compassion. The church’s loss of power and prestige is not an obstacle to its witness to the world, but an advantage. Because a humbler, more human and less hierarchical church is better placed to incarnate itself into the new world in which we now live. It is also in a better position to witness to the values and significance of the Gospel, provided it does so with a greater sense of humility and less arrogance than it has done in the past. In re-engaging the world we must rediscover the importance of dialogue and the primacy of love, while recognising that there are no easy answers, nor a quick fix. We must discover the questions and problems that people are struggling with and become both so excited and concerned with them that we are willing to spend our lives, as the people of God, in seeking to respond to them.  Not as those who have all the answers or solutions, but as those who are willing to walk and journey with them on the road of discovery and healing. 

Coming to faith is not an easy thing for those who have not grown up in the church, because there are so many cultural accretions that have been added to the gospel that don’t make much sense to those who enter our communities from the outside world.  It can be extremely confusing for our friendly neighbourhood pagan who comes to faith and is then confronted with a Christian culture, with its hopes and expectations, which looks and feels so different from that which attracted him or her to Christ in the first place. Our lists of taboos, don’t do this and don’t do that or do this and do that, seem to be so incongruous with the Jesus they read about in the Gospels, and who drew them in to himself. Suddenly they are overwhelmed by the weight of expectation placed upon them by the community to which they so precariously now belong.

So how do we welcome new believers into the community of faith and encourage them in the Easter faith they have so recently experienced and embraced? This is not an easy question to answer for a church that has been confined by the limitations of Christendom for over a thousand years. Our desire to understand and respond to this question must entail a journey, whereby we reassess the very nature of the gospel and the faith it produces in both the life of the individuals, who embrace it, and the community to which they belong. We must be willing to dig deep into the cultures of our faith communities and seek to determine that which must be retained and what may be left-behind. This journey must be taken, if we are to live out our faith in such a way that it is welcoming to new believers, helpful to their spiritual growth and meaningful to the world they inhabit. Yet the difficulty is that we must do this without compromising the very essence of the gospel or what it truly means to be the people of God.

Life in West Papua was always been slightly different from life in other places where we have lived. One day, in May 1991 this came home to us in a rather unexpected way.

 Word came across from the village in the morning that Kumotena had given birth to a healthy baby boy. Kumotena was the wife of a respected church elder Wakee. Later that day Wapke, my wife, asked him what he was going to call his new baby boy, “We will call him Simion”, he replied. “That is the name Les has given him.”

 I arrived home from teaching in the Bible School and Wapke gave me the good news about Wakee and Kumotena’s baby. “Why did you choose the name Simion for him”, she asked. I became rather confused as I had not even known that the baby was born until just then. I assured her that I never gave the baby a name, but she insisted that Wakee was quite sure about it. So I set off to find Wakee in the village and after preliminary greetings and inquiring about the welfare of his wife and new son I asked him why he had told Wapke that I had named his child. He looked straight at me and said, “You told Kumotena that we had to call our baby boy Simion.” In complete amzement I replied, “How could I, when I didn’t even know that he was born?”

 With a big smile on his face he answered, “You did tell Kumotena to call our baby boy Simion. A few months ago, when you were away in Sentani, Kumotena had a dream. In the dream you told her that she was going to have a baby boy and that she had to call him Simion.” Recovering quite well and understanding the cultural situation I replied, “Well, I guess I did tell her to call him Simion, I must have forgotten.”

 Dreams play an important part in the lives of the Momina people. In fact it was through a dream that God prepared the way for the coming of the gospel. Prior to the initial contact with the mission a man called Moorookoo, who was a dreamer or diviner, had a dream. In the dream he was taken to the place in the sky where the sky people live. He was told by the sky people that at a future time people with white skin and straight hair like a cassowary would come and give them a new revelation from the God of their ancestors which they must obey. These same people would cut down the trees at the junction of the Sumo and Aki-in Rivers, the purpose of which was unclear. He told the people of his long-house of the dream and they took his words seriously and remembered them for he was highly respected by them.

 Interestingly enough his importance was verified to the village of Sumo just a few days before he died. He went into the jungle with Sooai and Obaee, two men from his long-house at Sumo. While in the jungle he saw a ladder, which went up to the sky. He indicated to his two friends that he was going to leave them and go to dwell among the sky people. They were calling him to come. Sooai and Obaee could not see the ladder and did not want him to leave, so they physically restrained him and prevented him from leaving. They took Moorookoo back to the long-house. Two days later this perfectly healthy man died. These events were remembered by the people of Sumo and prepared them for our coming with the gospel of Jesus Christ and the building of the airstrip at the junction of the Sumo and Aki-in Rivers.

 The Momina people responded to the gospel and the church was established among them. Dreams continued to play a significant part in their lives. For example, the night before a hunting trip the hunters would pray to God asking the Holy Spirit to show them the best place to hunt. Often one of the hunting party would have a dream in which he saw a location in the jungle where there were many pigs. In the morning the he would share this knowledge with the rest of the party and they would head off to the location indicated in the dream for what proved to be a very successful hunting trip.

 Dreams were so prevalent in the lives of the Momina believers that I encouraged the elders of the church to screen people’s dreams to see if they were from God. So it became a common feature of church life to have people bring their dreams to the elders for critique and interpretation. On one occasion, a young man came to the elders with what appeared to be a fairly outrageous dream. I wondered how they would handle this and listened carefully. To my surprise Daniel, a man of great spiritual wisdom and insight, told the young man to go away and learn to dream as a Christian. My first reaction was to think, “What on earth is he saying?” Then it dawned on me what he was getting at. He was seeking to teach this young man and the rest of the community that everything, including dreams need to be brought under Christ’s lordship. In this context it made perfect sense and was of great importance for this new believer to ‘learn to dream as a Christian.” 

Theology of Failure

In spite of the fact that Christianity speaks of the cross, redemption and sin, we are too often unwilling to admit failure in our life. This is partly due our defensive mechanisms against our own inadequacies. It is also partly due to the successful image our culture demands of us. We live in a success orientated society and failure even in the church is not generally allowed or acknowledged. The problem with the need to project the perfect image and the need to be successful is that:

First of all, it is simply not true, we are not always happy, optimistic, in command and successful. We do sin. We fail and get things wrong and do wrong things. The reality is that some of the great Saints of the Old and New Testaments failed. Abraham, David, Peter and so on.

Secondly, projecting the flawless image keeps us from connecting with people. People, who feel we just can’t understand them. There is nothing as off-putting as a Christian who presents the perfect image or who seems to have it all together or presents themself as very religious.

When I was working in the coal mines in the North of England and Scotland, it was the very religious people whom most men could not relate to. Jesus was incredibly real but he was so unlike the religious Pharisees.

And third, even if we could live a life with no conflict, suffering or mistakes, it would be a shallow existence. The man or woman who is deep is the man or woman who has failed and who has learned to live with his or her failure. We learn far more from times of suffering or failure than we ever learn from our successes. Richard Rohr very wisely says, “Success has nothing to teach us after the age of thirty.”

RC theologian, Anthony Padovano suggests that:

“A Christian is someone who wants to give his [or her] life seriously for a noble objective. If he [or she] does not wish this, he [or she] is not a Christian. Every human life given generously for a lofty ideal is filled with re­gret as well as with joy. One of the most difficult things to accept in such a life is our failure to have done with our lives what we longed to accom­plish. In a sense, this is the one cross we want least of all, the cross we never expected, the cross which is hardest to bear. Such a cross is all the more painful for those who, in the name of the cross, were once sure their lives would make a great difference”.

In a success orientated society we are often troubled by the seeming failure of our lives. We so easily forget that our every success has a trace of failure in it and that our failures are never complete failure. No one thing in our lives can undo completely the good we have done. We must be reminded that life is a continual loss and not only a continual gain. Our progress toward God and our growth in grace is not in a straight line. We go forward in a three-steps forward and two-steps back fashion, always going somewhere but not directly and rarely in a pre­dictable manner.

Where does mission stand and what is mission at the beginning of a new century and a new millennium?

First, We Must Be Orientated Towards Incarnation rather than Programs

  • To often in modern mission the focus has been on programs rather than people
  • Mission is about relationship
  • Ultimately the missionary is the message

This means that mission involves living an incarnational lifestyle and presenting the gospel in both word and deed in whatever context God calls us to be witnesses

Second, We Do Mission in the Context of a Global Church

  • Consequently mission is not about the West to the rest
  • But rather its is about mission from and to everywhere
  • Thus we need to be open to the internationalisation of mission
  • We need to be open to engaging in mission alongside others from within the global church

Third, We Engage in Mission in the Light of a Shift in the Centre of the Christian World

Andrew Walls has described it as a “massive southward shift of the centre of gravity of the Christian world”

  • The Church in the West is in decline
  • The dynamism of the church resides in the southern hemisphere
  • Africa is the new worldwide centre of Christianity today
  • I would suggest that later in this century that China will become the new centre of the global church and mission
  • This means that Western mission must be willing to take on a servant role and exhibit greater humility in the way we engage in mission

Fourth, Globalisation and Pax Americana

  • Political empires have always been part of  the sociohistorical framework for the development of Christian mission
  • There was Pax Romana in the 1st century
  • Pax Hispanica in the 16th century
  • Pax Britannica in the 19th century

However there has always been an uneasy and tenuous relationship between Christian mission and colonialistic or imperialistic political powers of this world. The Question we must ask is: Will the identification of Western Christian mission with Pax Americana be the downfall of Western mission in a globalised world?

  • Many Majority-World nations and peoples are at odds with American foreign policy
  • America’s right to rule the world is being challenged not only by Islamic fundamentalists but my many Third-World nations tired of the economic imperialism that keeps them impoverished and marginalised

Fifth, Mission is Carried Out in a World of Increased Poverty and Inequality

  • The economic side of globalisation has accentuated the social disparities in the world
  • There is an increased gap between rich and poor not only in the Majority-World but also in the Western world
  • Consequently drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitution and street children are either the results of poverty or result in poverty.
  • Nevertheless these are the issues of mission in the urban centres of the world

 Sixth, the End of Christendom

  • In the West we now live in a post-Christendom context
  • This means that western nations have become one of the new mission fields
  • Lesslie Newbigin asked the question: “Can the West be converted?”

What does this mean for Church and Mission in Australia?

  • It means that the old Christendom approaches to reaching Australia no longer work
  • It means the cross-cultural and missional approaches developed on the mission field need to be applied to the Australian context
  • It means that mission organisations will need to help the Australian church do mission here in Australia

If we don’t then the result will be the euthanasia of mission and church here in Australia.

Seventh, We do Mission in a Pluralistic World

  • Postmodernism as escalated the movement towards pluralism
  • Many in our churches no long recognised the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ
  • Mission is increasingly viewed as proselytism
  • Mission is often thought to be unnecessary

How do we respond?

  • We must respond with greater humility than we have in the past
  • Our truth claims have been considered arrogant because often we have acted arrogantly
  • We must stop proof texting in a simplistic way and defend the uniqueness of Jesus Christ on the basis of a high Christology

We Must Assert that:

  • In terms of faith the gospel is particularist — Jesus is the only way
  • In terms of culture the gospel is pluralist — people from all cultures may come to Christ
  • In terms of ecclesiology the gospel is inclusivist — all who are part of the body of Christ are included therefore we should demonstrate our unity

The Way Forward for Mission

  • We must return to a biblical pattern of mission informed by a global church rather than simply by the Western church
  • We must reaffirm our commitment God’s Mission in this world
  • We must reaffirm the missionary nature of the church
  • We must recognise that mission requires orthopraxy as well as orthodoxy
  • We must develop new structures for mission in a new and rapidly changing world
  • We must take seriously the internationisation of mission
  • We in the West must take seriously the call for a simply lifestyle
  • We must remember the gospel is still powerful
  • God is still sovereign
  • Jesus Christ is the only Saviour of the World
  • And the Holy Spirit is the One who sends us out in Mission to transform the World as a sign of the coming of the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ

The World is in transition and change. The generations we serve are different and will approach mission differently and do mission different from the way we did it in the past. It is natural to want to hold on to the methods and structures we are familiar with. Yet, if we are to serve both this generation and the world they belong to then we need to make the transition and discover new and creative ways of doing mission in this generation.

We must remember that this is not the first time historically that we as the people of God have faced this dilemma. Over and over again in the history of the church we have faced such situations. What we need to realise is that God is not taken by surprise! God has not changed. God is Sovereign and he is still in control.

Remember the People of God in the Old Testament when they are sent into Exile. The Exile appears to be a complete and utter disaster:

  • The Temple is destroyed.
  • The people are taken into exile.
  • God has abandoned them, at least that‘s what it seems.
  • Things seem to be going from bad to worse.

In Psalm 137 we read their cry of abandonment:  “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” When they remembered the good old days they were in complete and utter despair. Then in verse 4 they go on to say: “How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?” What they are asking is how can we follow and serve God in this new context in which we now live? How can we worship and praise God when he is so far away? What they have to rediscover is that God is in this and God is with them. Yet, it is in the asking of the question that they begin to realise that God is still with them, that he has not changed, and he is still in control.

God was, is, and always will be in control of history. God’s purposes move forward despite the failure or inadequacy of his people. In the asking of this question they begin to reconnect with what God wants to do in Babylon and in the whole world. The mandate that the exiles were given by God was to seek the welfare (shalom) of the city of their exile. They were to pray to the Lord on its behalf. They were to pray for the nations.

Through Daniel and his friends, Nebuchadnezzar, the most powerful man in the world at that time, encounters God and acknowledges him to be the Most High God. In Daniel Chapter 4 we read that:

“At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honoured and glorified him who lives forever.  His dominion is an eternal dominion;  his kingdom endures from generation to generation.  All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases  with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: “What have you done?””

Thus Nebuchadnezzar, recognise who God is and he acknowledges his sovereignty. However God’s purposes in the Exile go way beyond Nebuchadnezzar.

  • In the Exile the Jews are scattered throughout the Mediterranean world. Without this Diaspora it would have been impossible for the apostles to plant the church so widely and so rapidly in the first century. 
  • It was the Diasporal Jews that evolved into a synagogue which became the first jumping off point for Paul on his missionary journeys.
  • It was also among the Diasporal Jews that the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, was produced. This became the Bible of the New Testament church.

God is in control. He is not surprised by the changes that are taking place in the world in which we live.

  • We need to reconnect with Him and rediscover what He is doing in the world and among this generation.
  • We need to be prepared to lay aside our mission and realign ourselves with His mission.
  • This means both continuity and discontinuity with the past and the ways we have traditionally done things.
  • Our task I would suggest is to humbly and prayerfully discover what this entails and what the Lord requires of us as the people of God in this new and changing world.

During my early years among the Momina people of West Papua I spent hundreds of hours on the trail trekking between villages. Because the Momina are located in one of the wettest regions in the world, trekking was never easy. However, some treks were much harder than others. One trek in particular still stands out, sending shivers up my spine whenever I think about it. The first leg of the two-day trek from Sumo to Obukain was relatively easy to the midway village of Makoo. It involved trekking through knee deep mud for long stretches at a time, and walking precariously on greasy logs. It meant crossing the Baliem River in an old rickety canoe, sometimes when the river was in full flood, and putting up with unwanted leeches.

The second leg was, however, a different story. The first hour involved trekking through knee deep mud. The next three and a half-hours were spent in chest high water and mud, tripping over unseen tree roots with only your guide’s knowledge of the trees to determine the direction of the trail. After that it was back to the knee deep mud for another hour and a half, before walking on a man-made bridge of four inch round poles through a sago swamp for the last hour. Loss of balance during this stage involved the risk of being pierced by nine-inch needle-like sago thorns. While climbing off the improvised bridge on the outskirts of Obukain the thigh muscles would be quivering uncontrollably for a good half-hour.

I made that trek on four or five occasions before the people discovered a better route and made it into a less hazardous trail. On each occasion after my first experience of the trail, I could not sleep for a couple of nights before a trek because of the unpleasant expectation of what I was about to encounter. The journey towards a contextual theology can be just as hazardous as the trail to Obukain. It is fraught with dangers, obstacles and fears. Moreover, there is a need to discover and prepare a better, less hazardous route. However, there is a greater danger than the journey on the trail towards a contextual theology, and the search for a better route. That is to remain at home avoiding the journey, perhaps believing that the journey is unnecessary, or that it is too dangerous to attempt. To do that is to risk the gospel and Christianity becoming irrelevant and meaningless for the people of Melanesia. It is to risk condemning the church to foreignness on the one hand, or lack of transformation on the other. It is to risk falling from the greasy log of syncretism or getting bogged down in the mud of nominalism. As Schineller has said with regards to the process of contextualisation, “We have the obligation to search continually for ways in which the good news can be more deeply lived, celebrated and shared.”1

1 Peter  Schineller, Handbook on Inculturation.( New York: Paulist Pres, 1990)p.3.