Last week I was at a conference with 80 church leaders from around the world. Actually, to call it a ‘conference’ isn’t really a fair representation of what was going on – rather, it was a gathering of friends who are called into mission together. Many of these men are dear friends of mine, who I only see rarely as we are scattered around the globe, and it was a great joy to be with them for a few days.
With us was the leader of a church planting movement from a Muslim-majority nation. He shared some remarkable stories of gospel advance and also harrowing accounts of Christian suffering – believers hacked to death, church buildings destroyed, a pastor’s wife kidnapped and held as a sex-slave for eighteen months. When he had finished there was a stunned silence in the room, and a speedy adjustment to the program as none of us felt able to continue as planned.
Talking with some of the other westerners there I found I was not alone in lacking any frame of reference to process what our brother had said. My lack of reference points was in itself my main ‘take home’ from his session. I like to think of myself as culturally sensitive and alert to the need to contextualise, but this session made me realise just how enculturated I am. The questions I ask and the assumptions I hold are entirely those of someone raised in the late-modern west.
One of the most punchy sessions of the week was a series of questions posed by another church leader from another Muslim-majority nation. The focus of the conference was to equip and release apostolic teams to global mission and this particular pastor challenged us to think about how we might approach mission differently if we didn’t do it through a western grid. When people from unreached people groups come to faith in Christ they tend to ask different questions than those who come from the traditional ‘centre’ of Christianity. Using Paul’s description of his visit to Jerusalem in Galatians 2 my friend provoked us with these questions:
1. At what point is an emerging apostolic ministry recognised? Does this happen when the ‘centre’ validates it, or can it be self-validating?
2. How do you contextualise your doctrine? Paul describes how he was entrusted with ministry to the gentiles, while Peter was entrusted with ministry to the Jews; so is there a context where those from the margins can say, ‘this is what we’ve been preaching’? Western theologians still exercise a disproportionate influence over the way in which the church thinks (or is told it is meant to think). At what point do we allow theologians from the majority world to begin to define our theological paradigms?
3. How do multi-apostle teams work? The leaders in Jerusalem received Paul and Barnabas. As we go on mission together what would it look like for us to do as Paul and Barnabas did?
4. What is ‘the right hand of fellowship’? Did Peter and James think they were giving Paul permission to continue with his mission while Paul thought they were simply recognising him as an equal? When is ‘the right hand of fellowship’ commissioning and when recognising – and what is the difference? At what point does western Christianity recognise majority-world Christianity as an equal, and at what point is it being merely patronising?
5. What does ‘perceiving the grace given to me’ look like? How would we identify grace given to those from the majority world who might be doing things rather differently from what we are familiar and comfortable with?
These were good questions, though as another pastor from a tough part of the world expressed it, they weren’t so much questions as bullets! To some THINK readers, to even approach Galatians 2 in this way might seem an extraordinary liberty, but that probably only serves to confirm our cultural conditioning. The reality is that the church is growing most dynamically in the majority world, albeit often accompanied by blood and tears. If those of us in the west are going to keep up we will need to learn to think along different lines, even on THINK.