In 2006, Allelon sponsored a gathering of missiologists, theologians and practitioners at Payette Lake, Idaho. Most of those who attended were from the USA. Others came from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and the United Kingdom. Our commonality was the life and work of Lesslie Newbigin. Our conversation was framed by a question Newbigin asked twenty years earlier in Foolishness to the Greeks: “What is a missionary engagement with late modern, Western culture?” He was raising a fundamental challenge facing Christian life in the West. Newbigin’s work generated an intellectual engagement of the Christian narrative with a modernity that was, itself, beginning to fundamentally question some of its basic understanding of the nature of truth and rationality. What was clear was that the West was now a mission field.
Newbigin helped us to ask critical questions about what would be involved in a missionary engagement with our own culture. Part of his contribution to this re-engagement was the insight that we must focus around questions of the relationship between the Biblical narratives and the cultural narratives of modernity. For him the locus of engagement involved questions of how public narratives are formed and change, especially in relationship to the Biblical narrative. He took both sides of this question with utter seriousness, both the narratives of modernity and the Biblical text, engaging them on their own terms, seeking to listen to the cultural narratives for what they were in themselves in order to hear, in a fresh way, the Biblical narratives in dialogue with this context.
Newbigin’s work caught the imagination of a new generation of missiologists. A number of Gospel and Our Culture Networks (GOCN) sprung up in the UK, New Zealand and North America taking up Newbigin’s question in their own contexts. A team in the North America GOCN wrote Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. It connected with a growing sense of dis-ease about the state of the church and shaped the imagination of a new generation of church leaders. By the beginning of the new millennium GOCN seemed to lose its way. The missional conversation – for Newbigin an engagement with the Gospel and the cultures of the West – became just another term for the tactics of attractional church effectiveness.
Why did Newbigin’s missiological insights and the promising developments of the GOCN lose their way? Around 2005, in North America and the UK, some began to frame a response. They believed Newbigin’s insights and his basic question remained the right ones. Two things stood out in the midst of a series of reasons for this loss of focus. First, Newbigin had remained attentive to a specific imagination about the sources and processes of cultural change in the modern West. Out of his own shaping in 20th century rationality he directed his work around the conviction that the primary ways in which the Christian imagination would re-engage and transform Western culture would be as the best minds worked on the intellectual challenges of a post-critical modernity. He sought to ask the question of how the Biblical narrative might again sit at the center of the cultural table in dialogue with the pluralized narratives of modernity. Implicit in Newbigin’s methodology was the assumption that experts, intellectuals and elites are the primary drivers of this dialogue and of social transformation. Without diminishing the importance of this intellectual work, several of us were wrestling with the awareness that cultural transformation involves more than this top-down process. It involves a complex set of processes and interactions that are more about the narratives and tactics of ordinary people in their interactions than the strategies of elites or the analysis of experts. We believed Newbigin’s question needed a new starting point.
Second, GOCNs focus and energy had shifted from questions of the relationship between the Biblical and cultural narratives to that of ecclesiology. An unforeseen result was that the missional conversation became, almost exclusively, a conversation about the church. This was not Newbigin’s intention. Ecclesiology had displaced his brilliant dialogue between the Biblical narratives and the culture(s) of modernity. We suspected that when questions of the church (its nature, purpose and function) became the primary locus of the missional conversation, it turned the missional question into a series of tactical conversations for improving church effectiveness in a time of diminishing returns.
We were convinced that to address the question of a missionary encounter with our culture(s) required a different starting point. It had to begin in, with, and under the narratives of ordinary people in their specific contexts. It called for a deliberate turning aside from ecclesiology toward a renewed focus on the intersections of the Biblical narratives with the cultural narratives of ordinary people in their contexts. We viewed ecclesiology as a secondary and derivative conversation rather than the primary lens through which to have the missional conversation. This was especially the case in North America. To test these assumptions and the potential of a research project into how we form leaders for a new kind of missional life in Western culture(s) we gathered at Payette Lake in Idaho in the summer of 06.
Payette Lake, Idaho 2006
At Payette Lake the conviction emerged that we were called to a mutually critical dialogue across with local churches where the narratives shaping people’s lives and their engagements with Scripture become primary clues to the nature of a missional life. We agreed on elements that should shape the Project in each country:
1. Partnering local churches to understand the contextual narratives.
2. Designing methodologies for listening to and engaging these local narratives.
3. Engaging them with the Biblical narratives.
4. Seeking to discern and articulate common themes across the countries involved.
5. Working with practitioners/leaders to reflect upon learning with researchers.
6. Co-designing experiments in ministry contexts based upon 1-5.
7. Reflecting upon experiments, design further experiments around the nature of mission-shaped leadership and the interface of Scripture.
8. Developing training resources for local and parachurch leaders to assist in mission-shaped engagement the diverse contexts of western culture.
Key moments occurred at Payette Lake that required time to understand. First, the turn to the ordinary narratives of people in their local contexts would require a research project not shaped by external researchers detached from the local narratives using local as sites for their own abstracted work. It needed a method of mutually critical dialogue between researcher and local context. Many of us did not understand the implications of this. Several at Payette Lake, including Frederick Marias from South Africa and Steve Taylor from New Zealand, raised questions about method. Frederick said the project required us to learn how to listen deeply to people in local contexts. Steve cautioned us about the importance of designing in ways that privileged and attended to what was happening among the ordinary and local. We would need time before we could grasp the nature of this work to which we committed ourselves.
Payette Lake invited us to attend, once more, to the local church and return the center of our work to the local church rather than the focus on denominationalism that had characterized the 20th century. Even here, we did not fully understand the implications or dynamics implicit in this return to the local church. Few of us grasped the depth of the ecclesiocentric imagination shaping the thinking of the church in the West. We hadn’t come to terms with the extent to which local churches, turned in on themselves, transformed ‘missional’ into another expression of church effectiveness. All this lay ahead. Payette Lake began the journey of asking from a new standpoint what it might mean for a missionary engagement with Western culture(s). Between Payette Lake and Skamania (2007) Allelon developed a funding proposal and moved the conversation forward in the UK, New Zealand and Australia.
Second Consultation – Skamania, Washington July 16 -18, 2007
Skamania followed the rhythm of Payette Lake with dwelling in Scripture and process of spiritual discernment. Methodology papers were presented and a draft design developed.
Skamania was a difficult consultation. Its attendance was double that of Payette Lake as we expanded national representation. This increase resulted in confusion and friction. That a majority of those present were from North America created dynamics that did not form an open table for others. In retrospect, we can now see that we had embarked on a project requiring ways of working together that we only understood in very limited ways. We were proposing to test the conviction that the resources, imagination and tactics for addressing Newbigin’s basic missional question lay in the interface of local narratives in engagement with Biblical narratives. The approach was counter-intuitive to how we normally approach research and the work of the church. The proposal was right but we had little experience in how to construct a bottom-up process. We assumed too quickly a basic understanding of what was at stake and moved too easily into questions of method.
Skamania made it clear we were traveling along new learning paths in terms of how we practice the deep listening. While we understood the central role of listening and discernment, we didn’t really know how to do this. The majority of us couldn’t articulate that at the time. As a result, we focused on method and drafted a project design.
Payette Lake broke fresh ground. We named problems in Newbigin’s method identifying a more generative starting point. Our assumption, however, that we could simply move forward with method design, needed to be challenged. We were missing the experience and practices for doing together the listening we knew would be required. Skamania jumped too far ahead because we did not fully appreciate these issues.
Frederick Marias’ voice was not heard during the consultation but he repeated his invitation for the Allelon team to visit Africa and allow different voices to show us the level of deep listening we needed.
From Skamania to Lusaka
Following Skamania, Allelon staff met with the national groups in each country. Alan Roxburgh visited South Africa in November 07 as part of meetings in the UK. By the end of the Skamania, we were recognizing that the pre-occupation of the missional question in the North American with ecclesiology revealed how deeply embedded a functional Christendom remained despite all protestations of a post- Christendom situation. Could this preoccupation be a means of deflecting systemic questions of cultural captivity to power, consumerism, individualism and their manifestations in the developing globalization of free-market capitalism? Was it possible for North American Christians to hear these more substantive missional questions without the intervention of voices from the outside? These questions were part of God’s preparations for what would unfold in South Africa.
South Africa – November 07
The SA trip involved meetings with a wide variety of church leaders. The conversations challenged our understanding of issues we had to address in this Project and broadened our sense of what God wanted to do through the project. We heard stories of mission and witness. We sat with Christian Afrikaners listening to their stories of shame and humiliation following Apartheid and their confessions of complicity even though many brave souls who gave costly protest. We met Black African leaders and missiologists still feeling their voice is not heard though they have so much to contribute around issues of mission and kingdom in the emerging ‘western’ globalized culture reshaping Africa.
In Frederick Marias’ own setting, I realized I had not been able to hear what he was saying to us because I had not sat at his table in SA to experience his place and people. Frederick and many others are wrestling with issues of reconciliation, justice, shame, and huge socio-economic challenges while seeing God bring people together across divides to be missionally shaped in their own contexts. These challenges emerged:
1. The missional conversation in Africa is radically different from the way it has been framed in North America. In South Africa it is about a people losing power and experiencing shame. It is about people creating safe spaces (an important phrase) wherein difference (Black, Colored and White) might cross boundaries to meet at the table, listen deeply to one another, and be changed for the sake of the Kingdom. Being missional is about boundary crossing, addressing terrible poverty and injustice. I saw how important boundary crossing experiences would be to the MIWC project.
2. I witnessed people enter such processes not from positions of power and control but out of a rediscovery of the Gospel from their shame, grief and confession.
3. It seemed to me that in North America we’re asking the wrong questions about the missional challenges we face. Across almost every group (church planting movements, emergent and existing church systems) the missional question is almost exclusively a conversation about making the church work. In a globalized, late modern North America the missional questions must be about our addictions to power, control, consumption, and affluence. We’re not doing that! The default of turning everything missional into questions of church effectiveness is deep – it will be a hard journey.
4. North America can’t make this journey without embracing and becoming a listening partner with brothers and sisters in Africa. We need the partnership of African church leaders if the MIWC project is to be God-shaped.
5. The ways Newbigin framed the missional question in Foolishness to the Greeks emerged from the context of the UK in the early 90’s. It cannot frame the questions for South Africa nor is it sufficient for North America – given the ways we turned Newbigin’s brilliant insights about the missional challenge in the West into conversations about the church. We need other, outside voices (such as Africa and NZ – those ‘insignificant’ and ‘out of the way’ places and peoples) as partners to journey with us in discerning the Spirit. Until we learn to sit with such partners, to work with them in creating safe spaces for listening and crossing boundaries we will not understand the missional questions for North America.
6. Leadership formation is a key missional challenge we must address across all cultures.
On the basis of this visit to Africa that Allelon agreed to hold the third consultation in Lusaka, Zambia in August 2008. A distinctive African voice in the Project could contribute in the following ways:
1. Africa is asking questions other countries in the Project are not, specifically, questions of HIV-AIDs, poverty and the important contribution to assisting other cultures in engaging the deeper issues of mission in Western culture(s). With the African participation contexts such as North America could learn to reflect on their own missional questions in ways that would be impossible by themselves.
2. Reflecting on the ecclesial trap of putting Newbigin into church growth and effectiveness strategies. It must be understood that mission isn’t a task of the church it is an attribute of God whom the church serves and worships.
3. Learning how to cross boundaries. Africa has had to learn this through past and ongoing challenges such as: tribalism, xenophobia, colonizations by other powers and cultures, and denominationalism. Such challenges have created spaces where people are more humble about their assumptions and frameworks.
4. Modernity: in many ways the church in Africa is collapsing into modernity.
5. Poverty: this project must take into account the dynamics of modernity, globalization and poverty if it is to construct a research methodology of listening to people on the ground.
6. Interculturation and reconstruction: discernment around the dominance of Western culture(s), the shaming of African cultures and the reconstruction of African cultures as missional dynamics with applications across the participating nations.
Lusaka Consultation August 2 – 7, 2008
The consultation was an interactive dialogue around two foci – a) listening to one another, placing our preconceptions on the table as people from differing cultures and nations and b) reflecting on questions of the Project’s focus and steps forward.
The means of doing each of these were:
1. Formation into indaba groups for the event.
2. Site visits and listening to Africans in the midst of their issues and challenges.
3. A limited number of papers for discussion
4. The co-chairing of the event among three people:
- Japhet Ndhlovu (Coordinator of All African Council of Churches)
- Neil Crosbie (Director of SGM Lifewords, UK)
- Alan Roxburgh (Allelon, North America).
The tone and underlying theme of the event was set in the welcome from Dr D T Banda, Principal of Justo Mwale Theological College. He described how important names are to Africans and how “AIDs and poverty were rendering our people nameless.” Dr Banda’s comment rang true for all the Africans around the table. This theme of seeking to name the place where we find ourselves became a central way in which we were hearing the Spirit. Whether in Africa or each of the other nations at the table what gathered us was that in the context of modernity and globalization we all found ourselves in new space we were not able to name.
We formed into indaba groups. Africans describe these in term of something more than a small group. In an indaba group, we seek to meet each other in the ordinariness of our lives and stories. They are places where we gently seek to create the safe space to enter one another’s stories to risk crossing boundaries and meet each other on the ground. Indaba groups were the way we listened and discerned the Spirit. Frederick Marias suggested simple rules for the indaba conversations:
- Listening – take time to hear the other and respond by feeding back what you heard.
- Affirm – as you listen to the other’s story.
- Listen beyond your assumptions – we bring assumptions to a conversation, hearing the other through our on filters; we were invited to work at moving past these places of safety and power in order to enter the story of the other.
Our first indaba group met for several hours as five or six of us from very different contexts and nations shared stories of our contexts and the missional questions in our settings. Our stories were very different but in each we heard the language such as: confusion, fear, crisis, struggle, survival, looking for hope, identity. They were words about the church in our various contexts and personal experiences in our own countries. It was also language seeking to give words to experiences of change difficult to name or see with clarity. A Korean brother spoke of a context where the people (especially the young) where becoming hostile to Christianity and a church that always sided with government and power structures. Something had failed in terms of the church and its mission; pastors and leaders did not know what to do. A Zimbabwean brother told of the church’s beginnings in that troubled country and how it had been swallowed up in politics so that it could no longer speak into the terrible pain of its people. He described how HIV-AIDs was affecting a people who could not get access to medicine.
These stories connected us but they were stories about churches and mission that no longer connected with what was happening to people on the ground. We did not have the language to name this common experience. When we shared in the larger group our listening about people struggling in the midst of poverty, AIDS, the insecurities of nations and the confusion caused by the effects of modernity, no matter what the country or the context, there emerged a sense that the churches as we know them don’t know how to respond to the crisis modernity in all its forms has brought us to.
Stories and Boundary Crossing
If practices of listening are at the heart of this Project we needed to enter and learn them for ourselves. This continued as we heard the stories from two people dealing with HIV AIDs. We listened to their stories of stigmatization and rejection by family and church in the midst of massive crisis. They deeply they affected us all as we realized that in Africa AIDs and poverty are not concepts or problems; they’re huge numbers of people – brothers, sisters, spouses, children with names and faces. They are stories of boundary crossing and immense courage as a church tries to come to terms with people they would often sooner put outside. We then spent a morning at the Garden Church in a very poor area of Lusaka meeting a community of women, each with HIV/AIDs, who told of their struggle with illness, silence, discrimination, rejection and poverty.
They are part of Circles of Hope were, as women with AIDs, they tell their stories, support one another and find small, inconspicuous experiments in empowerment. We were all amazed at the strength and hope these women were fining in their tiny experiments of hope. Sitting together we crossed boundaries hearing their stories and visiting their homes where they wrestled with poverty and challenges of finding enough sustenance for a day. These difficult encounters took us more deeply into the ways of listening and being present critical to being the church where it is difficult to name what is happening.
We acknowledged, in crossing boundaries, the challenges we needed to address in framing our work in the MIWC Project. Even this way of describing our work was brought into question: Can we call it a ‘Project’? Is there something more going on than described in the ‘Mission in Western Culture’ title? What was the Spirit saying to us about the nature of this work and how to shape it in fresh ways? We shared a conviction that while it was about mission in Western culture it was also more than that but we still couldn’t name that something else.
We did see that leadership is critical to boundary crossing. It seemed to us there were characteristics emerging from our listening about the nature of such leadership:
- A willingness to live as a risking person – those who faced the issues of AIDs/HIV in their churches and nations took huge risks.
- Experimenting: it was increasingly difficult to clearly name the issues we had to address; there are no clear maps or strategies for success. We needed to risk experiments knowing it always involved failure but that this was the only way to move forward in contexts where we can’t name what is happening.
- The mobilization of the whole people in a community: The way forward can’t be designed and named by leaders on their own. The challenges are so massive, complex and beyond naming that the hopeful way forward is learning to empower the whole people of God. This is hard for those trained to believe they must have the answers and strategies.
- Vulnerability: Each of these elements implicates leadership in living vulnerable, open lives in the public spaces where the issues of mission and Gospel are lived out.
Our question became: Are we so different (the West and Africa and Asia) there’s no common space for learning and boundary crossing or is there a common space were we can hear and learn from one another? We were recognizing we do have common issues and a need for one another in the midst of this space we cannot yet name. Was it late modernity or the postmodern or the globalized world or something else? We weren’t able to say; but we recognized this need for one another, for indaba, the listening and the crossing of boundaries. The Mission in Western Culture Project was on the right track but in a process of transformation.
Philosophies and Methodologies
Dr Colin Greene prepared a paper “From Newbigin to Metavista – the changing contours of the missiological engagement with Western, secular, culture” which laid the basis for understanding the multiple modernities shaping a globalized world. He described basic assumptions framing modernity outlining the ways its rationality had been deconstructed. Dr Greene spoke of multiple modernities and the shifted from a world shaped by an emphasis on rationality to one shaped by imagination. How do we engage these new contexts as God’s missionary people? How do the Biblical narratives engage this new world? The African response came in two forms. First, an expression of deep appreciation for the paper and a desire of them to meet in an African indaba to discuss its meaning for them. Second, Dr Uma Onwunta a professor of missiology from Nigeria provided a response asking the question about multiple modernities and their application to an African context.
What was important about these discussions was the recognition by all that we were in a new space as churches in our various nations. This space was a like entering a clearing none of us had been in before. Late modernity, in all its new forms and imaginaries, had brought us into this clearing that we could not properly name and where we had no maps. This was a generative conversation in which we all sensed that the Mission in Western Culture Project was finding ways of naming where it found itself and shaping some steps forward.
Dr Alan Roxburgh (North America), Dr X Simon (South Africa) and Neil Crosbie (United Kingdom) presented a forum on methodology and the Project in the following theses:
1. We all find ourselves in a clearing were none of us have been before. It’s difficult to name this clearing; this is at the heart of the missional challenge we face.
2. This clearing is the work of the Spirit. It is not a mistake or accident but something the Spirit is doing. It’s an invitation to journey in a place where we have few maps.
3. Our default is always to turn to experts, to those who clear the confusion and provide solid answers. In this clearing experts can only tell us where we’ve been not where we are. We cannot, therefore, depend upon or be shaped by methodologies and answers shaped by experts. What then is the way forward?
4. We journey in this clearing through entering and dwelling with the narratives and stories of ordinary men and women in local contexts. We have ample stories to sustain the argument that it these spaces and tables where we will discern a way forward. In stories such as Japhet’s Circles of Hope, Steve Taylor’s hairdresser, De Certeau’s making do and Vaclav Havel’s inadvertent poems of protest, and a host of others change and transformation in the midst of the clearing comes from among the ordinary and everyday.
5. We must ask how we enter and listen to these stories; how we give them voice and in so doing help people name their experiences. We bring stories into conversations with the Biblical narratives and ask what the Spirit might be saying through the ordinary to our missional contexts and new social imaginaries.
6. From this asking we risk experiments in new ways of Christian life in the midst of the clearing without the need for big strategies or complete answers. These experiments become simple, bottom-up tactics in the practices of hope and spiritual discernment.
These conversations connected with people. The room held a sense that the Spirit was up to something in our midst: the Mission in Western Culture Project had found a new voice and was being re-shaped among us. But first we needed space to meet in two indaba groups: the Africans and those from the other nations.
A: Western Indaba (For want of a better title)
In our discussions we noted the following:
- Notions of ‘sending and receiving’ form our imagination for mission; we keep thinking inside this world, which is no longer an appropriate framing of our realities.
- The African context isn’t totally different from the Western as we might be assuming.
- We are still in the situation where mission is sub-contract out to others and so isn’t at the center of what a church is about.
- Mission now is seen as ‘from everywhere to everywhere’ but we need to construct a new paradigm and use new metaphors its no longer from or to, we’re all ‘in’ a missionary situation.
- We are in a space where the question is how we listen to the movements of the kingdom of God in a diverse set of globalized cultures. Our calling is to enter the spaces and clearings that are in and between these cultures to listen, discern and release the poets and imaginations of what the Spirit might be doing. This is far more than a process of developing new missionary strategies but learning to hear the voices of God’s people in the midst of globalized cultures.
From these discussions we tentatively named what we had been wresting with all week in this way:
1. God is calling forth a new world.
2. As Christians from a variety of nations shaped by Western, modern cultures we all find ourselves in a clearing where none of us have been before.
3. Our calling (the work of this Project) is:
Discerning the mission of the Spirit of God, by
Hearing the local voices of God’s people
Amidst globalized cultures.
B: African Indaba
Our Africa brothers and sisters noted the following:
- Affirmation of the conversations at Stellenbosch in November 07
- The African entry point into the Project is through existing structures and relationships such as NetAct, PMC and Christian Literature Fund. The energies around these organizations need to help the African group with organized space for dialogue on to be missional leaders in Africa.
- Yes, the terrain and challenges of mission in Africa has changed.
- Local congregations are facing new narratives, especially from younger generation.
- The challenge is how we present the Gospel narrative in ways that are heard and understood?
- There is the challenge of material wealth coming into Africa with modernity – telecommunications, multi-national corporations. The church needs to reflect on the impact of modernity it Africa.
- We do not need to become prisoners of terms and jargon but rather learn to name the challenges we face. We do not want to be dragged into a determined agenda but to determine our own agenda.
- Methodologically, the Spirit of God is moving. We have noticed attempts to do critical, reflective and praxis missional engagements in our endeavor to lift public issues that affect human dignity and relate them to the Gospel narratives.
- We need to balance reflection with praxis (local congregation leaders and academicians) to catch what the Spirit of God is doing in the world today.
- We need to balance this marriage of local narratives and academic discourse.
- We need to constantly revisit the ways we train our ministers of the gospel, we seem to still be caught up in western models of training. Contextualization seems to face some strong resistance where some seem to be saying the past is better and there seems to be no clarity on what should continue and what should be discontinued.
- Leadership is critical for transformational work.
- We need to capture the stories, record them and even publish books which can be sued for inspiration, guidance and further reflection as we move into praxis on public issues.
- We want to be partners in the Project, is it possible to be part of the decision making in Allelon or shall we just be recipients?
Some of the missiological challenges that cannot be ignored are:
- HIV and AIDS –questions of sexuality, masculinity etc
- Economic justice – modernity coming with economic development an globalization
- Trends in theological education
- Power – ecclesiastical, political, gender and spiritual powers
- Healing – influences of the African Independent Churches, Pentecostal Churches and the role of witch doctors in African cosmology.
- The position of women
- Peace, reconciliation and conflict transformation
- Reconstruction theologies
- Ecological challenges
- The way we structure our churches – most of us have inherited structures from the western models for just sustaining and maintaining rather then being missional.
In the indaba group reports we heard commonality around the nature of the MIWC Project and commitment to move forward together. The proposals to move forward were:
1. Over the next twelve months the Project will be jointly chaired by:
a. Japhet Ndhlovu (Africa)
b. Neil Crosbie (UK)
c. Alan Roxburgh (North America)
The group will meet on Skype and through email to oversee the next steps. This is pro-tem proposal in order to appropriately move the Project forward.
2. The Chairs ask each country to identify several potential sites for the initiation of the Project within the next six months.
3. A team comprised of Andrew Menzies, Steve Taylor, D T Banda and Frederick Marais work to develop the protocols and method elements required for initiating the project in the local contexts. What we are looking for is not a pre-determined set of research protocols that rigidly define how every location must engage the Project but the ways we can present process that move across all the contexts to allow for research to take place.
4. A team comprised of Dr X Simon (Stellenbosch) and Dr S Savage (Cambridge) design the research protocols for that will enable the project to read the framing questions it will bring to the table.
5. The Chairs identify the initial small number of locations to beta test 3 and 4.
These proposals where discussed throughout the last day of the consultation and affirmed as the appropriate next steps in the Project.