Third Annual Consultation in Lusaka, Zambia of the Mission in Western Culture project
(2-9th August 2008)
I always seem to require a week at least to both intellectually and emotionally process my trips to Africa and this time I asked myself why? I have come to the conclusion that travelling to sub Saharan Africa and really experiencing the enormous economic and social transitions that are presently going on as well as enjoying the natural hospitality of the African people is probably a picture of what it was like to move into London or Manchester during the industrial revolution of the 19th century. All around you watch and experience the disorientating effects of modernization while still enjoying, for the time being at least, traditional African values and ways of life.
Lusaka seemed to me to be much like Nairobi or Johannesburg. On every street corner there is much evidence of those who have found their way into the new world of economic success and social mobility juxtaposed with mind shattering and gruelling poverty and injustice. Dusty streets choked with exhaust fumes; women and children breaking rocks by the roadside; expensive new hotels and government buildings often sponsored and built by the new colonialists, the Chinese; sprawling shanty towns and piles of degradable rubbish. Taxi’s crammed full of people on their way to low paid jobs. Young boys forlornly endeavouring to sell plants or meaningless modern bric a brac by the roadside and everywhere, just under the surface of the vibrant hustle and bustle of city life, the daily pressure and ocean of sorrow and heartache associated with a worldwide pandemic, HIV/AIDS.
Modern Africa is a snapshot of what happens when the global viral economies and epidemics of late modernity invade, consume and explode from inside the settled, and to a certain extent more sheltered, way of life previously sustained through the agrarian economies and social hierarchies of traditional tribal society. The effects are devastating, more losers than winners, more problems than solutions, more challenges than available resources. What is being birthed, however, is the possibility of enormous new wealth creation and a ticket into to the 21st century. Progress? Well, maybe, but one thing is for sure we cannot stop this global march toward – toward what? To a certain extent that was what our consultation was all about.
What has become of the Mission in Western Culture (MiWC) project?
The MiWC project came to Lusaka as the brainchild of the Allelon network for missional leaders ably led and nurtured by Alan Roxburgh and his team and equally ably internationalized through the innovative Allelon website. The thesis was launched and enthusiastically embraced by an international group of missional leaders at Lake Payette, Idaho, USA (June 2006). It was further consolidated but also given the North American Christendom treatment at Skamania in Oregon (July 2007), but Frederick Marais’ instinct that the project could be totally re-birthed and reconceived in an African context proved prophetic. The thesis is simple, it is the missionary challenge bequeathed to us by Lesslie Newbigin, namely, that a truly viable, creative and transformative project of cultural engagement with modernizing, global, secular ‘multiple modernities’ has yet to be properly conceived and executed. That last sentence reflects some of the new thinking introduced to the project at Lusaka so let’s reflect on just what happened to us during that memorable week (2nd -9th August 2008).
The Successes of Lusaka
The Indaba Groups
Undoubtedly the main success of the Lusaka consultation, as was also true of the Anglican bishops at Lambeth in London in July, was the Indaba community groups. To spend a good part of every day of the consultation, talking, sharing and debriefing in small groups of five or six people, all from different countries, some from different continents and most from totally different cultures was itself potentially a life changing experience. Once again we were indebted to Fredrick Marais from Stellenbosch, South Africa for providing us with the ground rules of deep listening, deep vulnerability and deep affirmation that made our times together equally deep and rich in cross cultural experience. The Indaba groups were the glue that held the process together as well as holding us all accountable to each other as we tried to grapple with the complex issues of planning and executing an international project of this nature.
A new Leadership Team
In order for any consultative process to work effectively and produce new thinking and new objectives it must be chaired and managed creatively, openly and appropriately. Lusaka saw the new leadership team of Alan Roxburgh (Canada), Neil Crosbie (UK) and now also Japhet Ndhlovu (Kenya), vice chair of the All Africa Council of Churches, work superbly well and manage a complex process that involved a whole new set of participants. Much planning and deliberation had proceeded the consultation but the creativity by which the leadership team kept the process both on track yet also open to new developments and possibilities was itself a lesson in the creative management of complex processes.
New African Voices
The consultation saw the return of familiar faces from Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Canada and South Africa. We also had two young representatives from South Korea who, along with other young leaders from that country, have seen clearly that the American based church growth model of the 1980’s which enjoyed phenomenal numerical success in South Korea, is actually irrelevant and inadequate to the new task of radical cultural engagement in countries now thoroughly held captive to the cultural mores of late modernity. What was new of course was the broadening of the African contingent of delegates to include representatives from the following countries.
1. South Africa
Unfortunately, due to transport and finance difficulties, other delegates from Ghana, Namibia and Lesotho were unable to attend. Clearly we now have the possibility of building a truly representative African delegation which we hope will further integrate the needed contribution of African women theologians, missiologists and church practitioners.
A clearer grasp of the underlying theological and methodological presuppositions of the project
At this consultation we had a paper from Colin Greene that sought to show how the Newbigin challenge of a creative missionary engagement with Western culture remained the same but the missional context had changed dramatically, so much so that talk of a monolithic Western culture was now obsolete as we have now entered the era of ‘multiple or alternative modernities’. The suggestion that we had also moved from an age of reason to a new age of imagination reflected the European bias of the paper and was rightly challenged by Uma Onwunta a missiologist from Nigeria. The ensuing vigorous discussion reminded us all that much of the Enlightenment intellectual framework Newbigin isolated, for instance the private public divide, had never successfully taken root in indigenous African cultures. So while the evidence of multiple modernities and new social imaginaries are everywhere to be seen in Africa they are undergirded by different intellectual, social and cultural frameworks of belief.
One of the highlights and creative transitions of the consultation was when the African contingent met on their own to consider just what those intellectual, social and cultural frameworks actually were and the rest of us realized in light of this discussion that the whole project had to be renamed. So ‘Mission in or through Western Culture’ for the time being is no more. We do not as yet have another suitable anagram but we have a descriptor which more accurately describes what we are all about which is ‘Discerning the mission of the Spirit: Hearing the voices of God’s people amidst globalizing cultures’. Underlying this new descriptor is the African experience of starting with the missio dei rather that intellectual analysis and then discerning the movement of the Holy Spirit amidst the stories and narratives of the local people.
Clearly then there is much commonality between the methodological objectives of the project and the faith aspirations of indigenous African cultures. The research undertaken and published by Michael de Certeau after the 1969 student riots in France, the philosophical and hermeneutical deliberations of Paul Ricoeur, Alastair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor all point to something which Africans have always believed, namely, that any exercise in social reconstruction or genuine cultural engagement must begin with the stories and narratives that contain the hopes, aspirations and social imaginaries of ordinary people. It is in the practice of daily living or what de Certeau called ‘making do’ that we can discern the ways and wonders of God’s spirit at work. We still require further theological and missiological clarity in regard to this project particularly on how the biblical narrative comes into play at the intersection of at times competing and colliding cultural narratives. But that is part of the task for the rest of this year and 2009.
The possibility of new local initiatives and agreed international strategies and frameworks
A project of this nature has to learn to live with the creative tension of allowing local initiatives to be genuinely local while at the same time arriving at agreed international frameworks of research and design. I think in Lusaka we caught sight of what this could all look like for the first time. We agreed that the African delegation working through existing missional structures would design and implement a strategy of what we called narrative transformation. In others words finding good local contexts, probably to begin with in Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa, and designing a process that genuinely enables researchers and missiologists to get into and under the local stories and narratives that sustain a common life and praxis but also contain the seeds of hope, experiment and social imagination embedded in the biblical story and birthed by the Holy Spirit. The design of an appropriate research methodology that can facilitate such an important task will be the responsibility of a new task force headed up by Andrew Menzies from Australia, Steve Taylor from New Zealand, Fredrick Marais from South Africa, DT Banda from Zambia and possibly Mary Publicover, one of the Together in Mission team in England. Alongside this group another group of research advisors such as Sara Savage (Cambridge, England) and Dr X Simon from Stellenbosch, South Africa will seek to make sure that these local strategies become transferable international research methodologies. It is hoped that we will be able to utilize these procedures to facilitate similar local research projects in Britain, North America, Australia and New Zealand. Finally, we recognised that there was a need to stabilize the annual consultation in terms of missional leaders and entrepreneurs operating in the respective countries now involved in the project. Clearly there will be other countries and groups of people who will see the potential of such a project and want to be part of it – the enabling and facilitating of this aspect of the project, however, becomes the responsibility of the overall leadership team.
So much was indeed reconceived, reconfigured and reconstructed in Lusaka. The combination of good African hospitality, accommodation and humour all wonderfully present during our time at the Justo Mwale Theological College, Lusaka. The recognition that Africa holds the key to many of our problems in the West and the appreciation of the sheer energy and vitality of the church in this tumultuous continent wracked as it is by the HIV/AIDS pandemic and other equally devastating issues of systemic poverty and ecological threat left us all thinking and praying the same refrain: Veni Creator Spiritus, come creator Spirit and liberate us from our Christendom slumbers to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.
– Dr. Colin J.D. Greene