Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Report to Presbytery September 28, 2010

Many Cultures

We live in a time of multiple cultures. That seems like a very obvious and clear statement. But I believe this statement is the kind of fact which we know for sure in our heads, but have not allowed to penetrate into our hearts. We live in a time of multiple cultures.

I have become a student of the work of the late professor of mission, Lesslie Newbigin. He writes in his little book, “Proper Confidence”: “Although the word “culture” came to be used in a sociological sense in the nineteenth century, it was not used in the plural. There was one “civilization” and the various peoples encountered in other continents were on lower or higher rungs of this one ladder. They did not have different “cultures” (until the present century) but were considered either less or more civilized.”

One thing we have learned in the great world missionary movement of the late 1800s is that culture is plural. There are many cultures. The great missionary movement started with the great idea that we are sending Jesus and our culture to all the foreign lands. The Jesus which we sent out was all wrapped up in our culture. We completely assumed that when all the people, in all the foreign lands of the world, came to understand and believe in Jesus, they would naturally adopt our culture as well. These foreign people would get Jesus and our civilization at the same time; what a great deal, we thought!

What we have learned, and it is a remarkable lesson, is that the people of all the foreign lands in the world were glad to have Jesus but they did not want our culture. In fact, all these foreign people quickly learned what we did not know. That Jesus is much, much bigger than our western culture. The world has gone forward knowing, growing with and praising Jesus from within their own cultures. We have been taught an important lesson which we have not completely understood: culture is plural, “cultures”. There are many cultures in the world, and Jesus works very well, powerfully well, in all of them.

This means that all of our work in mission and ministry is cross-cultural. There are many different cultures and our task as church leaders is to cross cultural divisions in the name of Jesus. Of course, this influences that way we do world mission today. I believe this also influences the way we do ministry in our local churches. You – as pastors and church leaders – need to understand in a new way that the people in your churches are living in many different cultures. We need to understand the cultures our people are living in, and we need to take Jesus across those cultural boundaries. We can no longer presume that our people are in any way living in the culture of Jesus when they show up in our churches. Our ministry is cross-cultural. One of the things we must learn to do is understand the multiplicity of cultures which intersect in our lives at any given moment.

Let me name, for example, three different cultures which are very powerful today. Our people are living in these cultures; and our people come to church in these cultures.

1) The culture of consumption: Many of our people are living in the culture of consumption. Consider what the culture of consumption has done to our celebration of Christmas. Consider how many of our good church people are carrying enormous credit card debt. What happens when our very strong, solid church members, who happen to be carrying 5 or 10,000 dollars of credit card debt, are asked to make a financial pledge to our church? We face a profound clash of cultures.

2) The culture of entertainment. I can mention three names and I wonder if there is anyone in this room who has not heard of these people: Tiger Woods, Madonna, Mel Gibson. Or take, for example, a solid, hard working pastor who works 6, 8 or 10 hours a week crafting a worship service and writing a sermon. The sermon is preached with energy and conviction. In the receiving line after worship, one of the church members says to the pastor, “I really like your haircut.” That person is absorbed in a culture of entertainment. We have another clash of cultures.

3) Consider the culture of the American empire. We are the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. What happens when the Presbyterian part of our identity clashes with the U.S.A. part of our identity? The culture of the American empire is so vast and powerful that it is possible to visit a tiny nation like Honduras and never leave American culture.

Pastors and church leaders today must become students of culture. What are the values and goals of these different cultures? We need to become cross-cultural travelers, missionaries. Our people are bringing all these different cultural identities with them when they come into our churches. We can no longer presume that our people are living in and committed to the culture of Jesus when they enter our churches. Often because of the confusion of cultures and the clash of cultures, there is a new and growing anxiety in the professional life of pastors.

I have a negative and a positive conclusion to the thesis that culture is now plural. First of all, we must realize that “sola scriptura” is not good enough anymore. Sola scriptura is the classic doctrine of our church which believes that Scripture alone is all we need for teaching and preaching in the church. Phyllis Tickle has argued in her book, The Great Emergence, about the erosion of sola scriptura from a historical perspective. I am saying the same thing from this cultural perspective. Before we can preach the word, we must also understand the various cultures our people are living in. Jesus has the power to touch and transform lives in every culture, but we must also understand these cultures where our people are living. Our cultural studies must be as smart as our biblical studies.

Positively, what I am saying is a foundational emphasis of a new way of thinking theologically: missional theology. Missional theology is all about cross-cultural ministry. We seek to understand the cultures where our people are living, and we take Jesus right into those cultures.

May it be so in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

World Mission in Ethiopia

We are there.

The March 2010 issue of National Geographic magazine includes an article titled, “Africa’s Last Frontier: Ethiopia’s Omo Valley is still a place ruled by ritual and revenge. But change is coming from upriver.” As always, the photographs are stunning and the article itself is beautifully well written. The story about the changing lives of these ancient African tribes is fascinating. But I would not have paid careful attention to this article until I heard about the mission work of Presbyterian World Mission missionaries John and Gwen Haspel in the same region of Ethiopia. According to Haspel’s, change is also coming to this remote region through the presence and power of God’s Holy Spirit. The Haspels have been our missionaries in Africa – primarily in Sudan and Ethiopia – since 1974. Their service builds on and supplants the years of service which both their parents also invested in Africa.

Our Big Spring Presbyterian Church, in the Presbytery of Carlisle, has supported the Haspels for many years. The Haspels recently visited Big Spring church as part of their home itineration. John started his presentation by saying, “It is good to be back with you here at Big Spring Church. We were here before, 25 years ago.” John and Gwen told a story of missionary service that enlivened my imagination, made my skin tingle with a sense of the sheer courage and perseverance of their commitment, and bolstered my pride with the simple knowledge that our Presbyterian Church has people there with among these primeval tribes of Ethiopia. What National Geographic called the last frontier, we call, in the jargon of today’s missiology, one of the few unreached people groups in the world. And the Haspels are there with a deep, sustained, evangelistic mission to spread the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Haspels are an exemplary witness to the effectiveness of persistent, long-suffering commitment to mission service. Consider this description of their work from their Mission Connections webpage: John and Gwenyth Haspels work on a multiphase project in Ethiopia that would be taxing to the patience of almost anyone. It took the Haspels four years to receive work permits and resident visas from the Ethiopian government for phase I of the project. "We have been learning to wait on and trust in the Lord," said Gwenyth. Phase I of the project is devoted to construction of a 70-kilometer road to Tum and a second road through the mountains to the Surma people in Kibish, and also the development of a good water system for Tum. Phase II of the project is a comprehensive program that includes evangelism, education, medical care, and development work. The Haspels' work is being carried out at the invitation of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus.

Many of the same features of social life which are profiled in the National Geographic article were also described by the Haspels. For complex historical and geographic reasons, the assault of the colonial powers in the 19th century missed this region of Ethiopia. Until very recently this part of Africa has not been touched by western influence. In this region, in far southwestern Ethiopia, the international borders with Sudan and Kenya are less meaningful than the divisions between the tribes. Ancient language and cultural barriers are still powerful. But the long reach of the modern world is now felt in the tragic influx of AK-47 rifles from Sudan which takes the socially ingrained commitment to revenge killing to a new level. The government’s ambitious plan to build a hydro-electric plant on the agriculturally, life-giving Omo river will probably not benefit the tribes who depend on its ebb and flow but the distant, national government will make money. And, of course, change also comes in the slow work of missionaries bringing schools and churches, a message of reconciliation in Christ, and a vision of Christian community which crosses tribal lines. This spreading of the Word is, as everywhere, often compromised by the corrosive effect of every type of profit seeker, exploitive tourism, and the long reach of modern economic development typically connected in some way with oil.

Despite it all, the light shines in the darkness, the seed of truth in planted and the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is proclaimed. I believe that in our lives today the movements, thoughts, reflections and insights of our modern culture are completely separated from the spiritual and theological convictions of the church. Thus it is necessary when we read and study things from our culture to ask ourselves where the hidden and mysterious work of God may be seen. This for me was confirmed again by carefully reading this National Geographic article about the Ethiopian frontier. As I expected this article did not mention the good work of our missionaries in that area. But the National Geographic article told the powerful story about a young man named Dunga. Dunga’s father had been killed by a rival tribe and Dunga’s older brother, Kornan, has also been murdered. “After Kornan was killed, the double weight fell to Dunga along paths of tradition worn as hard as the trails leading down to the river.” The article tells a compelling story about the way Dunga finally broke free of the “duty of vengeance.” This change is, the article presumes, the result of Dunga’s desire for education and hard, personal effort to seek schooling for himself. But there is a little sentence tucked into this story which the National Geographic author does not develop as transformational or important. “He wears a silver crucifix, a symbol of newly acquired beliefs.” Only we Christians will know that this little detail is, in fact, the whole Truth. Dunga’s newly acquired beliefs have changed his life bringing him out of the darkness of spiraling violence and into the light of Christ. It is this change which has the power, maybe more than electricity or economic development, to bless his family and people. Dunga, in a small, personal step, broke the tradition of violence. “The tribal elders supported his decision. . . They saw the trap of tradition that awaited Dunga, the one that had claimed Kornan. The elders understood Dunga was now more than a man caught in a blood feud – he was an educated representative of his people, a future leader, and a role model.” John and Gwen Haspel would understand Dunga’s transformation as a gift of grace. May our eyes also be open to the mystery of God’s work all around us.