Individual articles from the Fall 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog twice per week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website. This article consist of five reflections which will be posted separately.
From its inception, MCC has partnered with diverse Anabaptist churches
in serving in the name of Christ. For this issue of Intersections in MCC’s
centennial year, we asked church leaders from India, Canada, Switzerland,
Zimbabwe and Syria about what serving in the name of Christ looks like
in their contexts today. As it enters its second century, MCC continues to
accompany churches around the globe as they discern how they can faithfully
participate in God’s reconciling mission.—The editors.
The church in India has long been a subject matter of great curiosity and
intrigue, not just from a Christian perspective, but also in the general manner
that India and its many religions coexist. India is a predominantly Hindu
nation. India’s culture is overwhelmingly rooted in Hinduism. Therefore, the
line between religion and culture is often blurred.
How does the body of Christ function in a complex and ancient cultural,
socio-economic and political ecosystem like India? No doubt several challenges
confront the church. The impact of politics and government policies on the
church in India are greater than ever before. The BJP-led government continues
to assert its self-proclaimed Hindutva politics in a democracy where minorities
feel the heat of an increasingly intolerant majority. More churches have been
vandalized in the past five years than over many previous decades put together.
Never before have churches in India faced greater scrutiny than today. Scenes
of people being lynched on the streets of India, once unprecedented, are today
just another headline. Christian organizations which have contributed to the
national interest for years have had their funding cut-off and their activities
closely monitored on the pretext of possible acts of polarization or “conversion
tactics.” The Indian church today is not free to worship, because its mind and heart are bound in chains of fear and anxiety.
However, politics is not the only challenge the church faces. In fact, the bigger challenge comes from within its own fabric. Broken communities, church politics, faithless ministry and godlessness in Indian churches are more common than one would imagine. Moreover, India is projected to become the youngest country in the world by 2022 with over 60 percent of the population under the age of 35. This widening generation gap brings with it several challenges. Contrasting values and principles collide, causing strain within the community. Churches in India today run the risk of becoming obsolete and irrelevant to the young and restless minds of India`s youth.
But where adversity persists, opportunity abounds. The church must take active measures to connect more with the younger lot. Church leadership and clergy must consciously include young people as a mainstay in decisions and day-to-day activities rather than relegating them to merely a youth section of the church. Furthermore, in a world guided by subjective morality, our churches must stand strong on biblical principles and not be swayed by the lure of a false and ungodly culture the world currently thrives on.
The Mennonite Church today has a divine opportunity to show the world how peace and reconciliation can still be sought and found in a broken world. If ever there was a time for the church to proclaim the need for reconciliation and the means to achieve it through the word of the living God, that time is now! We cannot shy away from persecution. We cannot deny that the hardships we face might get worse. We cannot say that followers of Christ will not undergo pain and suffering from the world, as prophesied in Scripture. Yet it is within such persecution that the church has the greatest opportunity for Christ’s body to bring healing wherever there is ailing.
Amidst the hardships faced by the church in India, MCC India has been a great source of encouragement and financial support to the Indian Mennonite churches through its relief and development programs. MCC supports peacebuilding initiatives carried out by Indian Mennonite churches, organizes peace and conflict mediation seminars in congregations and assists the church in working for the empowerment of women and children. The church in India is strengthened in its faith and witness through MCC’s ministry. We praise God for MCC India and its mission in our country.
As India’s population continues to grow, the church must keep its ears open and eyes closed, pointed upwards in expectant prayer. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we must unite and pray for a revival over the land of India. As the world looks at us and waits for a day when India becomes a superpower, let us pray that day will be the day every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord!
Premanand Bagh teaches in the Christian Ministry Division at Union Biblical Seminary in Pune, India.
The tag line for my organization, Multiply, reads, “Together, that the world may know.” Philosophically, “together” connotes ideals that are warmly endorsed by faith communities the world over. It embodies community, dependence, humility and unity. The opposing spirit to “together” represents all that is anathema to the Body of Christ, the Bride: isolation, independence, power and enmity.
I have spent the last two years engaging more intentionally with the Lord’s Prayer as part of my personal spiritual disciplines. I want to align myself with the themes upon which Jesus invited his followers to focus and intercede. It seems that the goal of this prayer template was not so much to create a universally repeated liturgy, but instead to steadily renew the mind and soul of the believer through daily prayer into a longing for and engagement with the themes on the heart of God. “Together” is at the core of this petition. The Lord’s Prayer invites us as a global family to pray to “Our Father,” calling for community and not isolation. “Your kingdom come, your will be done” requires humility and an absence of power. “Give us this day our daily bread” embodies dependence, not independence. And finally, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” calls for unity, not enmity. As Jesus invited his disciples to pray, so we are invited to pray and then live out each value, continually resourced by the Holy Spirit.
Where are we seeing this “together” today? In our global context, Multiply has been resourcing North American churches engaging in partnerships with the global church, not simply with a budget line to fund ministry, but with a lifeline, a human bridge of members coming and going to each other’s contexts to serve, support and mutually resource. An Ontario church travels to Germany to partner with a local congregation so that they can in turn support the start-up efforts of another region’s German/Canadian planting team. A rural Ontario community connects with a Thai network reaching out to rural communities in the country. Together, that the world may know.
A team of young adults from around the globe gather in Central Asia and the Middle East to collaborate with those of other faiths on the themes of peace, reconciliation and forgiveness. They run a camp together. The team goes in the love of the Father sharing the values of the Prince of Peace as they live and serve in community. Together, that the world may know.
In the Canadian North, denominations unite together to serve Indigenous communities by collaboratively resourcing workers who have relocated to engage in holistic support and witness. Together, that the world may know.
There are challenges in serving together. The global church has faced cultural distinctions, discriminating biases, theological differences and sometimes long histories of division. In Multiply, we have been reminded of the humbling unifying posture embodied in Jesus’ final prayer for disciples the world over: “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:22b-24, NIV).
If God’s saving love, expressed through the death and resurrection of Jesus, is for every person, every family and every nation, then we as the church are compelled to pray the Lord’s Prayer together—in community, dependence, humility and unity. Together, that the world may know . . . Jesus.
Robyn Serez is regional mobilizer for Eastern Canada for Multiply.
Five hundred years ago, Europe was seized by the Reformation. At that time, the church was still a major force within society and could play a decisive role in determining which forms of faith and life were accepted. The Anabaptist movement experienced this reality in Zurich. While initially part of renewal movements within the state church and the broader society, Anabaptists were soon persecuted by church and state as heretics and rebels.
Five hundred years later, the church has long since lost this position of social power. In Switzerland we increasingly live in a post-Christendom society. For the church, this does not only mean a theological loss of relevance. Many people today associate the church’s former moral authority with sexual abuse, violence and outdated beliefs. The diaconal commitment of the churches to service has long been appreciated by society, but this has changed noticeably in recent years. Churches which explicitly justify their social action by appeals to their Christian faith are under the suspicion that they merely want to proselytize other people on this path. Such suspicions were factors in the Swiss government’s decision to cut national funds for our Mennonite youth work. The church is under the general suspicion of wanting to interfere in social life in an invasive way.
The church must regain its credibility in our society. But it cannot do so as it did five hundred years ago. The church must learn to live as a minority in our society. This is a challenge and, above all, an unusual situation for the large national churches. As Mennonites, we think that this is first and foremost an opportunity.
If the church as a whole comes into a minority position, a new coexistence of the different churches is needed. The church cannot serve our society with denominational disputes, but only as a common and reconciled body of Christ. Service to society must therefore not be misused as a means of gaining new members for one’s own denomination. If the church is marginalized in society, it naturally loses its influence, which is based on a position of social power. But this powerlessness is a great opportunity for the witness of our churches. For at the margins of society we first learn to know Christ himself anew. This can happen if we turn to the weak in our society. Not only do we serve them in the name of Jesus, but first and foremost we encounter Jesus himself in them. As a powerless church, we also no longer have any claims to power to defend, as was so often the case in the Christendom. A powerless church is in a good position to build bridges between different social groups.
As a church we therefore want to learn anew to live the reconciliation given in Christ. We practice how to deal constructively with conflicts and thus make a contribution to peace in society. After all, a post-Christendom society also means a pluralistic society. We must therefore learn to participate in a broader conversation about how a flourishing life is possible for all within a pluralistic society.
Finally, when one considers Switzerland within the global context, we recognize that we belong to one of the richest societies in the world. This obliges us to show solidarity with the world’s poorest and to make a substantial contribution to a fairer world. In doing so, we must live with the challenge that there are still very different forms of need in our society.
Lukas Amstutz is co-president of the Swiss Mennonite Conference and is the programme director of the Theological Seminary Bienenberg.
The apostle Paul proclaimed: “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5, NIV).This proclamation sets the tone for all who seek to work in the name of Christ. The church, however, faces challenges and opportunities wherever it serves. Challenges usually herald abundant opportunities for change. For this reflection, I engaged some Anabaptist church leaders in southern Africa about what they see as the challenges and opportunities faced by the church. I heard three main themes from this feedback, namely, challenges and opportunities related to economics, technology and leadership.
Economics: Implementing and operating mission activities with poor human and material resources are immensely challenging. Many churches, including mine, have for many years looked to the mother church in the U.S. and Canada to provide highly trained theologians and to offer resource tools to mobilize evangelism as part of the church’s fulfillment of its mandate. Many rural churches are so poor that only the pastor owns a Bible. Also, sadly, a cancer that has crept into many churches in southern Africa is the onslaught of the exploitative prosperity and healing gospel moguls. In South Africa, one pastor made his naive congregants eat grass and flowers and drink petrol to be “closer to God.” There was even a pseudo-miracle of claiming to raise a person from the dead in South Africa.
Islam has an upper hand in this region because their missionaries proclaim Islam while simultaneously providing the material assistance people need, such as food, clothes, school fees for children and even housing. Many say that is how Christianity is undermined.
These challenges reflect the dire hunger and thirst for something more fulfilling. They present opportunities for genuine evangelists of integrity to present the pure gospel of Christ.
Technology: Access to the internet and social media has many positive results for congregations and congregants. These include easy access to Christian broadcasts, training programmes and Bible studies. On the other hand, social media has created havoc, especially with young people. Parents are competing with media of different types as they seek to raise and discipline children. There is general moral decline due to the encroachment of various media content, which may be both foreign and negative to African cultural and Christian norms.
Leadership: Many denominational congregations are led by part-time and untrained leaders. Southern Africa is still deeply entrenched in patriarchy and male-domination in ministry work. Denominations such as Methodists, Lutherans and the Church of Christ have many women in leadership roles. Be in Christ and Brethren in Christ churches in North America have ordained women in ministry as they believe both men and women are equally called and empowered to work in missions. In the Brethren in Christ Church in Zambia and Zimbabwe, rural areas have a majority of women pastors who serve on a voluntary basis, as they are not trained for the task. Lack of training causes the women-led rural congregations to be marginalized.
The church globally is consumed by materialism and secularism which makes it lukewarm. Yusufu Turaki says that materialism makes Christians lukewarm and indifferent to their faith. There is ample opportunity for the church in the global North to partner with the church in the global South, the former providing needed resources to further the gospel while the latter provides the zeal and passion for the gospel.
Barbara Nkala is Mennonite World Conference regional representative for Southern Africa.
Hama is a Syrian city with a great history and a proud multi-cultural heritage in which Muslims, Christians and others have lived together in peace and harmony for centuries. Unfortunately, the war that has been fought inside Syria for almost a decade has wounded this heritage.
Christianity entered Hama in the earliest decades after Jesus’ resurrection. Within the city today there are eight existing churches, the remains of a great cathedral and a monastery. The countryside surrounding Hama is full of towns populated not only by Sunni Muslims, Alawites and Ismailis, but also by Christians, who for centuries have lived in villages like Kefarh, Ayu, Bayh, Tumin, Maharada, Skelebiyya, Baydah and Bayadiyah. Hama and its surroundings have for centuries reflected a multi-cultural Islamic society, a society which accepts others for who they are and in which Christians have led the Christian life according to Jesus and his word. Christians have had friendly relations with their Muslim neighbors, who have respected them as followers of ‘Issa (the Qur’anic name for Jesus), son of Mary.
With the start of violent conflict inside Syria in 2011, Hama’s multi-cultural fabric has been torn. Syrian Christians have now sometimes come to be associated by some Muslims with the West. Amidst these new challenges, the role of the Church grew in extinguishing fires of hostility, declaring: “We are all partners in pain and sorrow, in joy and loss—this is not a religious war! We are brothers and sisters!”
Through the viciousness of war, marked by anxiety, distress, homelessness, hunger, pain and insecurity, breaks through a ray of light: humanitarian assistance. By extending humanitarian assistance, the church proclaims that “The other is me, I am the other: we do not simply live together, but rather we live and survive together.” Over the course of the violence, our churches have become signs of hope to the people of Hama, offering refuge for all in need. People who came in need to Hama’s churches discovered in these churches the true love that crowns acts of mercy. Amid violent conflict, the church calls out: “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, NRSV). In the face of shelling, missiles and violent incursions, the church in Hama has remained steadfast and faithful to its mission, proclaiming God’s glory through its good works (Matthew 5:16). Meanwhile, the faces of perseverance from the displaced, hungry and suffering people who have come to us from Homs, Aleppo, Idlib, Raqqa, Deir al-Zour, Hasakah and Qamishli give us hope for a better future.
The aid sent by the churches in Canada, the United States and Europe has been a blessing. Support from MCC and Canadian Foodgrains Bank has enabled displaced refugees and host communities to survive and maintain their dignity in a war that not only destroyed buildings and a way of life but also the woven fabric that has held the Syrian way of life together. In faith, like Peter, the church in Hama cast out a net, and thanks to God’s grace and the work of the church around the world, we pulled in a catch of 153 fish, and our net did not break (John 21:11). We are faced with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, who works through the loyal, faithful and weak in the East and the West. We can only bow and be thankful.
We believe that the Spirit of God works in us all for good. We also believe that he guided us to our partners like MCC, who have supported us in carrying the message of love and the law of mercy and the light of the Gospel at a time when we struggled to find humanitarian assistance to share this message with our fellow Syrians. Despite the hardships we have faced, we still believe that God will carry out his will.
Boutros Melki is a Syrian Orthodox priest in Hama, Syria.