Missiologist in the Making

It’s been two weeks since my last post. I’ve been sick four times now, twice requiring antibiotics, but no malaria, so that’s good. I accidentally joined the women’s volleyball team, which has been a fun way to spend afternoons, but going for tournaments on the weekends has caused some all-nighters I wasn’t planning. I did well on our first Arabic quiz, which felt really good for all of the work I’ve put into that class. We have another quiz next week and I should be writing my third seminar paper and preparing to lead a round table discussion on the differences between mainstream Islam and fundamentalism. Instead I’m writing an update to you all. There aren’t any pictures, but LOTS of fun links to learn more!

I mentioned in a previous post that I think I might just become a missiologist. The paper I should be writing right now is for my missiology class.

“What is missiology?”

Missiology is the study, historically, theologically and contextually of the mission of the church. Missiologists seek to understand and improve practical mission strategies.

“Aren’t all Christians missiologists, then?” 

I wish they were, just like I wish all Christians were theologians. Many Christians don’t think that formal study should be involved in faith. But just as many are involved in the study and practice of missions; they just don’t always use the formal term.

Missiology in modern day is a branch of practical theology that asks questions that place it in the crux between several disciplines; Why do we do missions (theology), Who is involved in missions (anthropology and sociology), What structures are used for mission (nonprofit management, church administration), How do we do mission better (ethics, pastoral care, law, public policy, economics, development, international relations, psychology, public health, etc). David Bosch, a well-known South African missiologist, described the field as such:

“Missiology acts as a gadfly in the house of theology, creating unrest and resisting complacency, opposing every ecclesiastical impulse to self-preservation, every desire to stay what we are, every inclination to provincialism and parochialism, every fragmentation of humanity into regional or ideological blocs, every exploitation of some sectors of humanity by the powerful, every religious, ideological, or cultural imperialism, and every exultation of self sufficiency of the individual over other people or over other parts of creation.”

This fits in very well with my common answer to “Why are you in seminary?”

Because I’m a rebel.

Over the last year, I’ve lost sight a little bit of why seminary was the right place for me. As I’ve gotten deeper into the path of ordination, I’ve calmed my inner restlessness at the idea of working in a local parish. I know that being an elder is important, and so I expect to serve the church in the traditional role of pastor for some time in my early career. I worked very hard to restructure my thinking; the local parish is not a sign of defeat. I have grand ideas of working at the UN Church Building or for the World Council of Churches. But the reality of serving a mostly white, aging, suburban congregation being my future, at least for several years after seminary, had to be place on my radar to cool my ambitions. And I will go, and I will serve whatever church I am placed in. I will serve earnestly and devotedly. It would be plain ignorance to think that I could help direct the goals of the global church without being in community and relationship with the Christians that comprise it. But the discovery of this field of missiology is so clearly in my path, it’s hard not to want to jump right into a PhD or head to the Bossey Institute for another masters.

The prompt for the paper I am writing is to critically assess two of the six “constants” of mission according to Stephen Bevans:

1) Witness and proclamation

2) Liturgy, prayer and contemplation

3) Justice, peace and integrity of creation

4) Interreligious dialogue

5) Inculturation

6) Reconciliation

Honestly, it’s hard to focus on just two. My brain is pinging away, making connections about the importance of a holistic approach toward mission, especially in the post-modern world we live in. My immediate reaction was to write on three and four, sense since my focus at Candler is in Justice, Peace and Conflict Transformation and I’m here to study Muslim-Christian Relations. But instead I’ve decided to stretch myself.

Through the last two rounds of papers my cohort has written and presented, I realize how Western my world view really is. I consider myself to be a culturally aware person, not culturally competent (I know enough to know there’s a lot I don’t know), but I had thought I had become fairly adept at cross-cultural dialogue. But as I presented a paper on the history of Islam in the United States, I saw how deep my bias is. It wasn’t until after I had heard the rest of the cohort’s presentations that I realized I had written the paper with the assumption that the reader would understand certain American historical and cultural allusions, which of course, my African colleagues did not. It made the presentation a bit of a stumbling mess as I tried to fill in the gaps. I had found out I knew even less of what I already knew I didn’t know.

I’m writing my paper for Missiology on one and five, Witness and Proclamation, and Inculturation. Witness and proclamation in Kenya is an unabashed part of church life. Every church service I’ve been to allows for an open time of testimony, where anyone can come up to the mike and speak to God’s work in their life. Each time someone introduces themselves in a public setting they begin with “Praise God” or say “I’m so-and-so and I’m saved/born again.” If someone in the US introduced themselves that way, I would have rolled my eyes and mentally discredited everything that followed. But I wouldn’t be able to take seriously any Christian I’ve met in Kenya if I still reacted that way. I’m going to take this opportunity to explore my own bias and resistance toward witness and proclamation.

Inculturation is obviously a pertinent topic as well. I spent the last year trying to help refugees learn and navigate American culture. Now I’m trying to read into and understand culture here. There are only a handful of people I trust to have conversations deeper than the weather report with, because I know they will be patient enough to clear up any cultural mistranslations. (Check out this great blog post about Cultural Humility) And even with those friends I haven’t yet begun to discuss topics of faith or theology beyond answering questions about what I am currently studying. On more than one occasion someone has asked me how I can live in a country as bad as Sodom and Gomorrah, with “all of that homosexuality”. Trying to explain separation of church and state lead to such confusion I didn’t even try to explain liberal Biblical hermeneutics. But you don’t have to travel outside the States to face the question of how we claim to be one body as the church when we have so many different and conflicting theologies. Crossing cultural borders changes even further complicates the crossing of those theological divides.

The good news is that the students here are facing many of the same questions and challenges we are. How do we reconcile interdenominational disputes? How do we help the church grow? How can the church be a force for change? How can we as clergy and church leaders hold our government officials accountable to ethical standards? How do we interact with our Muslim brothers and sisters or deal with family members that don’t accept Christ? How do we feed the hungry and care for the orphan and protect the widow? Because ultimately, the Missio Dei (mission of God) is about sharing unbridled love and reducing all pain, suffering, evil and inequity in this world.

Though I may have difficulty expressing myself here and now, my eyes, heart and spirit are being widened. It only makes sense that a field meant to unsettle and challenge the work of the church is introduced to me in a place where I am currently, personally, unsettled and challenged. Despite the current discomfort, I could not be more excited to see where else this new focus will take me.

Peace and Blessings,