We are Church, We are Agents of Shalom

Over the past several weeks [in the spring semester of 2013], I participated in a creative group exercise along with two of my classmates: Clesha Staten and Edward Williams. We imagined ourselves as a church and dreamed about our life together in this community. Through much discussion, we identified our church as “agents of shalom” and described this identity in relation to the four marks of the church specified by the Nicene-Constantinople Creed: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.[1] We also defined our church’s mission and described the context in which our mission would be pursued. We crystallized this discussion about our corporate identity as agents of shalom into the following statement:

As agents of shalom, we are one because the shalom we seek is the very presence and action of the one and same Spirit of God who empowers us to speak and act in order to bring God’s vision to its fullness as we endeavor to ensure a welcome place at the table for all. We are holy because the Spirit has set us apart to share the good news, peace and love of God in communities suffering from the fractures of personal and structural sin.  We are called to live by example the grace, righteousness, and justice of the Triune God. We are catholic because we recognize that the same Spirit who lives and moves in us is also present and active in other churches and throughout all creation.  The operation of the Spirit within and through every agent of shalom unifies us in purpose without diminishing the diversity of each agent as a unique creation. Finally, our church is apostolic because we continue Jesus’ prophetic ministry of liberation by proclaiming, celebrating, and actualizing the message of shalom to all those who are oppressed by sin, sickness, disease, and the political, economic and social systemic evils. We walk with the same Spirit of God who was sent forth as ruah before creation, who anointed the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, and who is present today and for all days to come to orient and empower creation towards the consummation of shalom in the reign of God.

The mission of our church is to be agents of shalom: the overflowing abundance of God’s presence in a community so that the entire community experiences the wholeness, fullness, and satisfaction of a holistic well-being in complete harmony with its environment. It is a comprehensive reality of peace founded on the active presence of Triune love being worked out in justice. Agents are people who actively pursue the purposes of the one by whom they are sent. Because we are sent by the God who is communion, we are sent to pursue shalom as a community of love, forgiveness, and grace, which is extended to the oppressed and marginalized members of our community. This may require us to actively and non-violently resist systems of evil that oppress and marginalize. At the same time, our church is called by the life-giving Spirit to be agents of personal healing, deliverance, and restoration towards all people in our community.

Our church is called to contexts where the extreme suffering caused by a prolonged loss of shalom is being ignored or denied. These are the places “outside the gate” inhabited by people who have been silenced, forgotten, and deemed unworthy, unnecessary, and uninteresting by the powers and principalities of anti-shalom. We desire to join the Spirit’s work in and through the people with whom we live in these places so that a true, contextual shalom might be realized within our diverse community. As a local embodiment of shalom develops, we will remain open to being led by the Spirit to bring forth shalom in new contexts while remaining steadfast in our commitment to our current community.

This statement expresses an ecclesiology: a way of understanding the theological, historical, and eschatological nature of the origin, identity, and purpose of “a community that understands itself to be called into being by God through faith in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.”[2] However, the ecclesiology expressed in this group statement differs remarkably from the implicit ecclesiology I have experienced through church participation in the past. In this essay, I hope to progress from a critique of the church I have experienced towards a more faithful, holistic understanding of church by contrasting the marks, mission, and context of my embedded ecclesiology with this new understanding of church as agents of shalom.

The unity of the church as agents of shalom is founded on the presence and action of the God whose unity-in-diversity is hospitably opened towards the other. In opposition to this Triune unity, my past experience in culturally, racially, and socio-economically homogenous churches reveals a unity defined by uniformity. This kind of unity ignores “the Spirit’s unifying power [which] enables the integrity of each one amidst the many” and therefore does not participate in the “unity of the Spirit that includes reconciliation and healing in the same Spirit.”[3] The church is to be one because the salvation of the Triune God which it proclaims is an ever-expanding communion amidst the diversity of creation.

A similar discrepancy arises in my past experience of holiness in church and the holiness which characterizes agents of shalom. While past church experience defined holiness as an individual goal of maintaining purity, those who pursue shalom identify holiness as “the authentic presence and activity of the Spirit of God directed toward the eschatological kingdom.”[4] This holiness is neither a possession of the church nor of an individual church member. Rather, the church is being made holy so that its “relationship of righteousness and justice with God… [will extend] far beyond the church itself” into the lives of those “on the margins of society.”[5] Holiness is put on display when the church’s presence and activity in the world matches the church’s inner reality of its participation in the life of Trinity.

As a member of primarily congregational or independent churches, my understanding of the church’s catholicity was very weak. Instead of being instructed to discern and partner with the Spirit’s work in other churches and throughout creation, my experience of church taught me to be suspicious of other churches and to devalue the life of non-human creation. However, agents of shalom recognize catholicity by affirming the Spirit’s power to inspire indigenous expressions of faith in Christ, which preserve the uniqueness of created life and culture.[6] However, contextualization was given little significance in my previous experience of church and therefore my church’s traditional theology – with a little room for disagreement – was the true understanding for all people in all times and places.

My past church experience held a very narrow understanding of apostolicity. The majority of churches I have participated in were representatives of the Free Church tradition where “the New Testament and early church [have] a normative significance.”[7] Therefore, apostolicity was implicitly defined as believing and teaching “sound doctrine” in line with a specific, literal interpretation of Scripture. In opposition to this narrow, disembodied expression of apostolicity, the church as agents of shalom seeks to embody authentically “the apostolic message and witness… in [its] ecclesial life and faith as directed toward the impending kingdom of God.”[8] Apostolicity is a sign of the whole person and ministry of Jesus Christ and his earliest followers which requires full, embodied participation by the Holy Spirit in the mission of Jesus.

In the past, the primary mission of the church I knew was understood as the fulfillment of Jesus’ last words to his followers as recorded by the gospel of Matthew: “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them… and teaching them.”[9] The interpretation of this command led to a mission defined primarily in terms of kerygma – “the proclamation of the Gospel” – which was sometimes supported by acts of leitourgia – “prayer and praise, the waters of baptism and the bread of the supper.”[10] I agree with Gabriel Fackre that this kind of church may be “valid” but it “is not yet a faithful Church” because it does not include a healthy practice of diakonia ­– “a serving of the neighbor in need” – and koinonia – “a sharing and caring life together.”[11] While some of the churches I have experienced in the past have incorporated a practice of diakonia and koinonia in very meaningful ways, the expression of church with which I am most familiar is dominated by its kerygma with leitourgia in a secondary, supporting role.

In contrast to the identity and mission of the church in my past, the church as agents of shalom provides a more holistic and faithful ecclesiology. At the heart of this ecclesiology is the belief that the church’s “existence is not ‘for itself,’ but rather ‘for others.’”[12] More specifically, this church exists for the pursuit of shalom and therefore “outside of the action of the Spirit which leads the universe and history towards its fullness in Christ, [this church] is nothing.”[13] According to Avery Dulles, this vision of church would be categorized as the “servant” model in which the church takes up the diakonia of Christ and “seeks to serve the world by fostering the brotherhood [sic] of all men [sic].”[14] However, this diaconal model is incomplete if it excludes kerygma, leitourgia, and koinonia.

Therefore, agents of shalom take up the message of Jesus and proclaim the hope of God’s now-but-not-yet reign to all people. At the same time, this kerygma includes a “prophetic denunciation of every dehumanizing situation, which is contrary to fellowship, justice, and liberty.”[15] Agents of shalom also gather to celebrate the good news they proclaim through the act of worship, specifically the sharing of the Eucharistic meal around the Lord’s table. However, this practice of leitourgia “presupposes an ever-renewed acceptance of the meaning of [Jesus’] life” and therefore leads the church towards concrete action “against exploitation and alienation and for a society of solidarity and justice.”[16] Finally, shalom is a reality bound up in koinonia because it is the presence of the God whose life as communion is the divine source and model of koinonia. Therefore, the church as agents of shalom seeks a koinonia “where everyone is welcome [as] a sign of the coming feast of God’s mended creation.”[17]

As it pursues its mission through a practice of koinonia, leitourgia, kerygma, and diaconia, the church as agents of shalom must be careful not to confuse its ecclesial life and work towards shalom with the reality of shalom itself. Shalom does not belong to any church because it is the very presence and action of the Triune God in the world which God created. The church as agents of shalom remembers its call to service which “consists in its dedication to the transformation of the world into the Kingdom” of shalom.[18]

The church as agents of shalom seeks to embody and enact its mission in contexts where the destruction of shalom due to the violence of personal and structural sin is being ignored and forgotten. My past experience of church has always assumed a privileged position in society. Even though I was raised in a community where the evils of poverty and racism interlocked in a system of death, I participated in a church whose identity and mission were so affected by social privilege that the fact of this reality, especially the role of this church in its creation and maintenance, was almost entirely ignored. Therefore, the church as agents of shalom must go beyond simply locating itself in a place of anti-shalom. It must make intentional, sustained efforts towards solidarity with all in its community and join in the struggle against alienation and violence because “to know God is to work for justice.”[19] Therefore, the church should simultaneously learn to listen to the needs of its community and to discern its unique strengths and its inherent goodness. The church should also be prepared to criticize its own participation in the evils which perpetuate the destruction of shalom. With this humble posture, a true, contextual foretaste of shalom can come to life.

[1] William C. Placher, ed., “Why Bother With the Church?” in Essentials of Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 223.

[2] Loida I. Martell-Otero, “Ecclesiology,” Lecture, Systematic Theology and Ethics: Reign of God THLE 521, Palmer Theological Seminary, King of Prussia, PA, April 2, 2013.

[3] Amos Yong, “The Marks of the Church: A Pentecostal Re-Reading,” Evangelical Review Of Theology 26, no. 1 (January 1, 2002): 50, 54.

[4] Yong, 54.

[5] Letty M. Russell, “Why Bother With the Church?” in Essentials of Christian Theology, ed. William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 245.

[6] Yong, 61.

[7] Franklin H. Littell, “The Historical Free Church Defined,” Brethren Life and Thought 50, no. 3-4 (June 1, 2005): 59.

[8] Yong, 66.

[9] Mt. 28:19, 20, NRSV.

[10] Gabriel Facrke, The Christian Story: A Narrative Interpretation of Basic Christian Doctrine, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 156, 157.

[11] Fackre, 158, 159, 161.

[12] Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation, trans. Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988), 147.

[13] Gutiérrez, 147.

[14] Avery Dulles, Models of the Church, rev. ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1987), 92.

[15] Gutiérrez, 152.

[16] Gutiérrez., 150.

[17] Letty M. Russell, “Hot-House Ecclesiology: A Feminist Interpretation of the Church,” Ecumenical Review 53 (January 2001): 51.

[18] Dulles, 100.

[19] Gutiérrez, 156.

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Transitions: From Philly to Auburn

This post has been long overdue for at least two months. I’ve avoided it because I wasn’t quite sure how to say what I wanted to say… and I still don’t. On the one hand, it’s pretty straightforward: Cassie, Isla, and I will be moving to Auburn, AL, this Friday, August 1st where I’ll soon begin working as Alabama Rural Ministry’s Director of Ministry Operations.

We’re so excited to be moving back to AL – to AUBURN – and I, personally, am beyond excited to be working with ARM – a ministry that has had such a big impact on my life and sense of calling thus far. For those of you who may not know, ARM extends the love of Christ in order to end sub-standard housing in rural Alabama through home repair and children’s ministries. I served on ARM’s summer staff as a construction site coordinator in Sumter Count back in 2005. While my new role will have me at ARM’s main office in Opelika, AL, I’ll also have plenty of opportunity to seek God’s kingdom back home in Sumter County. It’ll be challenging work for me in a number of ways but I’m so grateful to Lisa Pierce, ARM’s founder and executive director, for her vision and the opportunity to work alongside her.

We’re also excited to be back down south, close to our families, and a bit further from the “big city” 😉 On the other hand, it’s just not that simple.

I guess you could say we’re “moving back home” since we’ll be moving from PA back to AL (Cassie is from TN but… close enough). But saying that might imply that we’re not at home here, in Wynnewood/Ardmore, PA… and that would be wrong. We are home here. We didn’t expect it, but it happened. All we can say in hindsight is that God is so good.

We’ll be saying goodbye to so many people and places we’ve come to love: Six:Eight Community Church, our community group, all our friends at Linwood Park, our awesome neighbors, our friends from seminary, our co-workers… Leaving Wynnewood/Ardmore will not be easy at all.

All our excitement for what’s next can’t cover up the feelings of loss and grief that come from letting go of our life here in PA. We cannot thank God enough for all the people who have welcomed us into their lives. We southerners talk a big talk about hospitality, but I now know that hospitality doesn’t end when you cross the Mason-Dixon line. Cassie and I have been given such a gift in the friendships we’ve made here. In some mysterious way, we know that all those people, those relationships, will go with us as we move. We’re just not the same people as we were when we moved here 3 years ago. We’ve been changed by the people and the place we’ve come to know; and we can’t escape that – nor would we want to.

In a very real, yet mysterious way, I think Cassie and I have had an authentic experience, a foretaste, of God’s coming kingdom during our time here in Wynnewood/Ardmore – several experiences actually. Some have been at church, others at our community group, and still others at Linwood Park. God’s kingdom has been made real and tangible for us… and I’m in awe as I reflect back on its goodness.

So, transitions… we’re on the move once again, following the Spirit as little children who Jesus said would be the ones who welcome and enter the abundant life of God’s new creation. We hope to stay put for awhile in the Auburn/Opelika/Lee-Macon county area. We hope to be able to plant ourselves in a community in the way our church has planted itself in Ardmore/Wynnewood. We walk by faith – not by sight.

What can we say? Thank God and thank you – all of you.

And now, may “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”

Amen.

Humility: What the “Developed” World Needs to Know

The distinction one makes between the “developed” and “developing” worlds hinges on the definition of development one assumes. For this presentation, I rely on Peet and Hartwick’s (2009) definition of development as simply “making a better life for everyone” (p. 1). Based on this definition, my presentation will explore four ways in which the “developed” world needs to learn humility as it considers the practice of development for those living in the “developing” world. Learning this humility means letting go of the prideful assumptions which typically influence development practice. Therefore, each section of this presentation will first problematize these prideful assumptions and then proceed to offer ways in which development can be practiced from a more humble posture. Specifically, these four sections argue that development is an intentional process that does not proceed “naturally” along a single path; that the “better life” of development cannot be reduced to a Western vision of the good life because all knowledge is inherently situated; that extreme damage is done when economic growth becomes the only means of development’s “better life” because economics has lost its connection with everyday life; and, finally, that development cannot be for a few but must lead to a “better life” shared by all. The hope for this presentation is to inspire in the “developed” world the kind of critical self-reflection that leads to a more honest self-knowledge and, therefore, a more humble development practice in and among the “developing” world.

According to Peet and Hartwick’s (2009) definition, development is “made”; meaning it is something freely produced through an intentional process of social, cultural, political, and economic change by individuals and communities. This concept may seem obvious, but it has not always been recognized as such in development discourse. According to Gustavo Esteva (1993), there was a time in the not-so-distant past when the West arrogantly conceived of development as a process of “social evolution” towards “a necessary and inevitable destiny” typified by its own modern industrial societies (p. 9). This “naturalist” view of development was buttressed by the modernization theory of the mid-20th century in which the “rise of Europe is endowed with a natural inevitability so that… global history is reduced to a series of copies made from distilling the experience of the West” (Peet & Hartwick, 2009, p. 131). According to this understanding of history, development is not “made” – it is a pre-determined outcome built into the social fabric of every society but achieved first and most spectacularly by the West. “Developing” nations need only discover and follow the “natural” patterns of rational thinking, free markets, mass consumption, and the “worship of commodities” (Peet & Hartwick, 2009, p. 132) in order to “evolve”, i.e. “develop.” This blatantly biased, Eurocentric view of history proudly positions “developed” nations as the pinnacles of human civilization and makes development into a condescending, paternalistic game of “catch up.”

This self-aggrandizing, naturalistic conception of development based in modernization theory must be strongly rejected. Even though there are significant material differences between the lives of those who live in so-called “developed” and “developing” nations, these differences do not lead to the conclusion that the “developed” world has achieved the kind of life that should be desired by all nations. Geographer James Blaut debunks the West’s supposed “natural” rise in standards of living by demonstrating how the “European miracle” had more to do with Europe’s superior military might and their arbitrary geographical advantage which they used to plunder resources from North and South America, Asia, and Africa from 1492 through colonial times (as cited in Peet & Hartwick, 2009, p. 134). This was not an “evolutionary” process and therefore Western nations have no basis upon which to suggest that it is the “natural” way for other societies to seek a better a life.

Instead, development should be seen as an ongoing process happening every day in every society – “developed” ones included – in which human individuals and groups must make informed decisions about the kind of life they desire and the best way to achieve that life. Even though this decision-making process should not rely on the so-called “natural” pattern of development proposed by modernization theory, it can and should be guided by what Peet and Hartwick suggest is the best tool that modern societies offer: “a basically rational scientific attitude toward the world… in terms of carefully formulated, logical, and theoretical thinking about issues of utmost importance” (Peet & Hartwick, 2009, p. 281). The work of development should empower nations and communities the world over to utilize this powerful tool of modernism to create beautiful, diverse versions of the “good life” which can serve as alternatives – maybe even better alternatives – to the assumed “good life” of the West. The first step of humility is realizing that all communities and nations are in the process of developing and, most importantly, that development is not a singular, linear, or “natural” process.

The Eurocentric notion of development advocated by modernization theory gives “underdeveloped” nations only one option for a “better life”. As Esteva (1993) says, “to escape from [underdevelopment], [‘developing’ nations] need to be enslaved to others’ experiences and dreams” (p. 10). In particular, “developing” nations need to seek after a society which finds its fulfillment in the amount of goods and services it consumes because that is the goal of “developed” society as seen in the U.S. (Peet & Hartwick, 2009, 133). According to Tom Sine (1981), this societal goal has become a matter of personal identity for Western individuals who “derive significance and meaning for life from their ability to produce and consume” (77). The imagination of the West may be consumed by consumption, but the second dimension of a humble posture towards the “developing” world is in recognizing how its vision of the “better life” is only one particular vision among many others which are imagined within very different cultures, histories, and places.

However, this second step of humility requires an epistemological shift – a new way of thinking about knowledge and how knowledge is produced and validated. Modern ways of thinking arising from the Enlightenment are primarily rational, i.e. based on reason. As previously stated, this is not necessarily bad; it can be a powerful tool for decision-making as long as “reason” is accompanied by the freedom to think one’s own thoughts based on one’s own history and experiences. However, history has shown that this is the exception – not the rule. As Peet and Hartwick (2009) note, “modern reason metaphysically grounds its image of universal humanity in traits culturally specific to the Europeans – that is, reason claims to speak for everyone when, in fact, it is really speaking for the European minority in the world” (204). When the particular, European type of reason is made to be normative for the rest of the world, the “developing” world becomes trapped in the dreams of the West which, for many of them, have turned out to be nightmares. In addition, this universalization of European-style reason means that grand, universal plans and programs for development can be thought up by anyone from anywhere (but mostly Western development “experts”) and implemented in any place among any group of people without any regard for that people’s particular way of life.

This god-like, transcendent, top-down approach to knowledge needs to be relinquished in favor of a much more humble, localized, bottom-up approach. This epistemology sees knowledge as “situated” – i.e. arising from the embodied nature of human persons whose ability to know is always enmeshed in particular social, cultural, historical, political, and economic webs of meaning from which they cannot escape (Peet & Hartwick, 2009, p. 249). In other words, what we “know” is indelibly shaped by who and where we are and it is therefore impossible to know anything with absolute certainty or completeness. Reason is not universal – it is particular. The way a Euro-American, middle-class man sees his world and thinks about it is exceptionally different from the way an impoverished African woman sees and thinks about her world. These differences present a serious, but not impossible, challenge to the practice of development, especially in cross-cultural situations.

Recognizing the situated character of knowledge means that there are no universal or permanent solutions to the problems which development attempts to solve. It requires development practitioners to leave the familiarity of their “developed” lives in order to “listen to peoples varied experiences, particular circumstances, and varied needs and desires to construct ‘situated developments’” (Peet & Hartwick, 2009, p. 250). This denotes an ethnographical approach which seeks out a “thick description” of life from the “native’s point of view” in a particular place and time (Klamer, 1990, p. 31). These situated developments require the input, direction, and participation of local people who have a more complete understanding of the problems they face. Peet and Hartwick (2009) describe this process as “indigenization”: “deriving scientific theories, concepts, and methodologies from the histories, cultures, and consciousness of non-Western rather than Western civilizations” (p. 213).1

The power of indigenization is harnessed by the set of development practices known as participatory rural appraisal (PRA). According to Chambers (1997), PRA “seeks to enable local and marginalized people to share, enhance and analyze their knowledge of life and conditions, and to plan, act, monitor and evaluate” (1747). The results of PRA practices affirm what an epistemology of situated knowledge has already suggested: “local people have again and again presented values and preferences which differ from those of outsiders or those supposed for local people by outsiders” (Chambers, 1997, p. 1747). A posture of humility means that the “developed” world recognizes the situated character of its vision of the “good life”, and, instead of assuming that the “developing” world will share its vision, it seeks first to listen and understand the “developing” world on its own terms.

The “developed” world has not only attempted to monopolize the end goal of development – it has also sought a monopoly on the means to that goal, namely, economic growth. H.W. Arndt (1981) recalls how the term “development” entered the English language with the translation of Marx’s Capital in 1887 which “gave development a specifically economic connotation” (p. 458-9). However, by the end of World War II, “development” had merged with “economic development” and was considered to be “virtually synonymous with growth in per capita income in the less developed countries” (p. 465). Also writing in 1981, Sine can claim that “at the very core of contemporary development is a notion that the better future [for all] is synonymous with economic growth” (p. 74). Instead of “making a better life for everyone,” development was narrowly defined as economic progress defined in modern, Western, capitalist terms.

While the means of development have broadened beyond economic growth since 1981, the West’s relentless pursuit of economic growth in the guise of “development” has had disastrous effects. In the striking words of Gustavo Esteva (1993), “the emergence of economic society is a story of violence and destruction often adopting a genocidal character” (p. 18). Sine (1981) documents one instantiation of this economic violence as he describes the increasingly powerful role of multinational corporations (and the “developed” nations which support them) in the cultural, social, and economic lives of poor people in “developing” nations (p. 81-2). Peet and Hartwick (2009) describe how scarcely imaginable levels of income inequality which continue to increase are another consequence of this singular pursuit of economic growth (p. 7-8). What is more, if this pursuit continues in its current form, Peet and Hartwick (2009) fear that “human history will indeed end – in environmental catastrophe” (p. 278). The equating of development with economic growth has been a terrible mistake with destructive effects that are now deeply embedded in the lives of billions of people in the “developing” world.

A more humble posture begins by seeing economic growth as only one dimension of the “better life” that development seeks. However, as Daly and Cobb (1994) describe in sharp detail, putting economic growth in its proper place is not enough because there are serious flaws in the way this growth has been conceived by discipline of economics. They present several ways in which it suffers from the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness”: in its very successful pursuit of an ever greater level of scientific purity, the highly technical practice of economics now relies on a series of “conclusions [that] are drawn about the real world by deduction from abstractions with little awareness of the danger involved” (p. 35). The core assumptions underlying economic theories about the market, economic measures, human persons, and land are so far removed from reality that economics has lost its ability to guide communities and nations towards a “better life.”

Economics has been swallowed up by chrematistics: “the branch of political economy relating to the manipulation of property and wealth so as to maximize short-term monetary exchange value to the owner” (Daly & Cobb, 1994, p. 138). The problem with chrematistics is the way it “abstracts the market from the community and seeks unlimited growth” (Daly & Cobb, 1994, p. 158). In chrematistics, the market becomes an end in itself, and, as its growth continues beyond sustainable, physical limits, it works against the well-being of communities.

Peet and Hartwick (2009) are correct when they say that “development is fundamentally economic” and that “all theories of development have significant economic aspects” (p. 23). However, for economics to regain its proper place in development practice, it must be divorced from the abstract world of chrematistics and be re-rooted in the “management of the household so as to increase its use value to all members of the household over the long run” (Daly & Cobb, 1994, p. 138). In this way, the discipline of economics can move away from science in order to “come back into the conversation of mankind” by relocating itself in the realm of history as a form of storytelling (McCloskey, 1990, p. 73). The “developed” world is in desperate need of humility to see how it has made economic growth the only means for achieving the “better life” of development. Only then can those in the “developed” world begin to take responsibility for the massive amounts of human suffering caused by their singular pursuit of this diseased kind of economic growth that failed to serve its proper, life-sustaining place in the community.

Finally, development is not just “making a better life” – it is making a better life for everyone. This prepositional phrase leads to the fourth and final dimension of humility I present for the practice of development. If development is not complete until the better life is shared by all, the existence of a “developed” and “developing” world makes little sense. The world – as one – is either one or the other, either “developed” or “developing”. When a minority of the world calls themselves “developed”, they assume that their lives are totally disconnected from the lives of those in the “developing” world; that they are immune from the “undevelopment” of others.

The “developed” West must let go of this prideful assumption because development works toward community: an ideal existence where space is made for all to participate in democratic decision-making processes, where the mutuality and interdependence of all created life is affirmed and embraced as individuals begin to see how their own well-being is interwoven in relation to the well-being of others, and where the equality and uniqueness of each person is valued and celebrated (Daly & Cobb, 1994, p. 172). As Daly and Cobb (1994) point out, these types of communal relations are equally important to a society’s external relations with other societies as they are to its internal relations (p. 188). The work of development remains woefully incomplete if it only means “better life” for the few. The “developed” world needs the kind of humility that sees how its own life is deeply dependent on the life of the “developing” world so that it might accept the call to live in authentic community with the “developing” world.

My goal in this presentation has been to explore the notion of development defined as “making a better life for everyone” (Peet & Hartwick, 2009, p. 1) in a way that illuminates the ways in which the “developed” world needs to learn humility as it relates to the “developing” world. This humility has four dimensions: rejecting the West as the “natural” goal of all development process and recognizing the ongoing nature of development in all societies; acknowledging the situated character of knowledge and therefore allowing the possibility of other visions of the “better life” to co-exist alongside the dominant Western version; admitting the grave mistake of making economic growth the only means to a “better life” and seeing its need to recover economics from chrematistics; and finally, accepting the call for development to work towards authentic community where the “better life” is shared by everyone. The “developed” does not need more knowledge about the “developing” world; what it needs is a much more robust, wide-eyed knowledge of itself that will lead towards transformation for its own good and the good of the “developing” world.

References

Arndt, H. W. (1981). Economic development: A semantic history. Economic Development and Cultural Change, 29 (3), 457-66.

Chambers, Robert (1997). Editorial: Responsible well-being – A personal agenda for development. World Development,25 (11), 1743-1754.

Daly, Herman E. & Cobb, John B. (1994). For the common good: Redirecting the economy toward community, the environment, and a sustainable future. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Esteva, Gustavo (1993). Development. In Wolfgang Sachs (Ed.), The development dictionary: A guide to knowledge as power (pp. 6-25). London: Zed Books.

Klamer, Arjo (1990). Towards the native’s point of view: The difficulty of changing the conversation. In Don C. Lavoie (Ed.), Economics and Hermeneutics (pp. 19-33). London: Routledge.

McCloskey, Donald N. (1990). Storytelling in economics. In Don C. Lavoie (Ed.), Economics and Hermeneutics (pp. 61-75). London: Routledge.

Peet, Richard & Hartwick, Elaine (2009). Theories of development: Contentions, arguments, alternatives. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Sine, Tom (1981). Development: Its secular past and its uncertain future. In Ronald Sider (Ed.), Development Toward a Theology of Social Change (pp. 71-86). Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

1However, as Peet & Hartwick (2009) note, indigenization does not entail a “wholesale rejection of Western science, nor does it abandon notions of a common humanity, nor even universal knowledge” (214). It simply puts all forms of knowledge on an equal playing field which means lessening to some degree the overstated importance of Western forms of knowledge so that there is room for indigenous knowledge to take shape and be heard.

Just Give Up: Brief Thoughts on Christian Community from Philippians 2:5-11

5Y’all have this way of thinking, feeling, and acting in and among yourselves which also [is the way of thinking, feeling, and acting] in Christ Jesus, 6who – while existing as essentially God – he himself considered equality to God [as] not something to be grasped, 7BUT [RATHER] he became powerless, taking the essence of a slave, being born in the likeness of humanity; and, being found in appearance as a man, 8he took the lowest place and experienced humiliation [by] becoming obedient to the point of death – the DEATH of the cross; 9Therefore also God exalted him as high as God could imagine, and graciously grants to him the name above all names, 10in order that at the name of Jesus every knee of heaven, and of earth, and of under the earth should bend, 11and every tongue should agree that the Lord [is] Jesus Christ to the glory of Father God.

Philippians 2:5-11, personal translation (I wouldn’t quote this if I were you)

 

Last Wednesday, a man in Tampa, FL got stuck in an elevator at an assisted living home along with an elderly woman. She told him that she couldn’t stand for long periods of time. What did he do? He got down on all fours and offered his back as her chair and she sat for 30 minutes while the elevator was repaired! A picture was taken and, of course, it went viral over social media. A random act of kindness. Doing a good deed. Serving others. Is this the kind of thing Paul is asking us to consider in this passage?

Sort of. Now, don’t get me wrong. This was a very kind, considerate act. He had to really sacrifice something. He literally had to “humble himself” and take a lower position!

But afterwards he walked away more or less the same person – maybe just a bit more famous. And I’m sure he got to know this lady a little bit. But now that it’s over, the chances are slim that they’ll stay in touch. Life will continue virtually the same as it was.

Now imagine: how would this story be different if this man was her grandson and, instead of living at an assisted living home, she lived at home with him and his family? Instead of offering his back as a chair on a stuck elevator, he just takes care of her – keeping her healthy, enjoying time with her, cooking for her, cleaning up after her – day after day. What if this was not just a once-and-done random act of kindness from one stranger to another but was rather a story of everyday service simply overflowing from a deep, caring relationship based in mutual trust and submission? Would it still go viral?

Imitating Christ rarely does. Igiveupkitty

You see, Jesus didn’t just show up for a photo-op. Jesus was God, God’s equal, the same stuff as God. But Jesus became human, he became powerless, emptying himself of the divine status that would keep him from fully relating to weak, fragile people like you and me. That’s just not what a god was supposed to do. He wanted to be like us, to speak to us, to break bread with us, hold our hands, and wash our feet. And He didn’t come to be one of our powerful friends-in-high-places. No, He was like the lowest among us as our servant; like people we usually ignore – the gas station clerk, the migrant laborer, the man selling flowers at the traffic light. Jesus, God’s equal, became like us so he could know us and share in our struggles and give his life to save us.

If we want to be a Christian faith community, this is the story we must tell with our lives together. Whose struggle are you sharing? What does each of us need to give up to get down in the mud and muck of life with one another? Are we willing to trust each other, to commit to serving one another? You won’t go viral. No one may even notice. It will probably be slow and boring. What matters is that we think, act, feel, and pattern our lives together in the downward way of Christ. God will see us. One day God will raise us up.

God Is Love

Yes, I’m posting a blog on Valentine’s Day entitled “God is Love.” What can I say? I’m a loser with a very bad sense of humor. If you can get past that though, this is a brief “statement of faith” that I wrote for a class recently. The assignment was just to “sit down and write about what you believe in your own voice” so… that’s what I did. It’s certainly not comprehensive and probably not thought out all that well. But, what I can say is that it has very little to do with Valentine’s Day.

God is the triune Community who is Love: who created all things for love, who is present with all things in love, and who calls and wills and moves all things towards love. This Love is not an attribute of God; it is God. God is Love because God is Trinity: the three Persons – Parent, Christ, and Spirit – who are inseparably united as one in a way that does not diminish the unique otherness of each Person. This triune Community is characterized by movements of equal, mutual, reciprocal self-giving and other-receiving among, between, and within the persons of Parent, Christ and Spirit.

Because God is Love, God is relational and desires to be in relation with another. This desire gave birth to creation. God as Parent, Christ, and Spirit is the maker and sustainer of all things past, present, and future. In creation, God envisioned and then spoke into being a community whose life together would be inspired and shaped by Love in order to be a reflection of the Creator. Just as God is many and diverse, God’s creation is many and diverse. The unique character of created things is good because there could be no relationships, and therefore no love, without it. God gave one creature in particular – the man and woman – a special purpose in this creation: keeping the community, nurturing its multifaceted, interwoven connections, and preserving the diversity of each created thing in order to preserve the image of the Creator.

Because God is Love, God creates space for God’s community-keepers to reciprocate God’s love in freedom. However, the man and the woman rejected their purpose and turned away from Love towards self-reliance as if they could live apart from Love. This act of utter rebellion wounded creation at its core. Instead of Love, there was fear; instead of relation, alienation; instead of community, desecration.

Because God is Love, the Parent, Christ, and Spirit remain present and active in, with, and for creation in spite of the rebellion of God’s community-keepers. This active being of Love within and among creation is salvation. God is the saving God who comes to creation in a form it can see, and hear, and touch. Jesus the Christ is Love born to be the true community-keeper whose life, death, and resurrection made a way for all of creation’s wounds to be healed. In Jesus, Love reigns supreme.

Because God is Love, God creates anew by the power of the Spirit. Just as Jesus was compelled by Love to heal creation’s wounded, fearful heart, the Spirit was poured out over all creation to unite all things together again in Love. The Spirit is open-handed Love who reconciles relationships broken by fear, tears down the dividing walls of alienation, and restores all created things to their place in the embrace of Love. In the Spirit, Love brings new life.

Because God is Love, I am. God loves me and empowers me to love God, myself, others, and all creation. Through Jesus Christ and the Spirit, God has invited me and empowered me to play a small part in a fellowship of community-keepers who embody and enact and reveal the healing and new life Love desires for all creation. This fellowship liberates and embraces those who are suffering from the violence of fear, alienation, and desecration and gives it life for the transformation of this violence into peace and justice. They welcome others into their body of unity-in-diversity and are sent out as witnesses to the Love they have seen, felt, and known in order to make their community more complete.

Because God is Love, there is no reason to fear. Creation has hope because God is gathering all things into Love. The perfect communion of God and creation will be made complete.

Church Renewal & Evangelism: Thoughts on Cell Church

heartcellsIn a profoundly insightful article describing the need for a renewed theology of the Trinity in the Western world, Eastern Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas reveals “a pathology built into the very roots of our existence, inherited through our birth, and that is the fear of the other.”1 This fear creates the conditions in which communion with God and one another become extremely difficult as society becomes more fractured by walls built to protect the privacy, happiness, and power of individuals and their homogenous groups. In this fear-driven, fragmented environment, the evangelistic church is given the very demanding task of creating a true community where the peace of Christ calms all fears and heals all wounds. Many churches attempt to respond to this task by creating some form of small group ministry in which its members gather in homes during the week in order to make time for building relationships, discussing matters of faith and discipleship, along with praying, worshiping and serving together. These groups are usually designed to be an additional ministry of the church; something added on to “create community” but certainly not to take the place of other, more primary ministries like the Sunday morning worship service or the mid-week Bible study. When churches design small group ministries as just another piece of the church puzzle, they fail to take full account of the fear of the other which Zizioulas identifies as a powerful, community-destroying force in Western society.

The cell church model offers a much more robust and radical response to the dire need for authentic communities which can model the love of God in a fractured world. A cell church places small groups, i.e. “cells”, at the very center of its life. Meeting with others in a small group is no longer an optional side dish on the buffet of church ministries – not belonging to a cell means not belonging to the church! As the defining feature of the church, the cell is a place where the entirety of the church’s life – its worship, praying, teaching and preaching of Scripture, service to each other and the community, and even its tithing – occur within the context of a 12-15 person small group.

This small group context removes the option of anonymity from the church’s practices and makes interaction and participation with others a necessity; there is nowhere to hide from the fear of the other in a cell church. This feature is the primary strength of cell churches in Western society, but it can also be their greatest weakness. Some people are not ready to confront their fear of others and are unwilling to make the kind of long-term commitment that is necessary for establishing an authentic relationship. The barrier to entry is just too high. These people may need the sense of anonymity offered in non-cell churches in order to come to place where they are ready to commit to deeper relationships where they can know and be known. However, cell churches do typically provide a place for newcomers or outsiders to “test the waters.” On a regular basis, all the various cells gather for a “celebration” service which is more akin to a non-cell church’s Sunday morning worship service. Cell churches must be intentional about the way they structure and present these celebration services so as to remain open and welcoming to all kinds of people who want to explore the cell church community.

Another key strength of the cell church model is the emphasis it places on the practice of spiritual gifts. The cell provides the relational context necessary for discerning the gifts of its members, while also being flexible enough to make a place for its members to practice their gifts. In a cell group, everyone gets to play. In this way, the cell church models a true dependence on the Spirit who empowers the church with gifts for its common good and the mission of God. Again, however, this strength can become a weakness, especially at the cell’s outset. Cell leaders may feel pressured to “delegate” leadership responsibilities to others who are supposedly “gifted” for these roles in order to relieve their own leadership burden or to encourage the growth of new cells. If this sharing of responsibility happens too quickly or if too little time is given to discern the gifting of group members, the life of the cell could be put at risk. This weakness highlights the need for regular pastoral oversight for all cell group leaders. It also suggests the need for establishing a cell leadership team before a cell begins which can help distribute the stress of launching a new cell. When these considerations are made, a cell is given a much greater chance of becoming a place where each member can operate in the power of the Spirit’s gifting as they serve one another and the community.

A final strength of the cell church model is its expectation for multiplication. When a cell reaches a size of 18-24 members, it is encouraged to split into two cells. However, preparation for this multiplication begins with the start of each new cell. One of the first responsibilities of cell leaders is to identify, recruit, and train apprentice leaders from within their cell membership. These multiplicative practices give the cell church model an evangelistic character. In many cases, those who have never been to a church are more willing to join a small group of people where they can sit across a kitchen table, drink a cup of coffee, and have meaningful conversations. Again, this strength reveals a weakness: it easy for cells to close themselves off and get too comfortable. In this case, the cell becomes a clique and therefore unwelcoming towards “outsiders.” This kind of cell will most likely resist being split in order to preserve their comfort. This possibility reveals the necessity of instilling the cell with a missional vision from its outset. Each cell should be partnered with a local community organization where they can “get outside themselves” on a regular basis and practice a life of service. In many cases, this will require the assistance and coordination of an outside pastoral team. However, a cell church whose cells remain outwardly focused will be poised to welcome people of all kinds who can see and hear God’s story brought to life.

1 John Zizioulas, “Communion and Otherness,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 38, no. 4 (1994): 350.

Trinity: A Credo

I believe that God is Trinity; the Parent, Child, and Spirit who exist as communion because they exist as persons. A person is an absolutely unique identity who cannot exist apart from relation to an-other person. Therefore, persons live as community because they are oriented towards distinct others who they freely celebrate, embrace, and love. This Triune community is characterized by movements of equal, mutual, reciprocal self-giving and other-receiving among, between, and within the persons of Parent, Child and Spirit. Because God is Triune, God is relational and God is reaching out to be in relation with that which is not-God. Parent, Child, and Spirit are reaching out through creation, redemption, and consummation in order to gather all creatures together to share in the mystery of their perfect communion. Trinity means that God is Love eternal and unending; that God is none other than the God who has created us in love, who has come to redeem us in the grace of Jesus Christ, and who continues to reach out for us and draw us closer to Godself and each other by the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

I believe that this story of Triune persons who live as saving communion is the story that comes before, mingles within, and goes beyond  all human stories and the story in which all other stories find their origin and meaning; that salvation is the comprehensive, holistic process of creatures being incorporated into and participating with the Parent, Child, and Spirit which brings healing, restoration, and transformation; that persons who participate with Trinity are liberating and embracing those who are suffering from evil and sin which divides, desecrates, and destroys that which belongs to the life of the Parent, Child, and Spirit. Trinity creates communities of “disciples” who welcome into their body of unity-in-diversity; who provide a place of refuge, peace, and healing that becomes a place of teaching, wisdom, and power as they gather to worship the Triune God; who are sent out as witnesses to this Love they have seen, felt, and known in order to make their community more complete; who are a community of hope in a world of despair because of their participation with the Parent, Child, and Spirit who together constitute life itself.