Friday, February 06, 2009

Missional is still in white hands, purposefully


Black churches are not missional. So it seems, if we follow the arguments of some bloggers. One day, after we have come finally through modernity, we will catch up on the white, Northern churches, who are out there in front, with we, Africans lagging (again sheepishly following!) behind. Is this the best we can say here? I don't think so. The real issue is that the politics and economics of the conversation in being missional or emergent is still in the hands of white males; at least in terms of my experience in South Africa. (Gordon Dames, notwithstanding!). Let me explain.

I was introduced to this concept 'missional', via an invitation from a colleague in the white, Dutch Reformed Church (DRC), in the middle of 2004. They introduced me and other colleagues from the URCSA to the new Partnership for Missional Churches, facilitated by an US-based consultancy, Church Innovations, represented by Pat Keiffert, and the local partner, the Bureau for Continuing Theological Training and Research (BUCTER, now called Communitas). The various partnering congregations were asked to pay a predetermined amount of money to be part of this partnership and were invited to send representatives of their church council for an introductory meeting and training, at one of the DRC congregations, to be called the "leader congregation" in this cluster of congregations. The partnership has grown under this structure, with various clusters being formed in South Africa and Namibia, with a structured MTh (Missional Church) started at the University of Stellenbosch, in 2006, under the leadership of Prof Jurgens Hendriks. Key emergent proponents, like Brian McClaren, Allan Hirsch, Scot McKnight, Tony Jones, amongst others, have visited some of these congregations and they maintain close ties to this partnership.

Of course, the concept, missional, has been in circulation before this and has gained currency, especially since the publication of Missional Church: A Vision for sending the church in North America, after which we saw an upsurge of new literature and other sources of reflection on missional ecclesiology. Kritzinger however recently made the interesting point that the journal of the Southern African Association for Mission studies (SAMS), started by David Bosch in 1972, was called Missionalia. The theological meaning then, was never discussed although, also in the Southern African context, concepts like "sending", mission, missionary, etc were already hotly contested and vigorously debated.

Another new network, in the Southern African context, is called Missionet, under the theological and inspirational leadership of Theo and Johan Geyser, who are leading reshaped and reinvented pentecostal local churches and what is called "new church plants". Their own doctoral research grappled with the transition of local Pentecostal churches towards being responsive to the post-modern cultural context, in line with the models of the well-known USA based Saddleback and Willowcreek community churches, lead by Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, respectively. They also keep with close linkages with the emergent church movements in the US and UK, with key advocates like Brian McClaren, Rob Bell and Leonard Sweet, being regular visitors at their all white, mega-churches, consisting now of mostly migrated, former DRC members. Many mainline local congregations, now also follow these models and proponents with varying degrees of agreement with the principles and practices, as proposed in the various literature, websites and blogs available.

Then in 2007 I was invited, by a South African colleague, who is versed in the emerging church conversation, to a consultation which was held in Kampala, Uganda. Under the banner of Amahoro, leaders and members from various emergent churches in the United States, as well as church leaders especially from East and Central Africa, gathered to mainly discuss issues of post-modernity and the relevance of the emerging conversation for Africa. The aim was to start a conversation and build partnerships amongst, what were called, missional leaders and thinkers. Here, the dialogue centred on the question whether we are in fact dealing with a postmodern or postcolonial turn, but also how in a practical way these churches could link up with African churches. Another consultation followed in 2008 in Rwanda and for 2009 one is planned for Johannesburg, South Africa.

These wide range of proposals are not an exhaustive overview of the current post-colonial ecclesial landscape, but in terms of responding to the missional and emerging phenomenon, gives a glimpse of the current search for the agenda and vocation of being church in a shifting context of, what some would call, the post-modern Southern Africa. My observation is that, at least in this context, those clustered under the missional banner, are mostly driven by DRC ministers and professional theologians, employed at universities and research institutes, who are a generation or two older, then those who are part of a Southern African emergent conversation. The latter cohort, consists mostly of a younger generation of individuals, albeit not necessarily pastors of congregations, mostly from reinvented or evangelical backgrounds, who have unrestrained access to the flows of blogs and other social networking communities, framing and constraining participation in the conversation. The issue is not that African communities are lagging behind, the issue is that the missional conversation reflects the divisions and the powerful control that whites still wield, ecclesially, but also socially. That is the reality and that has to change.

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