Recently, I was at an international conference with mission leaders from around the world. I haven’t participated in many international mission conferences. At one of the first of such conferences that I did attend, in 2004, the conference organizers were discussing security measures to protect the mission leaders (largely from the global north) who assumed, in the wake of 9/11, that they could be targets of terrorism and a great loss for the global church. While there was some debate about whether this would be a loss or, in some ways, a gain for the global church, the conference I attended in 2023 had a strikingly different tone. The purpose of this conference was to look at current missional challenges and to think about the future of missions. The question was not “how to protect the mission leaders for the sake of the global church?”, but rather “what is the purpose of the mission leaders in the global church?” As I mentioned, I haven’t participated in many conferences like these, so I am limited in my ability to evaluate them. Yet, it seemed to me that one feature of this conference was a sense of identity crisis.
The crisis revolves around the established role of missionaries (or, if that terminology is too tainted, Christians working cross-culturally for churches and para-church organizations) in the face of major global shifts. Let me outline some of these shifts for missionaries:
These shifts for the missionaries relate to changing desires, capacities, and phenomena in local contexts:
In light of these shifts, missionaries are asking about their role and about how to relate in different ways. While they are largely supportive of the dismantling of colonialist and paternalistic practices, of sharing power, gifts, and skills, and of the growing identity of the global church and mission from everywhere to everywhere, missionaries are unsure of their role. How do they use their gifts and strengths without imposing, exploiting, or subjugating? How do they relinquish control while also promoting accountability?
While those who are suffering the loss of power, this may seem like an identity crisis. Yet, it appears to be an opportunity for missions. While the relative power of the global north gave power to missionaries from the global north, missionaries are now having to adjust to having less power. Perhaps, the church from the global north was able to accomplish much, missions that ride on the back of political, economic, social, or cultural power normally contribute as much bad as it does good. With less power, missionaries can rediscover missions in the way of the cross, discovering the power of God in weakness. An example of missions in the way of the cross is the posturing of missionaries as bridge-builders, ambassadors, or in-betweeners. Cross-cultural missionaries often feel like misfits – out of place in their new home and never in place in their country of origin. In this out-of-placeness, missionaries can serve as translators of culture and ideas, mediators of difference, and models for engaging otherness. Missionaries can embrace a more marginal posture and serve “from below.” Missionaries can theologically reflect on the shifts, emphasizing coming as well as going, receiving as well as giving. Instead of holding onto projections of what the missionary is, they can hold to a vocation that looks to imitate and reflect the life of Christ.
While naming the overwhelming positives of the Urbana gathering of students, I have also identified some negatives. In my previous post, I discussed the supernatural/natural divide in our metaphysical understanding of reality. Here, I want to discuss the problem in calling students to be “world-changers.”
Again, we must start by recognizing the strong positives in challenging young people to say “yes” to the high call of the Father, to be courageous and even risky, in following the radical path of the Messiah, and to being open to promptings of the Spirit that lead us outside comfort zones and against our cultural tides. Every young person is on a “heroic journey.” Yet, as Christians, the heroic journey goes through the cross and it is never taken alone but in communion with the church.
So, there are some fundamental problems with framing the vocational goal of being a “world-changer.” This was an obvious theme of the Urbana conference and mentioned by various plenary presentations and prayers. At the very least, the concept of “world-changer” needs a lot of caveats; at most, the social script needs to be rewritten. Here are some ways to (re)consider changing the world as Christians:
Rather than calling students to be world-changers, can we better draw on biblical imagery:
Rather than projecting our visions to change the world, this imagery speaks more to a faithful presence in the world, which is a high and beautiful vocation and one to which young students should be called.
While noting in my previous blog post a seeming increased disinterest in global missions, I also named some of the positives of Urbana: ethnic, gender, and even ecumenical diversity; broad envisioning of mission activities and expressions; and gathering, challenging, and discipling students. It really is, in my view, an overwhelmingly positive movement for the church and particularly for university students. Still, there are two negatives that I would like to name: the assumption of a two-tiered supernature/nature cosmos and the framing of disciples as “world-changers.” I’ll start with the first in this blog post.
Considering the diversity of speakers and participants at Urbana, I wouldn’t want to make sweeping generalizations. However, one phrase that I heard repeatedly was “supernatural.” Although I heard it from different people in different occasions at the conference, I can reference various sermons from the evening plenary by Bishop Claude Alexander. He uses it in reference to Pentecost and the disciples’ ability to speak in tongues and of God’s empowerment so as to fulfill God’s purpose (see evening plenary 1 minute 10). Alexander explains that the disciples were given a “supernatural ability,” that “God super-met our natural.”
There certainly is an important aspect in distinguishing the Creator (though I wouldn’t call it “supernatural”) from creation (the natural), of receiving from God power to transcend inhibitions, fears, and opposition, and to accomplish what we in ourselves are unable to. That said, the characterization of cosmos in terms of supernatural/natural realms that are disconnected may cohere with the western worldview, but it is at odds with the Christian view.
This view of the supernatural/natural divide is not particular to Intervarsity or Urbana. It is normative in much of western Christianity. It is actually promoted by certain Thomist schools and part of much of Protestant of theology, which holds strongly to a division between (supernatural) grace and nature. Some Protestant missiologists (like Paul Hiebert) have responded to this dichotomy by identifying the “excluded middle” in the western worldview, that sees God and spirits above and humans, creatures, and the earth below, but miss the middle, which most cultures see as the sphere of shamans, priests, and spirits. However, missiologists tend to look at this anthropologically, asking how humans understand the cosmos. For the early church and its theology, it was not just a matter of how a particular culture understands the cosmos but about what is true about the cosmos, reality, and metaphysics. While the discussion can quickly become philosophical and abstract, let me try and describe the dualism and then state as simply as I can what is at stake and why we should resist this supernatural/natural dichotomy.
Eminent theologians like John Milbank, David Bentley Hart, and John Behr have long criticized the supernatural/natural dualism, but Hans Boersma clarified the issues for me. In his book Heavenly Participation, he shows how the early church held a participatory ontology in which all of creation is distinguished from the divine Trinity but exists in, through, and toward the Triune God. The church moved from this metaphysic of ontological participation to one of nominalism and voluntarism in the late Middle Ages. While some discern the seeds for a supernatural/natural dichotomy in Augustine’s thought on predestination (Hart) or in Aquinas, Boersma focuses on Duns Scotus and William of Ockham who moved from the equivocity of being (humans correlate to God by analogy) to univocity (God is one being among beings), from realism (the earthly realities correspond to their heavenly Source and Sustainer) to nominalism (each individual being exists in and of itself) and to voluntarism (in which God’s action is a decision of the will rather than an expression of the Good). While discussions about metaphysics are abstract, they have concrete repercussions. Let me just list some of the consequences of the supernatural/natural dichotomy:
When the metaphysics of the early church are recovered and the natural/supernatural dichotomy rejected, we can affirm:
In between Christmas and New Year’s Eve 2022, I was glad to participate in the Urbana Student Missions Conference for the first time. I had heard the legends about Urbana and had friends participate, and we have had many WMF staff connected through Urbana. My hope was that WMF would make many new contacts with prospective students, to network with other organizations and especially the New Friar organizations, and to learn how university students are thinking about mission.
The conference was a success in many ways. Intervarsity deserves kudos for cultivating diversity. The speakers and worship leaders were of different ethnicities and genders. The participants were also extremely diverse. This manifest diversity has the potential to create a positive ethos for the imagination of the global church and of global mission.
I confess that I personally have a hard time worshiping in spaces that have smoke machines and laser shows. But if it fits anywhere, it fits for young students at Urbana. I participated in the opening evening plenary, which was more emotive than substantive, which led me to skipe the other evening plenaries. I did attend the morning plenaries, which had more substance with speakers from World Vision (Alexia Salvatierra) and IJM, among others. They also began with teaching on prayer practices (silence, breath prayer, etc.), which I enjoyed while perhaps it may have been challenging for the students.
There were many other positives. We were able to discuss study abroad options with the folks from InterVarsity. We were able to spend time with staff from New Friar organizations who share much in common with WMF. We stayed in a community house, hosted by the Englewood church who do inner city work, intentional community, and publish book reviews. And we created connections with other organizations.
A disappointment was what I perceived to be a lack of students’ interest in global mission. Previous Urbana conferences had 20,000 participants. This one had 5,500. They also reduced the conference time by a day. I have some theories about this decline. Was the conference so diverse because white students have dropped out? Is the decline representative of the exodus of this generation from evangelical churches? Are other institutions (i.e., Passion, Justice, Southern Baptists, New Room, etc.) organizing their own conferences and drawing students to those instead? Or is there less interest in global mission due to its perceived connection to colonization, to possibly missteps (i.e., When Helping Hurts), to the changing demographics of where the church is in the world (i.e., The Next Christendom), or to students having lower horizons (i.e., focusing on the missional needs of their local community, increased student loan debts, etc.). Most likely, all of these factors, along with wintery weather and a Covid spike, contribute to the diminished interest in mission at this Urbana Conference.
According to Urbana’s accounting, 684 students committed to go on short term mission (less than 1 year); 308 committed to go on midterm mission; and 329 committed to serving more than two years. Interestingly, I would consider anything less than 3 years as being short or perhaps midterm mission as it is only after 3-5 years that one learns language and culture, is established in the location, and begins to make a strong contribution. By calling long-term missions anything more than two years, I think Urbana does a disservice to long-term missions as well as to the students and the expectations they create.
I was curious to learn what the students were thinking. I was able to go to two seminars and tried to listen to the questions students are asking. In my discussion groups, the students were thinking about short-term mission trips or about missions to their university campus or church neighborhoods. The seminar content was on base communities and on wealth and mission. Perhaps those interested in global missions chose to participate in other seminars.
Still, I think a lack of interest in global mission was felt throughout the conference. A sign of the lack of interest was that it seemed to me that few participants spent time in the Connections Hall where we set up our exhibit and tables. I expected that students who self-select and pay for a missions conference would be leaning toward careers in missions. I did speak with students interested in serving in “unreached” locations, in church-planting, and in internships in inner city work. So, there was some interest. However, I spoke with other universities and organizations, and many said that they got few contacts and much fewer than previous Urbana conferences. It seemed to me that there was little foot traffic to the tables. While the position of our table in our shared space with the New Friars may also be a reason for fewer contacts, the overall numbers of contacts of the New Friars was low.
As I departed from the conference, I hypothesized that the students still are interested in engaging in global mission. However, this engagement looks very different. My observation may be specifically about students in the US, but they seem interested in doing mission from where they are at (i.e., being “globally minded”), rather than by going somewhere else. This certainly is a missional posture – albeit different than one that goes, is immersed in a different culture, builds relationships with those of other cultures, and becomes a bridge for the global church. What are the potential gains and possible losses from such a posture?
We are in the season of Lent, a time in which we rehearse Jesus’ walk to Jerusalem, his suffering, and his death on the cross. Often, we participate in Lent by giving up certain pleasures (i.e., meat, alcohol, chocolate, social media, etc.). Sometimes, believers celebrate by adding something to their daily practices (like silence, generous giving, meditation, etc.) Our Lenten practices help us remember our baptismal vows, lead us to grieve the cost of our sin, and move us to change patterns of behavior. Yet, rarely, does Lent cause us to consider our relationship to violence. Jason Porterfield, in his book Fight Like Jesus, invites us to reflect on peacemaking, especially during Holy Week.
Interestingly, I got to know Jason through his acts of violence. We were at the Urbana conference in December, sharing an exhibition space where we invited university students to consider urban mission among impoverished communities. As I sat at the table, I was frequently bombarded by pieces of candy. After a little investigation, I discovered that I was being pegged by Jason. Was he trying to teach me to fight like Jesus?
In his book, Jason Porterfield walks us through Holy Week, providing insightful biblical commentary, demonstrating Jesus’ intention to bring peace, and raising provocative questions about how we as Christ-followers emulate Jesus’ peace-making way. Jesus reveals practices of peace in the middle of a most violent week.
Palm Sunday: In the midst of waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!”, we fail to notice Jesus’ tears. He weeps over Jerusalem for failing to know what would bring it peace. Porterfield discerns Jesus’ lament, amid the crowd’s joy, as an interpretive key for Holy Week. The struggle for peace is understood as the central struggle of Jesus’ march to the cross. Rather than riding the gleeful expectations for a messianic liberator to bring a righteous revolt, Jesus weeps for peace.
Holy Monday: Contrary to popular notions of the cleaning of the temple being violent or spontaneous, Porterfield shows how this was a methodical act, which took time and preparation (i.e., trips to the temple for reconnaissance, making a whip, etc.). The act was not designed or used to harm people, but to purify space meant for the “gentiles” and being used instead for money-changers and the selling of animals for temple sacrifice (in contrast to the Maccabean violent reaction to abuse of the temple). When discussing the temple cleansing, we often overlook the fact that after the money changers and animal sellers went out, the blind and lame came in and were healed (Matthew 21:14). For these marginalized people, their admittance into the temple was just as miraculous as the physical healing they received. Matthew goes on to write that children also entered the temple courts and praised Jesus (21:15). Their presence in the temple is equally astonishing, for, as theologian Stanley Hauerwas notes, “children had always been excluded from the temple” (p. 24).
Holy Tuesday: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” The listeners realized that Jesus was alluding to the central Jewish tenet that all of humanity is created in God’s image. The implication is this: since the coin has Caesar’s image imprinted on it, give it back to him. Although the coin made claims for pax romana, Jesus intimates that he did not look to the face of Caesar for protection and peace. If everything belongs to God, what’s left for Caesar? What do we owe the Caesars of this world? The logical answer seems to be nothing.
Tuesday also includes the “seven woes to the Pharisees” (woe being a term of grief) and the “little apocalypse” in which Christ-followers are told to flee the immanent war with the Romans rather than defend Palestine. Christlike peacemakers follow Jesus in nonviolent love, speak truth to power and listen with humility when such truth is spoken to them, break the cycle of violence by routinely engaging in small acts of radical love.
Holy Wednesday: This day includes the anointing of Jesus’ feet (as a preparation for burial) by an unnamed women, the prophecy that one man should die for the sake of the nation, and Judas’ actions to betray Jesus. The anonymous women from the margins of society and vulnerable to violence of society, acts in ways that those around her find suspect or of disrepute, but Jesus defends her. Jesus contends for peace on the margins of society. He refuses the mythology that violence is redemptive (that believes that violent means can bring peaceful ends). His efforts to make peace would result in his death, not the death of his enemies.
Maundy Thursday: This is the occasion of the Last Supper or the Passover meal – the breaking and giving of the Messiah’s body, not the enemy’s body; this is where Jesus washes the disciples’ feet; Jesus commands them to love one another as he has loved love. This new mandate is new as it commands us to become a newly formed community, loving like Jesus love and making Jesus known by this love. As violence encroaches and prompts the violent cutting off of an ear, Jesus heals the servant who intends to capture him.
Good Friday: Jesus is before Pilate, representing a kingly challenge to Caesar; proclaiming a kingdom that is not of this world’s violent kingdoms; prompting a choice between Jesus and Barabbas, the violent insurrectionist; and experiencing torture and death on a cross – suffering for the sake of sinners and enemies that breaks the cycle of violence.
Holy Saturday: Jesus is lain in the sealed tomb; later epistles tell us that Jesus descends into Hades, trampling on death with death and setting the captives free.
Easter Sunday: the women visit the tomb and find it empty; the first encounters with the resurrected Jesus, who commissions the disciples to make peace.
We do live in a violent world. Conflicts in central Africa, Myanmar, and Haiti disturb our deepest notions humanity and survival. The communities of Word Made Flesh are intentionally present in places where people are vulnerable to violence, whether that is in poor neighborhoods, helping abused women, or responding to Ukrainian refugees. At times, violence may be a last resort to the threat of violence – and then always regrettable. However, most often, our choice is not between abuse or abuser, victim or victimizer, fight or flight. There are creative choices in the space between. Jason’s book invites us to practice peacemaking, to image loving and helping those who threaten us rather than harming them, to cultivate communities of security rather than sharpening our aim with guns, and to envision a future shared by us and those considered threats and enemies.
While violence is often negative and almost always to be regretted, one thing I do not regret is suffering the attacks of flying candies from the hand of Jason (and perhaps retaliating), getting to know him, and being led by his book to becoming Christians that better resemble the way of our Messiah.
With our proximity to Asbury University, many have asked me about what has been happening. Our home is a 3-minute walk to the Asbury University chapel, which I see from my back window. I taught classes at the university last year and am in a doctorate program across the street at Asbury Seminary. Also, Word Made Flesh was founded by Asbury students, and our US office is based in Wilmore. It is surreal to see the cars overrun this two-traffic-light town and to see lines of thousands and thousands of people wrapped around the university, waiting to get into the chapel. For the moment, this is what I will say about the events:
Celebrate the experience of the students. I have heard testimonies of many who struggle with depression or anxiety, with acceptance and isolation, or without having heard God’s voice ever or for a long time. Let’s suspend our evaluations of the event and simply recognize the students’ intense encounters with God as a good in and of itself.
Prioritize the voices of the students. While many are trying to name or explain this movement of God, it began with students, has been led by students, and has been the primary experience of students. So, let’s let them articulate this experience for themselves. Time will come for analysis but let us continue to be sensitive to the students and to listen to them and to what they are hearing from God.
Recognize people’s hunger for God. This past week there was a shift of focus from the AU students to those who are visiting. The long lines in the sun, in the downpouring rain, and in the cold speak of the genuine hunger that people have to encounter God. This too is a good to be celebrated.
Pray for the leaders. The leadership of the university as well as the student leaders have done an excellent job of facilitating this spontaneous movement, maintaining a safe space, limiting access to fringe groups or those who want to coopt the event, focusing on students and young people, and organizing all the volunteers needed to sustain this 24 hour prayer and worship for almost 2 weeks. Hats off to them. They are certainly exhausted, and they are aware of the hard work that will follow.
Expect this to be a beginning and not an end. While some may be coming to witness this movement, hoping for healing, salvation, deliverance, or an experience in the Spirit, what is happening is only a starting point. What follows is discipleship, formation, counseling, the long work of healing and recovery, institutional change, reconciliation, and mission. Students who I’ve spoken with are aware of this and excited for what’s next.
Source: Interviu cu David, fondatorul fundației Cuvântul Întrupat din Galați – Pană Bogdan
It’s about time that I update you on all that is happening with us. Compared to past years, our Christmas season was much more relaxed. We still did a lot of caroling, but it was spread out over many days. We still had a big Christmas party, but we held it on the 23rd, rather than the 25th, and we finished it at midnight rather than the following morning. All things considered, the kids had an enjoyable time and we were able to fully celebrate the season.
After celebrating a relatively quiet New Year’s Eve and Day, I got on a midnight bus to Bucharest – the first of 5 red-eyes I would suffer in January. 32 hours later I arrived in Sierra Leone, grateful to be in the warmth and to be among friends. We spent the first few days on a community retreat that I led on “Kingdom Community” – reflecting on God’s purposes, covenant community, lament and hope, vulnerability, and particular missiological challenges. After the retreat, we spent another few days reviewing 2016 and making a tactical plan for 2017. I was grateful to see their ongoing growth and maturity as
a community and the amazing ways that God is using them.
I departed Sierra Leone for a weekend in the UK, where I met with friends, updated supporters, and spoke at St. Mary’s church of England.
After the quick weekend, I traveled on to Rwanda, my first visit ever in that part of the world. WMF sent Shelbye, the first staff person in October of 2015, after she had done a 3-month internship with us in Galati. In the autumn of 2016, Annie arrived as the second WMF staff. Together, we took a few days to put together a tactical plan for the coming year. I was also able to see some of the beautiful country and meet with some of their friends and partners and was very grateful to visit the weekly meeting in a poor community with women who are responsible for their own savings and loan project.
After Rwanda, I returned to England where I participated in a little golf fundraiser and then shared with friends at Kingsway Fellowship in Liverpool. Then, finally, I was back to icy Romania.
Of course, there was lots of catching up to do in February. We continue to look at ways to help our new staff integrate well, to develop life-giving activities for the children and families at our centers, and to find ways to connect our activities and relationships to the local churches. In addition, I led another local organization with whom we partner through an annual tactical plan, which I’ll review with them throughout the year.
Lenutsa and I have also started planning our sabbatical. This is something that we practice in WMF every seven years. Most likely, we will begin this time in September. We would appreciate your prayers for wisdom and guidance for this time.
Dorin is the third born of 8 brothers and sisters. His mom lives with his biological father, but it seems that the father didn’t want to claim him as his own, as another man’s name is written on Dorin’s birth certificate. The family atmosphere is tense because the father drinks and is often physically and emotionally abusive. Dorin’s mom cannot cope with the situation and confessed that she wished that the man would move out. Recently, she went to the police after a violent fight. The police gave Dorin’s dad a fine for disturbing the peace, but Dorin’s mom had to pay it because he does not work. In the end, Dorin’s mom has given up going to the police. So, the incidents continue to happen and affect the whole family.
Dorin is extremely intelligent and sensitive, but his home life affects him more than he allows to show. He rarely talks about what happens at home. The last time he did, it was about a violent episode at home in which his dad’s head was severely injured. Dorin missed a number of days at school and at our community center because he was spending time with his dad at the hospital.
Although you can see the marks of sadness on his face, Dorin is happy to be at the center where he knows that he is loved and appreciated. He is a bit awkward whenever he is shown any positive affection, but we hope and pray that the love that surrounds him here will help him overcome any obstacle or barrier and that his many God-given talents will be able to show and grow in his life.
The Miorita ballad, is perhaps, the most eloquent Romanian folk poem ever created, summing up the most important beliefs of this nation.
“No powerful person dares to approach the manger, and this even includes King Herod. For this is where thrones shake, the mighty fall, the prominent perish, because God is with the lowly. Here the rich come to nothing, because God is with the poor and hungry, but the rich and satisfied he sends away empty. Before Mary, the maid, before the manger of Christ, before God in lowliness, the powerful come to naught; they have no right, no hope; they are judged. …
“Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger; whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high; whoever looks at the child in the manger and sees the glory of God precisely in his lowliness. …
“And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly … God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.”
“I believe that God can and will bring good out of evil, even out of the greatest evil. For that purpose, he needs men [and women] who make the best use of everything. I believe that God will give us all the strength we need to help us to resist in all times of distress. But he never gives it in advance, lest we should rely on ourselves and not on him alone. A faith such as this should allay all our fears for the future.”