- Revd Jem Hovil
A family without borders
After a year of restrictions, why is it more important than ever to connect with God’s worldwide church (not only for the good of God’s global mission but also for our own sake and sanity)? The usual arguments apply, but our current crisis reinforces them and can deepen the connections across Christ’s seamless body.
God’s church has already made a paradigm shift: from viewing global mission as an optional extra – a subject for special interest groups – to understanding that the mission of God is the setting for all of life and ministry. By the end of the twentieth century the move had been made: from a mentality in which churches are those who ‘send’ individuals off to mission, to one in which congregations are living bodies that have already been ‘sent’ out as a whole and who are on an everyday mission themselves. A shift from delegating to doing. At least that is the case theologically. The implications continue to permeate through the layers of church culture, but local churches are now far more inclined to ask, What is our place in God’s grand plan for his world?
The benefits are palpable, not least in offering healthier views of church. For example, if we simply extrapolate from the smaller (our congregation and our mission) to the larger (God’s universal church and his mission) the potential for distortion is immense. A parochial view of mission simply amplifies our peculiarities and emphases on the so-called ‘mission field’; it advertises our own cultural captivity, often in embarrassing ways. How healthy it is to remember how Paul keeps both the local and the global in tension (1 Cor 1:2). If we “go and do likewise” it will help us to avoid confusing our own peculiar styles and iterations of the gospel with the gospel itself.
And we continue to gain immense encouragement from the growing churches of the global South. Global church growth is a breath of fresh air in the face of local decline, a phenomenon that is “largely hidden from people in the West now living in a post-Christian culture” as Lamin Sanneh pointed out.
Similarly we benefit from the theological insights of the southern churches. Our secular culture has truncated views of life and diminished the power of the gospel. On the African continent, for example, in contrast to our compartmentalisation of life there is a seamless view of the seen and the unseen, the spiritual and the physical: a worldview that is next door to that of the New Testament’s with its understanding of heaven and earth, spheres within which the victory of Christ and the defeat of evil are to be understood (Col 2:15). As we embrace those insights we come to appreciate the power of God in and for our own lives and churches, and understand more of the riches of the gospel.
And of course and importantly, world mission constantly reminds us of the unreached – the many that have never had an opportunity to hear the gospel, which then compels us in our efforts further afield whilst also challenging us to speak to our own friends and neighbours with an offer of hope.
These arguments have been well rehearsed, along with others besides. However, while it is impossible to generalise about the global church, for many of our sisters and brothers our current crisis is not a crisis at all: it is simply a deepening and compounding of a prolonged situation of suffering. What we are experiencing as a once in a lifetime set of restrictions gives a taster of their everyday life.
Take one instance: the South Sudanese refugees this writer is regularly in touch with by WhatsApp and voice-call: migrants who live in a protracted situation of exile in the settlements of northern Uganda. Many have suffered decades rather than months of restriction of movement; lives and livelihoods that have shrunk; vocational and educational opportunities that are rare or restricted; and above all a dehumanising state of powerlessness to bring change.
Now, at last, by God’s grace, our churches in the west have been humbled towards more of a level playing field, with a taste of what it means to know that “the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings” (1 Peter 5:9). A family we are an integral part of, a family without borders, a family within which we can learn together what it means to “participate in the sufferings of Christ” so that we may be truly overwhelmed and “overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (4:13), and might reach out to one another and serve one another until that day.