The opening devotions included prayers and scripture reading from some of the emerging scholars in our midst. The scriptures and prayers were read or prayed extemporaneously in the languages of the participants, signaling both the necessity and promise of a diverse church in harmony with our common commitment to holy love manifested in the grace of God, the person and work of Jesus and the constant presence of the Holy Spirit.
The opening session set the stage for the conference. Greetings were given by our co-chairs, Dan Copp and Carla Sunberg. Dr. Sunberg opened the session by reminding attendees of the challenge of our task, to raise issues of ecclesiology with a global context, understanding that both the study of the church (ecclesiology) and the diversity of our global setting were “necessarily interwoven.” She stated that our dealing with the church must involve a variety of voices rather than doing theology merely in light of one or several historically powerful settings. Dr. Sunberg stressed our making room at the table for all voices to be heard, both in expanding the table and relinquishing power (where needed) to insure all voices are heard.
Dan Copp then noted that over 300 people were gathered all six regions of the global church, coming together as a sacred assembly similar to the Wesleyan tradition of “conferencing” to engage our ecclesiology “together” as a means of grace. Dr. Copp stressed “this is intended to be our gathering around a rich historical, biblical, theological center … and deepening & enriching our understanding and appreciation, in all our diversity, for the very center, the very heart that bids us together in the nature and mission of the Church.”
Dr. Kent Brower, program co-chair alongside my role with the conference papers. Stress the ecclesiological center of the conference. Rather than approach this conference as a search for denominational identity. Our identity comes from our participation in Christ and our task is to seek to understand who we are in light of the Body of Christ, the Church universal. With this understanding we might discern the role of our denominational message in light of this broader, ecclesial, perspective. Brower discussed our time together under several metaphors for gathering. He suggested our gathering might be our interpretation of how “one faith, one Lord, one baptism” shapes us. Or we might explore our common creed as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church; or, like Copp, as an extension of the Wesleyan notion of conference with all supplying answers to common questions. In particular the one that struck me was that of a family, with people physically separated from different cultural contexts but bearing “family resemblances.” In this light we communicate in an open and respectful manner, in love.
Ed Robinson set the stage for the small group discussion. Robinson noted that the plenary presentations by Senior Scholars would serve as a catalyst for discussion in and around the conference papers. Small group leaders would direct this process, identifying general questions/observations that they would return with to the plenary following each group session. After giving general directions, Dr. Robinson stressed that these conversations would prove crucial to the work of the conference but also to the overall trajectory of the conference to stimulate ongoing theological work by paying attention to every voice in the “body” (of Christ, the church).
Our first question revolved around the question of context or “where are we?” Dr. Jorge Julca served as our senior scholar and presenter to set the stage for small group discussion. Like all of the senior scholars, Dr. Julca’s paper was published early online in the journal Didache: Faithful Teaching. I will include a short excerpt here.
What is the role of the context in the fulfillment of the mission of God? This is the key question for the future of the Church because a holistic theology fulfills the purpose of articulating the message of God by revealing its relevance in each new context and challenge. We cannot eliminate the fact that the fulfillment of the mission is always effectuated in a context with specific socio-economic, historical, cultural and religious characteristics. Thus, the Church fulfills its mission by participating in a dynamic dialogue with its surrounding reality, seeking answers to our present needs.
After the small group session we reconvened to engage a panel comprised of many of the author’s whose published papers guided our earlier deliberation and discussion. Not surprisingly the questions to the panelists explored a number of the themes in the paper including, holistic spirituality, organizational structure and the charism of the Holy Spirit, dealing with social issues like HIV/Aids and confronting ecclesial concerns from divine healing to prosperity theology. Several papers were from the Africa context and the desire to take that context seriously in our theology. All of the African scholars noted the presence of real, spiritual evil, and the necessity to address rather than rationalize its presence. The conversation proved stimulating… and challenging… not only in respecting theology done in diverse contexts, but in allowing those ecclesial issues to inform the global church.
In particular the day was given to the small groups. Since a number of our participants come from sensitive regions of the globe, most general photos were limited, however the small group discussions, either in the general introductions or in dealing with the specific issue of diversity, shaped a good portion of the day. The morning included introducing ourselves and the challenges of our contexts. I was struck by some of the themes in my small group.
- Ministry in the face of other religious traditions from Islam to Buddism and Shamanism.
- The challenge of reaching a new, more secular, generation in many industrialized countries
- The struggle to sustain the gospel in the face of violence at the hands of gangs, tribal conflict, and indifferent racism.
- The need to allow the gospel to be free from certain administrative structures that might impede innovation and evangelism.
Most of all I was humbled by the hospitality and trust within this group from the very beginning. The body of Christ remains most powerful, it seems, when it can also be the most vulnerable and intimate in our common journey as disciples as well as ministers. The evening concluded with a gathering of the different regions to discuss the implications of the day within their regional context. The Body of Christ is at work, together, seeking to understand our place as the church, particularly the Church of the Nazarene, in this time. A good start.