I learned some unexpected things in Peru. But what did I learn that might help back in the UK? Of course, I’ve come back to work for Latin Link but if I was going back to lead a local church I think these are some of the lessons I’d be putting into practice.
Integral mission: Traditionally integral mission has been understood as believing that Christians need to be involved in social action as well as preaching the gospel. But the heart of it is the belief that Jesus comes to bring us abundant life, and our proclamation of the gospel should speak to every element of life. In Latin America, this focus on the wholeness of the gospel means maintaining a focus on economic life, helping people with family life, community life and vocational life (earning money) as well as more classical elements of salvation. Life in the UK is not that different – it is just that the issues present differently. There are some who are struggling for food and shelter, but there are many more that are just getting by. There are people who need to hear good news for their relationships, their anxieties, for their futures.
As a church, we need to be speaking into all of life and demonstrating our concern with every aspect of life. So if I was going back into pastoral ministry I’d put more energy into making sure the overall program of the church included things for all of life.
Community development: using our own skills and resources to bring about change within our community. One of the lessons of the jungle is not that the church needs to have social action projects but that everyone in the church is the social action project. We are not the people who have everything together; we are the people who are broken, hurting and needy. But we are also people with skills and resources and working together with our community we can do things together to improve our lives. We don’t engage with our community because we are the clever ones, and they are the broken ones. But because we believe that God has a purpose for all of us and wants the prosperity of the community. We gladly engage with others to bring blessing to our neighbourhood.
In the past, I’ve always been a bit suspicious of politicians. But I’m more convinced than ever that we can engage with the local community more purposefully. We can suggest ways we could work together as well as be more willing to respond to suggestions from both the community and counsellors. And we can apply the principles of church and community development to do this.
Crossing cultures requires humility and listening. In a foreign environment, this is a bit easier because things are strange and you don’t know what’s going on. In our own culture, we think we do know what’s going on. Except often we don’t. Our own society is constantly changing and we need to keep learning and listening. This requires humility on our part and is one reason why it is good to have people in the church who have the experience of crossing cultures and working in a different environment.
Repetition is your friend. I’ve always been a bit wary of repetition; I fear that people will get bored if they hear the same thing again. But in many parts of the world, repetition is how people learn. I’m not suggesting that we need to learn by rote but that we should not be afraid of regularly reminding people of key truths. Of course, churches that follow the lectionary have the rhythm of the church year built-in. For others, it is perhaps worth touching on core things on a regular basis and each time seeking to bring more clarity or some fresh insight to it. We do this with communion so why not other elements of church life?
As I look back on my time as a minister I think there have been far too many instances where I’ve tried to be too clever by half. Simplicity doesn’t have to mean shallow but it should mean clear.
I’ll try to reflect a bit more on this so expect a part 2 in the New Year.