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Dr Agnes Abuom: "Life in Fullness: Challenges and Prospects for Church/Mission"

"Life in Fullness: Challenges and Prospects for Church/Mission", acceptance address of Dr Agnes Abuom, moderator of the WCC Central Committee for award of Honorary Doctorate VID – Stavanger, 10-11-2018

13 November 2018

Life in Fullness

Challenges and Prospects for Church/Mission

Acceptance Address for award of Honorary Doctorate

VID – Stavanger, 10-11-2018

Gratitude -- Let me begin by thanking the Vice Chancellor Prof. Ingunn Moser, the board and the entire leadership of VID Specialized University for their generous decision to award me an honorary doctorate. Special thanks to the Vice Rector Professor Bård Mæland for keeping me in the loop of communication and ensuring my presence here today as he accompanied me from Oslo. I am humbled by this awesome gesture; a real surprise; a privilege and at the same time a reminder of responsibility we all have towards society. Why do I say that it is a responsibility? It is because the task of learning, sharing and applying acquired knowledge remains a lifetime calling for the common good of all which this august ceremony has spurred. May I also congratulate you, the VID fraternity, on your 175th anniversary. This is no mean time for the existence of an organization; it is a historical moment to be celebrated and to thank God for the women, men and child pilgrims on the long journey.

A third generation Christian girl

This is the story of a third generation girl. My parents took me to a girl’s boarding school at a very tender age of ten years. This was because my mother had to go for a residential training in community development which coincided with the year I was to join intermediate school; they did not feel comfortable with me being a day scholar walking 10 kilometers to and fro every day. Moreover, I was one of the few girls among many boys. The primary girls’ boarding school they took me to was on a mission station established and managed by the Canadian Pentecostal Mission (POAC). Most of the teachers and staff of the mission were single women with only one male missionary family.  Our school was situated between and within two ethnic communities with one community lagging behind in terms of mission outreach compared to the other. In fact the less Christianized community was not represented on the national teaching staff. The main mission agencies in our village and surrounding communities were of American origin – Pentecostal, American Friends/Quaker and Catholic as they were assigned to this geographical region by the colonial government. I came from a Christian family and was a third generation Christian. My maternal grandmother and mother belonged to the Pentecostal Assemblies of God; while my father was Catholic by virtue of the school he attended, and his auntie who raised him as an orphan was an Anglican, a faith to which he reverted back to later. Most of my extended family members especially the wider clan still worshipped the “Sun” god and resisted Christian faith as it threatened their culture and traditions. Many years later, my father discovered a Greek Orthodox Church in the vicinity and encouraged clansmen and women to join as they allowed smoking and drinking. Therefore growing up my family and clan profile was and remains a mosaic of different Christian communities - very ecumenical; and later majority were either forced or migrated voluntarily to various parts of the region. In spite of the diversity there was a sense of acceptance of every person as well as the freedom to decide which confessional family to join from those available. Despite the different languages, religious persuasions, social classes and gender, a sense of community and unity prevailed as we shared family events and ceremonies. And on the other hand, there was the acceptance of one another in spite of differences, peaceful co-existence and sustained relationships with a code of conduct on how to relate to the environment. Alas! This is no longer the case today.

You may ask why I am narrating this story and how it relates to the title of my lecture – Life in Fullness: Challenges and Prospects for church and mission. First, the choice of a storytelling approach on the crucial theme of life for today’s church and mission work allows one to veer away from an academic lecture model as expected. Second, this narrative highlights how a community that once shared one faith and belief becomes multi-faith without disruption of daily lives illustrates one of vital aims of ecumenism, namely fellowship of all believers. Third, the diversity of faith expressions and persuasions flourish side-by-side as they co-exist peacefully; accepting the new social structures and eventually economic differentiation - is an urgent call for just peace in a broken and divided world. Fourth, due to ethnic and political reasons, many in the community migrate and are dispersed as mustard seeds points towards an area - migration- in mission and church work that invites research and new methodologies for evangelism. Fifth, women begin to interact and develop social relations across religious boundaries, an aspect in church life that bears hope for continued inter religious dialogue. This brief personal background is used in my address as a backdrop and to explain why the mission and unity of the church is pivotal in enhancing life in fullness irrespective of the differences especially freedom of religion, and how current global challenges that threaten life, are the same today except for their location, magnitude and manifestation. This address seeks to unpack the clamor for sustainable development by development actors as a process rooted in the history of mission and church work. The outline of the address begins with an assertion that initial missionary integrated approach is today sustainable development”, a renewed paradigm to respond to an urgent call to rescue humanity from imminent destruction. The second part acknowledges and gives a snapshot of the unprecedented challenges facing humanity and that characterize our time and landscape, that require unprecedented, courageous and collaborative efforts such as intentionally broadening ecumenism to reflect grassroots experiences and realities of people’s movements and organizations. Prospects for the future diakonia of church and mission and hope in the context of multi-cultural, multi-religious including the role of women as key to enhancing ecumenism is a third aspect; and the fourth is short reflection on the idea of people on the margins for the global church.

I: The Mission Station Model: A Paradigm for Sustainable Development

From mission history and lessons thereof, we can draw a paradigm for sustainable development. The mission station model presents an approach whose genesis was not conceptually nor consciously conceived but was in many ways, a practical and needs-based response. Through the decades the mission station in several places came to represent integrated development encompassing education, health, agriculture and spiritual life through the church and at times infrastructure. These activities, while aiming at evangelizing local communities, also transformed cultures and attitudes. Many of the staff – missionaries were as we know from history, were women working - as foot soldiers of evangelism and they spent many uninterrupted years with communities changing seeking to transform their mindsets, introducing new ideas, beliefs and technology. Anita, for example, after joining mission work at the age of 19/20 years went out and when she came back to her home country, she no longer existed on the register. But she needed health support and had to work to get back into the system, only later to return to her mission/home country and rest from the earthly labour. No doubt, there were confrontations and conflicts between the locals and the missionaries that were fatal. Without going into details, of the history of missions, the approach of the mission station is a perspective I want to offer for discussion in the current dialogue between the bilateral, multilateral development agencies and faith based organizations. We are cognizant that post-independence period academics - historians and political analysts, myself included, were critical of the work of missionaries in relation to the destruction of local cultures, complicity with colonial states in the subjugation and oppression of the local people. Aware also that there has been a nuanced analysis of mission work based on more evidence such as the saving of lives by a British missionary –Lessing in Nigeria who rescued and taught against the killing of twins whose birth was considered as bad omen; in Kenya a woman missionary was killed and cultural confrontation ensued between missionaries and local people in the 1920s, over Female Genital Mutilation (FGM); matters that are now on the agenda of civil society organizations and UN Sustainable Development Goal 5.3.(SDGs); perhaps this is a part of the story on the journey that its telling has not surfaced sufficiently in the ongoing development discussions and if it has only superficially.

For years, socio-economic development has eluded the secular actors as results have not been commensurate with the levels of resources invested. Development impact has remained dismal while levels of poverty have grown, inequalities deepened and questions asked as to why the continued gaps between investment and results. The UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were a turning point for religious skeptics when a few individuals begun to engage faith-based actors, prompting the World Bank to establish a Faith Based Organizations (FBOs) liaison office. The UN SDGs or Agenda 2030, are definitely of the view that in order “to leave no one behind and to lift the 1 billion poor people out of poverty, FBOs are important if not critical actors that must not be absent in the equation of those at the table.

The concept of sustainable development could be likened to integrated development by the mission/church. A distinct difference between UN sustainable development approach and others is the nature of its incompleteness. The question it begs is how it expects to acquire those aspects they lack from the faith-based actors. These two models may not be comparable because the drivers of the integrated mission/church model imbibe the soft spiritual resources that form part and parcel of the DNA of the church and mission. The sacrificial, self-giving of church workers/missionaries as illustrated by many is nowhere comparable to work culture of the UN and governments. Therefore, borrowing from the mission station/church model can only work to a certain extent. So what are the potentials for the cooperation?

To begin with, the landscape of mission/church insofar as diakonia is concerned has changed. There are few if any mission stations and more national and local churches operating under different structures and conditions. Unlike the past decades, current church’s mission/diakonia  is hardly a preserve of an individual church nor is it done by one group. Rather it is increasingly a collective, coordinated and coherent engagement together with other faith-based and professional development organizations.

Integrated diakonia is about the economy of life for all. The ecumenical diakonia document by WCC and ACT Alliance re-states and reaffirms the theological basis of the church’s work in social services. It further acknowledges potential of faith communities to contribute to on-going discourse for instance on agenda 2030 SDGs. The invitation to FBOs to partner with intergovernmental and governmental agencies is, in my view, a remodeling of the mission paradigm/station that contained both physical and spiritual services provided by the same agency. An aspect of these resources and services may not be outsourced, leaving grey areas in the cooperation that require deeper exploration. Examples of partnership in education, health and related concerns need deeper introspection by churches. It is of essence that mission and church remind themselves that evangelism in the 21st century, according to Tim Keller, cannot be done without diakonia and even those missions that have always leaned towards evangelism would of necessity engage in humanitarian work simply because of the many environmental disasters. If integrated diakonia is a hallmark the church and its mission then the cooperation between FBOs and secular development actors should dig deeper into resources/attributes that have so far not been at the center of discussion - namely spiritual, ethical values - and take courage to refuse to focus on structures, trust, access to and people as a power base.

II: Unprecedented Challenges to life in fullness

The 21st century is confronted with many unprecedented challenges that may lead to collapse of humanity and environment as we have known it. I would like to point out just a few of these of interest to the church and mission.

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Scriptures including the above quoted require believers to have no categories of people discriminated against because through salvation by grace in Jesus Christ we are one community. All are made in the image and likeness of God the creator (in Genesis 1:26-27); not some people but all human beings. Yet the challenges that confront humanity today are exactly similar to those captured by St Paul in his letter to the Galatians; a community that experienced negative ethnicity, gender injustice and risked destroying its fellowship. Present day challenges e.g. economic, political, religious, gender, generational and social, result from negation of humanity, particularly the followers of Jesus to adhere to the gospel imperative of liberation from “isms” and being set free from captive minds, in order to become Christ-like in relationship with one another and with the earth communities (Luke 4:18-20) thereby show compassion. In these times, the cross for a number of people represents broken and wounded relationships with God/Jesus and with one another. Humanity is directed mainly by narrow interests, fear and a refusal to allow the Holy Spirit to renew and transform hearts and minds so that like in my village, flowers can flourish before they wither. There are many forces and drivers of death that threaten and diminish fullness of life.  It suffices to mention a few that negate the very essence of life, and the common good for all.

Economy of exclusion economic development models/systems controlled by a few people exclude billions of vulnerable people from benefitting from resources endowed by God to all.  The levels of global inequality between the rich and poor within and between countries are unacceptable; inequality is not natural! It is manmade. A non-functional trickle down model of economy including corruption and other vices has exacerbated the plight of the poor and rendered many vulnerable people into slaves. This is in contrast to an economy of life for all espoused in biblical teaching regarding justice. The world must share wealth in sustainable ways in view of the fast rate of diminishing earth resources due to greed and not need. Environmental degradation and climate change are indications that economic imbalances are not merely unsustainable but gearing towards destruction if humanity and especially those depleting resources fail to reverse the trend now. Millions of people have no access to water, pasture, food and it is anticipated that climate refugees will increase etc. Indigenous people (outside the orbit of church) all over the globe have a repository of ancient knowledge that can provide ways to finding solutions. Their vision of the world is one that corporate forces/powers refuse to listen to, accept and do not choose to have as a perspective in resource extraction/development. But when indigenous people demonstrate against the violations of the environment, they are perceived as terrorists and killed in the name of national security. Contradictions in the architecture of peace and security are appalling to say the least. On the one hand, vulnerable people, women, men, and children are killed in refugee camps and in conflict zones where they badly need protection but little or nothing is availed to them. On the other hand, when people demonstrate against pollution of rivers, land grabbing, illegal mining, the armed forces are unleashed on them and killed in the name of national peace and security while protecting corporations. The responsibility to protect citizens seems compromised. The call for peace and security by governments including the UN cannot work in such contexts of dire poverty and violence because it is a mockery and security is for the rich, those who exploit people and resources. The world is more than ever in a state of war even though it seems peaceful on the surface and the indicator is that nuclear and other arms of mass destruction a clear threat to life for all.

The community of women and men - Empirical evidence and research indicates that relationships between women and men in society and church have changed in the last two decades especially in areas of leadership. There are areas where the church is consolidating work begun by mission agencies. At the same time, retrogressive processes are witnessed especially at the family level where as more women assume public roles they are expected to continue to carry on with family chores without much change. One of the areas of decline in relationships is expressed through Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) - Media in many a country is filled with cases of SGBV and recent studies on gender show high figures of victims and survivors of violence. It is not a wonder that the UNSDG number 5 focuses on elimination of early child marriages and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM); but there are many other forms of SGBV. For example, parents are forced to sell their daughters to sex pests/offenders to get money to buy food and pay utility bills. In other contexts women and girls are trafficked as slave and sexual labour especially to the Middle East where due to suffering dehumanizing sexual assaults and physical pain and trauma, many commit suicide – A recent BBC documentary showed that 60% of the women and girls die. Is the church a safe space? By no means! Stories of rape and sexual abuse exist and at times hushed to safeguard the integrity of perpetrators/men. The upsurge in marketing women and girls as sexual slaves/commodities is a huge economic market for the perpetrators of this illegal trade. Statistics point towards an increase in domestic violence; indigenous women are most affected due to economic deprivation. What does it mean for our unity and mission when we affirm that there is no longer slave or free. Just as missionaries changed the cultural landscape of twin infanticide and just as they worked and died for eliminating Female Genital Mutilation, the test of our time is to work even harder to expose and eliminate all forms of violence and restore gender justice, for in Jesus Christ, there is no male or female. Research in gender for example, on HIV and AIDS seeks to understand the sociological and religious causes and requisite behavior change. A number of these studies (EHAIA) for example, found out that it is partly because churches in Africa do not teach matters related to human sexuality and biblical texts tend to firm old traditional models of women – men relations.

Children – Jesus is specific when he asks the disciples to let the little children come to him. You can imagine the embarrassment that the incident created because to disciples this was unimaginable. In many cultures children experienced to a large extent protection and security, but this is no longer the case as widespread violence including online violence, sexual assault and abuse of children as well as child poverty has increased. The number of children experiencing violence and poverty has risen and they have no voice in spite of the UN 2012 Convention on the Rights of the Child. Children belong to the many millions of vulnerable, deprived and dehumanized people; and their future mortgaged. These are potential generations without full life because they are maimed, wounded, traumatized and dejected people without a sense of humanity and dignity. With this state of affairs what present and future church and society is in formation.

The task of mission and church in the 21st century is to contribute to rediscovering what it means to be human amidst strong forces of dehumanization and degradation of life. It is time to re affirm the African “ubuntu” idea of mutuality…I am because you are. You are because I am. Still another important dimension of the challenge for mission and church today is the restoration of human dignity in church and society, especially application of biblical scriptures used to justify oppression and injustice this could be due to limited biblical knowledge or intentional; and the question it begs is how are ministers/clergy formed? How can clergy be messengers and examples of the human dignity as an inherent right and God given gift?

III: Prospects for mission and hope

Celebrating diakonia in practice – diakonia as a form of broadening and deepening of ecumenism and ecumenical movement is a potential and sign of hope. The establishment of ACT-Alliance and the partnership with other ecumenical and specialized ministries including national platforms for humanitarian and advocacy work, has opened up channels for grassroots ecumenical groups and movements to participate in horizontal and vertical networks without necessarily invoking the formal institutional and organizational structures. Integrated diakonia – ecumenical diakonia document by WCC and ACT Alliance re-states the theological premise of the churches’ work. It is in many ways a remodeling of the early mission/church approach to humanitarian work except that it ventures into addressing the systemic issues that cause poverty and inequality. Mission and church are challenged to strengthen their prophetic ministry in order to address the systems and policies that perpetuate poverty and denial of human dignity and human rights.

Educate a woman and you educate a family, a village and a nation”; (paraphrased from Ajayi Crowther), the first African Bishop of West Africa and a freed slave.

Gifts of Women in church and society recognition and acceptance of the gifts of women in the church and society are slowly but steadily and surely growing; there are encouraging developments of women ascending to leadership in church and society. It is rare for many governments and churches to hold meetings without women representation; women have assumed political offices and other governance spaces.  A number are now ordained into ministry in the church. As we celebrate milestones in this still-contested area of ordained ministry, there are undercurrents of backlash on ordained female clergy in some churches and parts of the world. Women experience harassment, violence, discrimination in allocation of positions because of their opinions and theological positions/perspectives.

Women missionaries were in most cases majority and on the frontiers of mission work; and close to new adherents of the new faith but did not feature in early studies on mission. Today women associations and membership in churches form the key pillars of many a church; they play a key role in the church economy and spiritual life of the church especially in Africa where the church is largely female. In other words they together with children form the majority of active members. Further, because of the power of their numbers which can be up to 90 per cent, means that for the church to realize its mandate of mission and evangelism and for the general management of the life and work of the church to function swiftly, women are pivotal, thus making them the power base for the very existence of the church as an organization. The

Inter confessional networks are perhaps the most visible community level expression of ecumenism.

Celebration of the 20 years anniversary of the Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women (CDWS) in 2018 highlighted milestones in ordination and leadership of women in church. However, this remains an unfinished agenda insofar as the just community of women and men and related concern, is while numbers of churches ordaining women keep increasing, ordination and leadership of women is still contested among some churches.

Mission in pluralistic contexts and the challenge of proselytism- communities are experiencing a renewal or new multi-faith expressions in many parts of the world that are the reasons for the formation of global religious coalitions, networks and interventions. This global and regional expression is partially a consequence of movements of people across continents thus slowly diminishing age-old dominant mono-culture and mono-religious societies. Migration is a topical issue in media and political discussions. But migration is not a new development; it is as old as humanity and Jesus himself was a migrant/refugee in Egypt. As Rick James notes, migration today is different compared with the 16th-20th great migrations which were towards the south, then issues of culture, language etc., took a different dimension. Today migration manifests itself differently as people are forced to move, hence establishment of migrant churches, new communities among other issues and challenges like integration arise. Migration and especially forced migration is challenging the theology and practice of hospitality as well as raising concerns pertaining to integration in host countries. A number of churches work ecumenically to address refugees and migrant issues, making it a potential for lived-out ecumenism at the local level. Strengthened collaboration with churches in countries of origin is necessary in the coming years.

It is observed that there is a proliferation of interfaith platforms at national, regional and global levels whose impact on justice, and peace requires further inquiry. Nevertheless, these religious networks have potential for new insights and methodologies for e.g. multicultural ministry for the church currently limited in resources and skills. For many churches and mission agencies, migration, urbanization and rapid growth of cities provide new opportunities for evangelization, making mission not necessarily an out-of-one’s-country venture. Urbanization and growth of cities that are diverse and unlike villages is an emerging area of study not least in Africa besides the dilemmas and fears of possible proselytism.

IV: Mission from the Margins: Justice and Hope

The concept of mission from the margins has in recent years informed reflections and discourse on mission and evangelism. Margins are understood as those vulnerable, indigenous people, trafficked men and women, young people, the urban poor, the workers, migrant labour that now fit in the category of modern slavery. Where then is the margin and where is it going?  Margins are not a geographical location. It is about the issue of class; a people perspective and not a geographical definition; therefore people in the margins are a global phenomenon.  Some missiologists argue that people in the margins have a profound contextual analysis of issues pertaining to poverty, oppression and discrimination, including solidarity because of their unique experiences of the same.  This in turn gives them a privileged position to inform the church on the true meaning of sharing and organizing to achieve transformation, to realize life in fullness. The assertion made that people on the margins have a strategic niche in processes of transformation is understood as relevant to the worldwide ecumenical movement and the church as way to fashion and learn from the model and reflections Jesus Christ made vis-à-vis people, as he did not give answers, instead used the approach of asking questions: What is wrong? What do you want? What can I do? The methodology would require the church and ecumenical movement to change from prescribing and shift from “historical patriarchal approach” to mission and self-understanding that they are the only ones entitled to carry out mission.

Challenges to mission, unity and hope show that oppression is more systematic, more abusive and in many places the oppressors sit at the gates wondering how to abuse people more, as aptly noted by the psalmist. Mission work will experience gaps should mission agencies and church fail to take up people’s struggles. The political class is aware of the power of the church as well as the deficits of certain aspects of leadership, and because of the potential competition of trust with citizens, politicians tend to compromise faith leaders. Thus the church – state relations especially in Africa and in light of evangelical churches is a continuing field of research. What does prophetic ministry mean? How is it related to advocacy? African scholars use public theology e.g. Kwabena to interrogate church - state relations. Although the Gospel of Luke locates mission from the margins and while God’s mission begins from the margins; mission to the echelons of power should be an imperative of the church. In the end, the margins will be the people at the center because ideally they initiate transformation; they rally others around a vision and mission for justice, inclusiveness; as they work to break barriers of class, race, gender injustice and domination. It is the same notion espoused by ACT Alliance - “putting people at the center”. If we understand the ecumenical movement as necessarily a people’s movement, it is important for WCC – ACT Alliance to agree on basic assumptions and theological underpinnings for mission and diakonia to forge unity that will secure quality of life for people.

Conclusion – This address has in a schematic way used a story to point out the role of church in sustaining and enhancing life. It also has argued for the retrieval of experiences and lessons unique to mission agencies and church in diakonia to inform the dialogue and cooperation on the role of FBOs with multi-lateral organizations and governments. A few challenges not exhaustive that require more study are mentioned, for instance climate injustice. What is at stake is our faith in God of life; a crisis of the courage to hope. Because to love and to serve God is to follow the example of Jesus who changed lives; moving in the Holy Spirit to affirm life and work for justice and peace for all of creation remains the primary task of mission and church. Life in fullness in the 21st century is the continued mandate of the church as pilgrims walking, praying together, discerning God’s will, engaging in new forms of transformed and transforming ecumenical witness towards life. The walk is led from the margins as the peace caravans to the USA, with other interreligious groups, social movements to defend and protect God’s creation.  God of life and dignity is not a God of greed rather God of need as expressed in our Lords’ prayer … ‘give us our daily bread”; God is relational and concerned with human relations and with the earth. Mission and diakonia are about preferential option for the poor in spiritual and in material life.  God of Life cares that those with an attitude of greed and ferocious appetite to empty earth resources for a few change and live by values and ethics of  good neighborliness and justice and quality life for all.

Steve Jobs in his last days said: “I have accomplished a name, I have all the money, I can purchase anything but the money cannot buy me relationship, health. Take time with family, friends…” Life in fullness is life lived in relationship with other and mutuality - a dilemma for the church and mission in the 21st century.

Dr Agnes Abuom,
moderator of the World Council of Churches Central Committee