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Witness of the local congregations - impulses from Salvador.

The Conference on World Mission Evangelism (CWME) held at Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, 1996, could be considered the gateway for a new missiology, and an open invitation for an ecumenical missionary journey. The CWME unequivocally demonstrated faith in Jesus Christ the Hope, and sought the cooperative missionary efforts of all local congregations to share Jesus, the hope for the hopeless in the midst of diverse cultures, ideologies and faiths.

The following are some reflections upon the implications of the Salvador conference for the life and witness of local worshipping communities.

Worship and liturgical renewal

"Worship," "liturgy," "sacraments," "symbols" have played a crucial role in the life of the Christian community. The worship services at Salvador clearly demonstrated that neither language nor denomination is a hindrance to worshipping God. In particular, using symbols like stones, water, fruit, flowers, bread, bringing street children to the altar and the experiences of the slaves into the worship opened our eyes to the realities of life and made worship services more meaningful.

Doctrines controlled by hierarchy are the stumbling block for Christian unity. Again the CWME is a witness for this. Services of holy communion were not held during the conference, probably because of doctrinal differences and the wish, therefore, not to hurt certain denominations. Each denomination held its own communion services, though the Anglican Church extended an invitation to all. However, the worship services at Salvador witnessed to the world of fragmentation and individualism that "corporate worship" is still central to the life of the congregation. How significant and true to the one hope to which Christians are called if every Christian congregation were to extend an invitation to all people to join unconditionally in the Lord's supper/holy communion/eucharist/holy mass/holy qurbana!

Cultural arrogance or multicultural richness?

The CWME, with one accord, called upon the local congregation to celebrate multicultural richness and arrest cultural arrogance. In her keynote address, Musimbi R.A. Kanyaro said, "Culture calls us to accept diversity, while the gospel calls us to affirm unity." The time is ripe for Christians everywhere to apologize to local communities for the disrespect shown to local culture, values, and people. To apologize should not only make us true Christians but also should serve to bring us closer to all members of God's family with a sense of toleration and true appreciation of one another's views.

Two of the beautiful experiences that the delegates had at Salvador were the sharing of thoughts without inhibition and listening to one another with respect for the other's point of view. For example, "How do we discern the Holy Spirit?" was a question in our Bible study. The responses were very diverse. Some said that the presence of the Spirit is only within the fellowship of the Christian community. Others, coming from Indigenous experiences, insisted that the Spirit is discerned in the spiritualities of their people. Not all the delegates were comfortable with some personal testimonies; the new and strange was unsettling for many.

Therefore, local congregations should explore all possibilities of enabling both culture and gospel to encounter each other so that the church may celebrate the values of the gospel in a culturally meaningful way and allow for the free expression of experiences and spiritualities different from their own.

Each congregation needs to understand the work of the Holy Spirit. The local congregation is the only movement that can credibly challenge certain cultural prejudices through the gospel message and open the eyes of the people to certain ages-long discriminatory practices. Again, it is the function of the local congregation to use the particular local culture to disseminate the gospel effectively.

Many times our church buildings are kept closed, though we believe that the "church is where people are." We are so conservative that we do not want our church buildings to be used by any other, or for any other purpose. It was reported in one of the group meetings that in Sweden, Muslims use parish halls for their community gatherings. A Muslim community in Bulgaria is helping Christians to build a church and schools. In India, many of the church buildings in rural areas are being used as schools, day care centres, and/or centres for other social work. Let our church buildings serve as a source of inspiration, a place of hope, a place for taking historical decisions and a place of education.

Encontro

The encontro (dialogue) programme of the CWME opened our eyes to the richness of other cultures, set the tone for appreciating other cultures, and helped us to reflect on how gospel could be well-rooted and well-communicated within each culture.

My strong conviction, which I expressed at the conference, is that "God has created us as human beings and not as Hindus, Christians, Muslims and not even Orthodox, Methodist, Baptist and so on." I feel that we have become Christians in order to become "human."

"Dialogue" is not a new word in ecumenical circles. But some people choose "encounter" as the better word, since there is a degree of "self-righteousness" associated with the word "dialogue" as used by Christians.

Dialogue, or encounter, should take place with certain basic affirmations, such as "God is one" and "He is the Creator of the whole universe." In fact, dialogue should begin with our common concern for the human struggle for fuller life rather than with theological debates. The local congregation has the unique opportunity to be aware of and sensitive to the needs of the people around it and to participate in their struggles. Therefore, the local congregation, wherever it is situated, needs to strengthen its relationship with "the other expressions of faith (other religions) and together should travel in our life's journey as people of God."

As CWME said, "Genuine sharing happens only when partners in dialogue show respect to each other and come together with humility and honesty and a spirit of mutuality, ready to take risk in becoming exposed to one another and sharing one another's view of life and destiny" (Doc. 9-40). Therefore, local congregations should seek to train or to provide platforms for people with which to share their faith, listen to the experiences of others, and develop cordiality with a sense of humility, so that together we may discover how God wants us to live and allow others to live.

Local and universal

At the level of the local congregation, the following questions are pertinent:

-- Should those involved in Christian mission be in competition with one another?

-- What does competition bring to each church and what kind of bearing has it upon our common witness?

-- Is it not time we identified ourselves as "Christian" rather than by our denominational identity (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant)?

-- Has history not taught us that aggressive evangelism leads to fragmentation of the human community and destruction of local cultures?

-- Do we not owe an apology to all our neighbours for disrespecting their cultures in the past?

In the context of increasing fragmentation of societies everywhere, local churches need to be equipped to witness in such a way that reconciliation and healing between peoples, groups and cultures are also the fruits of Christian mission.

Local congregations as places of hope

The CWME gave a clarion call to churches around the world to be "places of hope." This call has serious implications for a local church:

-- Is the church aware of the people in the community who are without hope?

--How should we, the members of the local congregation, enable that congregation to be the source of hope?

-- Are we not constrained to make the local congregation a source of hope?

-- How do we proclaim Jesus as the "Hope of the World" to the world of hopelessness?

To quote once again from Dr Kanyoro's address: "Mission is to give a human face to gospel and culture." Is it not in fact the local congregation that enables mission to give a human face to gospel and culture? Yes, indeed! As one of the group reports put it at Salvador, "Hope has a face, and a name and is alive, Christ is our hope." The local congregation is the only way to Jesus Christ, Hope of the World.

JEEVAN BABU is secretary for Mission and Evangelism with the National Council of Churches in India.
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Title Annotation:Mission in the Twenty-First Century: Impulses from Salvador; Conference on World Mission and Evangelism
Author:Babu, Jeevan
Publication:International Review of Mission
Date:Jan 1, 1997
Words:1377
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