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Young theologians discuss the future of Christian mission
by Friedrich Degenhardt (*)
Young theologians on future issues of mission: Is there miraculous healing in today's churches? How can people be reconciled in a society torn apart like post-apartheid South Africa? How can the Holy Spirit help to find a new understanding of mission? - These and more questions for the upcoming Conference on World Mission and Evangelism in Athens, Greece, 9-16 May 2005, were discussed in a Young Missiologists Consultation in Rome.
"There is a new kind of theology evolving. It is changing the world and we need to take it seriously", said Bard Knappstaad (25) from Oslo, Norway, while looking right at the dome of St Peter's Basilica in Rome, Italy - for many Christians world-wide the very foundation of the church. Will this new theology shake the foundations of the church?
31 young theologians, women and men from all parts of the world and all major church families met in a Roman Catholic mission retreat centre just opposite St Peter's from 19-25 January 2005. The World Council of Churches' (WCC) Young Missiologists Consultation was an exchange on the issues of the upcoming Conference on World Mission and Evangelism in Athens, Greece. The theme will be "Come Holy Spirit, heal and reconcile!".
"The fastest growing churches in the world put much emphasis on miraculous healing", said Knappstaad in his opening statement. He is a member of the Vineyard church, a church-planting movement from the USA, which combines evangelical and Pentecostal beliefs. He just graduated from the Norwegian Lutheran School of Theology and has worked on the issue of miraculous healing.
"It's a neglected topic," he said, "but we need to put miraculous healing on the WCC agenda. This charismatic movement also takes place within the historical churches." Knappstaad thinks that there are lessons to be learnt, including a close look at the aspect of the power involved in healing. "Just take a look at the Bible. Jesus devoted a lot of time to healing. This is not just symbolic."
It is a major challenge to many churches' more figurative understanding of healing, focused on the relationship between healing and faith rather than between healing and power. But Knappstaad insisted: "People are longing for healing."
"Every church should provide for their members an opportunity to receive healing", he said and urged churches to take a proactive stand on the issue: "This is how we do it, in prayer, teaching, blessing, anointing, etc." He thinks that healing practices are part of the various Christian traditions, a whole ecumenical variety. "There is not one way of healing, but only one healing God"
Knappstaad tries to bridge a wide gap in his theological thinking. On the one hand he insists: "We need to accept the miraculous. Otherwise we end up with a dualistic worldview of God and the world torn apart." He is searching for a more holistic view, one transcending the divides of modern Western thinking and including an understanding of the spiritual world.
On the other hand he raised a question that is very prominent in the thinking of mainline theology when it comes to healing. "Any theology and practice of healing needs an understanding that includes - in a positive way - people who are not healed," he said.
<b» Reconciliation in South Africa is a miracle</b>
"I am not sure about miraculous healing", said Puleng Lenka Bula (33), another participant of the consultation in Rome. She is a lecturer of Christian Ethics at the University of South Africa in Pretoria, and she questions the often-mentioned notion that healing is an issue that comes from the churches in the South. "I struggle with the charismatic and Pentecostal understanding, with its close links between miracles, healing and becoming rich," she said.
"South Africa is trying to overcome enormous divisions." Lenka Bula talked about her experience as a black woman and her contextual understanding of healing which is closely connected to the reconciliation processes since the abolition of apartheid in 1994. "Reconciliation in South Africa is dealing with the restoration of broken relationships and also with new relationships between people, who formerly did not even accept each other as people. - That is a miracle!"
"Following the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission helped me to find a deeper understanding of reconciliation", she said. "People who had gone through trauma, e.g. after losing their children, had an enormous willingness to forgive and go on with life. It was very phenomenal for me", she explained. "People were ready to forgive freely. Nobody rushed them. They offered it."
"There was a safe space to talk about the experiences of apartheid. That space is a way of healing. People listening, that is healing. Communicating is healing", said Lenka Bula, who thinks that forgiveness is not necessarily the first issue in this process. "Forgiveness does not have to come before reconciliation. But there needs to be a willingness to overcome the past."
But this understanding of reconciliation is highly contested even within South Africa. It is challenged by a call for distributive justice. "For many poor people, talk about reconciliation is not easy", explained Lenka Bula. "Reconciliation can be seen as the language of the affluent, reparation as the language of the dependent ones."
"There is a need for re-humanizing", explains Lenka Bula. "Also the humanity of the oppressors needs to be restored."
For a more integrated, even theological understanding of reconciliation Lenka Bula suggested the African concept of 'ubuntu' meaning humanity of all people, the 'sacredness of the other'. "But it needs to take into account all of nature", said Lenka Bula, including the ecological issues of reconciliation. "How do we relate to Earth?" Lenka Bula argued for a new relationship to Earth that is not about domination. "It works both ways. We are all interdependent."
<b» The Holy Spirit in the churches' mission</b>
But how to integrate the understanding of healing and reconciliation into the new paradigm of mission, which the Conference on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) will be looking for? - "From the perspective of African women there are limitations to how the church has tried to live out mission in the past", Lenka Bula said. "Mission in Africa has been both a curse and life-giving." Health-care and education are major parts of the positive legacy.
"Now a new post-colonial perspective is needed. Not only from North to South, but North and South working together." For Lenka Bula, mission is a complex of activities: "Start in your own community. How does the church live in a local community?" she asked. "It's about a growing credibility of the Good News among local people." Lenka Bula advocates a "diversity of understanding", meaning a multiplicity of ways to do mission.
A very different approach towards reconciliation was addressed by Anastasia Vassiliadou (26), graduating from the University of Thessaloniki, Greece. She talked about the Holy Spirit, a focus of the CWME in Athens: "The Holy Spirit is the catalyst, driving and guiding our mission", she said in her presentation on the Orthodox impact in WCC's work.
"The Holy Spirit is the expression of our communion, koinonia, with the Holy Trinity," she explained. "The Church lives in the communion with God, the Father and the Son, through the Spirit. The Holy Spirit reconciles us with God."
But for Vassiliadou this is not about preaching doctrine. "It's about preaching the Coming of the Kingdom of God," she explained. "Mission is not a moral issue, about fighting evil, etc. It's about our understanding of the Church. In the Orthodox Church the liturgy, the Eucharist comes first. Orthodox mission works through the Eucharist, the witness to God's new reality."
The Young Missiologists Consultation in Rome was a foretaste of the discussions on this issue likely take place at the conference in Athens. "There is much need for reconciliation between the Orthodox Church and the Pentecostals", Vassiliadou explained. "I hope that the CWME will build a bridge for the dialogue."
"It does go both ways: There is much to gain from orthodox theology and church life", she said. "But the CWME is also a starting point for reconciliation between churches within Greece." Especially the relationship between the Orthodox Church of Greece and Pentecostal churches is a difficult issue.
"Anyway, the CWME is a big step forward", she concluded. "Perhaps the Athens CWME committee, which includes representatives from five different churches, will become the starting point for a council of churches in Greece." [1320 words]
(*) Friedrich Degenhardt is a journalist and a curate from the North Elbian Lutheran Church (Germany) currently seconded to the media relations office of the World Council of Churches in Geneva.
Opinions expressed in WCC Features do not necessarily reflect WCC policy. This material may be reprinted freely, providing credit is given to the author.
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