By Dr. Chris Neufeld-Erdman, Pastor, Davis Community Church, Fall 2019
“A young person in an American university offered some advice: ‘In working with young people in America, do not try to call them back to where they were, and do not try to call them to where you are, as beautiful as that place might seem to you. You must have the courage to go with them to a place that neither you nor they have ever been before.’ This is good missionary advice, and a beautiful description of the unpredictable process of evangelization, a process leading to that new place where none of us has ever been before.”
— Vincent Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered
The church of the future, the new place “none of us has ever been before” will be a hybrid space, a true “commons,” for people of all walks of life—a threshold community that brings together the spiritual and the material, the religious and the non-religious in ways that complement each other rather than compete with each other. It’s not necessarily a new place, there are times in our history when the church has been just this, but the way the church will do this for future generations will be new for the new settings in which we find ourselves. The church, as a center for spiritual formation, human transformation, and compassionate engagement, sustains fruitful ways of life, makes us all more open, more generous, more courageous, and makes the world more beautiful, sustainable, resilient, and capable of honoring the sacredness that’s all around us.
This expression of the gospel is needed now more than ever before. We are living in unprecedented times. With rising oceans and increasing human tensions, our planet and all we hold dear is in peril. Though there have been crises throughout human history, we now inhabit a time in which the very future of our species and the planet, itself, is in question. Throughout the world, the realities of greed, oppression, hatred and violence have distorted and deformed the natural world and brought untold suffering to the human community. Such pain might lead to despair, but we have reasons for hope. Human beings may have hastened the peril, but we also have the power to heal and shape a just and more peace-filled future.
Amidst the systemic injustices and brokenness a new way of being is rising, a way that embodies Christ’s way transformation, healing, and reconciliation for the 21st century. The world’s religious and spiritual traditions, despite past failings, nevertheless embody the emerging dream of God’s and offer humanity see for a sustainable future. The sacred texts, rituals, symbols, practices, and transformative powers of religious communities have the capacity to awaken the human heart, stir spiritual and intellectual awakening, and kindle a communal imagination that can contribute to the wellbeing of the world.
This is a threshold time, and it’s high time Christians, energetically and innovatively, claim our divine calling—rising to the challenge, rejecting despair and fatalism—and truly seek the well-being of the planet.
Toward this end, Davis Mosaics, and Pastor Stephen Moon, build bridges, innovate lavishly, meet practical needs, and work cooperatively on behalf of God’s dream for the world’s wellbeing. Its habits of radical hospitality, conscious and intentional pluralism, and the sacramentalism of its way of life—low-bar religiosity and high-bar community—all centered around table fellowship and fostering the common good are a witness to the pathway exemplified by the early Christians who moved souls from belonging into behavioral shifts and lastly toward beliefs.
In an age of disaffiliation and non-affiliation with religious institutions, Davis Mosaics, is charting the pathway into the future of Christianity—deeply embodied and incarnational, post-doctrinal, inclusive, experiential, artistic and aesthetic, and sacramental in the truest sense of the world—that is, the gathered community as a sign of God’s dream and intention for the world.
For a decade during my first call, I served as pastor of mission and evangelism, working directly with the Global Mission arm of the national church through my work with the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church, PCUSA’s Sudan Working Group and my role, helping create the World Mission Initiative at Pittsburgh Seminary. For another sixteen years, and in my second congregation, I worked to create a multicultural congregation by integrating a large Southeast Asian population and a historically white congregation.
In the 90s and early 2000s, many of us were working to shift from an outdated strategies, programs, and postures that perpetuated paternalistic and dependence-oriented approaches to global mission. Self-sustaining, inherently resilient ministries were always the goal. For too long, we in the North and West often kept our global partners in postures of dependency and us in postures of control. This left Presbyterian mission congregations in a chronically subservient role, dependent on our gifts, and never able to fully flourish or let themselves flower into authentically indigenous expressions of the gospel and the Spirit’s work. And this kept us in the North American church in postures of privilege and power, leaving intact too many assumptions of our cultural expressions of Christianity.
We learned that in order to follow the Spirit, we would have to learn to participate in the difficult and messy dance of authentic partnership. This often required very difficult conversations between the PCUSA groups (in my case, the Shenango Presbytery, which had a nearly 150 year partnership with the Horn of Africa) and our global partners. There were many mistakes made. Sometimes we responded too quickly to requests for money and staff, thereby undercutting the path of our partners toward self-sufficiency. Other times we withheld resources when the partner was desperate for them and struggled to survive. Often times there were assumptions made on both sides of the relationship that made things tense and occasionally tilted us toward crisis.
What we learned is that resources (primarily money and what money can buy) must be always be secondary to the relationship. It was too easy to create policies, or make top-down decisions, that, while they made bureaucratic sense, often injured the relationship. Sometimes, requests for money from the partner felt like entitlement and we as the partner possessing most of the needed financial resources felt taken for granted or taken advantage of. So, we often set up what we thought were help benchmarks and goals, when, in fact, they were experienced as unhelpful and often arbitrary barriers, culturally naive and relationally troubling. They were in fact gestures of quid pro quo—if you do this, we’ll do that. Quid pro quo is always an unhealthy sign of distrust and an expression of power.
What we had to keep learning over and over is that:
- the way forward is always messy
- those in power must take care about the way they exercise power
- we must remain curious and relationally engaged, especially when we feel the need to control outcomes
- those who need resources need to beware of the ways they can keep themselves trapped in a dependency mode, and
- we all needed to keep returning to the organic, and messy nature of relationship and realize partnership is a long term responsibility
Relationships always requires intentional face to face interaction, humor, generosity, openness, curiosity, honesty, freedom, failure, forgiveness, repair, and most of all good will. The same is true of partnerships in mission and ministry—whether working with a global mission partner in a challenging mission setting where birthing authentic expressions of indigenous Christian faith is fraught with difficulty or if we’re working to foster multicultural and innovative expressions within a local setting. We must keep faith with our assumption that we are all doing the best we can and desire the growth of the Kin-dom of God, though we might not always see eye to eye.
There is no question in my mind that Mosaics is an expression of the way of the gospel of Jesus and is a manifestation of the Spirit. I also know that because it is doing something very new (and desperately needed) in our times and for human community is will take a long time to become self-sustaining and inherently resilient. It’s habits of radical hospitality, conscious and intentional pluralism, and the sacramentalism of its way of life— low-bar religiosity and high-bar community—all centered around table fellowship and fostering the common good do not yet have an institutional expression anywhere that I know of. As missiologist, Vincent Donovan, says, “evangelization is always an unpredictable process leading to that new place where none of us has ever been before.”
Mosaics is an expression of Presbyterian mission we must celebrate and support. Davis Community Church is doing what we currently can to provide financial, staff, and hardware support (buildings and grounds). We cannot now do more. The presbytery can continue to come alongside this mission. We all seek self-sufficiency and resiliency for Mosaics. We are not there yet and will likely not be for some time to come.
People are coming. People are awakening to new expressions and experiences of the Holy. People are thriving—body, mind, and soul. Dr. Moon’s reports and the quotes from participants testify to this. It is not unlike the witness of the early church when the church in The Acts of the Apostles drew people together in authentic community that was not yet well-organized and had not yet found a self-supporting structure for sustainability (Paul’s offering to the Gentiles recognized this fact and was a recognition that the mission was vulnerable to collapse—something Paul was unwilling to allow to happen).
So what’s needed:
1. Funding. This is at least a marriage of three parties, or a stool with three legs: Mosaics itself, the Presbytery/GA agencies, and a local church (DCC). We must all participate in the relationship. All partners are necessary.
2. Curiosity. Before imposing metrics based on outside assumptions, we all need a posture of openness to the Holy Spirit in this context (See “Openness” in Book of Order, F-1.0404). What are the ways, inherent to this mission, that we can mutually establish goals and metrics that are authentic expressions of this kind of mission and its context?
3. Relationship. A relationship requires presence, trust, warmth. Distance, suspicion, and bureaucracy are barriers to relationship. Visit Mosaics. The mission needs more personal involvement by the presbytery.
4. Prayer. From a distance, sure, but on site, with Mosaics’ leadership. Soaking the mission in the Holy and in the process opening to the vision the Holy Spirit is imparting.
The Maasai Tribal Creed, East Africa (After 100 years of mission in Kenya, a local, self-supporting, indigenous Christian presence)
We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it. He created Humans and wanted Humans to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on the Earth. We have known this High God in darkness, and now we know Him in the light. God promised in the book of His word, the Bible, that He would save the world and all the nations and tribes.
We believe that God made good His promise by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left His home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, He rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.
We believe that all our sins are forgiven through Him. All who have faith in Him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love and share the bread together in love, to announce the Good News to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for Him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen.
Books worth reading on missiology:
- Vincent Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered
- Lesslie Newbigen, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture
- Roland Allen, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?
- Robert Schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies
- Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture
- Phillips and Coote, eds, Toward the 21st Century in Christian Mission
Copyright © Dr. Chris Neufeld-Erdman