A Third Way for Congregations?

I’m still reading Changing the Conversation: A third way for congregations and using the book as a point for self-reflection.   The blog posts here slows me down and pulls me back to the chapters I’ve already read which is good.  So, there is a back and forth movement.  I’m already into the chapter “Conversation Four: Who shall lead them?”.  But as far as the reflections here is concerned, I’m still at the introduction 🙂 I can relate a little to Robinson’s personal story and initial musings.

As I moved into ministry, I continued to imagine the church as a way beyond predictable polarities, beyond stereotypes and smugness that often accompanied them.  This was not always an easy path.  It meant that I emphasized Christian formation among those often preferred activism; on the other hand, it meant that I emphasized cultural engagement to those who tended to see their faith as limited to the personal and familial.  Many people, including those in congregations, like to put others – perhaps especially clergy – in one category or another.  I took Scripture very seriously and was a biblical preacher; but I took social justice very seriously as well.  I believed in prayer to be important and powerful; but I thought that careful cultural analysis was as well.  I wanted to walk about Jesus and about welcoming persons who were gay or lesbian; but I cared about families and what it took to main and sustain families.  I understood the church to be a new family that transcends categories of race, class and gender. (p. 3-4)

It’s becoming harder to describe the kind of ministry I am engaged in or what kind of church BLC is.  Especially when questions posed to me tends to come out from a “predictable polarities” framework. One common one I get is, “Is your church spirit-filled?”

Well, every two Sundays and one Friday per month, we do consume spirits (I mean wine) 🙂 Sometimes the way the BLC family and friends laugh is like they are drunk or something.  Okay . Just kidding.

I know where the question is coming from, I used to ask the same thing . and behind the questions is the expectation that I if we are Spirit-filled we’d have much prayer for faith healing, loads of speaking in tongues, loud music, intense preaching, excited church members on fire for the Lord, and so on.

Others might ask, “Are you Bible-based?” (as opposed to wishy-washy liberal?) Or there would be comments like, “Oh, you guys are political!” (as opposed to we just pray?) or the “pomo” church (huh? as opposed to believing in absolutes?) What does all this mean? But you see, the fun thing for me is, I know where all these polarities are coming from . we are all products of our own background (or in some cases baggage).  The fact is the whole growth in one’s vocabulary in faith, ministry, mission and social engagement will be different for all of us.

I recall the yearning to move beyond polarities growing increasingly stronger as I finished seminary education (and I say then was when I started to do theology!).  The years of youth ministry and student ministry encounters especially beyond denominational boundaries already laid the foundations on a practical and relational level these polarities won’t work.  And are thoroughly dated.

The challenge was that the literature most Christian in Malaysia are reading do not provide the needed frameworks to break out of that.  Why? It’s simple.  Because we were and still are trapped by many of the polarities superimposed on us or willingly embraced by us from the outside especially the English publishing world.

I saw that too in other language groups.  If it’s primarily Tamil speaking, then some of the battles are imported from India.  If it’s Mandarin or another Chinese dialect group, then it’s the currents in Hong Kong or Taiwan. If it’s Bahasa Malaysia speaking, perhaps influence from Indonesia? Then let’s not forget, the past at least more than 10 years, how much the more renown churches in Singapore have impacted churches and leadership in Malaysia for better or for worse.  History will be our teacher.

I recall, during cultural nights in overseas events or consultations, I’ve always found it hard to really portray what is “authentically” Malaysian?  I’m a Malaysian, no doubt about that, I’m supposed to be ethnically Chinese (well perhaps more percent than my father and grandfather), I’m a Christian (that’s clear), but then we don’t have a distinctly strong “national identity”. Or maybe the “identity” is a work in progress working towards becoming one which can hold paradoxes and move beyond polarities?

Applied to being a Christian, and serving as a pastor-leader in the Malaysian context, I do sincerely think “holding paradoxes and moving beyond polarities” is perhaps a second nature for some of us intuitively.  And what we need to do is to make it clearer, and more visible, so we can name what we are thinking and doing, or reframe all our efforts in ways which truly reflects the reality and carves possibilities for the future. As a minority less that 12% of the population, I think we have no choice.  It’s urgent.  Then within the 12% so many of us are already tempted to stay stuck in former ways. So, it’s even less people who might see this as critical.

The Christian Federation of Malaysia will be having it’s National Christian Conference on the 28-29 May.  This is a more institutional driven event where representatives  from the Roman Catholic Church, Council of Churches of Malaysia, and the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship will come together.   I fully am aware of the possibilities and limitations of such a gathering, but it’s something concrete to work on.

On a more academic level, participation in the drafting of a response for A Common Word and the Edinburgh 2010 Study Process for ASEAN and Sri Lanka with the theme “”Mission as Reconciliation in Pluralistic Contexts” would be episodes I’m looking forward to for expanding my horizons and deepening my own quest thus far. Of course, a burning question I always thrown in especially when I’m engaged in more macro big picture kind of events, “What does all this mean for the local congregation?”

That question will merge with the ones below. Because we truly living in a both local and global context.  And that is my governing center for theological, church and mission engagement. Opps, I noticed I’m getting ahead of myself here. 

Is a third way possible?  Is there a way beyond the polarized alternatives of either liberal or conservative. left or right, red or blue, traditional or contemporary, praise or classical?  And if it is possible, is that third way merely a compromise between extremes, a muddle in the middle, or is it a vital center and a new framing of the conversations? (p. 4-5)

It was encouraging to read some of the proposals mentioned by Robinson in the book.  Because apart from Michael Foss, I’ve read all the authors at some point the last 9 years!

In congregations such as these. says (Diana Butler) Bass says, “church is the sacred space where saints and sinners gather to hear God’s word, engage in practices of prayer and service, and be transformed  through participation.  There is no spiritual test to come in, no intellectual position to which one must agree.  This is the vision of the comprehensive church: a congregation not torn apart asunder by the riptides of cultural extremism but a place where Christians practice frame all of life and, in the words of the old hymn, ‘heal the sin-sick soul’.” (p.5)

I love the word and . Knowing where to place it is so critical.

(Darrel) Guder’s  missional church cannot be reduced to either liberal or conservative, left or right; it is something new.  It is a congregation that relates to its community and setting while taking Christian formation seriously.  “The word mission  means ‘sending’ and the church is the primary way in which God’s sending is happening, “says Guder. “Mission no longer begins when we cross a culture or national boundary.” Mission happens today in the context of a Western society that is “radically secularized.” (p. 5)

I would like to add Mission happens today in the context of a society that is already “radically pluralized” and in some situation like Malaysia increasingly “Islamized” (especially when religion is used to serve political ends!) and perhaps getting more polarized again (unless we arrest the situation together!)?

Michael Foss, a Lutheran pastor, speaks of developing “culture of discipleship” in congregations as a paradigm shift from a “culture of membership” to a “culture of discipleship.” (p. 6)

I confess, I’m still wrestling intensely how this can work out with grace and gratitude at the center, combined with urgency and discipline, and yet without slipping back into any form of rigid legalism or moralism.

“Increasing numbers of us have been talking,” says (Brian) McLaren, “about what a post-conservative, post-liberal convergence would look like in the American church.  We have become convinced that this convergence would entail the rediscovery of the local church as a missional, disciple-making community engaged in transformative spiritual practices.” Elsewhere McLaren writes of what he calls “generous orthodoxy,” another attempt to reach for a new language as well as a new reality.  The term “generous orthodoxy” suggests a faith and church with a strong center and yet minds and hearts open to the other. (p. 6)

I think this development in the American church is a good and needed one.  Personally, I’m of the view that those of us in the more post-colonial context would find it easier to engage in the wider conversation with those whom Brian is talking about.  At least, that is the way I feel. But the polarizing forces are very strong in my limited observation of the English speaking world especially in the USA context.  And then, it gets consciously or unconsciously exported to us here again.

Well, in good Malaysian English, “What to do-LAH?”  So, it’s going to be there. The focus and responsibility is still ours in how we will respond. These are my baby steps offered for those who are interested to eavesdrop.

About Sivin Kit

man of one wife, father of four kids
This entry was posted in Bangsar Lutheran Church, Books, Church, Leadership, Malaysia, Mission, Theology, World. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *