Theology of Celebration or Suffering?

To the materialistic western individual, the Gospel ‘gives’ us eternity, forgiveness, and abundant life. To the majority world, the good news is liberation, as the incarnate Christ left the comforts to rescue and free the oppressed. Which do you identify with more? (The following are my notes from Fuller discussions on viewing the Gospel from the lens of the poor).

As a white male, Rah challenged me with the question, “How can those of us who operate under the theology of celebration connect with those who live under the theology of suffering?” (146).  As a westerner, I have access to the currency of mobility. That mobility detracts my  capacity to appreciate the suffering around me.  My constant motion and freedom to choose to look away from the difficult situations around me has the effect of “the dulling my senses and increasing my disconnect with suffering” (148). In other words, I may choose to express my power through the singular lens of “celebrating” the good news of Jesus but be inadvertently looking away, or closing my ears to the plight of the oppressed, poor, and marginalized. The gospel is a different kind of good news to those without power – it’s a liberation from the oppressor, a hope that in this world there is a kinder, more just love than what one experiences from fellow humanity.

In my Ukrainian context, though I’m a ‘middle class’ American by American standards, I may as well be Bill Gates in my small village. We are reminded of this regularly with each walk downtown, passing the gardens being tilled by grandmothers out of survival more than hobby.  Houses are a patchwork of material, some just holding on, others caved in from time. A few months ago I saw a body laying on the ground near the fountain in our town’s center. Within a few minutes, police were there, another statistic of rampant alcoholism. 

Suffering is all around us, but if we’re not intentional, our own ministry can become selective in what we feel comfortable focusing on. It’s cute to minister to children, to feel the warmth of their bright smiles. It’s rewarding to take packages of food to lonely widows. There is a wretchedness of sin however lurking beneath the poverty, robbing, crushing, and challenging our human capacity to care. To enter this suffering, to come alongside the “powerless and immobility of the have-nots” (151) is to embrace the other half of the gospel and perhaps the common celebration of our liberator. Maybe the western celebratory focus is a misnomer.. a reflection of materialism on the altar of idolatry. Perhaps there is truly only one theology that reflects the nature of divested suffering love; a suffering Gospel is the the only good news.

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Third Culture Kids [TCK]

Up until recently, I hadn’t been aware of the concept of a third culture.

Those who fall into this category are individuals who are (or were as children) raised in a culture other than their parents’ primary formative culture, or the culture of their country of nationality, and live in such an environment during a significant part of their early development years.

As a family, we were shaped by western culture, but then 12 years ago my wife and I, and then 6 kids moved to a completely foreign culture in Ukraine. We brought over our western culture, but slowly learned to adapt within our surroundings. Our kids adapted much more easily, taking on the host culture inwardly, the sense of being, relatedness socially, and the many other cultural values reflected through verbal and non verbal means.

To a westerner that’s never traveled for more than a few weeks outside their primary culture, it’s impossible for you to truly understand the nature, power, and distinct elements of culture. Quickly visiting another culture doesn’t allow for the shaping process to begin – for short term travelers you get a little taste of the outward difference (economic, quality of life, language), and might think that’s all there is. You can read about it, appreciate it, but the inculturation process is a deeply shaping and challenging experience.

Moving to a new culture is like a giant mirror, reflecting your peculiar primary shape.

Our older kids are now back in the US at college and getting their feet under them. They have each been experiencing various degrees of culture shock as they look the part outwardly, but do not feel inwardly that they fit it. To this extent, their brief time in the US has revealed their inward culture (sets of values, reflected norms, perspective of all that is meaningful) reflects more their parents mixture of Ukrainian + Canadian + American + Jesus culture.

Sorry guys. But there’s some good news!

In writing about third culture children, Soong-Chan Rah in his book The Next Evangelicalism writes, “When they return to the States they experience a sense of anomie (lack of social & ethical norms) based on their ongoing crosscultural experience. They may look like they belong (i.e. white faces) but culturally they are still connected to the world they left behind” (185). Professor Soong-Chang goes on to suggest that because our world has been changing so rapidly over the past 50 year with immigration, every culture is now within every culture, and mixed cultures producing an ever increasing “cosmic race”, the sense of being displaced is also increasingly common.

“Third culture kids are raised in a neither/nor world. It is neither their parents’ culture (or cultures) nor fully the world of the other cultures in which they were raised.” This provides many challenges for the TCK, but Soong-Chan highlights some very cool benefits.

Leadership as the capacity to engage, understand, listen and influence, is all the more essential to respect this reality among the millions of transplanted cultures.

“TCK creates a dual identity that can strengthen their crosscultural skills.” In other words, in our multicultural world, being inwardly capable of straddling different cultures is an invaluable asset to build bridges, help the captive homogeneous white American see the very different world emerging around us and meaningfully engage with those from different perspectives with greater sensitivity.

Soon-Chan calls this capacity to move in and around cultures more easily, “liminal’ leadership, the ‘place of in-betweenness’. “It is at once the world of isolation and intimacy, desolation and creativity.. reflecting in the soul the discords and harmonies, repulsions and attractions.” My kids know what this means.

Being a third culture kid is a blessing and a curse. It’s to never really fit in, but it’s to come alongside a shifting, transitioning world and have the capacity to shine more brightly than those assuming there is only one superior culture and worldview.

The Gospel in the church’s infancy quickly moved from the cultural captivity of Jewish history by necessity and providence. It has been mired in western cultural captivity for a very long time. It is breaking free and the world is changing rapidly. I’m excited to see how the Spirit will guide our children as they enter a mobile, inter-cultural world and learn to form and live into Jesus primary kingdom culture, in whatever secondary culture they find themselves in.

Western culture is losing its primacy, and will need intelligent, humble souls to mediate the transitions of power. Evangelical Christianity of the west is losing steam and numbers, especially among the white population. “American evangelicalism has more accurately reflected the values, culture, and ethos of Western, white American than the values of Scripture.” We are not consumers, we are differentiated individuals but should flee the isolated trappings of individualism which in no way reflect the eternal communing Godhead from which we are made!

The world will need more Martin Luthers; those who assert the current state of things hold little resemblance of the community of God in scripture. Christianity is not in decline globally, only among the western cultural power which controls the narrative and supposed perspective on things.

My prayer is that God will raise up more multi-cultural voices in the body of Christ that represent not only those in power, but those oppressed, all nations, all tribes, all cultures reflected in a new glorious anthem of Jesus as the Constantinian captivity of Christianity gives birth to new servant leaders who divest from cultural superiority. Third culture kids can champion this.

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Change Dynamics

Not everyone is ready for change, or ready for the same amount of change. This further emphasizes the need to approach followers as partners (Hickman 2010, 55) to create coalition and context for change in continuous dynamic environments (58). The founder carries additional weight in determining the embedded cultural DNA and therefor his/her own internal ongoing change is an essential gift to the group as a fellow learner, if the organization is to experience any sort of innovative principles. 

I’ve been especially interested in the social dynamics in play during change. “Transcending such differences as time, place, technological development, ethnic origin and religious orientation – are two underlying configurations: the domination system and the partnership system” (Schuyler 2016, 104). Does our context for change involve embedded ideological resistance towards the intended change? Who are the players, those with the most to gain or lose, what common ground can be found towards change?  Are the changes we are moving towards carry their own set of ideological defaults? Should they? What does Jesus incarnation tell us about power dynamics and what should “Christian” change dynamics look like during the means and ends of change? 

Our conversations revealed one thing to me; all of us are in a constant state of change. Even if we’re satisfied and feeling a sense of ‘settled’, entropy is at work (218). The stoppage of intentional growth movement is in fact a movement towards unintentional calcification. To cease growing is to accelerate death. The structures we make or enable seem to eventually turn on us as ritual loses meaning, and a cognitive dissonance arises between what we really feel inside, and those outwards symbols.  In other words, how can we stay adaptive and also honor tradition? How can we as leaders ensure we aren’t fortifying structures that might keep us and our followers from growing?

Growth is difficult, learning always meets resistance, and change is an exchange of familiar for the hope of something better. Change is therefor risk, but our generation seems fixated on safety.

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Virtual Networks & Engineering Social Culture

Last fall we launched a crowdfunding platform (like Kickstarter) for Ukraine, it’s live at www.razomgo.com (Links to an external site.). From my experience, it’s not helpful to think missionally through the lens of static social sectors such as business, religion, education etc. The same forces shaping the de-construction of Christendom are at work in all other spheres and creating a more complex and fluid global culture. 

As missional movement, our driving discovered vision among our core Slavic leadership is ‘to form culture’ under the reign of Jesus Christ, filling space with artifacts that point to the loving reign of Jesus. While we can focus on one particular sphere (e.g. medicine), as a crowdfunding platform, our missional leaders are entering all spheres, from training business leaders, funding Covid care supplies, helping orphans learn how to generate ideas-to-business-plan, to working alongside Ukrainian government to reform old Soviet banking regulations. 

Virtual networks place a premium on breaking down silos and connecting various audiences..” (Loc 111). Through the use of technology, we believe we can come alongside the Spirit in an agile, adaptive manner greeting the world that is emerging, instead of, as in the case of the old Presbyterian Church example, react and recover to unfortunate insulation from the world we are called to influence. “Collaborative technology drives innovation.. And change in government” (112) but also every sphere where collaboration is possible.  We’re at a crossroads I think that requires the use of technology not as an end, or means of doing church differently, but as the world uses it, as a tool for collaboration and social impact. 

Collaborative social ‘hubs’ are exciting. They are not only providing unity within typical religious spaces, but cross pollinating across traditional sectors, and as leaders we can stop considering one time ‘projects’ as the only way to do ministry, but “create a place where people are willing and able to innovate time and again (Hill 2014, Loc 312). This allows our platform for example to not only act as a conduit for emerging ministry and start-ups, but act itself as a space for Kingdom influence, through inclusion, learning, synergy and love. 

Whatever the sphere (whether singular or multiplicity) I believe Ignatian spirituality is a key to create with the culture of the leadership for maximum life and sustainability:

freedom to become the person you’re meant to be, to love and to accept love, to make good decisions, and to experience the beauty of creation and the mystery of God’s love” (Martin 2012, 1).

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