The conference organiser, Rev Dr Ben Aldous, CTE’s Principal Officer for Mission and Evangelism, writes…
It was wonderful to welcome 70 participants to the Learning to be Missionary Disciples conference held virtually via zoom on the 25 and 26 November 2020. Although we couldn’t meet in person, as we hoped it was a rich time of learning together.
During the two days people gathered representing over 20 of our Member Churches, alongside charities, mission agencies, youth organisations, theological institutions and ecumenical bodies of various kinds – national, regional, intermediate (county-level) and local.
“Welcome to the Table”
Here’s how I welcomed the conference ‘attendees’…
I like to use the analogy of a table. So welcome to the table. Over the years, probably like you, I have eaten many meals at various tables. There is something about sharing a meal together. It’s a necessity if you’re on a pilgrimage together and it’s something I am grieving in our lockdown world – a table full of friends and strangers. Every week for a close to a year I ate a meal with the men and women of a community supper in Cape Town. It was often raucous, full of laughter and at times tears. It was life in the raw.
We as CTE are committed to being hosts at the table. We are here to help churches find each other. We want to help our churches and other Bodies in Association truly see one another. For 10 years I worked as a vicar in South Africa. In IsiZulu, the dominant language in the Eastern part of the country, there is an important word used as a greeting. Sawubona, which quite literally it means ‘we see you.’
In South Africa practicing Sawubona is about rejecting the antagonism, arrogance and hatred that was seen in public life and listening and speaking in ways that honour, even when in profound disagreement. Listening well can have the same effect as being loved well.
Last month a number of us from the Group for Evangelisation gathered at the Greek Orthodox church in Harrow to worship together and meet the relatively new Archbishop Nikitas. At one point in the service just before the gospel is read the priest sings ‘Be attentive’. Being attentive means stopping to listen well and observe.
It was our hope that those gathered would be committed to starting conversations about truly collaborating and sharing their resources, both human and financial with each other.
As I have travelled, listened and observed in my role over the past 18 months there is often duplication in areas of our ministry. The little booklet entitled Churches together in Pilgrimage published in 1989 reminds us some 30 years later that, ‘there are ways of co-operation without amalgamation. We are called to trust one another and to take ‘holy risks’ for the sake of common mission.’
It was my prayer for that over the two days those gathered would be able consider afresh what is truly valuable about why we meet and to be committed to sharing themselves and their resources more radically and fully in the coming months and years. To take some ‘holy risks’ for the sake of mission.
Writer and broadcaster Rev Dr Joel Edwards, was our keynote speaker. You can watch his message below:
Presentations were made in the innovative PechaKucha format, which literally means ‘chit chat’ in Japanese. PechaKucha is a way of storytelling; each of our presenters had 20 PowerPoint slides shown for 20 seconds each whilst they shared a story of some kind and an example of what being a missionary disciples looks like in their context. Some 23 different people, ranging from Youth for Christ to The Student Christian Movement, from Trey Hall of Methodist Church to Jenny Sinclair from Together for the Common Good, presented to the attendees.
The full programme is available to view here (pdf).
What was the Spirit saying?
As part of our time together at the Learning to be Missionary Disciples Conference we invited Theos’ Senior Researcher, Hannah Rich, was invited to be the conference’s ‘chief listening officer’. Here she shares what she sensed the Spirit was saying to use through each other over the two days…
“At the start of the first lockdown – a couple of friends and I set out to read a Psalm a day with little idea whether the lockdown and the pandemic or the book would last longer.
This time round in lockdown, we’ve been reading the book of Acts – because there are 28 chapters and 28 days. I’ve enjoyed how it reads like a storybook/novel – the story of the early church and found myself looking forward to the next chapter or the next episode.
It’s natural then that much of the conversation over the last two days has resonated with me in the context not only of the church today but the early church.
The first thing I want to say is that none of this is new – Jenny Sinclair (Together for the Common Good) spoke about the ancient and new idea of being neighbours, which is radical but also isn’t.
Joel Edwards began by highlighting how since the beginning of the church, Christians have been figuring out what discipleship means in the context of power, race, gender, the different dynamics of society, even plagues – early church’s emergency services, the parabolani who sat with the sick and dying and risked their lives in doing so. We might see ourselves in that in 2020, literally or not.
Stephen Hance (Church of England) described cathedrals as hospital wards for the church – resuscitating the dying faith of those on the brink of losing it. Is there space in our understanding of what it is to be disciples, for being spiritual parabolani in that way?
The second thing is that we’re doing it together. So many of the speakers have talked about that – we’re collaborating, creating community, journeying with each other, going on pilgrimage together etc. etc. They’ve highlighted numerous times that discipleship is not, despite how we sometimes think of it, an individualistic thing or something we do on our own. There’s also something really transformative about inviting others to join in with us. My own research (The Grace Project) found that social action grows the church in part because people who aren’t in church are attracted by the goodness of it and want to be part of it, even if they don’t realise they’re interested in faith.
This journey of learning to be missionary disciples together is also about sharing everything together. This is central to the story of the book of Acts – chapter 4:32-34.
“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.”
Something I’ve heard woven through all the talks is that sense of people sharing everything they had. Rachel Jordan Wolf and her story of community living, sharing bathrooms and crockery cupboard takes that very literally. Likewise, Ali Boulton’s inspiring example of the New Housing Hub. But it’s true also in terms of knowledge and tradition. Jacqui Miller Demirovska from the Church of God of Prophecy illustrated this brilliantly when she began her PechaKucha with Pope Francis’s words about the church living in the midst of the homes of its sons and daughters. That sense of not being possessive about tradition, but sharing the good in everything. That’s the spirit of CTE and of this gathering.
Thirdly, that sense some of us feel this year of being torn between so many justice issues is also nothing new – but neither is our instinct that as Christians, part of our calling is to be the people working in there, being missionary disciples.
There was an interesting discussion in one of the small groups I was in yesterday about what is the defining issue of our time, or of the millennial generation? Identity politics, or racial justice and Black Lives Matter, or the economy, or the pandemic? Historian Dan Snow on Twitter recently started debate when he suggested that in the scheme of things, history would forget the coronavirus pandemic. It seems strange to suggest that when 2020 has felt so momentous.
We know that the same sorts of social and political issues (in their own context) were critical to the early church. They do get a mention, but they aren’t the defining thing.
Instead, the verse that I think sums this up is 4:33-34: “And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there was no needy person among them.”
In our mission, in our discipleship, in the church in 2021 even, that is my prayer, my hope and also what I am taking away from this conference – that God’s grace would be what defines us and is most powerful in our story as missionary disciples.”