By Arthur Brown
The purpose of IMES’ annual Middle East Consultation (MEC) is to equip participants to respond in prophetic and Christ-like ways to the many challenges facing Christians and Muslims in and beyond the Middle East. Each year during the third week of June IMES hosts a dynamic gathering of people from across the globe who are interested in how the church may respond to the critical issues of the day within both Middle Eastern and global contexts.
The consultation includes creative presentations from diverse perspectives, practitioner interviews, roundtable discussions, workshops, interfaith encounters with leading Muslims leaders, Biblical reflections, prayer and worship, and an opportunity to visit a local community to see firsthand some of the challenges faced by certain communities in the region.
MEC 2016 – The Refugee and the Body of Christ: Exploring the Impact of the Present Crisis on Our Understanding of Church was no exception; in fact, the feedback we have received has been extremely positive. What follows is an abridged version of a report on MEC 2016 recently published by the Lausanne Movement, as part of their Lausanne Global Analysis.
(To read the full report please visit: https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2016-09/the-refugee-and-the-body-of-christ.)
MEC 2016 explored the long-term implications of the significant number of refugees from non-Christian backgrounds who regularly fellowship with other members of the Body of Christ. We sought to encourage healthy practices between and within different expressions of the local church in the Middle East, Europe and beyond.
MEC 2016 provided a creative space to reflect on the challenges and opportunities facing the MENA church in the present and in the years ahead that result from the demographic changes that are currently taking place. Church and ministry leaders were able to step back and reflect not only on what God has been doing in and through His church in recent times, but were able to envision the church of the future in and beyond the MENA region.
2016’s Middle East consultation provided many significant learning opportunities. Below is a summary of some of the main ideas which we feel were the most significant:
Practical and Verbal Witness
During the consultation there were mixed views on the relationship between the verbal and practical witness of the church. Recognising that both are important, the tension came over which, if either, should have priority. A commonly held view was that the gospel requires both tangible care and support for the weak, the marginalised, the oppressed, and the refugee, and a clear proclamation of Christ.
It was broadly recognised that, when material support is provided by the church, with integrity, within the context of relationship and with no conditionality (eg church/Bible study attendance or conversion), this in itself represents a powerful embodiment of the church’s witness. The church upholds human dignity or the Imago Dei by meeting the material and non-material needs of the whole person.
Transformation and Challenges (Being Prophetic Truth-Tellers)
The acceptance or non-acceptance of refugee communities has become highly politicised, leading to rapidly changing conditions on the ground. This is an area into which the church must speak prophetically—as truth tellers—willing to counter dehumanising and violent rhetoric in what may be termed a post-truth media and political landscape.
Hospitality and Peace
A recurring theme that emerged was that hospitality is a central feature of what constitutes the church. One speaker based on his reading of Acts 2:42-47 defined the church as a ‘sent community to embody God’s hospitality’:
- The church is missional in that it is sent by God.
- It is incarnational as it embodies the kingdom of God within its locality.
- It is hospitable as it opens up to the ‘other’, affirming both its own and the ‘other’s’ identity while sharing the gospel within and as a result of such a hospitable community.
The theme of peace also recurred repeatedly. When the church is truly being the church, it is a welcoming community in which Biblical peace—healing, restoration, reconciliation, well-being, belonging, community, health, salvation—can be lived out for all. It also becomes a living witness within the world that surrounds it.
It was also recognised that peace may be found in unexpected places, and that many people at the physical and metaphorical borders of societies are seeking peace. We cross boundaries to meet the ‘other’, and the other crosses boundaries to meet ‘their other’. And it is precisely within these liminal spaces that we often are each disrupted and disturbed. In these spaces it is at times possible to see the face of Christ in those who appear initially so different. A peaceful presence is required there, as people practise how to carefully listen to and live alongside the other.
Two important ecclesiological questions were central to much of what was discussed. These stemmed from the experience of many churches in the MENA context who have responded with hospitality to their new neighbours:
- From a theological, biblical, and sociological perspective, to what extent do refugees from multi-faith backgrounds need to be integrated into the previously established church?
- How might a biblical expression of church—made up of disciples of Jesus from multiple faith backgrounds—be fostered, in such a way that it would flourish within contexts where the church has not existed in recent history?
A diverse range of perspectives were shared by those directly involved in ministry with and for refugee communities:
- On the one hand, the desire for unity in the body of Christ was highlighted as a defining feature of a healthy church.
- On the other hand, the desire from the host community to welcome in the new neighbour should not be viewed as a means of undermining the newcomer’s existing social, cultural, and religious identity.
- Seeking to frame into ‘our known ecclesiological boxes’ what God might be doing with and through emerging expressions of church was also highlighted as problematic.
Host-New Neighbour Relationship
It became clear that any response to, or engagement with, people fleeing such horrors—be it in relation to material or non-material support—should be based in relationships of mutual giving and receiving. Lila Watson and the Aboriginal activists group in Queensland state it well:
“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us walk together.”5
Implications for the Global Church
The reality is that the conditions causing such high levels of people movement, forced or otherwise, show no signs of abating. This is going to be an issue for governments, communities, and the church for the foreseeable future. However, as elements of the media carry alarmist messages about ‘being overrun with migrants’, and as pressure on governments to tighten migration controls grows, what role does the church play?
A wide variety of suggestions emerged during MEC2016 about how the churches should be responding to their new neighbours:
- It is becoming increasingly important for the church to seek to break down boundaries and walls between different groups and cultures that have the potential to lead towards enmity. They include ethnicity, nationality, religion, age, and political affiliation.
- The church should be incarnating God’s hospitality. Hospitality involves genuine welcoming of the stranger, including help in finding a home and empowering them to make their own decisions.
- When the church practices hospitality, it makes room for new expressions of church. Although this may be uncomfortable for some, there should be the freedom to explore such expressions with attitudes of grace, love, and hope.
- The church should seek to address the widespread fear of Islam. Developing friendships with members of local Muslim communities and exploring ways in which our faiths draw followers towards love of God and neighbour is a positive starting point.
- The church should seek to move beyond solely meeting the immediate needs of its new neighbours, and find ways to address the root causes of conflict and injustice that have led to such massive migration.
- The church should be working with refugees not for refugees. This will only be possible when unconditional love is demonstrated through, among other things, authentic listening to their stories.
- In polarised and politicised contexts, the church should be a prophetic voice, led by the Holy Spirit and not the media or political view of the day. As a result, the church should be proactive rather than reactive.
- The church needs a theology that values human dignity for all, and not just for those from certain groups. This theology should drive all its actions in responding to the needs of the marginalised.
- There are complex human rights issues with any situation involving refugees. These include statelessness, religious rights and freedoms (including religious registration), and inter-faith marriage. Churches should be open to being led to campaign for the human rights of those from within and beyond their own faith tradition.
- The church must be the church, and not simply another NGO. The incarnational presence of a Spirit-led community has the potential to provide spiritual, emotional, and relational support, in addition to material assistance. As Craig Greenfield suggests, ‘Jesus showed us in his life and ministry, healing and transformation flow out of relationship—not the delivery of service’.6
- MENA churches continue to face significant challenges due to forced migration, war, terrorism, and persecution. They face very difficult choices on a daily basis on how best to respond to many of these challenges. They are in need of loving fellowship with the global church—on equal terms.
Stay tuned for upcoming announcements regarding MEC 2017 – The Church in Disorienting Times: Leading Prophetically through Adversity.