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Middle East Consultation 2021: Thinking Ecclesiology from Lebanon to the Middle East and the World

Change is daunting. Rethinking ideas, questioning practices, and scrutinizing convictions can likely lead to unknown consequences. Our desire for a sense of normalcy can often make even minor tweaks feel monumentally upending. The adage that “the only constant in life is change” extends to all of life, but it is felt in church life in unique ways. To encounter change in our understandings and practice of church is to face something both thrilling and terrifying.

Church is sacred for followers of Christ. It is the living entity where both the mysterious and the concrete coalesce to shape our rituals of worship, craft our expressions of faith community, and instill deep senses of purpose. The way Christ-followers understand and do church goes beyond human conventions; we link it directly to our knowledge of God and our engagement in a heavenly mission. Much is at stake when we study and assess church. Ecclesiological questions- those that examine the nature of church- can carry particular intensity and trepidation.

It’s important to recognize that the Church has always been a living organism subject to change. Inherent human realities have been encountered in new ways as contexts go through inevitable processes of flux. All church communities from every period have been required to navigate their postures and presence amid times of uncertainty.

As constant as change has been throughout the history of ecclesiological experiences, it’s completely understandable to figure that our current times are churning out changes at an exceedingly exceptional rate. Communication trends and technology is but one area where vivid change is apparent in churches. Whole elements of crafting church life and ministry now exist that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. Online gatherings, social media presences, and instant global networking were once solely imagined by bold visionaries. These are now commonplace in churches. Though such developments have been widely embraced, not all change is celebrated. We can always find reasons to bemoan the unfolding of change. Even so, the cycles of change are relentless; churches never survive if they do not change.

How should churches manage the fluidity of our precarious world? There are no conclusive answers, but there are a few ecclesiological areas of exploration that can help us to ask pertinent questions and frame productive discussion about inspired efforts for fostering dynamic church: Disciple Making, Leadership Development, and Social Engagement.

The following are some guiding thoughts to consider when examining these consequential ecclesiological elements.

Disciple-Making– Christian discipleship is often misunderstood as something involving religious programs, ordained leaders, and special events. This has contributed to approaches that are widely generic, difficult to reproduce, and ultimately unfruitful. Biblical disciple-making, on the other hand, reflects a dynamic flow of the Spirit as it works to inspire belief in the gospel among unbelievers and deepen the faith of believers across contexts. Faithful practices of disciple-making resist reductionist believer vs. non-believer dichotomies by pursuing both revival within churches and spiritual awakening among unbelievers through integrated and adaptive ministries. Plainly stated, the intentional practice of disciple-making is an essential function of Christ-following communities.

Leadership Development– Church leaders emerge when disciples make disciples, and leadership is imperative in ministry to stir church maturation and multiplication. Questions about approaches to developing church leadership are complex and loaded with a myriad of variables. It begs the Church to ask: What are the kinds of training hubs and networks to help develop leaders? What leadership characteristics are primary for ministry cultivation? How can theological education help or hinder leadership development? All of this has implications on a fundamental task of churches as they work now to foster Christ-following communities that will be durable and sustainable for ongoing witness and growth.

Social Engagement– As widespread social, political, and economic needs compound across contexts, the need for disciples of Jesus to be involved in public engagement within their communities is becoming increasingly urgent. Robust understandings of the gospel of the kingdom help us resist narrow thinking by nurturing disciple-making communities to care for the needs of the marginalized, mobilize to address injustices, and minister to the souls of the unreached. This involves concern that seeks to both influence the health of a society and work towards the multiplication of churches. Vibrant faith in Christ effectively stirs believers to assume public presences proceeding from a devotion to Christ and a love of neighbor.

When considering these dimensions in our churches, we recognize that every context is thick with complexities – in the Middle East it is particularly so. The Church emerged from this region and has continued for latter centuries as a Christian minority within a predominantly Islamic context. Today, social, political, and economic unrest continues to shake the region in profound ways. Through it all, churches in the Middle East are testifying that a presence marked by powerlessness is not void of profit. The Holy Spirit is at work in the region, and this should compel the global Church to pay attention and learn. At the same time, there is urgent need for reform and growth among Middle Eastern Christians in the hopes of further demonstrating the gospel. Nothing is ever black and white; every ecclesiological exploration requires serious and generous nuance. This is certainly the case in the Middle East in general and Lebanon in particular.

Lebanon is a small country of great complexity that is marking a decade of considerable upheaval. An influx of refugees from Syria led to a historic level of humanitarian need, and the past two years have seen a magnitude of economic meltdown rarely seen in history. Overwhelming as conditions have been in recent years, churches in Lebanon have endured and been transformed. The profound experience has been marked by both challenge and opportunity, and it serves as a compelling case study for exploring key themes of ecclesiology. This is precisely what we aim to do during the Middle East Consultation 2021 by turning our lens to Lebanon in order to engage in a discourse about the nature of the Church within the region and throughout the world.

Join MEC 2021 online from September 30 to October 2 for Towards a Dynamic Church: Making Disciples, Developing Leaders, and Engaging Society in Lebanon and Beyond. Each day will feature contributions from practitioners in Lebanon, leading theological thinkers, regional voices, and global experts. Together we will share in a vibrant discussion that will stir us to think deeply about the nature of the church as we identify opportunities for faithful witness in complex times.

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