Wisdom Lab: Just Listening
In his seminal book Issues Facing Christians Today, LICC’s founder, John Stott, called for Christians to engage in ‘just listening’ to the culture around ...
In this article, Rev Dr Israel Oluwole Olofinjana – Director of the Evangelical Alliance’s One People Commission and Founding Director of the Centre for Missionaries from the Majority World – helps us listen to the suffering of a pandemic-ridden world.
As this catastrophe lays bare both inequality and ill-conceived notions of calling, he helps us imagine a more biblical paradigm in which mission and justice work together as one, informed by his new book, Discipleship, Suffering and Racial Justice: Mission in a Pandemic World. In turn, we’re invited to create change in our churches and on our frontlines, better embodying the just way of Christ and communicating truly good news of resurrection life to our neighbours.
The pandemic has deeply altered how we live. It may even pave the way for a paradigm shift, redefining and reconfiguring the way we understand our reality. The deadly virus has created a context of global suffering, impacting everyone, everywhere. Across 221 countries we’ve seen 5 million deaths, loss of community, loss of jobs, increased mental health problems, and heightened anxiety and fear.
Covid has brought intense suffering to countless people around the world, suffering which begs the question: how can the church in the UK respond to this catastrophe? Perhaps more succinctly, how can Christians in the West do discipleship and mission in a context of suffering and loss?
One of the shifts the pandemic has ushered in is a more conscious focus on justice issues such as climate justice and racial justice. As we continue to wrestle with the impact of the pandemic and how it is forcing us to gaze afresh on justice issues, one thing that is emerging is that the Western church will need a new discipleship model, one that is rooted in weakness and powerlessness, in order to be able to engage this new context.
Discipleship rooted in weakness
An example of a discipleship model rooted in powerlessness and weakness is that of missionaries coming from poorer countries or so-called developing countries into the UK. Today in Britain, we now have missionaries who are asylum seekers, refugees, and economic migrants. The suffering experiences of these missionaries give us examples we can learn from – because our new post-pandemic context demands humility and vulnerability.
The Western church, however, is still operating for the most part from a colonial paradigm of discipleship and mission. One way this colonial paradigm operates in our churches is the emphasis we still see on overseas mission, without realising that Britain is the new mission field, with reverse missionaries ministering to and sitting in our congregations. That being the case, how can the Western church truly engage with humility and vulnerability?
When we understand mission as first and foremost what God does in each and every place, then we are each invited to be missionaries starting right where we already are. We need Jesus’s discipleship model of suffering and sacrifice, which says ‘if anyone will follow me, they must deny themselves and carry their cross’ (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23).
Denying ourselves in a consumeristic, materialistic, and individualistic society involves a lot of suffering. Carrying the cross means we are ready to sacrifice to the point of death for the sake of God’s kingdom. An example we can learn from is what some nurses did during the lockdown by staying in hotels or isolating for extended periods, or carers living in care homes for months as their vocation demands a sacrificial lifestyle. There is something the UK church can learn here about the high level of sacrifice people’s jobs have placed on them, and the need to similarly count the cost in our models of discipleship. Jesus himself demonstrated this as a suffering-servant who paid the ultimate price on the cross.
We also need a discipleship model that integrates justice issues, moving away from a model that dichotomises and separates mission from justice. This post-pandemic context demands that we see justice as mission.
A biblical framework that helps connect discipleship with justice issues is summed up in the ‘Jubilee’ concept in the Old Testament (Leviticus 25; cf. Luke 4:16–22), speaking into covenant community, freedom for slaves, economic equality, and care for the earth. In Israel, the Jubilee year – occurring every 50 years – was an economic, cultural, environmental, and communal reset, when the land and people rested, and all those who were enslaved were freed and returned to their communities.
The Jubilee is best understood against the backdrop of the children of Israel coming out of Egyptian enslavement, and the new community of Israel understanding its new identity in a covenant relationship with God. In this covenant relationship, God promises freedom for all humanity and creation (with Israel as an example) in the 50th year: the year of Jubilee. It offers a holistic theological framework that can address the issues of individualism, privatised faith, and lack of racial justice engagement in prevailing Western discipleship models.
Multi-ethnic Christianity and racial justice
So how can we apply this Jubilee theological framework in our churches, mission organisations, and theological colleges? And how might this overflow onto our everyday frontlines? In this, we have much to learn from world Christianity, applying lessons of intercultural mission through multi-ethnic Christianity that addresses racial justice.
Firstly, in order for our Christian communities to become places where God’s multi-ethnic kingdom is expressed, we have to be intentional in our thinking, strategies, and action.
People often desire and want a multicultural or multi-ethnic church, college, or organisation, but are not prepared to do the hard work that it requires. Have your board of directors or trustees intentionally sought to have on the team people of Asian, African, or Latin American background? Does your five-year strategy plan intentionally include engaging Majority World Christians and learning from diaspora churches and previously ‘muted voices’? Does your national leadership team only have PLUs (People Like Us)? The early church was intentional in nominating and appointing Grecian Jews when they felt marginalised by the Hebraic Jews. A study of the names of the seven leaders (deacons) selected demonstrates this intentionality (see Acts 6:1–7).
Secondly, we need to create safe spaces in our Christian communities to have conversations about race and racism. Churches too many times shy away from squarely facing these issues because it makes people feel uncomfortable. If we are going to move forward, we need to have these conversations, and the murder of George Floyd has certainly given us the urgency to dialogue.
Can our church meetings or corporate board meetings be dedicated to talking about the issue of race and racism? Do our theological colleges have compulsory modules on Black theology, African theology, and post-colonial theologies? Can our national conferences begin to address some of these issues as the main theme rather than relegating it to a seminar or track focusing on the subject? And do we have the courage, in our everyday lives, to raise what may be taboo, but Christ would have us discuss, so that every person and group is truly valued in our contexts?
As we continue in this pandemic context, which requires vulnerability and suffering in order to address justice issues, let us engage Scripture afresh. Let us develop new models of discipleship that enable us to be rooted in weakness and integrate justice concerns.
Perhaps the examples I’ve highlighted, of the Jubilee paradigm in action, might spark some fresh practices that transform our churches, organisations, and theological colleges on this journey. What might mission from a place of weakness look like on your frontline, starting right where you already are?
Rev Dr Israel Oluwole Olofinjana
Director of the Evangelical Alliance’s One People Commission and Founding Director of the Centre for Missionaries from the Majority World
 Editor’s note: LICC has opposed this separation of mission and justice since our foundation by John Stott. As Stott wrote in the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, we must express ‘penitence both for our neglect and for having sometimes regarded evangelism and social concern as mutually exclusive. […] We affirm that evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty.’ Read and watch more from LICC on this topic with our Just Listening article series and event video.
 Editor’s note: see, for instance, Lusa Nsenga Ngoy’s article, ‘On Celebrating Ethnic Diversity’, connected to the online event here. Also see LICC’s efforts towards this end through our ‘Reimagining Race?’ event.