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The Church post Covid 19 

We often hear about a new way of doing or being church - but where to begin? Asia’s quest for ‘new ways of being church’ as they emerged from the missionary era might have something to say to us, writes Alec Gilmore


One unintended and unexpected consequence of Covid-19 is a remarkable capacity for change and adjustment in day-to-day life, businesses, institutions, social customs, shopping patterns . . .   and Churches. Churches which could haggle for years over replacing pews with chairs have suddenly found themselves turned inside out by lockdown and here and there are discovering that some enforced changes have positive features. Mention the return to normality and instead of ‘the-sooner-the-better’ line, we have people floating ideas about ‘new ways of being (or doing) church’.

With change in the air and the wind at our back I have often felt over the last year that Baptists, with their variety of practices, their independence and capacity for experimentation, are better equipped than any to pick up the torch and run with it, and the York Survey (reported recently in The Baptist Times) seems to confirm it. One of the problems is leadership; church leaders with experience of such an enormous undertaking are few and far between. This not rearranging the chairs on the Titanic; more like transferring to a new and untried vessel without a trained crew. A second problem is where to begin; think of refloating an enormous vessel stuck in the Suez canal.

Far be it from me to dip a toe into that one, but by a strange coincidence only a few weeks ago a 17-page booklet* landed on my desk out of the blue. It began with an Indian religious complaining to missionaries about their methods in his native India: ‘You say that you bring Jesus (italics mine) and new humanity to us’, (s)he said, ‘but what is this “new humanity” you are proclaiming? We would like to see it, touch it, taste it, feel it. Jesus must not be just a name, but a reality.’

From where (s)he sits what they brought was ‘Jesus as understood in the West’ — a Jesus for export, ‘a potted plant . . . transported without being transplanted’, alien to Asia and missing an opportunity to explore Asian life and culture and then proceed with lay training and workshops to envisage a ‘Jesus for Asia’.

The rest of the booklet describes what happened next, leaving me to wonder whether Asia’s quest for ‘new ways of being church’ as they emerged from the missionary era might have something to say to us with a similar objective to behold ‘something new’ as we emerge from the rigours of Covid-19. Turning up as it did, just weeks before The Baptist Times report, the York Survey and rumblings in our churches, seemed almost to have a touch of serendipity about it and stirred me to action. 

Fortunately they had a potential leader in José M de Mesa, a Catholic Filipino lay theologian who rang the bell and got things moving, leaving this booklet as a legacy. His methodology was a Cultural Group Project to facilitate ‘the doing of Christology in a Cultural Context’ (‘Culture’ because that was their concern; our’s may be a ‘Local Community’), grounded on three sound hermeneutical principles and in three distinct phases.

Bypassing the Asian issues and the details (all available on the web) what grabbed me was the methodology, Has it got legs for Baptists right now? This is ‘Listen and Learn’ before ‘Preach and Teach’; not so much taking Christ to the local community as working with the local community to create a relevant church and an awareness of a ‘Christian presence’ where we are.

Space permits only one example of José’s hands-on approach. Groups had to choose a specific word, image or concept which would do for their local community (especially the younger generation) what a more esoteric ‘churchy word’ does for regular churchgoers (e.g. ‘wellbeing’ as an alternative to ‘salvation’); they were then to discuss its shades of meaning, characteristics, positives and negatives, which work and which don’t, avoiding all traditional titles (e.g. Good Shepherd, child Jesus), and ideally back it up with pictorial representation facilitating exchanges of ‘discoveries and suggestions’ between the groups, sharpening the focus and adding to the diversity.

José’s project surely had Asian legs. Can we discover the western ones?

*José de Mesa, Making Salvation Concrete and Jesus Real. Trends in Asian Christology, Brill, Leiden, 2001. (https://brill.com/view/journals/exch/30/1/article-p1_1).
 José is an Associate Professor in Religious Education Department of De L Salle University in Manila, Philippines and author of Doing Theology and Doing Christology.

Image | Allef Vinicius | Unsplash


Alec Gilmore is a Baptist minister


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Baptist Times, 16/04/2021
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