Returning home after a whirlwind week of activity in Thailand and Hong Kong, China, I have had opportunity to reflect on the nature of mission and the configuration of ecclesial bodies in Southeast Asia. Western forms still dominate liturgy to some extent; however, Eastern forms of leadership are regnant in the relationship of pastor to chairman of deacons, i.e., the very significant role of lay ministry in congregational life. Robust Diaconal leadership allows the pastor to focus on proclamation and teaching, pastoral care, and nurturing the giftedness of members of the congregation. It is an instructive model.
I have always admired persons who move easily between varied cultures. The virtues of listening, patience, receptiveness, and humility are necessary for this. When mission pursuits are at their best, the visitor embraces rather than colonizes his or her new context. This embrace can take the form of clothing, language, food, and respectful engagement of patterns of religious practice. If conversion occurs, it is hardly one-way; the heart of the newcomer must be open to the lived experience of the convert, and the one receiving the Gospel is not required to forsake all cultural trappings to be considered Christian. An inevitable contextual shaping of faith occurs, which is how the New Testament recounts the spread of faith in the Risen Christ. Of course, challenges arose: whom to include in worship leadership; with whom one should eat; what practices needed to be retained, e.g., circumcision, kosher food; how to address issues of class and gender; and, how the Spirit of God could make one people out of those with such disparate backgrounds. Similar challenges remain, and the Spirit allows us to bear the strain of our differences.
In Southeast Asia the particular denomination stripe means far less in lands where Christianity is such a minority faith. Thus, Baptists who have little to do with one another in the States find ways to collaborate, and Baptists welcome the faithful witness of other traditions. I was invited to teach at a Christian Alliance affiliated seminary in Bangkok and a Southern Baptist founded seminary in Malaysia. (These good brothers have less compunction about women teaching in seminary, indeed instructing men, than some of their counterparts in the States.) I hope to honor these invitations in the future, and will consider it a privilege to serve alongside these Christian leaders and learn from their participation in the missio Dei.
Four faculty and three students departed for Myanmar as the rest of our party headed home. I am praying daily for them as they strengthen Central's partnership with Myanmar Institute of Theology through offering courses, consulting with faculty, and traveling to see some of the historic Baptist sites related to the ministry of the Judsons, who arrived nearly two centuries ago. By God's providence, Central faculty and students are learning better how to be global Christians. Conversion of heart and mind is not simply at the beginning of our experience of salvation, but a life-long pilgrimage of learning the ways of Christ in new contexts. It is a worthy pursuit, truly.
Molly T. Marshall, Ph.D.