2014 Global Theology Conference: My Thoughts

Well, several weeks later (sorry Brandon), I’ve finally decided to sit down and write some thoughts out about the Church of the Nazarene’s GTC III in South Africa on the theme of “Critical Issues in Ecclesiology.” 

My first thought: wow, it was an honor to even be there, let alone to be one of the few presenters. I’ve long believed that (as far as the CoTN is concerned) NYI and our theologians (aided by the International Board of Education) are leading the way in helping us as a church live into our truly international or global reality. This conference was certainly a step in that direction.

Toward that end, I proposed a paper for the conference several years ago (it was truly a long process) which was accepted. The paper was severely restricted due to conference length criteria, but I was pleased with the end result (I had to omit a lot of the theology, and stick to history and proposal). You can find it here. My paper was proposed to the history portion of the conference, though I always intended to propose some changes to our church’s structure, informed, as it were, by the past. In short, I examine the history of the CoTN, its missionary-led spreading out in particular, and trace how that spreading can or cannot be seen at the top of our governing structure. I closely examine the various “commissions on internationalization” and ask, when will these suggestions come to pass? Perhaps most helpful, I discovered some wonderful papers written by Dr. R.F. Zanner, and thus his still-relevant question of: “are we going to be a global church, or an American church with roots in foreign soil.” Strongly advocating that we avoid colonialism (or further colonialism) I suggest we make a significant effort to embrace the former. 

I was honored and quite amazed at the feedback I received about my paper. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t believe my proposal sufficiently fixes the problem. In fact, it might be completely inept (I hope that’s not the case, though!). My hope, in writing the paper, was to simply point out a very critical issue in our Ecclesiology, with the hopes of furthering the discussion, and actually making some changes. My paper was an attempt to stoke the fire, so to speak. It was critical, but it was loyally critical. I love the Church, and the Church of the Nazarene in particular. Anyway, I had so many folks come up to me with positive engaging comments. I will say that most of these individuals came from outside the USA/Canada Region, which only strengthens my belief that my diagnosis was correct, and my proposals, at least in part, were much needed. 

Leaving my paper aside, (I’m very happy to dialogue with you about it, though. Simply comment here, or email me at rustybrian@gmail.com) I will say that the conference truly embodied a global or catholic spirit. Real effort was put into minimizing the number of North Americans who were present, resulting in a very balanced number of folks from the 6 world regions. Of course, for obvious reasons, the Africa Region had the majority. USA/CAN was probably a close second when those from the GMC and other such staffers were included, but that is to be expected. NCN News provided a detailed breakdown of regional participation a couple weeks back (and yes, I think they caught John Wright snoozing!). I took the numerical breakdown to be a very positive thing. 

The conference was organized around the papers (in my opinion these turned out to be pretty good on the whole), which were broken up into four categories: context, history, bible, and theology. Rather than negotiate the nightmare of audibly translating each paper in the various languages spoken, participants were instructed to have the papers read prior to the conference (or at least prior to the particular session in which a paper would be addressed). We would all gather, and hear a critical summary from a “Senior Scholar” regarding the papers in a particular area. Afterwards, we would break into our small groups – which were the real heart and soul of the conference. After discussing the papers in our small groups, we would reconvene to ask questions of the authors of the papers in a given topic. And of course, in between just about everything there were tea times and meals!

The small groups were where the real work of the conference was done. My group, for example, was made up of a Canadian Professor of NT, a Missionary couple serving in Papua New Guinea, and pastors and DS’s from Zimbabwe, Cote D’Ivoire, Malawi, Haiti, and myself, of course. Due to our having several french speakers, we also had a french translator. I was quite fortunate to know enough French to be able to understand most of what was said by my francophone brothers, though I was not able to speak to them very well without the help of the translator. Together, as a group, we met 5-6 times. We had wonderful discussions. We did not always stay on task as well as we probably should, but we did exactly what was expected of us. Some groups, I know, stayed much more topic and task-driven, while others did not. I suspect much of this reflected the cultural makeup of the respective groups . . . I enjoyed my group immensely. I learned, was shown far more respect than I deserve, and was humbly reminded to listen more and speak less (a perpetual lesson I am and will continue to learn!). 

I also can’t say enough how much I enjoyed the fellowship with old and new friends alike. I’m going through a bit of a healing process right now, and it was so valuable to spend time with good old friends such as my old PLNU and NTS Profs (who seem to have welcomed me in to the “club” as a peer, for which I am increasingly humbled and honored), former colleagues such as Nell Becker-Sweeden and Tim Gaines, and even those who I’ve met on previous international trips such as Gift Mtukwa and Rudy Prescod. I was fortunate to make many new friends, as well, such as Fortune from Zimbabwe, Claus Arnold, David Sharpes, and even David Graves (he ordained me, but I had not really had the opportunity to get to know him yet). The interactions with new and old friends and mentors was a priceless gift to me, one that was received at just the right time.

Finally, the conference was appropriately bracketed with worship services, both of which culminated with the Eucharist. I was very glad to see such intentional sacramentality at this event – this was an important formative step in the right direction. The services were conducted in a variety of languages, and they were not encumbered by the need to overly translate. Rather, it was assumed that the word could function sacramentally as it was read, as we sung, and of course, as the Gospel was proclaimed. At times we all felt a bit like aliens (foreigners) – which is a gift itself. 

All in all, the conference was, in my opinion, a huge success. I’m not sure that we solved anything, but surely such opportunities for Christian conferencing on a truly global scale go a long way in speeding us on the path to globalization. I think that happened in South Africa at the GTCIII and for that I am grateful to God.

In conclusion, a few critical points to consider: from my perspective, of course.

  • Though I applaud the decision to not have the papers read, I think it would have been better to either cut the “senior scholars” in favor of allowing each author time for a 5 minute summary statement and question(s), or else to have allowed for a few moments for each author to respond, in some way, to the senior scholar’s assessment of her paper. 
  • (This DEFINITELY reflects my personality, and my cultural norms . . .) I would have liked to see more direct, critical (not the same as negative) engagement with Nazarene ecclesiology, or lack thereof. To this end, it would have been great to have been able to offer up some sort of statement to the general church/general board regarding our ecclesiology. Of course, though, achieving consensus about such a statement, in such a short time, would have been truly difficult, some might argue, impossible. 
  • A question was raised regarding the CoTN’s stance or intentional lack of a stance during and after Apartheid. The moderator (who was certainly not to be responsible for providing an answer to this hairy issue) for that particular session aptly parried the question to our small groups, but something more should have been done. A lengthy discussion of the matter was held during a USA/Canada regional meeting that night, and though the general consensus was for a need to listen to stories, offer up apologies, etc… political propriety ruled the day and the issue was brought to African leaders. A wonderful statement was made the following day by African Regional Coordinator Filimao Chambo, but I know that as well-spoken and intended as it was, it did not clear the air or adequately convey the sentiments of some of our South African sisters and brothers. This saddens me. Over the next few days I heard stories about things that happened and things that did not happen (at least as far as the CoTN is concerned) during Apartheid. I heard that the same issue came up in Amsterdam at the GTCII 5 years ago, as well. It seemed then, and it seems to me now, that some sort of formal opportunity for South Africans to speak up and discuss what happened, what church leadership did not do, and what church leadership did, is something that is quite needed – both for South Africans and for the rest of us who call ourselves Nazarene. We must learn, so that we never sit idly by again.

Critical comments aside, I can’t stress enough, just how wonderful an experience this was. In Joburg I witnessed the global tribe called Nazarene and I was humbled, impressed, and reminded of just why I love the Church of the Nazarene. I saw plenty of flaws, that’s for sure, but far more beauty. As it was a conference on ecclesiology, the phrase that stayed with me during the conference, and after, is one by the great Roman Catholic Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. In discussing Karl Barth’s theology, and therefore, in a truly ecumenical spirit, Balthasar refers to the Church catholic as a great tree that is both “beautiful and marred.” What is true of the whole tree is surely true of each and every branch. For all of her flaws, She is beautiful indeed.


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