Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Immigration and the Great Commission

“On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria . . . Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” Acts 8:1, 4 (NIV)

Politicians, grassroots activists, religious leaders, vigilantes, talk show hosts, and newspaper columnists have all weighed in on what promises to be a crucial issue in this year’s elections: immigration. While this is hardly a new issue in American politics, it was catapulted into public visibility anew when hundreds of thousands of immigrants took to the streets on May 1, 2006 to advocate for immigration reform. This event, in part, has led to a backlash in anti-immigration sentiment, ranging from renewed efforts to pass new state and federal legislation to the more dubious activities of vigilante groups like the Minutemen Project. And, predictably, Christians have often jumped into the fray, attempting to use the moral weight of Scripture to tip the scales in favor of one side of the debate or the other.

While it is important for the church to theologically engage the political and social consequences of immigration, I am afraid that in the midst of our eagerness to do so, we have overlooked an important question: What are the implications of immigration for preaching the Gospel?

In the eighth chapter of Acts, we observe that persecution forced the early Christians to leave their homes in Jerusalem and flee to the nearby regions of Judea and Samaria (v. 4). Undoubtedly, many of the inhabitants of these areas were less than enthused about the influx of Jewish Christian refugees invading their territory. But Luke wasn’t interested in that aspect of the story. Instead, he shares how these persecuted Christians preached the word wherever they went and, a mere eight verses later, we learn that the people of Samaria “believed the good news of the kingdom of God” (v. 12). Theologically, this is a significant turning point in the book of Acts because for the very first time we see the early believers doing what Jesus’ commanded them in Acts 1:8—that they would be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This brief account from the book of Acts is just one of many examples throughout scripture and Christian history where migrating peoples became a major conduit for carrying out the Great Commission.

Unlike the early Christians who were forced to flee Jerusalem, most immigrants coming to the United States nowadays do so for reasons other than religious persecution. More frequently, they come in pursuit of economic opportunity. Some come seeking political asylum. And others simply wish to be reunited with their families. But regardless of why they come, the real issue is how God is using these immigrants to further the preaching of the Gospel message. The answer to that question is exciting, multifaceted, and deserves a detailed and nuanced answer—something that I cannot possibly offer here. Thus, for purposes of this reflection, I will focus on just one aspect of how: spiritual renewal.

Operation World reports that the spiritual heritage of the United States is eroding and the Christian Church no longer influences American life as it once did. In many respects, this spiritual decline signals that the United States is following in the footsteps of post-Christian Europe. Yet, at the same time, Operation World informs us of another important dynamic at work that we cannot ignore. Some of the fastest growing churches in America can be found amongst Hispanics, Koreans, Chinese, Filipinos, Arabs, and Iranians. Even as many of our churches are withering and dying, it seems that God is using the current influx of immigrants—many of whom are devout believers—to bring renewal and revival to the American church.

Prayer: God, please forgive us for failing to recognize your work amongst the foreigners in our midst. Help us to befriend, support, and nurture the congregations of our immigrant neighbors. Open our hearts and minds so that we can learn from them. Let our faith be renewed and revitalized as a result of their presence amongst us. Amen.

This item was previously published by the American Baptist Churches of the Rocky Mountains.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Fidel Castro Retires

Fidel Castro has just stepped down from the Cuban presidency, following a year-and-a-half of illness (see here and here). Having come to power on New Year's Day 1959, Castro has been the head of Cuba for nearly fifty years.

The real question is how much will change will come to Cuba--politically, economically, or otherwise--now that Castro has voluntarily stepped down from power? Will he continue to play a significant role in shaping policy behind the scenes? Or will this pave the way for a younger generation to bring about political and economic reform?

Likewise, how much space will the Cuban people be given by the international community, in general, and the United States, in particular, to chart their own destiny in the post-Castro era? Given the rise of numerous strong populist movements and governments in Latin America while the United States has spent most of this decade quigmired in the War on Terror, it is certainly possible that Cuba will have a lot more latitude to shape its own future than it would have, say, even ten or fifteen years ago.

Regardless of where Cuba is headed though, the reality is that things are changing and those changes--whatever they may be--will be big enough to signficantly impact the rest of us throughout the Caribbean.

The next few years, no doubt, promise to be exciting yet challenging times for the Cuban people as they embark on a new and important chapter in their history.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Beyond Business as Usual in the Church

My last couple of posts have offered critiques of prosperity theology. But as the Christian activist Jim Wallis often says, "Protest is good, but alternatives are better." While I have previously offered some of my own thoughts regarding alternatives to prosperity theology, I thought it would be helpful to share a concrete example of a local Bahamian church that that has developed its own distinctive alternative.

The following article highlights the ministry of Pastor Clint Kemp, the former pastor of New Providence Community Church (Clint just resigned from that position about a year ago to move on to other things, so the church is currently in transition to new leadership), who has been on the cutting edge of racial reconciliation, environmental justice and, most recently, Haitian rights. Indeed, Pastor Clint's fifteen-odd years of ministry can hardly be characterized by anything along the lines of "business as usual."

Clint Kemp is his name. He's an entrepreneur, little known pastor and thirteenth generation native of the Bahamas. Maybe you haven't heard of him yet, but he is changing the face of Christianity in the Bahamian culture. His story sheds new light on how the church can once again regain influence in culture. The story of this community being the church provides an entirely new paradigm to consider for those experimenting with pressing the Gospel forward in the context of American culture.

New Providence Community Church is shaping the culture of the Bahamas because they have approached their mission with the belief that they are called to be the Gospel in the context of their community. By deciding not to make their church a place for people to come and see, they have pushed their people to go and do. And they clearly illustrate the influence one church can have when it takes this mission seriously.
Click here to read the rest of the article or, better yet, do a Google search to learn more about Pastor Clint's numerous contributions to the Bahamian community.

A graduate of the conservative U.S.-based Moody Bible Institute, Pastor Clint certainly did not begin his ministerial career as a likely agent for social change in the Bahamas. Yet, over the years he has been significantly influenced by a number of socially progressive evangelicals such as the Latin American theologian René Padilla, Shane Claiborne of the Simple Way in Philadelphia, and Robert Guerrero of the Iglesia Comunitaria Cristiana in Santo Domingo. More importantly, he has not blindly and uncritically employed theologies and ministry techniques from abroad to address Bahamian problems. Instead, he has carefully and thoughfully crafted an approach to ministry that takes into account the distinctiveness of the Bahamian context.

That being said, it is important to remember that even within the Bahamas--small as it is--there are numerous subcultures within broader Bahamian society. Thus, while Pastor Clint's approach to ministry has been largely successful in the affluent western district of New Providence, the question must be asked: How well would this approach work for those of us working in a different socioeconomic context like, say, Bain's Town, Grant's Town, or Mason's Addition? My guess is probably not so well. Nevertheless, I think Pastor Clint's pioneering efforts are to be commended and should--at the very least--give those of us in other contexts the courage to be innovative in finding new ways to be faithful to the Gospel message in our respective communities. Likewise, New Providence Community Church remains an outstanding example of how more affluent congregations can effectively develop partnerships with the numerous local ministries such as this one that work directly with those on the margins of Bahamian society.

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