Church Renewal from Below

Richard Rohr writes,

‘In 1961 the pope asked us to send 10 percent of our personnel to Latin America. Nobody did it. Even people who claim that they obey the pope didn’t do it. When I went to Latin America, I was told: ‘We’re glad they didn’t send any priests then. If they priests had come, things would have gone on the way they always had. This doesn’t mean that we don’t want to celebrate any Eucharists or that we don’t want to have God’s word preached. But we were forced to seek out our own way, and now we have a country like Brazil with between eighty and a hundred thousand base communities.’

…or a continent like Africa, a country like China.

Rohr goes onto say, “It seems to me that Jesus is renewing the Church, not from above but from below” (Simplicity 112-113).  These words are on my heart this week as Evan and I leave to participate in the third annual English Exchange offered through the Presbyterian Church USA‘s Outreach Foundation in Nanjing, China. It was an experience last year that changed both of us- a rare opportunity to interact and fellowship with Chinese church leaders, pastors, and professors.

A Chinese pastor friend and myself at last year’s English Exchange at Jiangsu Bible School in Nanjing.

And as this opportunity returns this summer, I’m left pondering my reflections regarding my experience with Chinese Christians over this past year, particularly my fears about the lack of theological education available to the growing house churches in China, and the impact of that on Chinese Christianity.

And yet, Rohr reminds me that these fears are my fears, and they have little place here.  These fears reveal that despite my best intentions, I hang onto a supremacy of sorts that suggests that the type of renewal that can and will happen in the Chinese Church is not “enough,” in that it needs Western intervention, Western wisdom.

But, of course, it is enough, and it’s precisely what China needs.   The Gospel is best understood by the least of these rather than by those whom the world credits with all the knowledge, power, and wisdom.

This premise undergirds the myths Rohr draws upon from Anne Wilson Shaef, myths that world systems are built upon.  They are myths that our systems are superior, omniscient, logical, and truthful, when really such systems blind us from the truth that Jesus gave us, the simple command to love God and love our brothers and sisters, and regard them more highly than ourselves.

And at my best, this all induces great humility in me, the kind I felt in the mountains of Yunnan, among the Christians there who welcomed me and my American friends with open arms and full hearts, or the kind of repulsion I feel when Westerners declare that our role in the Chinese Church today is to “provide training.”

Of course, training will happen, with us, or (probably more effectively) without us, but I know one thing in my soul: we’re called to listen, to encourage, and to learn here, but not to lead.  

God, give me the faithfulness and the courage to do so over these next few weeks.  And God make me an instrument of you, open my eyes to see, my ears to listen, and my heart to learn from those to whom in the world’s eyes are may be regarded as poor in spirit, but to whom I know much has been given.  Amen.

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