Thursday, March 17, 2011

Leadership and the Christian Imagination: Always the Host and Never the Hosted?

In The Christian Imagination, a book I've been reading and blogging about lately, Willie Jennings talks about the problem that can arise when we treat every instance of engagement with another person as an opportunity to underline (or even modify) our own views rather than to really engage. I have been thinking about whether I am guilty of this when I treat current affairs as little more than "occasions for theological self-absorption" (150).

Jennings tells the story of a 19th century English bishop to the colonialist settlement of South Africa named John William Colenso who set out on a mission to translate the Christian gospel into the language of the African tribes with the added motivation (and this is crucial) of bringing them "civilization" as well. Hopefully we've all considered the problems of this colonialist attitude already. What I'm interested in here is the way Jennings probes deeper.

In his book Jennings suggests that where Colenso's translation efforts were to be all one-way the very dynamic of the Christian gospel was subverted and ultimately all but lost. When push came to shove, the greedy and arrogant colonizing impulse won the day. What is remarkable about this story is that when push finally did come to shove, Colenso himself realized this and sided with the African, at great cost to himself (159-165). The gospel he meant to translate ended up translating him.

With this inspiration, Jennings digs deeper into the problem. Theologically speaking, it seems that the Christian European had inserted himself into the gospel in the role of the Jew, so that those in the new world were now perceived as the Gentile. This forgot the fundamental point that in fact they were all Gentiles grafted into God's people by way of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ (160). The Gentiles ought to be engaging each other under the ministry of Christ and discovering more and more how the gospel is not only for all people but actually reconciles them as well (166).

Though Colenso had himself contributed to the violence of South Africa's colonization, it was the very impulse of the Christian gospel which, despite being utilized for colonialist purposes, ended up leading him into self-giving communion with those he had been unwittingly sent to oppress. As Jennings puts it, Colenso came to discover that colonialist Christianity offers "a gospel that is for everyone of necessity but joins no one of necessity" (166-167).

It is easy to criticize the past and assume we'd have been different. The point here is to learn from it. So I am left to wonder how much I do this. For all my talk of the gospel of Christ and the community it creates and the kingdom for which it strives and hopes, is it the case that what I really have in mind and at heart is the spread of my own ideas and the validation of my own perspectives?

Is the gospel a detachable thing we can possess and pass on, or is it in the very dynamic of our engagement with one another and the heart of our discussion?

I am reminded of a time when my wife and I were privileged to have over for supper a leading thinker in the church "leadership movement" that captured so much of the attention of evangelicalism in recent decades. This kind and eloquent man was in town to speak to our Bible College students, and did a really good job describing a leader as one who was able to be hospitable in the best possible sense of the word. In pastoral situations this meant that a leader would seek to effectively"host" the discussion for the common good of those gathered. Sounded good to me, and much of it still does.

Anyway, of course around our supper table this warm and friendly and engaging man illustrated all of this beautifully with his charisma, self-confidence, and indeed his graciousness and his friendliness. Even though he was in our house around our dinner table he was able to "host" the conversation in a very amicable and enjoyable way - and if I recall correctly we all would have left that dinner table feeling that he had done so (more or less) to our common benefit.

What sort of stuck with me, however, is that it had actually been my wife and I who were the hosts. I'm not speaking from petty jealousy here. It has been ten years, and I was honestly more than happy to have someone else carry the conversation. But it struck me then and it strikes me now that there is a danger in such a "leadership" posture and such a "host" mentality. I think it has something to do with what Jennings is talking about.

It was this constant "host" mentality which was precisely what Colenso had to overcome. Jennings pushes us to consider the possibility that whenever the Christian assumes the role of host only, even if it is for the spread of the gospel, perhaps that Christian is in danger of subverting and usurping that very gospel! All this for the sake of modes of communication, understanding and living in which the gospel has become (legitimately or illegitimately) enshrined!

This leads me to wonder: Perhaps when I am merely a proclaimer of the good news and not also a minister of reconciliation who is in turn open to being ministered to, then I let the good news be "for everyone" without actually let it "join everyone". Do I stall out Christ's new creation if I package it and pass it on rather than carry on as if I am a co-recipient of its work in the world?

To go back to our supper table that evening, I must say that I don't think the whole "hosting" or hospitality idea presented by this dynamic Christian leader was completely wrong. Indeed, where it aimed at the common good it probably got at one of the key things that Christian leadership ought to do. But didn't Jesus, by calling disciples and birthing a church, implicitly (if not explicitly) also call for a mutuality befitting the gospel that was to be preached?

How does this change the way I go forward, not only as a theologian of sorts but also (potentially) as a pastor and leader? Surely I have not done 9 years of education in order to sit at every supper table and stand at every pulpit and teach nothing; or lead nowhere? Ultimately, no. But at any given moment should I not be willing to let that be the case? When I accept a church's call to lead or to minister or to preach, I take seriously the notion that God has asked me to bring something to the table. However, I can never assume that I am always the bringer and not the accepter, or that I have something to pass on that is for us without joining us, something we can exchange like a consumer good without being changed by and participant in.

What am I leading, if I am always the leader and never the servant; always the host and never the hosted? I may be leading a movement, but I have to always ask myself whether it is the movement of God's kingdom in this world.


Dale said...

"The gospel he meant to translate ended up translating him."

great line.

I really get that bit about hosting and being hosted, too. So much of it is about subtle power dynamics that we (maybe) never even realize are at play.

Justin said...

High five.

Stewart said...

Good stuff Jon. 2 overused phrases come to mind: walk the talk, speak the truth in love. the phrases are perhaps overused but not the application of them.

Anonymous said...

Man, really good piece, Jon.
It reminds me of one you wrote a few years ago, challenging the popular catch phrase: "The Local Church is the hope of the world." It misses the mark.
Jesus Christ is the hope of the world - and the difference to me it seems is that in the first model we're saying "Come on in, we've got the truth." and the second is more of standing at the other's side, pointing out that "God and his kingdom smacked us upside the head - He changed, and is changing us - look at what He's doing!"
Subtle difference to some - but a completely different posture in my opinion.

jonkramer said...

Or better yet, I guess, listening to the other share, "Here's how I see God's kingdom breaking through in the world."

Jon Coutts said...

Thanks Jon. Pretty sure we're on the same page here. What I keep pushing myself toward, is to make sure I have theological, biblical, churchly, reasons for this posture rather than merely psychological, personal, or 'culturally palatable' ones. This is not to say, however, that psychology, personality, or culture are by default wrong. Sometimes an insight into what's wrong can come precisely from a shift in culture or from another person's personal bent, without us having to put culture or personality in a position of authority. In this case I think we're in the middle of a long journey to reassess our understanding of the way the gospel asks us to think and act in our world, and I am finding great fodder for this in Jennings' Christian Imagination. Something important has happened in globalization. It doesn't change the gospel, but it causes us to ask some important questions about it, and more importantly, it is the occasion for the gospel to ask some important questions of us. Those suspicious of cultural shifts are often not suspicious enough of past cultural shifts within which their worldviews have been entangled. It is inevitable that we come to the gospel from somewhere and then take it and try to apply it to somewhere. But we need to let it prod our social and personal imagination in that application, or else we just might be wielding it improperly.

Thus, we gotta keep thinking on this, even and especially as we go out every day and just try to live.

jonkramer said...

I think that's a pretty accurate assessment of our situation - and of myself as well. Life would be so much easier though if we could just stop doing life and church until we had things figured out!
Time to "host" another Sunday worship gathering though...