What do we say? Considering a missional posture in preaching post 9-11

Senior Ministry Consultant, Franconia Mennonite Conference

Missional preachers face new challenges in the five years following 9-11. It is not merely the ensuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that create troubling agenda for pacifist preachers. Nor is it simply a heightened nationalism that follows with its resultant provincialism. Or the economic struggles that follow in the wake of war. All of these make life more difficult but are not unexpected effects of international wars.

Instead, I see two primary challenges for missional preachers: the globalized fear that permeates and seeks to shape every aspect of our nation and our lives; and second, the way the missionary task is being redefined by the 9-11 events. Many of our national leaders adeptly use fear to build support for intervention within the Middle-East. Getting on an airplane offers grim reminders of the ubiquitous nature of fear. The paradox is that we are told the world is safer now while fear is used to promote support for stringent security.

To be sure there is enough to substantiate a policy of fear in our 21st century world. In no way should we minimize the realities of violence that threaten our lives. The recent shootings in schools across the United States grimly remind us that future generations are at serious risk. The stakes are high.

If we wish to heed Jesus’ word, “Be not afraid,” pastors will do well to saturate their hearts and minds with the preponderance of Biblical texts that call us to faith and hope, and toward a “perfect love” that casts out fear. Beginning with Psalm 23 and winding through Scripture, God’s people are invited to an alternative attitude and posture. What greater witness can we give than a counter-cultural lifestyle of deep security in God, and not in “homeland security” or the massive systems of defense that complicate our lives? Let this steady diet pervade our preaching in a multitude of ways.

Within the evangelism task, we are exposed to the realities of alternate faiths, especially Muslim adherents that comprise a significant part of the globe. This opens territory with which many of us lack familiarity. Since Muslims pray to the same God as Christians, and since Muslims are loved by God as much as all other humans, how will we extricate ourselves from the so-called “war on terrorism” that tends to castigate Muslims as our enemies? At the heart of the Christian witness is respect for others, including those that we pray will come to faith in Christ. Respect includes learning to know those we hope might become Christian believers. What might we do to inform ourselves about Islam and the Koran so that respect and understanding will characterize our interactions with Muslim people and our preaching?

In our preaching, might we find regular opportunities to encourage love for enemies and people of other faiths? The historical challenge of the medieval Christian crusades left a lingering bitterness toward followers of Jesus. Do we appreciate the reality that Arab people are also descendents of Abraham through Ishmael? What attitudes do we reflect when we speak and pray about the longstanding conflict between Israel and the Palestinians? Just as some of us are quick to point out how we differ from popular stereotypes of Christians, can we allow for the same variety among Muslims and the various factions represented in Islam? Do people in our congregations know of the positive actions of Muslims embodied in the formation of Muslim Peacemaker Teams trained by our own Christian Peacemaker Teams?

The missionary task became more complicated though the events of 9-11. As God’s people we are called to exceed a mere survival posture in the world, and to keep central the witness Christ commissioned the church to give. For this to happen we need not travel far. How many of us already have Muslims neighbors who feel deeply conflicted and are anxious about how they are viewed?

rock1.jpg

A first step for many of us might simply be to become acquainted with our neighbors. In doing so, we will likely need to scrutinize our language in ways we never considered before. Perhaps the recent offense caused to Muslims by Pope Benedict can alert us all to the need for care in communicating with those from different religious traditions. It may be deeper than language, though; some of us may need attitude adjustments. Any stance that implies we are right in all ways and others are wrong in every way, making us the judge of the eternal salvation of others, can only distract from our witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Given the iconic position 9-11 has been given in our society, and the impact this icon has on almost every aspect of our current culture, preachers face an enormous challenge.

Thankfully the life and message of Jesus remains good news. But it will only be good news if we can rise above the prevailing fear that pervades our lives, and if we can speak and act with respect toward those we wish would be part of the body of Christ.

Jim Lapp is currently Senior Ministry Consultant for the Franconia Conference, having served for ten years as Conference Pastor. He lives in Harleysville, PA with his wife, Miriam Book, who is a pastor at the Salford Mennonite Church. They have three children and seven grandchildren. Jim’s current assignment is in leadership development and Anabaptist identity issues.