Discipleship Today: Identity and Belonging in the Middle East and North Africa

By Arthur Brown

Last week [15-19 June], IMES hosted its second consultation on the theme of discipleship in the MENA region. This year’s consultation, Discipleship Today: Identity and Belonging in the Middle East and North Africa, attracted representatives from 28 countries, including: Algeria, Tanzania, Iraq, Bangladesh, Singapore, the Netherlands, Syria, The U.S., Romania, Lebanon, Columbia, The U.K., The Philippines, Egypt and many more. It was an amazing opportunity to hear what God has been doing across the MENA region, and beyond, in the lives of individuals and communities.

The purpose of the Middle East Consultation [MEC] is to equip participants to respond in prophetic and Christ-like ways to the many challenges facing Christians and Muslims in and beyond the Middle East.

MEC 2015 included interviews with followers of Christ from across the MENA region regarding their particular experiences of identity and belonging which result from their commitment to follow Christ. Following these interviews, global missiologists reflected on key themes that emerged from these important testimonies.

In addition, our global consultants gave keynote presentations that were in turn reflected upon and discussed by those confronting issues of identity and belonging in the region. Topics explored were: discipleship and belonging, attachment theory and its relationship to discipleship within the MENA context, identity and leadership formation, and the development a supra-religious identity ‘along with Jesus and Paul’. In addition, participants were able to reflect on what they were hearing during the roundtable discussion groups that took place each day. These were a highlight for many, as participants had the opportunity to discuss how they could translate what they were learning into their own home settings.

Dr. Rosalee Velloso Ewell, one of last year’s global contributors, sums up the Middle East Consultation well:

What is unique about this gathering is the way it has blended and brought together both theological reflection and stories from the grassroots. This has made it quite a unique consultation. Usually, theoretical and practical are not in such a conversation. It is an excellent way to equip and include the participants in what is going on in the region. The participants are hearing from one another. The table groups makes it a working consultation, instead of passive listening – and that is very important.

ABTS President Elie Haddad says of this years consultation:

The Middle East Consultation continues to grow, not just in the number of participants, but in its impact. Every year we get to wrestle with crucial issues as we actively engage in missio Dei in the Arab world. This year was no different. It was a rich experience and provided many challenges that have impacted our understanding, our attitudes, and our behavior. The highlights for me were: First, the stories of what God is doing among the people of the Middle East and North Africa. Second, the theological and sociological frameworks that the global consultants provided for the stories. But most of all, it was the solid biblical foundation that was laid for discipleship in our context. I find it impossible to engage in these consultations without being profoundly changed.

Additional Voices:

I was impressed how the MEC 2015 consultation fostered a broad set of perspectives on the subject of identity, belonging and discipleship in the Middle East today. Those from any one philosophy of ministry were able to discuss and appreciate multiple approaches to reaching into these dynamic societies, and together we rooted our attitudes in a solid biblical foundation. This is the kind of creative evangelical climate I like to be around, and I believe it will be critical for our agility and partnership as we face unprecedented developments in this region.

Brad Gill, Editor of the International Journal of Frontier Missiology

This conference has been very beneficial to me. In the morning sessions we have been talking about when holding on to your identity is sinful and not sinful. In our church in Sudan we have 45 members that includes Nubians, Sudanese of Egyptian origin, Sudanese of Ethiopian origin, South Sudanese, and Sudanese. As a pastor of this small but diverse community, it’s important to understand identity. Our prayer as a church council is that the church accepts and embraces all Sudanese ethnicities.

Sudanese Church Leader

The coffee breaks were great! I loved how they did that [in] round tables [discussion groups] which were enlightening. I enjoyed getting to know people from different backgrounds. The morning devotions with Pastor Hikmat Kashouh were excellent and very beneficial… We enjoyed the variety of speakers form a broad spectrum. I personally benefited from the sessions with Tim Green on identity. I will use this material in my Introduction to Missions class.

Tony Maalouf, Professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas.

MEC 2015 also provided the opportunity for people to hear from well-respected Muslim leaders on issues of relevance to the consultation. Martin Accad facilitated fascinating interviews with a Shiite Sheikh exploring the question:

  • Are religious minorities better off under Muslim, Christian or secular rule?

At another point, Martin explored with a Sunni Judge the question:

  • Can Muslims live out the ideal of Ummah in Western societies and how does this relate to the application of Islamic law?

Given the close relationship IMES has with these leaders, consultation participants were impressed to hear the open and honest discourses that these inter-faith forums allowed. The IMES mandate to bring about positive transformation in thinking and practice between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East and beyond certainly was achieved in large part, for many, during these sessions:

This is my first time in Lebanon and in the Middle East. I have had a very positive experience at this consultation. I was very impressed that we can talk about these issues openly… Having Sunni and Shi’ite clerics speak openly and candidly about issues of faith is not something I am used to. I hope we can do additional conferences like this one in South East Asia where I am from.

Singaporean Leader and Professor

Our morning scripture reflections were led by ABTS Research Professor Rev. Dr. Hikmat Kashouh. We were all inspired by the way in which he drew such deep insights on the theme of identity within the early church, and how applicable it was to the present day experience of the church in the MENA region. Quoting one of our previous global consultants, Dr. Andrew Kirk suggests that:

Each community should develop its own contextualized theology which submits to the global theology of the Body of Christ, and this is exactly what this consultation is allowing us to do. Keeping lines of communication between different churches and movements open to the global church, allowing us to have insights and look at parallels in different contexts but all resembling the work of God on earth and the one Body of Christ.

Finally, MEC 2015 had for the first time its very own ‘poet in residence’. UK poet Lucy Berry provoked, inspired and challenged us with her poems on the theme of identity and belonging, many of which were written during the course of and in response to the emerging themes of the consultation. I conclude, therefore, with two of Lucy’s contributions:

No Photographs

We have had our conversations,

we have had some honest laughs,

we have shared with different nations

on our long, steep paths,

taken courage, inspiration –

but no photographs;

pictures not taken for safety’s sake,

here are some of the pictures I did not take.

A room full of people facing all one way

but facing such different choices

with some too shy to know what to say

some losing, some finding their voices,

some not permitted voices.

Hands shaking and lips kissing.

Friends arriving and friends missing.

Speakers arriving and speakers leaving.

The sheep found, the coin found

the family grieving.

The child both found and lost

is saved at such a cost

that it’s hard to be believing.

And food, and food, and cake! And bread;

our testament that God is good.

Blood of the lamb, and shifting tents

and trusting, mistrusting big events

mistrusting, or trusting the other

trusting, mistrusting our brother,

including, excluding our mother.

People outside, people inside,

tears we barely tried to hide,

blood of the lamb, and sacrifice

and attempted suicide.

I picture what I think you said.

I have an image of your meaning.

I have an image of what you heard

and I hope you caught my meaning.

But how do you catch mist in a jar?

With an un-taken photograph?

My big picture is a pillar of fog

on a long steep path.

All I can show, which is clear, is sincere prayer

and our collective, mutual yearning

and belief in a descending dove

and little flames burning

and so many shades of love

and good-will and my wish not to mind

that we are all so determinedly odd

and – in each un-taken picture – the glimpse, there,

just there,

of the hand of God.

©Lucy Berry

Babel

At our conferences,

our consultations,

our lectures

our sermons…

when we are being public people

in public places with public faces

we are all saying the same thing:

Peace

Love

Justice

Patience

and

Welcome.

Even in our different languages,

with heads bent in prayer or head-phones on

we are saying the same thing:

Peace

Love

Justice

Patience

and

Welcome!

Christian people in public places

with open faces.

—————————————-

But on the ground,

could I speak to you in your language, in private?

Even if I speak your language;

could I hear what you might speak?

can I speak what you might hear?

Even if we’ve words in common

do we share an open ear?

At the start it seems so simple,

and we both seem very able

I say table, you hear table.

You say table, I hear table.

I say chair and you hear chair.

You say chair and I hear chair;

nothing terrifying there.

But if we move up a level:

I say let go, you hear despair.

You say welcome I hear beware.

I say shame. You say blame.

You say shame. I say blame.

Babel, storey upon storey,

hangs between us in the air.

And so I take my headphones off and watch:

Watch your face.

Watch your hands.

Watch you smile.

Watch your eyes shining,

your arms waving,

your thoughts forming,

your memories flooding

your hopes dreaming….

I no longer know what you’re saying,

but I see what you are meaning

and there is honesty there.

And the muddle of this struggle

and this troubled kind of babble

and the power of the tower

then collapses into rubble.

For I do not know what you’re saying,

But I see what you are meaning.

and there is

Peace

Love

Justice

Patience

and

Welcome there,

which we might share…?

©Lucy Berry

MEC2016 will take place between 20-24 June, at ABTS. We will continue to explore the theme of discipleship within the MENA context, although the specific focus next year will likely be either persecution or ecclesiology. Stay tuned to the IMES blog for updates.

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