The Institute of Middle East Studies is pleased to announce that we are now accepting applications to attend Middle East Consultation 2017 – The Church in Disorienting Times: Leading Prophetically through Adversity. Please click on the above link to apply.
We live in disorienting times. This is a reality for the church in many parts of the world today, not least the church of the Middle East. Many factors, historical and social, have reduced the church to the status of minority, in which persecution and hopelessness have become a reality for many. How must our theology inform our response?
During Middle East Consultation 2017 (MEC 2017), participants will seek to discern a Biblical framework that avoids both self-victimization and triumphalism and encourages the church to prophetically embrace adversity in a way that activates growth and development rather than discouragement and stagnation.
MEC 2017 provides a unique context for the MENA and global church to address a range of critical issues, such as persecution and suffering, minoritisation, hopelessness and despair, and emigration. Together we will explore how the Body of Christ can best respond to such challenges, exploring Biblical and theological responses when confronted with adversity.
The Four Core Themes of MEC 2017
Each of the initial four days will have a particular focus, with all contributions being based on the daily theme. Introductory and concluding sessions will also take place on the first and last day of the consultation, respectively.
Suffering and Persecution
For the Body of Christ to be able to lead prophetically within society it must understand its context. The Church has experienced persecution, both as perpetrator and victim, throughout its history. Currently, however, the Body of Christ in the Middle East and North Africa is experiencing some of the most difficult challenges it has ever faced. As a result, some questions we seek to explore include:
- How do we understand persecution and how is it manifested in today’s world?
- To what extent is it helpful to distinguish between ‘religious’ persecution and other forms of persecution, ‘socio-cultural’ for example?
Once some of these questions have been addressed, it is possible to begin to think about how the Body of Christ — local, regional and global — can and might respond to the challenges facing it. For example:
- How might Biblical and theological frameworks inform our various responses and how might we ‘make sense’ of the suffering that we, and our communities, are facing in light of the Gospel of Hope to which we are called to bear witness?
- How might we lead our congregations towards faithfulness to Christ within this context of suffering, and at the same time ensure we play a significant role in challenging the structures and powers that help create and enable the contexts in which persecution takes place?
Many Arab Christians have a long-standing and complex sense of lack of belonging within the geographical areas that have been their home for nearly 2000 years, a sense we are referring to as ‘minoritisation’. Minoritisation has been described as being of two distinct varieties: ‘passive’ or ‘active’. Passive minoritisation refers to the process whereby a group chooses to define itself, often on ethical grounds, in opposition and contrast to a perceived social majority. Active minoritisation, on the other hand, takes place when a leading political force views anyone opposing its policies as traitors and unworthy of being part of the national fabric. In many respects, the church in the Middle East has suffered the consequences of both active —or forced — minoritisation as well as passive — or self-enforced — minoritisation. And, this sense of minoritisation has been in many respects crippling with regard to the witness and mission of the Middle Eastern church in the region. As such:
- Is there a way to reframe the conversation about the place and role of Arab Christians in the Middle East?
- Are we condemned always to consider Muslims as our ‘enemies’, or at least as those wholly ‘other’ among whom we will never really belong? What parallels might be drawn between Christians in the Middle East and Muslims currently living within countries belonging to ‘western civilization’ who might feel threatened or under scrutiny because of their religion?
- Is a paradigm shift possible that may help Christians in the Middle East view themselves once more as active and significant contributors to the building and development of the societies in which they live?
Based on the above definitions of ‘minority’, we wish to explore the possibility that an alternate paradigm in self-perception might exist towards which the Middle Eastern church must work — as a new starting point for missional thinking within our context. If Arab Christians begin to reject ‘minoritisation,’ imposed on them both by those who mean them well and want to ‘protect’ them from the outside, as well as by those who mean them harm by wanting to make them feel as outsiders to the region, it is hoped that they may begin to reintegrate as an essential part of the social fabric of the Middle East.
Hopelessness and Despair
Throughout the Biblical narrative we hear many examples of people expressing lament, mourning, hopelessness and despair in the face of a wide range of adversities. To be human is to experience such pain. The message of redemption provides us with a broader perspective, one that has the potential to re-focus our attention towards the God who values and cares deeply for us. The incarnation — the God with us event — not only acknowledges that God is present in the midst of pain and despair, but that He has the means to save us from it. Therefore:
- What hope is there for Christ-followers, from whatever background, to live counter-cultural lives that display prophetic imagination and live in hope despite the surrounding circumstances?
- What are the ways in which we, as individuals and communities, can move away from despondency towards vibrant and prophetic witness?
- How might we bring others along with us on this journey of redemption?
In parts of the Middle East, the church has been decimated as a result of war, poverty, persecution and hopelessness, which has resulted in large numbers of Christians leaving their homes, either as internally displaced peoples, refugees, asylum seekers or economic migrants. Numerically, the church of the Middle East is in significant decline as more and more Christians leave the region for a variety of reasons. And yet at the same time in other parts of the region, the church seems to be growing as a result of migration, albeit often as a result of forced movement stemming from armed conflict. While recognising the vital distinction between forced displacement and economic migration, MEC 2017 will address questions concerning some of the underlying causes for why individuals and communities leave their homelands:
- Where does a sense of God’s calling fit into the decision making process of those contemplating leaving their homelands, albeit for a variety of reasons?
- What Biblical and theological frameworks could help the regional Body of Christ determine how it should respond in the face of adversity if there is the potential for emigration?
- To what extent is the particular circumstance being faced significant in determining whether one should remain or leave their homeland?
The truth is that there cannot be one simple answer for each individual or community in relation to these complex questions. And yet, the church retains the mandate to be a witness in its specific context. Ultimately, what would be the wider implications for the Middle East were the church to cease to exist in the region?
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