This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

What if we never tried to set up a church?

I had a call from Santiago, Bolivia, a couple of evenings ago. We talked about current politics in Bolivia, after the tumultuous public upheaval following the October presidential elections. Evo Morales, the former president who, one way or another could have prevented the mess, is now in exile in Argentina. His party will run again in the next election, the date for which has not been set, but most likely April, May or June.

We also talked about Quakers, though I can’t remember what got us there. Wikipedia says 8 percent of the world’s Quaker population lives in Bolivia, the third largest Quaker population after the U.S. and Kenya. In Bolivia they are primarily Aymara people, one of the larger indigenous populations, introduced to Quakerism by William Abel, a Navajo Quaker.

I know very little about Quakers but I asked someone if the Aymara Quakers in Bolivia are Quakers like he is. He didn’t say, but said my question reminded him of another conversation where someone asked if a certain population of Christians were “Christians like we are.” He was right not to dignify my question beyond that because . . . what was I really asking?

Maybe 10 years ago, I traveled to an indigenous community in Canada and visited, as part of a broader trip, a missionary who lived there for several decades. From what I could tell he had integrated well and invested himself with a lot of discipline. Spoke Cree fluently. Learned to trap and fish. Pretty much a local. I was there only one night and on Sunday morning he asked if I had time to attend his church. I did. It looked like a church. Tiny, but to me it felt like a church. Benches and chairs. A pulpit. The order of the service was pretty much like something I was used to. Singing. Praying. Music. A sermon. But hardly anyone was there.

After all those years. I remember wondering if maybe the problem was that a culturally white blueprint had been replicated in form when, in fact, the essence of a church isn’t ever its form. The form and structure may evolve but it begins with something else. What if he had never tried to set up a church? What if the goal of all his work among them had not been to set up a church that looked like . . . a church? What if he had just lived with them? What if he had just introduced some people to some stories in the Bible, let them think about them, let them interpret the stories within their cultural context . . . and see what happened? And what if we white missionary and church types weren’t so insecure about “our” gospel, so needing to manage how it takes shape in the lives of others? What if we gave it back to the Holy Spirit and let the Holy Spirit speak through our living among the neighbors rather than making the center of our mission work a replication of our interpretations, our symbols, our idea of God and of worship?

A young couple in Alberta, also years ago, gave up pastoring a church because they wanted to work with people on the streets. They had already been “out there,” and had a sense of what they were getting into. But the group they hoped would support their work decided not to because the group didn’t think it would become a church. Right. Most likely not. The young couple had no interest in planting a traditional church. At least, they had no interest in starting with that premise as the target. They just wanted to work with people who live on the streets of their city, responding to a human need. They are still at it. And there is still no “church.”

Mennonite missionaries in Northern Argentina worked with several different indigenous groups. Kathy and I visited them when there was a shortage of food, and I remember them telling me to resist the temptation to ship Mennonite Central Committee food. They said it would not solve anything and most likely make things worse in the long run. MCC would simply become “the next deer to be hunted.”

We learned a little about how the missionaries did their work. They visited the Toba communities, sometimes hosted Bible studies, but allowed the Toba to hear the text and interpret it for themselves. What, for example does a Toba hear in the story of the prodigal son, or the good Samaritan? The birth of a king in a barn? The crucifixion of a messiah? Is it the same things heard by a white person, with centuries of biblical interpretation affected by European and North American history and culture? Probably not. Does God intend for us all to hear a prescribed message? Maybe, but I am pretty sure God intends that message to be understood inside a local context. God’s message is God’s and the Holy Spirit is God everywhere, able to speak into any culture without us being there to manage the message and sometimes to neuter the culture.

Afterward, this couple wrote what had been said and copied it back to the group they’d met as a record of their interpretations. It was a detached approach, but it trusted the Holy Spirit to enable the message of God’s abundant love to be understood inside their own stories. They did not build churches nor, if any groups wanted to build one, did they provide tin, or brick, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t bring in short-term work groups from the north. They allowed the Holy Spirit to raise up a body of Christ, inside their own Toba story. When we were there, already years ago, there were more than 100 church groups.

I believe in institutions. Without them we have chaos. Donald Trump seems to have no regard for institutions and it’s not hard to see the chaos he brings wherever he goes. Like a home to a family, buildings and systems and constitutions and regulations and other structural things are part of what brings stability to government, to the church, to any faith, to any organization, whether secular or religious. But I also think that we “holders” of western Christianity have sometimes managed to undermine the magic of what the Holy Spirit can give life to when we override God with our prescriptions.

In Argentina, they took us to a church service. There was no building. No walls. We sat on the grass under the moon. There were several hours of dancing around the fire. Some of the people, interpreting the breastplate of righteousness, literally wore bibles strapped to their backs. It just all flowed along in a way that would not have fit inside most of our North American concepts of church, but it worked for them.

I still have no idea how the Aymara are Quakers. I’m curious, but beyond that, it doesn’t matter. I hope they are not Quaker like my Quaker friend. I’m sure he hopes that as well. He is not Aymara. They are, and I hope their concept of being Quaker comes out of them being Aymara first.

Abe Janzen lives in Calgary, Alta., attends an Evangelical Mennonite Conference congregation and works with Mennonite Central Committee Alberta. He blogs at Messy Notes, where this post first appeared.

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