‘What’s in it for me?’ is not the right question
by Dennis A. Smith, World Mission regional liaison for South America | Special to Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — Presbyterians do mission in partnership, and those partnerships are lived out in the real world — a world of complexity, nuance and contradiction.
Nearly 60 Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission partners met in Cartagena, Colombia, last month for a consultation hosted by Presbyterian World Mission. Ecumenical leaders from Latin America and the Caribbean led participants in reflection on the current signs of the times.
Rev. Dr. Darío Barolín, a Waldensian pastor from Argentina who serves as executive secretary of the Alliance of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches of Latin America, focused on the challenges Latin American churches face today.
“Increasingly,” Barolín said, “we live in a utilitarian world. In our economic relationships and in our communities, before we build relationships with other groups, we ask ourselves ‘What’s in it for me?’ Many of our churches in Latin America are relatively small. They have financial challenges and feel like they are in survival mode. How easy it is to forget that working together for the common good with all people of goodwill is not optional — it is the very essence of the gospel.
“The same thing happens in our relationship with the state. We see some religious institutions today are not concerned with seeking the common good but with advancing partisan agendas. For example, some groups defend a very traditional, patriarchal view of the family, while choosing to ignore the many models and expressions of family that we find in the Bible. Others defend the policies of the current government of Israel, as if it were the biblical ‘promised land.’ In such cases, our churches end up supporting partisan political projects that do not seek well-being for all. Such utilitarian projects run the risk of emptying the name of Jesus Christ of any real meaning.
“The moment in which we live,” he said, “demands careful theological reflection, not partisan slogans. The economic and political system in which we live actively excludes many people and imposes suffering on them — women, the poor, people of color, sexual minorities — and our churches must never forget that our theological reflection and pastoral practice must be grounded in the suffering of our people.
“Our difficulty as pastors and church leaders is that we have been trained to dissociate our Sunday sermons from this suffering. We forget that they demand salvation every day. Our problem is that we were trained to see our theology and pastoral practice as a function of our economic system and not vice versa. But if the suffering of our people can inform our faith, we can hear the call as pastors to accompany our people in their suffering.
“We can’t separate our understanding of salvation from our understanding of the reality of sin in our world. Justice is not a manifestation of our justification as believers; being justified by faith means we will practice justice. This is what conversion means! There can be no artificial separation between the proclamation of God’s world and or prophetic and diaconal ministries. Jesus calls us to accompany and serve those who suffer. If proclamation and service in the name of Jesus do not exist together, we have neither.”
Dennis Smith is World Mission’s regional liaison for South America. Based in Buenos Aires, he works with 16 mission partners from Colombia to Argentina.
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