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Blog – Day 2

The main thought from Day 2 of the conference is the value of the question times and between session conversations.  These are the things you pay the money for – not just to hear the content of the papers (which frankly, would be easier to digest in a book), but to confer with others.  After all, that’s what a confer-ence is all about.

I was thinking today also about what a privilege it is (and gift of grace from others) to have the conference in English.  For other delegates for whom English is their second (or third, fourth or fifth) language, to engage in heady academic discussion with native English speakers is an additional challenge.  I can speak English, Australian and a bit of New Zealandish.  But that doesn’t seem to be as impressive as my friend from Norway who speaks Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, German, Estonian and English.

Here’s a brief run-down of the papers.

Started with Dr. R. Simangaliso Khumalo, head of the Social Theology Department of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.  His title was, “Social Cohesion and Social Development. An African Challenge to Youth Ministry: Towards a transformation-centred approach to youth ministry.”  Quite a mouthful.  His starting observation was that in spite of the fact that Africans are more religious than other continents Africa has the biggest problems – AIDS, government instability, poverty despite vast mineral resources.  He posed the question, are we so afflicted because we are so religious? Or so religious because we are so afflicted?  His main thesis was that youth ministry needs to be more holistic; involved in community development rather than diverting attention to ‘heavenly issues’ and ‘narrow ecclesial concerns’.

What was striking about this paper was the enormous challenge of the South African context.  These brothers and sisters are wrestling with problems that are not on the radar for those of us in suburban Australia.  The question of how political our faith should be is much more prominent here than at home.  And yet, the sorts of social problems Africa faces are not entirely unknown in Australia – they’re just something we conveniently choose to ignore.  Indigenous ministry both in urban and remote areas presents the same issues.  So too ministry in areas of chronic generational unemployment.  As we seek to engage our world with the gospel of Jesus we need to remember that politics are a central part of that world.  Australians are generally cynical about politics – not a necessary evil, just a necessary but mostly irrelevant hindrance to life. Not really what Paul was advocating in Romans 13 and 1 Timothy 2.

Khumalo spoke of the need for Africa to develop ‘a theology cooked in an African pot’; a truly contextualized African theology.  This left me perturbed.  Not because I don’t want Africans to reflect theologically on Scripture as Africans in light of and service of the challenges that Africa faces.  But because I want us in Australia to have our theology strengthened, challenged, shaped etc by the reflections of our African brothers; and that their theology would in turn by shaped by the theological reflections of Australians. 

Ironically, we had just started the day by reading from 1 Corinthians 12 – if we are one body and truly a world-wide catholic church our hope is not for an African theology, Australian theology, European theology – but a mutually enriched theology from our respective experiences as Africans, Australians and Europeans etc.

The afternoon paper was from Reginald Blout, an African American from the US, speaking on ‘Toward Wholemaking: the power of voices in the faith formation of black youth’.  This session was live video streamed online and so along with one of the students from Youthworks College back in Sydney there were people from across the world listening in and engaging with the presentation.

Unfortunately the presentation was not much of a presentation.  Don’t get me wrong, the content was really interesting and had some very important and helpful ideas.  The problem was we sat while someone read out a fairly wordy academic paper, word for word.  As a learning strategy this is a dud.  There’s been a hiccup in the advance distribution of papers for the conference.  Notwithstanding that though, even if we’d had the paper distributed when we walked in the room and were given 15 minutes to read over it individually and then engage in discussion about the key themes it would have been a more productive learning opportunity.  I’m very much looking forward to getting a copy of the full text and taking time to work through it again.

The idea of ‘double consciousness’ in African Americans was key – quoting an American sociologist: African Americans live in two worlds – being African, and being American; which produces a double consciousness, two warring ideals within the one body, not wanting to give away either identity but uncertain how to live out of both identities.  Not only is that idea relevant for African American youth, but for all young people grappling with multiple identities and who are left ‘always measuring themselves by the tape of a world that looks on with amused contempt and pity’.

The paper concentrated on the power of ‘voices’ of others, the socializing forces of other people and our culture that determine who we are.  Our identity comes from the conversation between these external voices (from past and present) and our own inner speech.  The question comes, who do we choose to listen to more?

Blout’s goal was ‘wholemaking’ the process necessary for people to move from brokenness and achieve community.  This prompted a very engaging discussion on whether ‘wholeness’ is indeed the goal of Christian ministry; or whether our goal is to help people in their brokenness recognize the presence of Christ?  Two thoughts on this: one is that we need to distinguish a social/personal ‘brokenness’ of disadvantage, exclusion and loss of identity, with a theological brokenness of ‘a humble and contrite spirit’ which the Lord will not despise (Psa 51).  And secondly we need to recognize an eschatological wholeness that is promised but not yet realized, and a spiritual wholeness that is promised and present.

Thinking eschatologically will also help us recognize the proper place of the church in this age – our voice cannot be the voice of freedom that will make young people whole; it is only the voice of God that will transform and recreate us (see Isa 55:10-13, Hosea 2:23).  Our words need to be shaped by that word to be words full of grace, truth and hope.  And we must take every opportunity to help young people hear the story of Scripture and so hear the voice of God.

One final note on day 2 of the conference – I got elected to the executive board of the association.  It’s a bit daunting to sit with a group of highly gifted and intelligent people; but a great privilege and opportunity to promote the academic reflection on youth ministry in Australia and to help Youthworks College engage more fully in the global conversation.  

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