Word Made Flesh Bolivia, in partnership with The Mission Society, hosted a national mission conference for 135 pastors, missionaries and church leaders, representing 95 congregations from throughout the country; some had traveled over 24 hours by bus to arrive. In a successful and challenging time together, we confronted realities within Bolivia and beyond our borders.
Monday morning, the group huddled into the conference room for our first full day. We sat in rows with our puffy coats, as the temperature outside had barely climbed above freezing. Missiologist, Dr. Darrell Whiteman, began with what appeared to be a safe-enough doctrine: the incarnation. For those of us who have spent decades warming pews, we were plenty familiar with the idea of God becoming man to reach man. Whiteman however, explained that the incarnation was a model to follow. Just as God adopted the Jewish customs and limits to show us His love and truth, we were to take on the customs and limits of those around us to show God’s love and truth.
The idea of eating, dressing and talking like those outside our door was a new idea for us, to say the least. Over the following three days, Dr. Whiteman and Dr. Denny Heiberg continued to challenge our preconceptions and give us the tools to begin to “incarnate.” As a group, we brainstormed social groups in our midst that we’ve mostly ignored as a church. The list sprawled across the whiteboard: “street performers, the LGBT community, members of the military, shamans, ex-inmates…” The idea of reaching our neighbors had become quite real.
As we grappled to rediscover the meaning of the gospel (the “naked gospel” as we called it), many reflected on the rules that had replaced it. One man commented, “We always taught that the dances of the Jews were holy, and that our traditional dances were evil.” Another shared of his frustration that young men who found the courage to enter a church were often rejected and told their baggy, low-hanging pants were “unbiblical.” One young woman teared up, recognizing the oppressive set of guilt-inflicting rules over her own life.
This wasn’t a pursuit of liberation in and of itself, it was God freeing us as He showed us His plan to restore and transform our cultures (and our neighbor’s cultures). His plan was not to belittle or condemn culture. It occurred to me that this was what Jesus wanted to show us all along, but we too were much like the teachers of the law to really listen. And the false beliefs and prejudices that had clouded our view of the gospel could only be changed through years of discipleship, Heiberg explained.
After the last day’s meal, we rolled up our sleeping bags and climbed onto the buses to head home. The dry, mountainous landscape rolled by on the road back to La Paz. The areas to change in my life seemed endless, and I repented for my carelessness in my interactions with others previously. The power to change would have to come from God and from the refining process of community. And more than anything, I wanted to share it with others. I quickly identified with a comment on one man’s conference evaluation: “My only complaint is that I didn’t bring my wife!”