If I’m honest, this UN23 Conference on the theme of ‘The Peace-building Imperative’ totally undid me. By the end of it I felt not only deeply inspired and challenged, but also unravelled! Others who attended the conference have written to say the same kind of thing.
The recurring theme throughout the conference was that in our rebellious, hostile and deeply divided world, the church is to be God’s instrument of reconciliation in the face of endemic racism, conflict and separation from God. True healing and reconciliation can only come through gospel-centred approaches. But as speaker after speaker reiterated, we as God’s people need to individually and corporately address our own divisive and racist attitudes and polluted worldviews before we can be peace-builders who reflect God’s ways and character to our broken world.
At the close of the conference, I knew that what I had been part of was profoundly significant in God’s scheme of things, and that we will look back on this time together as one that was defining and deeply transformational, both individually and corporately. Holy Spirit was divinely at work revealing our blind spots, casting vision and giving us joy as participants from different nations and cultural backgrounds taught, shared stories and prayed and worshipped together, creating a deep richness and depth to all that was shared.
Jesus searches for his bride from amongst all peoples
Andy McCullough, leader of the Unreached Network started by taking us through the story of Jesus and the woman at the well told in John Chapter 4. If you think you know this familiar story and have it sewn up in terms of the lessons we can learn from it, then think again! Andy shared a radical, fresh take on it, proposing that what Jesus was actually talking about with this Samaritan woman was not her sexual or marital history, but rather about Samaria, and its history of being colonised and oppressed. Jesus is searching for his bride, and we see that this is to include the despised Samaritans, with all their history of brokenness. You can listen to this hugely insightful talk here
“To be prophetic is to care about injustice. We have to talk about the things that hurt us. Silence is a great way of maintaining the status quo.” (Andy McCullough)
The Church in need of reconciliation and unity
The whole conference felt like a prophetic call from the heart of God to our family of Newfrontiers churches. Owen Hylton is pastor of Beacon Church in Brixton, London and author of Crossing The Divide: A Call To Embrace Diversity. His keynote address on Reconciliation as the Way to Unity: The Reconciled Church was deeply weighty and challenging, and deserves, no, needs to be shared more widely through the different spheres of Newfrontiers.
In particular, Owen opened up the issue of deeply entrenched racism, prejudice and discrimination inside and outside of the church. Speaking from John 17:20-23, Owen proposed that “Unity has to be fought for and won through humility, repentance and forgiveness. Reconciliation means we have to put things right…we can only do this through the gospel. Gospel-centred reconciliation.”
As Owen said, “The challenge of Newfrontiers is that we think we’ve got things sewn up, but we haven’t. Reconciliation is the next generational thing that we need to engage with.” This was a message that was reiterated by speaker after speaker.
“Who would have thought that the death of a man in Minneapolis would expose stuff in the church in the UK and other places?…The death of George Floyd…exposed the reality of a church that our theology of race and reconciliation, church and diversity…was insufficiently robust to handle what happened.” (Owen Hylton)
During the stimulating panel discussion, Fusi Mukoena observed “We put the speaker of the gospel louder than anything else and we gloss over racism.” Angela Kemm agreed, “There’s no good getting people saved but they don’t get on with each other.”
Owen’s talk is a ‘must to listen to’, and you can do so here. In his deeply moving talk, one church leader candidly admitted that as an Armenian, he grew up with hatred and bitterness towards Turkish people because of the Armenian genocide. “It was hard for me to go to Turkey for the first Unreached Network conference. I had to fast and pray….When I went there I thought, ‘Are these real Christians? Are they just trying to get funds from the West?’ But when I met the [Turkish] brothers, I fell in love with them. I found we had so much in common.”
The heart desire of God
In his keynote address, our last speaker. spoke candidly of the challenges he faced as the leader of a church in a Middle-Eastern nation that has experienced a large growth in the number of refugees from other nations. The church was nearly torn apart by jealousy, resentment and prejudice. It was uplifting to learn how it came to a place of greater oneness and unity as this brother patiently taught from God’s word and emphasised the richness that comes from difference, diversity and unity. “I believe unity amongst the nations is the heart desire of God”, he said. “When a father’s children are fighting, you are so sad, and you want them to love each other as he loves them. This is how God feels…Now it is for the church to express this, champion this and to make it a priority. This unity will be the miracle that will bring unity to the Middle East and that the world desires.”
The Church as an Agent of Reconciliation
One of the greatest joys of the conference was hearing story after story of how, in spite of our imperfections and struggles as his people, God is wonderfully using many in Newfrontiers to plant churches, and to help draw people of different ethnicities into a reconciled relationship with him through appropriately contextualised and sensitively shared gospel witness and loving relationship-building.
From weeping to a wedding
For instance, who could forget our Turkish brother’s inspiring story of how he and members of his church have been faithfully loving and serving the victims of the earthquake in Turkiye to the point where hope is being restored and hearts that were previously resistant to the gospel are now increasingly open? Or of how they were able to organise and pay for the wedding of a Muslim couple affected by the earthquake, and host a joy-filled wedding feast for hundreds of people? How prophetic is that?! Even high-level governors of the region are recognising that ‘Through the church there is hope,’ and a team from Smyrna is going to Antioch to plant a new church. Praise God!
Lost and found
Or what about the story of the Gujarati woman in Bradford, UK who runs a corner shop? Our friend shared how she is now meeting with her to read the Bible in Gujarati and Hindi. The woman lost her bangle, but was overjoyed to find it after praying. Upon asking her which God she prayed to, the woman told her that she had prayed to ‘The God of the Bible!’
There were many more inspiring stories of God at work in different nations and of those at the cutting edge who are faithfully serving as God’s peacemakers in circumstances of extreme danger and persecution – such as those movingly described by our brothers in Bangalore, India and another who shared about the plight of the churches and people in Sudan.
Is Jesus worthy?
It was a seasoned mission worker in a North-African nation who cut to the quick with the following question:
“Is Jesus worthy of giving up your comfort, your ease and your family to make his name known? Yes or no?”
I’ll leave you to answer that one.
We hope you enjoyed this brief insight into Unreached23: The Peacebuilding Imperative.