Mark Gornik on Learning to Pray with African Christians: Ethnography, Theology and a World of Christianity

8 days ago, President Derek Halvorson, of Covenant Collegetweeted the following:

Looking forward to having @CovenantCollege alum Mark Gornik, author of Word Made Global, on campus next week: 

And with that, I knew that I wanted to attend Gornik’s lecture series this weekend (Thursday night, Friday night, and this morning – Saturday). Of course, other than my reading of Gornik’s book “To Live in Peace” years ago when I took the course “Principles of Community Development” as a sophomore at Covenant College, I had no idea what to expect from this particular course, nor did I have any time to prepare.

Since his time living and working in Sandtown among residents in this poor area of Baltimore and helping to start New Song Urban Ministries, Gornik left to live and study in New York City, and start the City Seminary of New York. He subsequently did his doctorate thesis on African Christianity in NYC, eventually focusing on three churches.  This was a work of ethnography, a work of learning from African Christians who now live in NYC, learning their theology, and learning how they worship.  Gornik’s doctorate thesis was then turned into the book Word Made Global: Stories of African Christianity in New York City.

Gornik’s lecture series at Covenant this weekend partly reflected his doctorate thesis and book.

First, let me get it out of the way that I’m very glad I attended. It was free and open to the public, and although I wasn’t familiar with the book, nor did I really understand what the lecture was going to be about, the title of the course really intrigued me. I knew that Gornik has spent a lot of time thinking about (and living) intentionally with believers in an urban setting.

But this lecture and his work went way beyond his work and interaction in Sandtown, Maryland.

As Gornik spoke, I realized that here was a man who had devoted himself to anthropology work, learning about different cultures worldwide (and for his particular doctorate thesis, learning about African Christianity in NYC). He has spent time in Africa, Asia, and Central America also learning about Christian communities.

Gornik spoke from experience that in theology and worship, one size does not fit all. Time and time again, he pointed out that worship is by nature a representation of a culture. Each individual Christian has a particular story, and each community has a particular story that is unique.

Gornik concludes that we must be incredibly humble and cautious when we think about critiquing another Christian style of worship or theology. Certainly, all Christians share the same basic tenants of the faith (e.g. that humans are sinful and as a result that Jesus Christ died – and more importantly, rose – to save us from our sins). Despite these core truths, Christians worldwide (not to mention in just North America) have distinct theologies.

For example, while the Reformed (think Presbyterian) tradition formally believes that no human is without excuse to know God as a result of Creation (general revelation), it is also held that no one can be saved apart from Scripture. On the other hand, a different tradition (such as the Pentecostal movement) might believe that God works in wondrous ways to reveal himself to others, and that people can be saved apart from Scripture. (This is just an example, mind you – I have not explicitly stated what I personally do or do not believe).

So Gornik’s argument is that a Christian theology on which an individual or community holds is directly affected by that individual’s or community’s history and cultural context.

I thought a lot about Bryant Myers, who has similar thoughts to Gornik’s conclusions. Myers writes about theology in Christian Community Development at the beginning of Chapter 2 of Walking With The Poor:

…The development process is a convergence of stories. The story of the development practitioner is converging with the story of the community and together they will share a new story for a while. Because the development promoter is a Christian and because God has been active in the community since the beginning of time, the biblical story is the third story in this confluence of stories. This brings the development practitioner back to theology and the biblical account.

One of my favorite quotes, which affirms this idea, is by Duane Elmer, another Christian Community Development practitioner:

Love is culturally defined. When we truly love others, we love them in their own context, in keeping with the way they define love. We can’t express love in a vacuum. It can be expressed egocentrically (my way) or sociocentrically (as the other person would define love).

I whole heartily agree with Gornik, Myers and Elmer. We must be incredibly careful (and humble) in our critique of Christianity in other cultural contexts, which we may not completely understand.

Certainly the core foundations of our faith are essential. For the non-essentials (to salvation) however, it is better to err on the side of love, acceptance, and mutuality rather than pointing fingers and saying “you’re wrong, I’m right.”


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