Book Review: Churching the Diaspora, Discipling the Families

Churching the Diaspora, Discipling the Families
By Rt. Rev. Dr. Geevarghese Mar Theodosius; Published by CSS, Tiruvalla, 2013

After scholars and creative persons become bishops, they seldom have the time or energy to read, let alone write, books. Rt. Rev. Dr. Geevarghese Mar Theodosius is, obviously, an exception to this rule. Though his diocese spreads over two continents necessitating him to be on the move for at least a half of every month, he finds the time for scholarly pursuits. The book, Churching the Diaspora, Discipling the Families is the latest example of the creative thinking of this scholar-bishop.

In this book, Mar Theodosius deals with a topic – human migration and the challenges of this for the Christian Diasporic communities – that is of utmost relevance in our times. He reminds us that it is important to rethink our understanding of the migration process, to understand new forms of mobility and integration, particularly when people live in the midst of transnational communities with multiple identities. As a bishop of the Mar Thoma Church (MTC), he specifically addresses the challenges before his own Church. His concern in the book is to find ways to respond to the imminent questions of how to set the goal of reaching out to the Marthomites in order to equip them to adhere to the positive aspects of their tradition and culture even as they live in a different geographical and cultural context.

The book is in four parts. The first part entitled, “Texting the Text”, consists of two chapters that discuss the theoretical and theological understanding of migration. This section also provides a historical sketch of migration that is traced back to the Jewish exile caused by Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian emperor in 586 BCE which is considered the “prototype diasporic experience” (Page 47). The three chapters in Part Two address the process of “Mapping Migrants and Modules of Ministry”. Discussed here are the pastoral ministry of MTC and the challenges of shepherding Christian congregations in the complex context of the Diaspora. In particular, the author notes the need to understand the “New Generation Christians”, and the challenges involved in addressing their specific situation. Part Three deals with, “Discipling the Families in Faith” and discusses families, an often neglected sector in the midst of the busy lives of modern society, and also, the serious challenges this situation poses on them. In particular, Mar Theodosius focuses on the needs of a growing number of senior citizens who are often needed for “babysitting” alone in the families (105). The last section, “Churching the Communities in Context” has three chapters that reflect the author’s deep concern for mission in a diverse and complex world. Elaborated here, especially in the context of the Diaspora, is the reality that mission in the world is closely linked to the nature of the Church.

Some distinct features of the book need to be highlighted:

  1. Bishop Theodosius does not hesitate to admonish the Church for failing to adequately recognize her mission outside the four walls of the Church. He cautions: “The Church cannot remain introverted, isolated or insulated from the rest of the world… The Church can be the light of the world and the salt of the earth only by responding to the needs, concerns and interests of those in the world, offering freedom from the powers of darkness and redemption from the possibility of disintegration” (111). While discussing the role of the ordained minister, he affirms that the pastoral task is to be a “minister to the whole world” even as the pastor’s specific task is shepherding the given flock (84). He quotes the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, to say that a “Christ-heeding life changes the Church and a Christ-heeding church changes the world” (96). Especially in the context of the individualistic and capitalist culture of the western world, his message of the communitarian mission of the Church is most relevant.
  2. The author breaks with his fellow ecclesiastical leaders of India and addresses some of the topics that are generally considered taboo by the Indian society. In particular, he notes the need for the Church to be sensitive to the situation of Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Trans-gender (LGBT) communities (96). While discussions on LGBT communities were generally considered to be the agenda of the western churches, as the second and third generation Indian immigrants take root in the west, these issues are increasingly becomingly relevant to them also. The writer’s concern that the mission of the Church should extend to include the LGBT communities also, therefore, is a timely message.

He also recognizes the need for “the church to be open to grasp the challenges and be available      to render a relevant shepherding ministry” (129) to “cyber children” and others in the virtual world. As the diaspora consciousness transcends “the fundamental claims of nation-state where one’s identity is determined based on one’s own affiliation to a particular territory, land or culture” (Quoted, 61), the church’s identity and mission need to represent “meaningful identities” in the rapidly changing contexts.

  1. As an ecclesiastical leader deeply rooted in the mission-tradition of the Mar Thoma

Church, Mar Theodosius challenges the popular notion that his church is an ethnic church. While the overwhelming majority of the members of the Church are indeed, Christians of Kerala origin, he affirms that for over a century MTC has reached out to people beyond its own geographical and cultural comfort zones. In this context, he warns against a certain clannishness that seems to be growing even in the globalized context: “When a community withdraws itself and lives like a caste or communitarian group, they are making the Church insulated and isolated and thereby taking away from the spirit of reformation” (141).

While Bishop Theodosius is certainly not the first bishop to affirm the mission of the Church in the world, this book stands out as an attempt to interpret the meaning of the gospel in the rapidly changing context of the diaspora. For the increasing number of Indian Christians who are growing up in the west and are caught between the traditions and cultures that their heritage represents and the pluralistic and secularized context of the local society, his message is most relevant. As the author puts it, “(the) modern challenge is not to re-read the history but to re-form the church by redefining the boundaries without losing the core-values of the Kingdom of God and renewing the vision without neglecting the insights provided by the Holy Spirit” (75).

The significance of this book is that it makes a unique contribution to helping us understand the imperative link between the heritage of the Marthomites and their current globalized context. More specifically, Bishop Theodosius points to how the positive values of the ancestral faith and values of his people can translate in order to address the challenges of the west so that these values become intertwined with the local cultures and practices, leading to the evolution of a synthesized tradition relevant for our times. The book is a fine example of the depth of the author’s reading that covers not only Christian literature but also current academic discussions on migration, locality and the evolution of Diasporic communities. A comprehensive Foreword by the author sums up the main focus of the book. This book will surely be an asset to students and researchers of migration and Diaspora communities. Hopefully, the book will also be studied carefully in the local congregations. The addition of an Index will surely make reference work easier.

~ JMA

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