We often talk about people going through radical periods of reflection. While this process stereotypically occurs at midlife, almost everyone will, at some time, be prompted to analyze their life as it currently stands and to ask thought-provoking questions about its direction and purpose. For many, what may at first seem like an unsettling shift in perspective later leads to a deeper sense of identity and purpose. Transition inspires contemplation, which inspires growth.
In recent years, the Brethren in Christ Church has experienced significant transition, from a movement based in North America to a global body of almost 160,000 members. This has led us to engage in a deep inquiry into our identity, exploring what it means to be an international community of believers and what it means to follow the Great Commission.
Hearing the call from outside North America
For many years, the North America BIC Church envisioned missions as primarily the sending out of workers in response to the Great Commission. In its initial concept, resources flowed mostly in one direction, with the North American Church providing the funds and people to share the Good News in other nations. These early efforts produced many positive results, and by 1987, the number of BIC attendees outside of North America outnumbered those within it.
Then, nearly 10 years ago, leaders from BIC Churches in Africa shared a prophetic word with the global BIC community. Thuma Hamukang’andu, bishop of the BIC Church in Zambia, and Danisa Ndlovu, bishop of the BIC Church in Zimbabwe, had discerned that the time had come to extend the table and embrace a strategy that would more formally incorporate all National BIC Churches and leaders, creating a setting where the needs of the global Church could be addressed. While in earlier years, BIC World Missions served as a link, this new approach would facilitate direct leader-to-leader, Church-to-Church engagement and create an avenue for the exchange of ideas, best practices, and resources.
Leaders around the world heard the call and joined in the response. As a result, the International Brethren in Christ Association (IBICA) was initially launched in 2006 at an international gathering in California, with an even broader assembly endorsing a constitution and bylaws in 2009 in Paraguay.
The formation of IBICA has challenged the BIC Church in North America to examine our worldview and to expand it. A global network of mature Churches exists, ready to be not only next-door neighbors, but also sisters and brothers in Christ, seeking ways to be mutually engaged and supportive.
We celebrate the outcome of faithful ministry among BIC workers in previous decades. And now, we have the opportunity to shift paradigms and more intentionally relate to other National Churches around the world as peers and partners.
In 2010, the late Felix Curbelo, treasurer of the BIC Church in Cuba, described the potential for this transformation: “After 50 years of working with the BIC, we have never had an idea like the one we’re working with now. We’re creating an international link to benefit every community and nation by being united in international communion.”
A new relationship for BIC in Canada and the U.S.
Within this context of deepening global relationships, the BIC Church in North America is in the midst of a parallel shift. This summer, the Canadian Conference and the General Conference of North America passed a resolution to affirm two distinct, BIC National Conferences, one in the U.S. and one in Canada. The historically close relationship between the Church in Canada and the U.S. that had fueled the binational North American General Conference is entering a different chapter.
Like any transition, this change has evoked contemplation—widespread affirmation, as well as sadness and concern. Some wonder, How can the Church in Canada and the U.S. continue to embrace a relationship that transcends national borders? How do we continue collaboration and partnership? In a fractured world, how do we bear witness to the truth that national borders unnecessarily divide us, that we are one in Christ?
The response to these valid concerns and aspirations is not to narrow our perspective to center on North America, but rather to broaden our focus and look to the new global reality. The worldwide BIC family consists of believers in over 30 nations, and the vision expressed by IBICA is “one country, one Church.” This principle affirms the validity of each Church existing as a distinct, national entity, while also embracing the importance of being the “Church Universal” or a global ecclesial community.
The issue no longer is, How do two nations express community? Instead, the question has become, Can we catch the vision of what the IBICA represents and the opportunity it provides for us all—to be in mutually transforming, compassionate, and missional relationships? Are we ready to willingly invest our resources in Church-to-Church partnerships and celebrate this new global context? I pray that we are!
Gifts for the whole body
Revelation 7:9 offers a beautiful vision of global community: “[. . . A]nd there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language.” Many people interpret this Scripture to describe the Church as it will exist in the future. Yet this kind of worldwide fellowship is not just something we anticipate in the fullness of God’s kingdom; we are increasingly experiencing it now.
The New Testament also proclaims that the body of Christ has been given gifts to steward and share, in order that the whole body might function well and be built up (1 Corinthians 12). We often think of this passage as it relates to individuals. While this is a helpful lens for this passage, I do not think it is inappropriate to extend this to larger communities of faith. Various churches have been given gifts that can be stewarded and shared so that the whole body of Christ, the Universal Church, might function as God intended.
This broader interpretation allows us to better grasp the need for forming relationships across the wider Church. We need to focus on expressing true interdependency based on the sharing of the gifts God has given to us. The Church in North America needs the gifts of the Church in Asia; the Church in South America needs the gifts of the Church in Europe; the Church in Africa needs the gifts of the Church in Central America.
This type of dynamic community is increasingly made possible for the BIC, in large part, through the IBICA. Our perspective is not shrinking as a result of the recent transitions and paradigm shifts, but rather, we are more fully realizing the Brethren in Christ’s mature identity as a global Church of about 1,900 ministry sites and 160,000 people meeting in over 30 nations. We are now getting a taste of what the “great multitude that no one could count” described in Revelation looks like.