Context is Everything - lessons from Nepal
Peter McDowell is our new Lecturer in Missiology, so he took a moment out of his preparing for teaching for us to ask him a few questions.
So how are you?
I'm good, it’s good to be here. It feels like my wife and I have done a lot of different things in a lot of different places, but at each point we look at what’s coming next. For me, teaching has always been a vocation. I like sharing with groups, and helping people (and myself) learn, grow and develop. So this feels like something I've been working towards for quite a while.
Name one key lesson God has been teaching you?
Nothing is wasted. Even if you've been doing something for a few years and then find God leading you somewhere else, it’s not wasted. God will use your experiences and lead you all the way through it. The other lesson I'm still learning is trust. No matter what happens I feel trust is something you need to learn, and constantly relearn, as you face new situations. But each new challenge to trust God is built on the previous experiences.
Tell us about your time in Nepal.
Well, I went as a young man, full of ideas and I was quite dogmatic in my approach as an evangelical Christian. And I suppose the question that I was carrying was 'is this really real?' - is the gospel going to make a difference to people I've never encountered, does the Gospel work among the poorest of the poor? I remember one evening in a village where people were desperately poor. The children were all malnourished and at night we could hear them crying because they were cold and had no blankets. I was struggling to understand what saying ‘Jesus is the answer’ would mean to these people. I asked a local who had become a Christian, what difference has it made in their lives. He told me that the gods they had worshipped were capricious, always having to be appeased, and that they were afraid of them. Now, he said, we have a God who is on our side, and that makes a difference. The new hope for life led the village into various development activities that began to change things. That was an expansion of the Gospel for me, it was bigger than I thought and more powerful. So, the good news of what God does in us starts now, it is not just in about a life after death but is also about poverty, justice, and day to day transformation.
Then you came home to study theology.
I came home to train for the Presbyterian ministry, part of which involved studying theology. My experience in Nepal had strengthened my interest in how the Gospel relates to all different contexts. I love diversity; the diversity of different cultures and experiences, and even of different theological perspectives. Diversity provides potential for new experiences, perspectives and for learning. There's so much creativity in being challenged to think through our perspectives carefully as we learn and grow. So I'm looking forward to the diversity in the classroom as we all seek to deepen our faith. Having lived outside of Northern Ireland and through experience of ministry both here and in the Republic I have become acutely aware of how the history and legacy of the past has shaped our whole understanding and expression of faith. The fact that we are a divided society is the most significant contextual issue for the Church here.
What’s one thing you've noticed in the Church that has encouraged you?
I've noticed how the culture here is changing, and I'm encouraged when I see the Church
is engaging with the new culture that’s emerging. Unfortunately the Church’s response to the new culture is often 'it’s all wrong, no change is needed'. But I am excited when I see creative engagement with this new culture. The church in Nepal is unique and distinctive, yet very clearly a Christ centred church. It has arisen out of the engagement between the gospel and Nepali culture. What is going to emerge out of the missionary encounter between the gospel and the emerging culture in the west, and in Ireland in particular?
So now Peter, what’s the one thing you're looking forward to imparting to your students?
I would say that I want to impart a sense of the adventure of following Christ. You don't know where this life is going to go. It’s going to challenge you and you'll come across things that will stretch your faith and intellect in every way. Don't be afraid of the challenges. Embrace them and you will find that he will walk with you through it all. It comes right back to trust. Take risks and don't be afraid of the challenges.