Janel Kragt Bakker received a 2008 Dissertation Fellowship award for her project Encountering the Church in the Global South: Sister Congregation Relationships and Their Impact on Parishioners in Select Washington, D.C. Area Churches. Janel shares with us about her book Sister Churches: American Congregations and Their Partners Abroad (Oxford University Press, 2013).
LI: Tell us about yourself and your current work.
JKB: I am associate director of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research on the campus of Saint John’s University in Minnesota, where I help the Collegeville Institute further its mission to discern the meaning of Christian identity and unity in a religiously and culturally diverse world. Prior to joining the Institute staff, I earned a doctorate in religion and culture at the Catholic University of America and completed a post-doctoral fellowship at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.
LI: What core question/concern guided your research project?
JKB: While much attention has been given to the rise of Christianity in the global South, we’ve seen little research on how shifts in the landscape of global Christianity have affected relationships between Christians in the North and South. I sensed that a study of sister church relationships, which have proliferated over the last generation, would help elucidate changes in mission and engagement among Christians from around the world.
What would you like us to know about your book Sister Churches: American Congregations and Their Partners Abroad?
JKB: The growth of Christianity in the global South and the fall of colonialism in the middle of the twentieth century caused a crisis in Christian mission, as many southern Christians spoke out about indignities they had suffered and many northern Christians retreated from the global South. American Christians soon began looking for a fresh start, a path forward that was neither isolationist nor domineering. Out of this dream the sister church model of mission was born. Rather than western churches sending representatives into the “mission field,” they established congregation-to-congregation partnerships with churches in the global South.
Sister Churches profiles American Christians’ relationships with their counterparts in the global South through congregational partnerships. The book combines ethnographic case study with historical research on the sister church model of mission as it is embedded in specific contexts. Since the 1980s, sister church relationships have become increasingly common as congregations from different regions of the world partner with each other for the sake of mutual ministry and solidarity. The model eschews one-directional flows of resources from “mother” to “daughter” churches by blurring the lines between senders and receivers. Focusing on the attitudes and experiences of Roman Catholics, mainline Presbyterians, evangelical Anglicans, and African-American Baptists from twelve congregations in the Washington, D.C. area, Sister Churches describes how these northern Christians related to their counterparts in the Southern Hemisphere.
The “sending” model of mission that has long-dominated American Christians’ international activities is still alive and well in many corners of American congregational life… and sister church relationships have not escaped the hazards of this approach. Cultural barriers, disparities in power and privilege, and racialized attitudes were not erased by the sister church relationships I studied. Nonetheless, American participants esteemed their southern counterparts as saints, teachers, and partners in ministry.
Sister church relationships represent both philosophical shifts in missiology and changing structures of global religious engagement.Sister Churches illustrates how globalization allows religious groups to expand their influence around the world and foster greater bonds among adherents. As a counterpoint to prevailing motifs of segregation and friction between northern and southern Christians, the book depicts border-crossing relationships within the global church marked by significant interconnectivity and collaboration.