How do we become disciples in the context of ‘empire’?

BlessingsSimon Peters, Children's and Youth Work Programme Officer for the United Reformed Church, shares his reflections following the Council for World Mission Global Youth Forum

I’m not really a breakfast person, but as I sat among a group of young, black South Africans discussing over cereal how, given a chance, they would re-write their history or influence their future, I was glad I had made the effort. Despite the official end of apartheid over 20 years ago, racial inequality, injustice, tension and division remain rife across the nation. Though opinion varied on how to proceed, the group quickly reached a consensus that the legacy of ‘Empire’ continues to marginalise and neglect the most vulnerable in society. 

Little did I realise that this early morning encounter would kick off one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life, as young people gathered in Johannesburg from around the globe to participate in the Council for World Mission (CWM) Global Youth Forum, the first such gathering in at least 30 years. Addressing the theme ‘Building Disciples in the Context of Empire’, the conference brought participants face to face with the realities of what happens when certain groups rise above others in power, wealth and influence.

SelfieWe heard from Taiwanese students who had occupied the Legislative Yuan in Taipei to demand justice after their government failed to follow appropriate procedure in progressing its plans for a trade agreement with China. We shared stories with young people working to overcome the barriers of the caste system in India, which brands many as ‘Dalit’ or ‘untouchable’, preventing them from accessing the goods, education and services they need to live healthy, prosperous lives. We saw images of the devastating impact of climate change on homes and livelihoods in the South Pacific islands, caused by human activity in richer countries. We saw the efforts of young artists in the Caribbean to raise awareness and demand action on a range of issues affecting the region, including the continuing crisis of human trafficking.

Visits to Nelson Mandela’s house in Soweto and the Hector Pieterson museum, along with cultural presentations from different regions, reminded us further of the struggles people around the globe have suffered, and continue to suffer, in the fight for global justice. The divisions and inequalities created by European empire-building have contributed to so many crises in the world today, yet we fail to treat those hurt by these crises with the dignity and compassion they deserve – something we were reminded of by a poignant display of images from the Calais ‘jungle’.

The young people I encountered at the Global Youth Forum know what it means to be faithful disciples of Jesus. Scripture tells them: ‘If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles’ (Matthew 5:41), and they think of the patience and resilience they must show when faced with ignorance, aggression or neglect by powerful forces around them. When they read: ‘Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14:27), they reflect on the requirement to sacrifice our own happiness, fulfilment and sometimes even lives, for the benefit of others, if we are to truly build the Kingdom of God on earth.

We were there to establish what it means to be a disciple of Christ. To the young people present, many of whom were in the midst of suffering and pain, being a disciple meant forgiveness, reconciliation and moving forward, hand in hand, together. This was exceptionally moving to hear.

As we worshipped, participants brought songs of joy, praise and strength to the table. There was no sense of worry, regret, sadness or pessimism, only love, hope and happiness, as we focused on the presence of God with us and all that we could achieve if we only accepted God’s invitation to follow as faithful disciples.


Colin Cowan, CWM General Secretary, reminded us that it is not the will of God for us to stand still in the face of empire; God’s will is to stand firm and do whatever it takes to break through the traditions, structures, institutions and barriers that empire builds around us. As young people, he said, we are well placed, with our energy, audacity, resilience and passion, to do this. We must not shy away from God’s call to action.

The United Reformed Church is about to embark on a new adventure with ‘Walking the Way: Living the Life of Jesus Today’.  This theme focus will aim to help everyone in the denomination and beyond to build their identity in Christ and to recognise their personal value in mission, using their gifts and talents to serve God whoever and wherever they are. The CWM Global Youth Forum leaves us with vital questions to ask. Where does power lie around us? If it sits with governments and authorities, how can the people reclaim it? If power is held by the Church, how can Christians ensure that it is used responsibly? If we hold power ourselves, how can we share it more equally?

Empire is not a distant, historical concept. It is a constant, growing, living threat to peace, compassion, justice and all that the Kingdom of God stands for. As disciples of Christ, we must remain ever vigilant to the balances of power around us and keep our commitment to building a world of equality and freedom for all God’s children.

God is calling us. The young people of CWM have given their affirmative answer. How will we respond?

The Council for World Mission Global Youth Forum 2017 took place in Johannesburg, South Africa from 22 to 28 August, 2017