On Critiquing Methodologies

I would imagine that few of us, upon arrival in a foreign country that we know nothing about, would presume to critique the efforts of a missionary who has been faithfully ministering among the people there for years. He knows the language, we do not. He spends time with nationals. He has studied local customs and listens to local news.

So when said missionary determines that the best way to make disciples among his particular people group is to launch gospel tracts out of a cannon fashioned out of bamboo, we defer to his expertise. When he insists on wearing nothing but a loincloth yet looking no one in the eye, we bashfully accept. His no-ministry-after-3:30pm policy might raise our eyebrows, but we trust that he knows hat he’s doing. After all, the missionary knows best.

Back home, however, we aren’t so demure.

We criticize ministers who give away iPads to get people to come to church. We mock churches who print coloring books that instruct children to follow their pastor without question. We judge Jumping for the King as mere spectacle. Why do we feel so free to criticize? We see ourselves as experts in American culture.

But are we experts in every American population segment? How well do we really know the redemptive power of the iPad among middle-class white people in small Southern towns? Are we all experts in cult-building among upper-middle-class materialists? Just how many of us are willing to live among the tribe of patriotic motorcycle jumpers from the 1970s?

Forgive my sarcasm. I’m really not trying to be mean.

I’m trying to make 2 points here:

  1. Different people groups and population segments require different approaches to ministry. The missionary principles of contextualization and indignity call for us to meet people where they are and promote discipleship in their culture.
  2. Point #1 does not excuse every ridiculous thing someone wants to do in the name of ministry.

If all of God’s people thought and behaved like good missionaries and if we all got the gospel, we would rightly trust that every approach was wise, prudent, and obedient. Unfortunately, the gospel is often lost translation, and we are often very bad missionaries indeed.

The way to build one another up in the Lord, I’m convinced, is to ask questions. “Is this pointing people to Jesus?” “How are our means affecting our message?” “What’s with the coloring book, dude?” These are the questions that we need to be asking.

Once I was “confronted” by a well-intentioned American pastor who wanted to know why I would waste time getting to know any nationals in our work in Europe. “You really just oughta preach the gospel to these people once. If they don’t want to listen, that’s on them,” I remember him saying. Was he wrong to ask us why we did things the way we did? No. Was he reacting to our methods in an unhelpful and way? I certainly thought so.

As God’s people on God’s mission, we need one another. We need others to encourage us in our work and to ask us the hard questions that make us think (and rethink) through our methodologies. Who are you to question a missionary’s approach? A co-laborer in Christ’s mission, that’s who. But when we question, we need to do so in love.

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By the way, be sure to click over to Trinity Bible Church’s site, where Pastor Bolt has responded to my response to his response to an old post of mine.

About E. Goodman

Ernest Goodman is a missiologist, writer, teacher, and communications strategist.

14 comments

  1. I’m reading a new book by Walter Brueggemann called Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks. He said something that reminds me of what you say here.

    When it comes to accountability – and recognizing that God is holy other – Brueggemann says it works better to help other human beings face their accountability to their neighbor. For some reason, prophetic word works better that way.. rather than to prophetically speak into people being accountable to God, thought that is indeed and highly true.

    The questions you ask are good – and funny. “What’s with the coloring book, dude?” Totally. Anyway, another way to think about it is to ask each other how we’re caring and “covenanting” with our neighbors.

    Not sure if what I’m saying is helpful. E, if you don’t respond to my comments, does that mean I’m a talking head?

  2. Johanna,
    I’m sorry I’ve not done the best job of interacting. The idea of accountability to our neighbors is interesting. I guess when it comes to mission, though few neighbors would have anything positive to say about our ministry efforts. Neighbors who are believers, though, would have valuable insight.

    What about my blog, though? Am I open to criticism about my approach here? You’ll never know how many comments get deleted…

  3. Oh, well gosh, that’s good news, I made the cut.

    I’m used to being ignored by the church planter, male-guy, missional crowd – you’re the only one I can think of who entertains my comments from time to time. Just want to make sure I don’t become a talking head.

    Do you think you can be accountable to neighbor regardless of how they feel about it? Think about Martin Luther King Jr and that whole movement. They became accountable to their neighbor – the powerful white man. There weren’t a lot of positive feelings at first.

    Just thinking about the massive temptation to live outside of covenant relationships…the thing God designed us for.

  4. Johanna,
    I know what you mean about living outside covenant relationships as being a temptation. I guess I’m unsure of how unbelievers might hold us accountable to faithfully proclaim the gospel when they don’t actually want us to. I do see your point, though. In parts of Western Europe, in order to address uneasiness over the construction of mosques, local governments are starting to hold regional referendums over whether or not to grant building and occupation permits to religious groups. Local churches are crying foul, but it definitely holds them to an interesting level of accountability- if the neighbors don’t see any value in hosting a local church, they can revoke its permits. The challenge for those churches is then to “prove” that they are working for the benefit of the neighborhood and its people.

    The fun part is when the town council comes to realize that the Church isn’t a building, it’s people!

  5. “I’m used to being ignored by the church planter, male-guy, missional crowd – you’re the only one I can think of who entertains my comments from time to time. ” You took the word right out of my mouth! Johanna, I think you’re the only female I know of who likes to talk about these issues! We may need to meet in real life some day! Most men don’t know what to do with the questions I ask and the topics I want to discuss! :)

  6. Julie

    Thanks! I’m in the Twin Cities if you’re ever passing through.

    I try to collect thoughts on missiology from the Wycliffe family of organizations. Hard to find female voices but if I talk one on one with other women, I get the sense we think a lot about hospitality (literal and figurative), trauma healing and healing social divides, and organic growth (versus linear)…in the context of women. Would be neat to hear what patterns you pick up. You have my Twitter if you want to chat sometime. blessings

  7. Johanna, Julie,
    The majority of mission books are written by men and the majority of mission work is done by women. What do you think about that?

  8. Ha ha. Well E Goodman, there’s a conversation starter if I ever did see one.

    You’ll really have to write a separate blog post so we can interact around that – or? Would you host guest writers?

  9. Oh, I take that back. I wouldn’t want to guest write – even if you welcomed that possibility.

    I’ll let you know that I’ve been asked by a colleague to write a post on a Scripture translation pilot project in India. The project is indigenous women training women to tell Bible stories based on recently translated Scripture portions. Those Scripture portions have been chosen by leaders from local churches and a local seminary. Their selections were made with the goal of Scriptures speaking directly to women’s needs in the area.

    So that’s an option – if you’d like to read the post and use any of it (regarding the question you asked).

    I’m also going to watch the movie Noah this week (Lord willing) and somehow tie the topic above to the movie. That might not make the post but I will share my reflection on that with the Fujimura Institute on Facebook.

  10. Was reading in the Scriptures just now… and these verses popped out at me after considering your question earlier today.

    From Luke 24:

    “Then they remembered that he had said this. So they rushed back from the tomb to tell his eleven disciples – and everyone else – what had happened. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and several other women who told the apostles what had happened. But the story sounded like nonsense to the men, so they didn’t believe it. However, Peter jumped up and ran to the tomb to look. …”

    On a personal level this is what I would say. Sometimes it feels like being the bearer of “nonsense” … that is, trying to enter the conversation of missiologists, many who are men. But this is isn’t harping on men, if that’s the correct phrase. Instead, I have found again and again there is always a Peter who will listen enough to check things out. That’s enough for me. Thanks E for being a Peter, if I might say that!

  11. I hope a crowd shows up soon on this blog, so I can still continue to comment but not stick out so badly. Where has everyone gone? E, I’m rooting for you to keep blogging and more people will come and converse.

    Anyway, I discovered something new today. The women in India who are training each other to tell Bible stories… they are actually translating the Bible stories into their own language. So… these are women who are doing mission (praxis) and also thinking very missiologically (if that’s a word). By translating they have to think that way. To me, it’s the most interesting example I know of at the moment of women thinking and doing missiology. Hey – wait! Don’t you have something to say about thinking and acting? Now it’s starting to come together for me.

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