For My Modern Brethren

I’ve been thinking about some comments posted by Jeff and Tim back on my post: I’d Like to Make a Toast. They expressed their concern as to my ability to adequately express myself in a coherent manner which would allow for meaningful discussion with modern thinkers. The following are my concerns about their suggestions:

I read many blogs. (Actually, my news aggregator reads many blogs, and delivers the new stuff to my home page.) One thing I come across time and again is how tied we as believers are to the modern debate technique known as “rhetoric;” which is a worldy and impersonal approach to communication that hinders Christian discussion. Many of us have worked to rid our vocabulary of meaningless Christian jargon, (and by meaningless, I mean “religious” words for which we have no common definition even amongst ourselves, and are completely unknown outside our subculture.) but we have yet to develop a better way to communicate. Our dependence on the rhetorical debate technique is preventing us from having meaningful discussion.

For example: On the alcohol post, Tim voiced his opinion that abstaining from alcohol was, in fact a biblical position. He gave support for his opinion in the form of quotes. He then challenged me to refute his sources. In the past, this would have been a great way to discuss the issue of missionaries drinking on the field. But the days of debate being the only recognized form of “thoughtful discourse” amogst believers are over (and if they weren’t before I typed that last line, I hereby declare them to be over).

Any form of communication that necessitates pitting one against the other is a bad start. I don’t see why we would advocate a system that refers to the person with whom we are speaking as an “opponent,” or “critic,” or “adversary.” If we instead take part in a discussion between “friends,” “brothers and sisters,” and “fellow seekers,” the conversation can be unifying, encouraging, and edifying. Sure it’s ok to disagree. Sometimes, we must do it strongly even. You might think it’s a question of semantics, but the moment we start to think of the person we’re talking to as our rival, we’ve begun to play by the world’s rules.

We label every person and every person’s every thought. Without even really listening to someone, we assume we know what they’re saying and why. “Oh, you’re Amyraldian.” “You’re arguing infralapsarianism, and that’s been proven wrong.” How does this help a conversation? I’m not saying we should limit ourselves to rehashing past arguments. We should learn from the discussions that wiser men and women have had before us. But do we really need to boil everyone down to one of two camps on every issue? Liberal or Conservative? Calvinist or Arminian? Open communion, or closed? My answer, to all of these questions is yes. I’m sure there’s a label for that, too.

And don’t get me started on “hyperbole.” Exaggerating the other guy’s position just to make a point is, well, lying. But that’s what happens in every debate. Someone shares their thoughts, and we make a charicature of their statements in order to easily show the flaws in their logic. But all the while we know that the guy on the other end of the discussion isn’t really saying that homosexuality isn’t sin or that Calvinists shouldn’t participate in evangelism. We only argue with ourselves when we put words in people’s mouths.

Along those same lines, posting a list of quotes from your research here is like bringing some upper-classmen to a playground disagreement. Sharing the sources that have convinced you is a good thing, but challenging me to refute them is the opposite of discussion. By citing outside support, you’ve stepped out of the conversation, and put dead historians and Greek scholars in your place. If you didn’t want to talk (type) it out with me, you should’ve said so.

Sarcasm is ok, though. It allows us to say things that, while true, would make us look like total jerks if we weren’t just being sarcastic. Besides, it’s usually pretty funny.

Jesus convinced people by asking questions and quoting (and paraphrasing?) scripture, not by challenging anyone to refute anything. Paul even referred to pagan religions and quoted popular philosophers. I’d prefer to participate in a conversation by asking questions (my favorite lately has been: “How’s that working out for you?”) over trying to expose logical inconsistencies in someone’s “argument.” Besides, even the most rational of us hold on to beliefs that seem to be contradictions, don’t we? Our faith requires it of us.

I guess I’m advocating a system of communication that doesn’t have rules that rule anyone out. I think we shouldn’t disqualify people from participation in the conversation because they don’t argue well enough or have enough historical support of their position. I’m tired of people thinking that using Greek is a trump card that should end all questions. I love conversation. I think the free exchange of ideas is beautiful. I am not uncomfortable with unanswered questions or apparent contradictions. Why are you?

It’s funny; as I type, I’m reminded of the classroom rules for group discussion set by my sixth-grade teacher, Ms. Ludlow. If I remember correctly, they went something like this:
1. There are no stupid questions.
2. Everyone is entitled to his/her opinion.
3. We can disagree, but we must do so politely.
4. Always tell the truth.
5. Don’t betray confidences.
6. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

I think there was another one about waiting to speak until you were called on. Anyway, I don’t expect that any of us would stop using the rhetorical method any time soon. In fact, we’re so modern, there may be some conversations we are incapable of having outside of a debate. I think it would be cool to explore those.

“You Know What Your Problem Is?”

Don’t you hate when someone starts a discussion with “You know what your problem is?” They should just say, “You’ve got a problem, and you obviously don’t know what it is, so I’m going to tell you.” Either way, everyone is a critic (even me).

Some of the IMB’s most vocal critics are a group of folks within the SBC who are concerned about the theology of the Board and the missionaries it sends. Our president, they say, is too charismatic. ILC (MLC) training, they charge, is theologically weak. CPM, they claim, leaves too much room for heresy to sneak in. I’m not exactly sure who “They” are, but “They” are concerned that we’ve got a bunch of liberals in the mission field. That’s why, even though the Board requires that all missionary candidates be members-in-good-standing of a Southern Baptist Church, and that career personnel have seminary training, we all had to sign the BFM 2000- to prove to “Them” we weren’t liberals. Somehow, our signatures didn’t help ease “Their” concerns, so “They” had the trustees adopt some new policies that would keep liberals out of the ranks. Now, Southeastern Seminary students are organizing to collect evidence against IMB personnel who might be labeled liberal. (Ok, so maybe I do know who “They” are.)

If you’ve read any of my posts here, you know that I, too, am concerned about the strategy and missiology of my coworkers. But I’m coming from a different direction. I’m not worried about chasing down liberalism, or defending the faith. Because they are in different cultural contexts, and because they are seeing God move in different ways, most of our personnel who have been overseas for very long would seem liberal to many of “Them.” It might also have to do with the fact that most of our M’s in the field don’t get Fox News…

The churches that we are planting (or working to plant) are not drowning in watered-down theology. They are being suffocated by our models and worldview.

If you were to ask me (and yes, I realize that you didn’t), the best thing that the IMB could do to further our church planting efforts would be to stop hiring and sending Missionaries. I’m not talking about slowing the flow of personnel to the field; we need all the businessmen and artists and chefs and computer programmers we can get. What we don’t need is more Missionaries. Most of the people sent by the Board are pastors (who end up pastoring the churches they plant), youth ministers (who tend to build strong seeker-friendly youth groups instead of churches), or ministers of music/associate pastor types (who are all about new programs and events). It seems to me that the best way to avoid the influence of the American Christian religion and subculture on the churches we plant is to stop exporting it through our personnel.

I agree with those who say we need to rethink our understanding on missions and the church. We need to send people who are well-trained and qualified to plant churches. But the solution to our struggles isn’t a liberalism witch hunt, it’s in open dialogue.

Speaking of open dialogue, what do you think?

More than Words

We spend our efforts trying to convince those around us of the existence of God, when we ought to be searching for effective ways to communicate our relationship to Him. This is only possible through relationship. We know that communication is more than words, and that’s why God’s design makes use of personal human interaction for the communication of the Good News.

The context of the gospel is -must be, personal relationships. God did not send the Word in the form of a tract or a circus-tent revival, because the means affects the message. God sent His son, Jesus, not to give the Good News, but to be the Good News. The essence of the message is not that people can go to heaven, or even that they can receive the free gift of forgiveness; it is that a relationship with God is possible through the person of Jesus. Our human relationships, though they are just shadowy reflections of the holy relationship, establish a framework for us to understand how God relates to us, His creatures. He is indeed a personal God, concerned with every aspect of our lives and actively involved in our personal histories. He knows us intimately, and He so desires that we would know Him, that He has provided the Way for it to be possible.

Though it doesn’t always make the most sense, God chooses to share His plan for redemption through people. Because they are selfish, disobedient, and proud, Humans really aren’t the most efficient or dependable media available. It would be easier for Him to reveal Himself through a massive international press conference, or through internet spam. But these impersonal means lack the key to effective communication of the gospel: relationship. Linguists have for centuries tried to translate certain abstract concepts from one culture into another that has no framework for understanding such a thought. Explaining the concept of patriotism to a person without a country, family to an orphan, or grace to a Mormon would all prove to be difficult- even impossible- apart from a personal interaction by which you could complete the definition through a demonstration of such things.

When Paul (Saul at the time) had an encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, Jesus sent him to meet Ananias and be discipled. Jesus did the convincing and saving, but did not separate it from the context of relationship. So we see that God uses human relationships in the salvation process, as an illustration of His relationship with us. Despite the great value our societies place on independence, and individualism, Human interconnectedness is a beautiful thing. Human relationships, even the natural ones, have built-in accountability, teaching, fellowship, service, and love.

Whatever Happened to “Experiencing God?”

It wasn’t long ago that Dr. Henry Blackaby was our “It” guy. His wildly popular book and Bible study giude Expereincing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God, was a huge seller for Lifeway, and the SBC was happy to push it as the answer for Sunday School, small groups, discipleship, youth groups, and anyone else willing to give 10 weeks and $19.95. Some people criticized the study’s theology, others were repelled by the Law and Order-esque niche market spinoffs, such as, Experiencing God Day by Day, Experiencing God: Eddie Bauer Edition, and E to the G: Fo’ Shizzle. Despite the commercialization of it all, I think the basic idea is a good one: we should find where God is working and join Him there.

We need to “go where God is working.” But what does that mean? In Western Europe, people are slow to come to know the Lord, and few churches have been planted. Is this an indication that we ought to leave? Pull out of France, and move everyone to China, where the good news is spreading like wildfire? Should we determine our calling by looking at the results? It is impossible to measure the extent to which God is working in the hearts and lives of Western Europeans. Only God knows that. Our measure of where God is working must be the calling that he has placed on our lives. Has God called me to Italy or Spain? Then my responsibility is to stay here until I hear otherwise from Him; as difficult as it might be, whether I see “results” or not. It is a dangerous thing to get ahead of God and assume we know what He’s doing and how He’s going to do it. It is a powerful thing to be behind God, following Him every step of the way as He uses us to take His message of Life to all the people in the world.

The whole “10/40 Window”/”Final Frontier” mentality has essentially led us to look around the world, find where God isn’t working, and start something for Him there. “There are no churches in Yokelville,” we reason, “so let’s send a career family and two ISCers.” Now I understand that it’s hard for us to even know if God is working unless we’re there to see it, but God is certainly working in those places to which He is calling us. Perhaps His direction is a better guide than statistics.