A Global Wave

This is my 7th post in a series on developing a new missiology.

Previously: Yeah, But…

In the Old Testament, we read about Noah and his sons. Through a violent global flood, God reset humanity by destroying all but this one faithful family. Then, through this same family, God repopulated the Earth and kept His promise to prosper the Hebrew people. After the flood, Noah’s sons each set out in different directions, establishing tribes that would eventually birth all the people groups of the world.

Psalm 105: 23 (“Israel also came into Egypt…the land of Ham.”), leads us to believe that Ham, Noah’s youngest son, was the father of the Egyptians and other African peoples, including the Ethiopians and Libyans. Ham’s name meant “black.” From Shem, the eldest son (whose name meant “dusky”), came the Persians, Arabs, and Palestinians. The middle son, Japheth (“fair” or “light”), established the line that would become Armenians, Greeks, and other Mediterranean peoples.

All the peoples of the world are related. This is especially evident if we look at our neighbors. Usually, cultures are unique combinations of neighboring ones. Mix Afghan and Indian cultures, and you get something that looks a lot like Pakistani culture. Russian and Chinese? Mongolian. Look at Syria and Greece to get an approximation of Turkish culture. They would never admit this, but France + Germany = Belgium.

Forgive these generalities. I’m not saying that cultures are produced by their neighbors; only that they influence one another. Years of war, trade, and marriage can make a culture rub off on another. It also has to do with geography; coastal regions have similarities, desert peoples often have much in common.

In missions, these are referred to as “near cultures.” neighbors tend to share similar worldviews. This is why we can talk about an Asian worldview versus a European one. The Japanese and Koreans have very distinct histories and traditions, but they have much in more in common with one another than they do with Brazilians. Their proximity and history make them near cultures.

The missiological value is that near cultures offer fewer barriers to the spread of the gospel than distant ones do. Information and influence flow more freely between cultures that are similar to one another. This is a big part of why we raise up local leaders to translate the gospel into their culture and the cultures around them.

According to mission organizations that track these sorts of things, there are around 6,500 unreached people groups in the world. The missions community has organized itself around identifying, finding, engaging, and “reaching” each of these remaining groups. Could it be that the best way to make disciples of a people group might be to make disciples of a people group who are culturally near to them?

Why not develop a missiology based on this “family tree” understanding of humanity? Why not see each people group as responsible for the evangelization of the peoples who are culturally near to them? You want to reach the Muslim world? Why not pour into the Hispanic peoples who have so much in common with them? North Korea is closed, but not to South Koreans. Turks are not Arabs, but they have much more influence in the Arab world than most Westerners do.

If people groups are important enough to be preserved, they are valuable to the Great Commission. If it truly is God’s desire to see an indigenous expression of His Church among every tribe, tongue, and nation, perhaps it is through a global wave of neighbor-to-neighbor interaction that He will establish that Church. If this were the case, then it wouldn’t be a bad thing that God is calling faithful people from the West to pour people, prayer, and resources into certain places.

Indelible Spirituality

It used to be that there was a certain type of person who got a tattoo. Sailors, bikers, convicts. Tough guys in sleeveless shirts sported tattoos that depicted manly, outlaw rebel stuff like mermaids, warships, and skulls.

But the type has changed. These days, everyone– from pastors to soccer moms– seems to be inked. Tribal swirls, Celtic knots, and (“The guy at the tattoo place said it meant love”) Chinese characters have become common sights in almost any social circle.

Tattoos are a personal thing. Even those that are publicly displayed carry deep meaning. They commemorate the passing of the old and mark the beginning of the new. Symbols are used to mark identification with someone or something (fraternity Greek, armed forces, “I love ______ forever.”). The ink can be a celebration of the survival of an ordeal (cancer, war, rape, natural disaster), a declaration of resolve. Tattoos help people mourn, remember, and mark milestones. Something about the unique, artistic, painful (not to mention permanent) act of getting a tattoo, makes getting one unlike any other human ritual.

And that’s what it is. A deeply personal, often spiritual ritual. The process of getting a tattoo, painful and private, is a powerful experience. The tattoo artist makes herself vulnerable by suggesting a design and by assuming the risk of permanently marking the client’s body. The client, on the other hand, exposes his body to a stranger wielding electric needles filled with permanent ink. The artist is a medium– opening up a channel of memory, emotion, and expression.

Move over pastors, tattoo artists are the new priests.

If you ever get the chance to watch someone get a tattoo, do it (if you don’t have any of those kind of friends, one of the tattoo parlor reality show on TV will do.) Watch the timid resolution of the client as he enters the shop. Nobody (sober) walks into a tattoo parlor by accident. Listen to the explanation of why he wants a tattoo and where he wants it placed on his body. Often people have thought through it enough to apply symbolism to ever aspect of the experience. “I came in today because it’s my birthday.” “I ship out next week.” “She died four years ago today.”

People come out of the tattoo parlor with an emotional high. The endorphins (from the pain) mix with the rush (from the magnitude of the permanence) and the power of the memory to create the euphoria of having connected with an artist who understood well enough to depict the emotion graphically. For the rest of his natural life, the wearer has something to illustrate something that defines his life.

This is powerful religion. It requires great commitment, financial cost, artistic expression, physical suffering (or at least discomfort), and it publicly marks a person for life. How does that compare with what your church promotes?

You Know What Assuming Does

They say that assumptions can be dangerous. For example: Assuming that the size of U.S. coins have any correlation to their value will lead you to overlook the humble dime in favor of the (relatively) hefty nickel. For Americans traveling in the UK, fortunes are lost this way.

Assuming that someone who looks and (seems to) act like me is, in fact, like me, is equally dangerous (and detrimental to your pocket book.) That nice family that lives next door? They could be Democrats or Russian spies, for all you know. You just can’t assume.

Which brings us to missions. Ministry in the context of a distant culture– say among the Quechua in northern Peru– is clearly different from ministry in the (relatively) near culture of Camden Town, London. It doesn’t take much wandering through the Andes mountains for you to feel like an outsider. You immediately recognize that the way you did things back home would be blatantly inappropriate here. Communication of the gospel –incarnation– requires a change on your part.

Camden Town, on the other hand doesn’t feel so foreign. Especially if you’ve spent much time in the city. Sure, there are goths and punks and scenesters milling about, but they’re practically speaking English, for heaven’s sake! There aren’t any barriers to effective and obedient communication of the gospel here, are there?

The friendly Turkish taxi driver? Hates your guts, you “christian” dog. The kind, old babushka in the park? Longs for the good old days when the USSR scared the snot out of you. Everywhere you look, culture provides two realities: how people act and how people think. Unfortunately, people’s actions only tell part of the story of how they think.

Assuming will cause you to miss opportunities to connect, relate, and love people who are different from you. Living out the gospel requires you to scratch beneath the surface of culture and move into relationships with people. Then, and only then, can you know the questions to which Jesus is the answer, and how He can be Good News to all people.

On a related note: be sure to visit Ed Stetzer’s blog and read his series on contextualization. Read in amazement as commenters decry contextualization as “sinful!”

Beware False Friends

No, I’m not referring to that guy you’ve known since Jr. High that only calls when he needs something (though, come to think of it, watch that guy). “False Friend” is a philological term that refers to a word in the language being learned that sounds similar to a word in the student’s own language. A word that sounds familiar doesn’t always carry the same meaning as its homophone (er, soundalike).

For example, the English word, carpet sounds similar to the Spanish word, carpeta (file folder), but the words do not have the same meaning.

The word bad, in German, means bath or spa. (And, incidentally, in 1980s America actually means good.)

The French love when Americans use the word journée when they mean voyage, but then French are known for their sense of humor when it comes to language.

Of course, the concept doesn’t only apply to language. When people of one culture see something that seems familiar in another culture, it’s easy for them to assume they know what’s being done and why. Two people shouting in each others’ faces on the street corner? In Italy that’s long-lost friends happy to see one another. Men walking down the street arm in arm? Not necessarily homosexuals. Ear-to-ear grin? In Asia, it could mean someone’s embarrassed.

Outside your home culture, people don’t see Jesus in you because you don’t smoke, drink, or use foul language. Idol worship doesn’t always involve statues and incense. Animism doesn’t always express itself in grass skirts dancing around a fire.  It turns out that paganism can look a lot like Christianity (and vice versa). Evil doesn’t always wear black.

In order to incarnate the gospel in a culture, you’ve got to do your homework. Cultural exegesis and immersion are key to understanding the bridges and barriers to the gospel. To the question “What must I do to be saved?” Jesus gave various answers.

In post-Christian America, all mission is cross cultural. The culture of your city is not yours. Beware of False Friends; your assumptions will ruin your potential to communicate the gospel in a way that actually communicates the good news. Online relationships may not be “real” relationships where you come from, but they’re the most influential for millions of people around the world. Don’t let the rhetoric of the narrative offend you into isolation. When fighting to define words, concepts, or institutions, choose your battles carefully lest you start to see the people you’re supposed to love as your enemy. Start every conversation with a question.

Cultural Exegesis

KKK meeting? No! Easter parade in Spain!

Being a missionary where God has you isn’t just an attitude or posture (though it certainly begins there). It requires a certain set of skills that can be developed over time. One such skill is cultural exegesis.

All you Bible scholars out there know that exegesis (literally “to draw out”) is the act of studying something (text, art, language) and extracting meaning from within. The opposite of exegesis, then, would be eisegesis (literally “to draw in”), where the observer brings the meaning to the thing being observed from outside (usually his own presuppositions).

When reading and interpreting Biblical text, we can either find meaning in the text, or we can project our own meaning into it. We usually purport to value exegesis over eisegesis, but we tend to do quite a bit of both.

Applied to culture, exegesis means discovering why people in a particular culture do what they do by observing them and viewing their cultural influences from their perspective rather than interpreting their behavior through our own cultural lenses.

This, of course, is very difficult. None of us are outside culture– the ways in which we view the world around us are largely dependent upon the cultures in which we were raised. Thankfully, cultural exegesis doesn’t require absolute objectivity– it does, however, require immersion, personal engagement, and dependence on the Holy Spirit.

In textual criticism, we seek to (as much as possible) return to the original material. A credible interpretation of, say, the Gospel of Matthew, won’t come from a study of 1 Corinthians or a commentary on Matthew. You’ve got to read the book itself to be able to understand it. Same thing with culture– reading Darrel Bock’s Breaking the DaVinci Code isn’t the same as reading Dan Brown’s popular novel. Listening to me explain postmodern culture isn’t the same as you spending time with those who hold that worldview.

Immersion is necessary. Think Jesus spending enough time with drunks and sinners to be accused of being one of them, or Paul knowing popular Greek philosophy well enough to quote Epimenides and Aratus, (who, I’m told, were the Jonas Brothers of the 500s BC.

That said, cultural immersion can be dangerous. Sure there are spiritual dangers in every culture. But most of us have been raised to be able to identify the dangers in our own cultures. Put us into a culture that isn’t our own, and we’re not so good at seeing the warning signs. It’s not enough to watch all the popular movies or read all the influential books– unless we’re deliberate about what enters our minds, our cultural activity won’t result in insight, it will only serve to corrupt our thinking.

Personal engagement is, quite simply, making friends within culture. These friends will serve as guides and informants for us as we dive in. They’ll be able to explain their own reasons for why they do what they do. True friendship will provide us with a more sympathetic attitude toward the people we’re getting to know. It’s hard to listen to people you hate, and it’s hard to hate people you know and love.

The Holy Spirit is our only defense against the charms and temptations that can snare us in culture. Only by walking in total and step-by-step dependence on Him will we learn a culture well enough to be able to engage in missional translation of the gospel into culture. He knows what’s in a person’s heart- what motivates and moves him. The Spirit was present within a culture before we ever were, and will continue His redemptive interaction long after we leave.

Cultural exegesis is something we have to practice. At first, we’re tempted to bring our own meaning to what we observe; especially when what we observe appears to be similar to what we’ve seen in our home cultures and know to be evil. A “bar” in the United States is not the same thing as a “Pub” in England. A “coffee shop” in the Netherlands isn’t like your local Starbucks (not usually, anyway!) “Tells” in your home culture (“Only a prostitute would dress like that.” “You can’t be politically liberal and theologically conservative.”) don’t necessarily hold true in host cultures. Only time, intentionality, and God, can help us gain the sort of cultural fluency that allows us to preach and live the gospel in it.

Sure, It Sounds Good…

West African pastor Josias Silas Sanogo

West African pastor Josias Silas Sanogo

There are two sorts of people who push for the support of national church planters among unreached peoples: field church-based missionaries and well-intentioned stateside leaders.

It sounds really good to say, “We believe in supporting national church planters.” “Nationals,” of course, are believers from a given people group. Time and again, I hear idealistic church leaders cite this as their strategy for missional engagement of unreached peoples. Usually, this is their passive-aggressive response to the question “what does your church do in the way of taking the gospel across cultures?”  As if to say, “We aren’t doing anything, but that’s on purpose, because nationals can do a way better job of it than we ever could.” Oh, and “Our missiology is more highly evolved than yours, so leave us alone about missions.”

The other crowd beating the “nationals are the best missionaries” drum is made up of those missionaries who work closely with national churches. These are the ones who serve on local church staffs, preach in churches on Sunday mornings, and submit to the field strategies of the local church leadership. Out of their affinity for national believers, these missionaries are constantly encouraging others not to forget the importance of working with national believers.

On the surface, it sounds right to say that we should support nationals in church planting. Even noble. Unfortunately, it’s not always a good idea. As it turns out, nationals aren’t always the best missionaries.

Firstly, the obvious. Nationals aren’t doing the work. If they were, their churches wouldn’t look like America in the 1960s.

Stuck inside their own culture, they are unable to see key strategies for cultural translation of the gospel. Like Michael Carpenter always says, it’s like asking a fish to describe the water he’s swimming in– it’s the lens he sees the world through, but he’s got nothing to compare it to.

Nationals may be cheaper to maintain, but external sponsorship only breeds dependence and professionalism, and stunts creativity and reproducibility.

As an outsider, you lack the cultural insight to be a good judge of character, motive, and approach. You don’t know whether this national church planter is God-called and capable or if he’s just looking for a free ride from (and eventually to) America. How do you decide which nationals to partner with?

Week-long training for national pastors doesn’t provide the context for paradigmatic missiological change. Sure, you walk away feeling good about yourself, but in the end, what practical steps do the pastors take away from it?

As not to discourage you completely from supporting national church planters, I propose these solutions:

Missionaries should leverage some of their credibility with supporters and roll national support in to their own pay packages. Put your money where your mouth is. Support a national that you know, trust, and can partner with.

Missionaries should work to disciple unbelievers into non-professional pastor/planter roles. The best national missionary is one who has a day job. If the only national Christian is paid to tell people about Jesus, what are people to infer about the gospel?

If you’re really sure about supporting nationals, be intentional about entering a relationship with them. Visit them. Get to know their families. See with your own eyes what they’re doing. Pray over them, and ask God to give your church the same sense of affirmation of calling that you would want for anyone you were sending out.

Ask the hard questions. You may not be a cultural insider, but you’re a Kingdom insider. A national who says that the preaching of the gospel or ongoing discipleship “don’t work” in his culture is not one you should support.

If you are going to support a national, be sure he has everything he needs. Pastoral care, ample accountability, peer networks, ongoing encouragement, strategic advice, and enough money to feed his family.

While it always sounds cultural sensitive and missiologically progressive to claim that “nationals make better missionaries than we do,” it’s not always true. Just because it “makes sense,” doesn’t mean it’s God’s thing. The best strategy is radical, step-by-step obedience to the Holy Spirit. If He connects you with a national, support him with all you’ve got. But you can’t outsource the great commission- not to mission sending organizations, and not to nationals. The commission is yours.

The @#%&! Words We Use

When I was a kid, the use of certain words would get my mouth washed out with soap. A mouthful of soap (usually a bar, the liquid kind in a pinch, and laundry detergent once) is a pretty effective deterrent, so I had to find creative news ways to express the same sentiments.

My parents subscribed to the “dynamic equivalence” theory of vulgar language. “Damn,” of course, was out, but so were its more commonly accepted derivatives “darn” and “dang,” because those were just “different ways of saying the same thing.” Oddly enough, “shoot” was just fine.

All my friends’ parents all had similar rules, but the banned vocabulary differed from household to household. Some kids  would “hell” and “crap” with impunity while others (like me) played it safe, reassigning stronger meanings to what we’d heard from Beaver Cleaver and Charlie Brown.

Language is a dynamic, ever-changing thing. Words have meanings, but those meanings change from region to region, and generation to generation. New words are coined all the time. Every clique in high school has its favorite euphemisms. Remember when “bad” meant “good?” Gay used to mean “happy” (or so I’m told). Every day, words are borrowed and stolen, co-opted, branded, and misspelled (intentionally and otherwise).

Culture assigns meaning to the words we use. Technically, it’s referred to as the “dysphemism treadmill;” a word or phrase can have multiple meanings, depending on the context. Consider U2 frontman Bono’s use of the grandaddy of all curse words on live television upon receiving a Golden Globe Award. Because the Irishman’s use of the F-word was not meant to be profane (he celebrated his receipt of the award by gleefully saying, “This is really, really f—ing brilliant!), the FCC deemed it acceptable. “Family Values” proponents everywhere (few of whom had obviously ever been to Ireland) were outraged. The rest of America yawned. They understood Bono’s meaning.

Culture warriors are upset with Mark Driscoll over his language. He doesn’t understand “the distinction between strong language and obscene language,” they say. I say he’s a product of (and minister to) the Pacific Northwest, a region of the United States that uses language differently from, say, Kentucky. In order to communicate, one needs to be curt, direct. In Seattle, to be politely vague is not to communicate at all- people literally cannot get your meaning unless you speak frankly and directly. That’s why Pastor Mark doesn’t mince words. His culture values plain language. He provides it in order to clearly communicate the gospel (and its implications) to people who otherwise don’t hear it.

I’m not advocating vulgarity or profanity here. I believe that words and meanings are important. I believe that Christians should not use unwholesome or filthy language. But I’ve been the foreigner and outsider enough to know that I can’t be the police of the world’s English. The problem with language is that obscenity doesn’t depend on a particular string of consonants and vowels, it’s all about the intent. Intent is a tricky (and dangerous) thing to judge.

Think Like A Missionary

The more I interact with pastors, the more I’m convinced that they need to be applying missionary thinking to their lives and ministries. The problem is that there are few missionaries or missiologists speaking into the American church, and even fewer American pastors who are listening. After all, what could a missionary have to teach a pastor?

I believe that American pastors need to consider 4 missiological concepts: indigenaity, sustainability, communication, and obedience.

  • Indigenaity is a botanical term that means a plant is native to its soil. Sure you can reproduce Daniel Montgomery‘s (Louisville, KY) Sojourn Community Church in, say, Southern California, but you shouldn’t. Missionaries around the world recognize that in order a church must be “native” to the community in which it’s planted. Cultures are curiously layered habitats. When your church prescribes the cultural application of the Word of God for people, you kill their ownership in that church.
  • Sustainability refers to a church’s ability to thrive through the passage of time and trials. Your church doesn’t only need to be relevant to today, it needs to be prepared to make itself relevant to coming generations.
    • Sustainable is always small, cheap (little or no money involved), decentralized, and amateur.
    • If your church is built around you (meaning either that you do everything or that you’re the reason people come and participate), it is not sustainable. A quick look at all the ailing copycat churches will give you an idea of what your church will look like when you’re gone.
    • A big splash today usually works against your church’s sustainablilty. If people come for the show, the coffee, or the quality child care, they’ll only stay until someone comes along with something bigger and better.
  • Communication isn’t universal. Neither is it simple. All sorts of things, verbal and non-verbal, factor into the transmission and reception of a message. You have to realize that how you communicate the gospel affects what gospel you communicate. A legalistic means of evangelism will result in a legalistic view of salvation. An impersonal, one-size-fits-all presentation will get you a generic and impersonal church. Missionaries have to learn not just a language, but the appropriate local use of that language. So do you.
  • Obedience is something I think all pastors take seriously. Nevertheless, being obedient means we cannot afford to assume. As soon as our fidelity to a system, program, pattern, or method becomes greater to our utter step-by-step dependance upon God’s Holy Spirit, we lose our way. Yet we talk all day long about models and styles of church, and rarely about how we were led to do what we do. Let’s stop having conferences and writing books about how and start talking about why.

In short, while you were becoming a Christian, you were also being removed from  your own culture. The common process of discipleship into a modernistic religious framework (which American Chriatianity is) necessarily hinders your ability to relate and communicate with your home culture. Pastors! You’re not a minister to your own culture, you’re a missionary to a foreign culture!

Contexting

For six years my job was to connect with a culture that was not my own in order to influence it. My desire was walk people from wherever they may have been spiritually toward a relationship with the Most High God through Jesus.

In the process, I learned a thing or two about the art of culture study. In foreign (to us) cultures, it’s easy to see the need for contextualization; without it, communication is difficult and influence is unlikely.

Globalization insures that cultural influence runs in every direction. The United States is maybe a few years from sharing Europe’s postmodern, post-Christian worldview. In many places (and not always where you might expect!), postmodernism is a worldview reality. Culturally speaking, my time in Europe has allowed me to see the future.

As I’ve reentered what used to be my home culture, I’ve seen things from a different perspective. I’m now the outsider that I didn’t understand before I left. Now, all of those things that were once familiar seem so strange. As I actively seek to connect with fellow practitioners of the Christian faith, I’m shocked at how few Christian leaders understand, their cultural contexts. Fewer still could be called cultural influencers.

I’ve been blogging here at Missions Misunderstood for a while now. In that time, I’ve (however inarticulately) questioned, challenged, and dismissed many popular notions about missions. I’ve also tried to suggest new approaches, a more biblical missiology, and a new vocabulary for discussing missiological ideas. I appreciate those of you who have followed me on this journey.

My goals have not changed, but my location has. We believe God has brought us back to the U.S. for a reason. In order for me to be good a steward of my experience in Europe, I feel the need to speak into the contextualization efforts (or gross lack thereof) of the American church.

Contexting I have seen the future, and American Christian leaders are not prepared for it. You can read my efforts to help in that regard at Contexting, my new blog. I may still post here on matters specifically concerning missions, but Contexting will focus on a broader range of topics; from social movements to global politics to cultural influencers.

If you feel the need to move toward a more incarnational approach to ministry, follow my blog for a little while. Invite some of the leaders in your community of faith to join you in reading Contexting. I believe that it will move you toward a better understanding of how to have a more redemptive relationship with the world around you.

Learning the Rules

Nearly anyone can live abroad. But incarnation is about more than just location. Successfully entering a culture that is different from yours requires that you learn the rules. If you’re trying to influence across cultures, the rules are crucial.

Society is made up of rules. There are rules for how a person should act in a given situation. There are rules for personal interaction, managing your money, and the volume of your conversation in public. There are rules about when it’s appropriate to make noise in your apartment building. There are rules for seating on the bus. What you wear, where you walk, how you order your coffee; there’s a rule for everything.

There are always consequences for breaking the rules. At best, being a rule-breaker will get you labeled (foreigner, rude, ignorant, proud). At worst, failure to follow the rules will get you removed from the community altogether. (Okay, so maybe that’s not the worst thing that could possibly happen, but you get my meaning here.) This is why many missionaries are marginalized, ignored, or “persecuted.” It’s not their message; nobody’s hearing that. They don’t have a voice because they’re trying to apply the rules of a culture two thousand miles away (or two thousand years ago) to their host culture.

Learning the rules can be very difficult, because they aren’t posted anywhere for you. No, you have to do your homework if you want access. The shortcut of mimicry will surely have you breaking all of the rules. You can’t deduct the rules by observing how insiders live. Often, their behavior seems to contradict their rules. There’s probably a rule about that. The rules are not the same for everybody. Even if you’re language-capable enough to ask, no one would be able to tell you all the rules because those who operate inside the culture assume that everyone shares their perspective on things. They don’t know that the rules where you come from are different from theirs. But you do. That’s the first thing you learn on the mission field.