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.

How To Be An Interesting Person

All around you there are groups of people who are influencing and being influenced. You can (and should) be part of the discussion, but you’re too busy doing something that nobody else cares about. In your little “Christian” subculture bubble, you have no influence and few friends. Here are some tips to help you become interesting enough to actually make some friends this summer.

  1. Get a hobby. It doesn’t always have to be a really expensive one, either. It seems like everyone is into photography these days, (which is cool) but a new digital SLR can be pricey. Lomography can be really fun, or why not try something less consumeristic, like making your own camera? Share your pictures on Flickr or your own photoblog.
  2. Start a campaign. Find something to be passionate about and work to get other people excited about it too. You could design a web site about it, record a podcast about it, silkscreen or print T-shirts, or write a manifesto.
  3. Go camping. Borrow a tent (everyone has one, but few people actually ever use them), and pack a sandwich. You don’t have to make it a big deal. Camp in the backyard even. Spending time in nature is a good way to enjoy and appreciate its Maker.
  4. Teach yourself something new. The Dangerous Book for Boys is full of awesome stuff you should know but probably don’t. Your paper airplane skills will surely help you connect with some cool people. The interwebs are full of how-tos and useless information. Some things I’ve taught myself (with varying degrees of success) include: making my favorite chicken enchilada soup, writing a basic web page in html, home movie editing, how to read a map, and painting with oils.
  5. Read a book. Not disposable airport novels, but something that will inspire, intrigue, or challenge you. Become an inspired storyteller by rediscovering children’s literature. Start with Lemony Snicket’s A series of Unfortunate Events or anything by Roald Dahl. There’s certainly no excuse for any literate person to not have read On The Road, by Jack Kerouac or J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye, and these are idea for reading with a friend or discussion group. Steven D. Levitt’s Freakonomics, made me want to be an econo-sociologist, as did Malcom Gladwelll’s The Tipping Point, but don’t bother with Blink, just read his blog instead. Now these books will give you something to talk about.
  6. Go geek. Read Wired magazine, hang out in a comic book store, or go bowling even when you’re not on a youth group lock-in. Start collecting vinyl records, modifying vintage furniture to disguise modern technology, or scroll frame-by-frame through every episode of Lost looking for clues and easter eggs. Be sure to start every sentence with “basically…” “actually…” or “technically…” Geeks are the best friends you’ll ever have.
  7. Volunteer. There are literally hundreds of charities and non-profit organizations that could use your help. The “nonprofit sector” section of your city’s craigslist is a great place to start your search. Be sure your lifestyle doesn’t contradict your cause., though. A fair-trade Peta vegan pretty much has to swear off KFC.

This list won’t make you an instant mover and shaker, but if you pick a couple and really go for it, you just might have a circle of friends to take pictures of and cook for on your volunteer do-it-yourself grassroots camping and Comic-Con and road trip in July.

Emerging People Groups

CubaFloridaThe concept of “people groups” has radically affected they way we do missions. It used to be that missionaries were sent to minister to the people of a given country. These days, however, we recognize that people group themselves and identify with communities that may not necessarily conform to (sometimes random and often disputed) political boundaries. Consider the following definition, taken from peoplegroups.org

A “people group” is an ethnolinguistic group with a common self-identity that is shared by the various members. There are two parts to that word: ethno and linguistic. Language is a primary and dominant identifying factor of a people group. But there are other factors that determine or are associated with ethnicity. Usually there is a common self-name and a sense of common identity of individuals identified with the group. A common history, customs, family and clan identities, as well as marriage rules and practices, age-grades and other obligation covenants, and inheritance patterns and rules are some of the common ethnic factors defining or distinguishing a people. What they call themselves may vary at different levels of identity, or among various sub-groups.

The idea is that people group themselves in such a way as to create commonality with some people and (therefore) distinction from others. Now, I say “people group themselves…” but really, most of us are born into a group and stay in the group our whole lives. Because these groups create our way of understanding and relating to the world around us, leaving one group for another is very difficult, if not impossible.

Most missionaries these days are sent to engage a people group with the gospel. They usually start by researching the group’s culture and history, and examining that group’s interactions with other groups. That’s how we know, for example that even though the Basque people group resides on both sides of the France/Spain border, they are one ethnolinguistic people group. This is good information to have when we’re trying to coordinate the work among the Basque people. Under the old paradigm, we might have assumed that they were two groups.

My concern with “people group thinking” as it is commonly held, is that it tends to assume that people groups are static, well-defined things. A missions strategy based on people groups would tend to focus on sending missionaries to work among a people group. Once that people group is “reached,” the idea is that the missionaries would move on to another “unreached” people group. One thing that we don’t seem to have taken into account is how drastically people groups change.

Culture is dynamic. It never stops changing. Interconnectivity opens the world to global influences that have dramatic effects on even the most traditional cultures. Growing generation gaps and socioeconomic discrepancies fragment people groups. Aggressive exportation of culture through media, commercialism, and politics, leaves a lasting impression on all people groups. Some are assimilated. Others are willfully abandoned. Some die out altogether, while new ones are being born all the time. The changes that used to take place over the course of centuries now happen daily on social networking websites. When cultures bump up against each other, people are profoundly affected.

Take, for example, well-established immigrant people groups. If a group of ethnic Chinese move to London, they would tend to live in community with one another. But that transplanted Chinese community is not immune to the influence of British culture. They may hold tightly to certain traditions and aspects of their home culture, but, for survival’s sake, they are certain to adopt some of the customs of their host culture as well. How long before that Chinese community becomes something else entirely?

When a group displaced from its people group has become culturally different enough from it’s home culture that, for changes to its values, traditions, and social structure, it could not easily re-integrate into that home culture, it is a new people group.

When a visitor from the home culture visits friends among the displaced group, how does he feel? If, due to changes in worldview, he can no longer fully relate to the group, it is a new people group.

When a displaced people group adopts so much of its host culture’s language, dress, politics, and perspective that it is rejected by its its home culture, it is a new people group.

That’s why the children of missionaries aren’t called “MKs” (Missionary Kids) anymore. Now they’re called “TCKs” (Third Culture Kids). They don’t really belong to the culture that their parents left or to the one in which they’ve come to live.

During the recent elections in Florida, the media paid a lot of attention to Cuban exiles there who are politically active. Since Fidel Castro took control, a growing number of Cubans have fled to the U.S. since the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Today, there are 2 million Cubans living in the United States; 650,000 in Miami alone. Separated by ninety miles, fifty years, and lots of “Spanglish,” are the Cubans in Miami the same people group as those who have stayed in Cuba?

Our missiology needs to hold to an unchanging God and an ever-changing world. Why do we continue to see “emerging” as a cultural term and not a missiological one?

What We Are Afraid Of

Fear is a powerful thing. It can cause us to do some very irrational things. Of all the threats that we face on a daily basis, we put more time, money, and effort into protecting ourselves from things that we find very scary, whether they are likely to happen to us or not. In Chapter 5 of his 2005 book Freakonomics, Steven Levitt offers an example of this “fear of the scary over the real. ” More children die each year drowning in swimming pools (550 deaths per year, 1 death for every 11,000 pools) than from gunshots (175 deaths per year, 1 death for every 1,000,000 guns). Yet much more money is spent on campaigns, legislature, and passive protection (gun locks, safes, registration, licensing, etc.) than on pool safety (education, awareness, first-aid training, fences, covers, etc.) When was the last time you heard about requiring pool owners to have licenses or to be registered and trained?

Guns are way scarier than swimming pools.

A missions organization has many people doing high-risk things (evangelism, scripture distribution, discipleship) in high-risk areas. It makes sense, then, that the International Mission Board would spend money on training it’s missionaries to respond to crises such as natural disasters, terrorism, or targeted violence. But how many IMB missionaries are personally faced with such events each year?

Compare that to the number of our people every year who fall victim to moral failure, poor stewardship, team conflict, and depression. These aren’t the ones you read about, but these are the real killers of missionaries’ ministries and personal lives. Are we responding proportionately to these threats that every one of our people face on a daily basis? How much do we spend in discipleship for our missionaries on the field? What emphasis are we putting on continued training, pastoral care, and ongoing spiritual development?

Hopefully, we aren’t responding to the risks that scare us at the expense of responding to the risks that kill us.

In response to Dr. Malcom Yarnell’s Shall We “Build Bridges” or “Pull Down Strongholds”?

After reading Dr. Malcolm Yarnell’s paper entitled, Shall We “Build Bridges” or “Pull Down Strongholds”? I was inspired to respond. I don’t usually do this sort of thing, but here’s an excerpt:

I, however, believe that the gap between the mainstream culture and the “Christian” subculture many Americans find themselves in should be filled. This should not and cannot be accomplished by efforts to “make the church relevant,” but by ceasing the active propagation of the myth of Christian culture. In other words, if our churches valued indigenous interpretation of scriptural truth, we would see expressions of Christianity that reflect (and therefore affect) the cultures in which we find ourselves. Churches would be “relevant” (I prefer “contextually appropriate”) if we stopped making people look like us in order to follow Jesus. But because many of us fail to see the cultural influences on our own Christianity. If we think that ours is a pure Christianity, unaffected by the world and its cultures, it makes sense that we would be wary of missional contextualization.

Please read the entirety of my way-too-long response, entitled:

In Response to Dr. Malcolm Yarnell’s Shall We “Build Bridges” or “Pull Down Strongholds”? A practitioner’s decidedly unacademic answer to an esteemed theology professor’s uninformed opinion.

Reintroductions

Coca-Cola CanThey say that Coca-Cola is the world’s most recognizable brand. No matter  where you go in the world, chances are that you can get the familiar caramel-colored fizzy drink. Coke is everywhere.

Coke doesn’t taste the same in every country, though. They adjust the flavor based on local tastes. In Europe, the cola is less sweet than its American counterpart. In Thailand, from what I understand, it’s much sweeter and less fizzy. The one thing that keeps the soft drink recognizable around the world is the familiar red label.

Well, mostly red. Years of market research and competition with Pepsi (and about a hundred others) had led the makers of Coke (I’m thinking these were committee decisions) to gradually change the packaging. The idea was probably to make the brand appear “hip” and “cool.” They added swooshes and swirls, bubbles, gradients, coupons, and sports logos. Soon, the can blended in with all the other soft drinks and energy drinks vying for the consumer’s attention.

Last summer, Coke got back to the basics. They reintroduced the familiar red can. Solid red with white lettering and the “dynamic ribbon” graphic they’ve used since 1969. The change finally made it to Western Europe last month. I recently read an interview of The Coca-Cola Company’s European President. When asked about the change, he replied, “We’re Coke. We’ve been around forever. We’re not fooling anyone with flashy graphics. We’re proud of our product, and the new (0ld) look represents that.”

Consumers raved over the return to the classic look. They are finding beauty in the simplicity, and the value in the recognition of the brand’s heritage.

Of course, there’s a lesson to be learned here. Whenever we talk about contextualization of Christianity, some people assume we mean dressing it up to look like the culture. We don’t. We mean giving people the essential ingredients of the faith, and allowing them to prayerfully determine the formula. The packaging doesn’t really matter so much.

But what we’re finding is that Christianity, like Coke, has been around a while. Not everyone is a fan, but most have had a taste if it. We’re not introducing the gospel, we’re reintroducing it. This means that there’s a long history to acknowledge. The challenge is to identify with our heritage in a way that allows us to overcome our failures.

Remember “New Coke?”

Getting Lost In The Story

Why do millions of people around the world tune in every week (many are even willing to pay for it) to watch a convoluted, (half-baked?), confusing serialized television show about plane crash victims stranded on a mysterious island?

The story.

Questions. Unexpected twists. Attention to detail. Artistic nuance. Mythologies. Love. Danger. The unknown. Intentional lack of resolution. Good and evil. The Supernatural. It draws people in and it hold their attention. It evokes a response and inspires creativity. Communities are built around it.

Contrast that with most presentations of the gospel “story.” A neatly packaged presentation that is clear, concise, and full of answers. A “subjective” third-hand account where the allegorical dots are connected by lines of propositional truth. It does little to intrigue and works to leave nothing unexplained. Our story sounds tired, contrived, and commercial.

We have a lot to learn about being storytellers.

The Identity Business

Sure their computers are prettier and crash a lot less than everyone else’s, but Mac users are more than just adopters of an alternative operating system. They’re members of a club. If you’ve ever been evangelized by a Mac user, you know what I mean. It’s more than a computer, it’s a way of life. Mac users look at the world differently than PC users. They dress alike and hang out in coffee shops. All it takes for entry into the club is a thousand dollars (the cost of a MacBook). 
Apple isn’t just selling hardware and software; with every shiny new iPod and Mac they’re selling identity. 
Mark Driscoll is selling the same thing (for a lot less, though). You can see his admirers and devotees planting churches across the country. They’re bold, they’re sarcastic, they’re unashamedly reformed. They major on the majors, like good theology, social action, and character. They drink, smoke cigars, and watch a lot of movies. They have iPhones, blogs and Flickr pages. They are unimpressed by denominations and traditions, and there are likely one or two of them planting churches in your area
Sure, you could call members of Driscoll’s tribe or the Mac Club “followers.” You could criticize them for not being unique or original. 
I say, why aren’t more of us providing identity? People are looking for a way to make sense of their world, a way to understand who they are in relation to everything else. In Christ, we have that identity. 
I think that would be good news for a lot of people. 

Prophecy by (Credible) Proxy

A key part of our ministry is building relationships with the people God brings to us. God has often used us in ways similar to His use of Joseph in the Old Testament. Not so much in the “Pharaoh-naming-us-Vice-Pharaoh” sort of way; more in the sense of “I had a dream, what do you suppose it means?”

Our friends often confide in us concerning their struggles, fears, and dreams. This confidence gives us the opportunity to speak into their lives from (what we hope is) God’s perspective. Like Joseph, we try to give God the credit for any insight we might have to share.

One thing that strikes me about Joseph’s story, and about ours here in Western Europe, is that God doesn’t always communicate by speaking truth to His people and sending them to tell other people that truth. Sure, that is a common occurrence throughout history (God told Moses to tell another Pharaoh…, God told Jonah to tell the people of Nineveh, all the prophets, etc.) But here, God reveals truth to Pharaoh, who in turn seeks out God’s man for some help in interpreting that truth.

Joseph had built a reputation (at least in the cupbearer and baker communities) as someone who could interpret dreams. God used that to put him in a position to speak to Pharaoh. Many of the conversations we’re having now are not resulting in individual salvations or churches being planted. Instead, they are being used to build our reputation as God’s people in this culture.

“You want to know who has some insight into that sort of thing?” I imagine them saying behind our backs, “you need to talk to those believers.”

God is revealing truth to them. Within the culture there is a great conversation about these truths- life, death, guilt, love, peace, justice. These are deeply spiritual issues that aren’t being forced on them by outsiders. Unfortunately, like Pharaoh, the people of Western Europe do not recognize that the truths they struggle with have been revealed to them by the Most High God, the Author of all truth. That’s where we see God using us; people are asking us for our opinions about life-changing truths.

Research and immersion put us in a position to recognize and call attention to truths in the culture. Relationships put us in a position to participate in the conversation. I like to think of it as “Prophecy by Proxy.”