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.

Who Is the Missionary?

"Red Rover, Red Rover, send Stevie right over!"

Most churches actually require unbelievers to be the missionaries. In order for them understand the gospel and its effect on their lives, they have to enter our church culture and extrapolate for themselves what a relationships with Jesus would mean for them. They have to learn a new language in order to hear the gospel. They have to assume our worldview. They have to see past our politics, ignore our offenses, and overlook our ignorance, just to hear the gospel.

In response to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” our words say, “Confess and believe,” but our actions say, “In order to be saved you must learn to understand and appreciate our music, our culture, our version of community, our attitude toward you as an unbeliever.” This is not good news.

It used to be that you could distinguish between local “ministry” and cross cultural “missions.” Not anymore. Your influence will not grow– your “light” will not shine brighter– simply by doing more of what you’ve been doing. Your comfort in your setting is keeping you from being effective in ministry because you assume that you’re a member of the culture you work in. You’re not. You’ve got to be a missionary to the culture in which you find yourself.

Unfortunately, it’s not enough to simply join a culture. It won’t do to just blend in. Contextualization begins with dressing, talking, and acting the part, but it doesn’t end there. Our mission to make disciples requires us to incarnate the gospel by communicating and demonstrating what a disciple would look like in this culture. Crossing cultures requires us to live as models of what it would look like if they came to faith from within their own cultural context. This can be difficult, to say the least.

Incarnation requires that we do our homework. We have to deliberately and intentionally join the conversations that are happening within the culture. This means reading, watching, attending, eating, and experiencing the same things that our people do. But we’ve got to do it wisely. We can’t just passively consume the way dead people do, we’ve got to have our guard up, be in tune with the Spirit, and never go alone. We must learn the language of the “locals” in order to build redemptive relationships with them.

For too long, our ecclesiology has been divorced from our missiology. We must begin to see ourselves –our churches– as missionaries.

You’re Not From Around Here Anymore

The biggest obstacle to a church truly becoming missional is a mistaken sense of citizenship. Missionaries to foreign lands understand quite well (and quickly!) that ministry among a different people requires them to change the way they see things- they learn language in order to communicate, they study culture in order to relate, they build relationships in order to love. This sort of immersion is fundamental to the establishment and growth of the Church among a people. Without it, the Way of Jesus remains just another imperialistic foreign religion.

Being missional is about applying missionary thinking to everyday life. It means giving up expectations (delusions?) of unearned social credibility, common morality, or programmatic attractional ministry. A church is missional when it actively and intentionally goes out into its surrounding community and engages people in redemptive relationships on the culture’s terms. The result of this ongoing activity is a truly indigenous church that is continually translating the gospel into the local context in word and deed.

What prevents churches from becoming missional is their inability to see themselves as foreigners (“strangers,” or “aliens”). When you live in the town you grew up in, when your best friends are the ones you’ve known since elementary school, when you don’t have an accent and everyone around you looks just like you, it’s difficult to see yourself as an outsider. When you have your own space (building, campus, etc.), when you enjoy favor with the government, when your neighbors automatically modify their behavior to conform to your values when they’re in your presence, it’s hard to be convinced that you don’t belong.

By grace, we are saved into God’s Kingdom. Our citizenship is transferred from the earthly place where we were born to the heavenly place where God rules. Our ongoing presence on earth means that we are now sent as ambassadors- representatives of Jesus to the unbelieving societies among which we live. Our physical location may not have changed, but our orientation certainly has.

When you’re an outsider in your own culture, you’re careful about being to comfortable in it. You immerse yourself in the human story in order to influence the people who are still slaves to it. You watch movies, eat food, play games, attend parties, read books– all for the sake of incarnation. Not that there isn’t much to enjoy (there is!), but that we enjoy this life because of our relationship with God, not because of our relationship with this world.

Mission is a fundamental part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. That part has been neglected by churches that do nothing to be on mission. It has been relegated to program by “mission trip” churches. It has been outsourced to “the professionals” by passively involved churches. By not developing the missional aspect of Christianity, the church has stunted its growth and sapped the power of its influence.

When the church sees itself as foreign, its perspective will change. It will rethink its methodologies, its public relations, and its structure. It will lose its sense of entitlement and its claim to rights. It will stop assuming or pursuing “home court advantage.” It will not overestimate its ability to influence people or speak into culture.

Only the church that sees itself as alien can truly be missional.

Without Diplomatic Immunity

It’s not easy being an official representative of one nation to another. Diplomatic emissaries often find themselves in difficult situations- delivering bad news to hostile hosts. Miscommunication, even between friendly states, can be costly. Good ambassadors work hard to learn local culture and language in order to be effective communicators, but when the message isn’t what they were hoping to hear, leaders tend to take it out on the messenger. This it why the Geneva Convention mandates diplomatic immunity.

Diplomatic immunity is a law that protects official representatives of a nation by not holding them accountable to local laws or regulations. This is why the French Ambassador can smoke Cuban cigars on the steps of the United Nations building (or in the lobby when it’s cold outside). This is why the official representative of the unofficial nation of Kurdistan can drive as fast as he’d like on the turnpike. Diplomatic immunity means that while on “mission,” a nation’s spokesperson doesn’t have to deal with parking tickets, auto registration, or fishing licenses.

Immunity from prosecution insures that diplomats are treated with a certain amount of respect. Honor the messenger, the thinking goes, and you can count on civility between his nation and yours. Ambassadors are given full authority to speak on behalf of the nation they represent, and making China pull over and take a breathalyzer test is bad for business, no matter how badly its Consul might be swerving as he drives his unregistered SUV down the highway.

Christians, of course are representatives of God’s kingdom. Our presence in the world is for the purpose of communicating a Message and fostering a good relationship with citizens of our host cultures. We do this by being present in the community, attending local events, getting to know people, and sharing with them the unique characteristics of the Kingdom we represent.

The difficulty of our mission is that our message is generally offensive. We’re tasked with finding the most effective way to communicate that message, and “cultural translation” requires our exposure to people and behaviors that run contrary to the values of our Kingdom. To make matters worse, our fellow messengers sometimes break protocol and hurt our reputation, risking our access to the societies to which we’ve been assigned. Hostile parties have spread misinformation about us. Some of us may hold tightly to political protection by freedom-of-speech or assembly laws, but the truth is that as spiritual emissaries of the Most High God, we don’t have diplomatic immunity.

Despite the power vested in us by the One who sent us, we have no credibility in this place. We’re not respected as ambassadors- possibly because the consequences for failure to recognize our Kingdom are not immediately obvious to our host cultures.

If we really saw ourselves as representatives without diplomatic immunity, how would it change the way we interact with the cultures in which we move?

Jesus the Missionary

0700B_032Believers often look to the life and ministry of the Apostle Paul as the model for missions. He did, after all, travel around telling people about Jesus and leave a trail of networked churches in his wake. But Paul isn’t the best picture of a missionary.

Paul didn’t seem to0 concerned with contextualization- mostly because he stayed within his own context. Sure, he moved in and out of different societies: Jews, Gentiles, Greeks, Romans. But these were the subcultures he lived among well before his call to mission. We don’t see Paul having to learn different languages, for example, his Hebrew served him well among the Jewish community, and his Greek allowed him to communicate everywhere else. He traveled within the Roman Empire, where, as a Roman citizen, his was the dominant culture. For the most part, Paul was already a member of the tribes he ministered to. That’s not to say that he wasn’t a missionary; let’s just consider him more of a “home” missionary than a “foreign” missionary.

The best example of a missionary? Jesus.

The Incarnation was the greatest mission trip ever. When the eternal Word became a human being, He left His home to live in a very different place in order to communicate God’s love for mankind. He didn’t hang on to his divine cultural identity, instead he traded it for the humiliation of being a helpless human child. We consider it “extreme” when an American missionary adopts indigenous dress; I wonder how long it took for God to get used to the confines of the human form. Some missionaries spend years learning the local language- Jesus probably took what, two, two-and-a-half years? He didn’t even have a foreign accent!

Jesus’ whole life was about context. When He was tempted by the Enemy, he could have smited (smote?) him with lightening bolts from His fingers, but He didn’t because that’s not how we did things in human culture back then. When He was nailed to a cross, He could have given the signal for a million angels to swoop in and take Him down, but He didn’t, because He thought it was important to suffer on our terms. Without the credibility of being recognized as God, Jesus entered the human conversations around religion, social norms, philosophy, and politics. He did this so that we would believe in Him.

Of course, Jesus also gave humanity glimpses of his culture of origin. He healed and forgave people, and He bucked even the most deeply ingrained customs if they contradicted His message. Jesus stood up against social inequality, dead religion, oppressive leadership, and political ideologies. He followed our rules for things like time and space and the need to breathe air so that we would be able to relate to Him and begin to understand what He was saying. He played the part, but only until the time was right.

At just the right moment, Jesus broke the cultural rules. Big ones, too- like death and gravity and walking through walls. He did this because it was time to show that was was, indeed, not from around here. He had come for a reason, motivated by love and a clear mission. That makes Him the best missionary of all.

Merry Christmas, dear reader.

You’re Afraid

robot_girl_hidingDear Pastor,

I’ve always been perplexed by your lack of direct involvement in international missions. It’s not that you shy away from preaching about international issues. You often encourage social action- you’ve led your church’s campaign to help local public schools. You support a child in a poverty-stricken village in Malaysia. You’ve raised money to finance the digging of wells in Africa.

You certainly talk quite a bit about God’s global activity and about our mandate to go and make disciples. You talk about being missional and living out your faith in your community. Your church often engages in service projects in your city- no-strings-attached ministry to people in need. You welcome people of all sorts into your gatherings.

You’re not stingy, either. Your church gives lots of money to various ministries both local and abroad. You sent a truckload of water bottles to help Katrina victims. You support missionaries in different parts of the world. You preach boldly about generous and sacrificial giving for the sake of this work.

But still, when it comes to planting indigenous churches among people of other nations that do not know Jesus, you’re not doing much at all. You redefine the word “mission,” so that everything the church does somehow falls under this new, catch-all category, but when we talk about the work of crossing cultures with the gospel, you don’t have much to offer.

After meeting you, visiting your church, listening to your podcast, reading your blog, and following you on Facebook and Twitter, I believe I have some insight into your lack of participation: You’re afraid.

You’ve never been on a mission trip or vision trip because you’re terrified buy the thought of leaving the comfortable life you’ve built for yourself. The prospect of going without Starbucks and Tex-Mex and Super Wal-Mart is hard for you to swallow.

You shirk spiritual responsibility for engaging a people group with the gospel because it’s outside your are of “expertise.” The meaning of the gospel and it’s practical application to your local expression- that you can do. But wading into the unknown waters of another culture? You’re not used to not knowing how to act or what to say.

You’re comfortable with being known and respected in your social circles. You’re the pastor, after all, and people value your perspective on everything from theology to politics to technology. Outside your context though, you’re a nobody. You have no credibility in foreign lands. You suspect this, of course, and choose to stay home.

Everybody knows that missions can be hard. In addition to language learning, thoughtful dialog, and cultural exegesis, required skills may include auto mechanics, carpentry, hunting- even self-defense. Your skill set doesn’t require getting your hands dirty. You’re more comfortable studying, preaching, leading meetings, finding the best deals on a book at, or managing multiple Twitter accounts. The difficulty of the mission frightens you.

So go ahead- preach about taking responsibility being a “real man.” Ridicule those who lead smaller churches or sing “sissy” songs to Jesus. Watch your Ultimate Fighting and mock anyone who disagrees with you. Your actions undermine your words. You’re afraid to be obedient in mission.

Fear, of course, is not of God. As believers, we’re not called to comfort, control, or to be the first among, well, anyone. Now is the time to repent. Now is the time to lead your church to direct involvement in God’s global mission. You’re capable, you’ve got the resources, and you’ve been commanded to go.

What are you waiting for?

What are the Alternatives?

Sitting in one Starbucks, looking across the street at another.

Sitting in one Starbucks, looking across the street at another.

Most of the time, when people make decisions, they’re not really choosing from among all the options. Call the filters, call them limitations; but things like popularity, availability, accessibility, cost, visibility, availability, and ignorance all come into play- narrowing the field of choices to (usually) just a few. Many of us who would like to see things change find ourselves pointing out the problems of a broken system. But those who are involved in the system, especially those who are invested in it, tend to stick with it because they don’t see any alternatives. The current, broken system is better than nothing, right?

  • Why do so many churches treat missions as just another program of the church?
  • Why do we pile kids into a church van, drive to an Indian Reservation to do Backyard Bible Clubs and call it “missions?”
  • Why are so few churches actively and directly engaged in planting the gospel among people who don’t know and believe it?
  • Why do missionaries treat partner churches like volunteer labor or children to be babysat?
  • Why do some only consider ministry among “unreached” people groups to me missions?
  • What are the alternatives? In each of these cases, churches and individuals act according to what they’ve been taught. They do what others are doing, they do what they think they can. They go where they think finances, prudence, and church leadership will allow. They spend what they think they can afford. They act when they think it will help them. They don’t always even know why they do what they do (and don’t don what they don’t do.)

    We need alternatives. We need to know about churches the orient their entire existence around the mission. About the value of humanitarian trips to our obedience as believers. That the Great Commission is the church’s responsibility. How churches can do so much more than paint houses and prayerwalk. That the people groups of the world are not static, and that obedience is the best  strategy. If we don’t know, it’s unlikely that we’ll do anything different.

    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.

    Real Christians are Going Christians

    5059-27548I spend a lot of time thinking about how we market missions. I know there are lots of people out there trying to advocate for unreached people and raise support for missionaries working among them. But usually, it seems that missions marketers (they prefer the word “mobilizers) appeal to the “doing” side of things. They cite statistics and show pictures of unreached peoples in an effort to motivate people to action.

    What I rarely hear, though, is the “being” argument for missions. That followers of Jesus will constantly be frustrated spiritually until they get on mission. You’re not a real Christian unless you’re a going Christian.

    The value of marketing missions as “being” is that it moves us away from worldly metrics (how many, how difficult, how lost), and toward Godly ones (obedience, Christ-likeness, prayer). Missions as being helps people understand who they are in Christ. It establishes a posture for every aspect of life. Framing the conversation around being changes the way we think about missions. Instead of focusing on what missionaries do (construction, medical care, preaching, evangelism), we can focus on who missionaries are (sinners who obediently move in and between cultures to incarnate the gospel). We often hear “I don’t want to do that” but rarely would someone say, “I don’t want to be that.”

    The Eavesdroppers

    eavesdroppingMore often than not, the conversation isn’t just between you and me. Because it takes place over blogs, Twitter, conferences, and books the pubic nature of our dialog means that others are listening in. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. What better way for the nonbelievers around us to learn about Jesus than to witness the interaction between His followers?

    But we need to be conscious of the eavesdroppers. The problems start when one party to the discussion is aware that others are listening in while the other party isn’t. Missionaries run into this all the time. Knowing that nationals or government officials or bad guys might be reading their emails or tapping their phones, workers in many parts of the world are careful to choose their words wisely. Not only to they want to avoid persecution, they also want to let eavesdroppers hear the gospel in their sometimes obscure messages to supporters back home- a difficult balance, to be sure. The supporters, however, don’t always get it.

    “We used to support some missionaries somewhere in Asia,” a deacon in a small rural church once told me, “but he never told us what he was doing over there. Why, he hardly even talked about anything spiritual at all!” The church didn’t understand what the missionary knew- others were listening in.

    A quick perusal of the comments section of any of the popular evangelical blogs shows the same ignorance- Christians interacting with Christians in un-Christlike ways. Surely the name calling and mud-slinging wouldn’t be as common if both sides of every debate remembered that frustrated Christians and  non-believers were lurking.

    Brian McLaren, Jay Bakker, or Mark Driscoll are, each for different reasons, polemical figures in certain circles. Whether you agree with them or not, these guys are aware that people are listening in. They ask certain questions and avoid answering others. They each maintain a certain public persona that earns them an audience which they in turn influence heavily. They also have loyal detractors that follow them around waiting for them to do or say something heretical, controversial, or ridiculous that can be used to discredit everything else they say or do.

    In John 11, Jesus says a prayer in front of Lazarus’ tomb. It’s not a personal prayer, though;  So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” This prayer is for the eavesdroppers- the ones all around who were watching Jesus to see what He was all about. Of course He knew the Father heard His prayers- He wanted the crowds to understand that as well. Jesus never forgot that others were around, and he behaved accordingly.

    People are watching, and your witness is at stake. Don’t forget the eavesdroppers.