Adapt, Adopt, Reject

During a recent training seminar, a leader in our region rhetorically asked: “Now, the real question is: can a Postmodern be a Christian?” As a believer who isn’t very modern, I wanted to ask: “Can a Modern worldview be compatible with a Christian one?” But it wasn’t until Dr. Robertson McQuilkin presented his talk on Postmodernism outlining those elements of postmodernism that we should adopt, what we can adapt, and what we must reject, that I saw a good way to discuss the issue. I’ve tried to address this before, but some friends pitched in to help this time. What we’ve come up with is more of an outline than a paper, but it is a work in process. Basically, we’d like to challenge people to stop thinking of the Modern worldview as good or even neutral in terms of it’s influence on our faith. Here’s what we’ve got so far:

MODERNISM
Modern tendencies we should ADOPT:
Seek the Source
We should read and know the scriptures and view them as authoritative, true, and beautiful.
If you want to know what someone said about something, the best place to go is to the source. This also follows a biblical means toward resolving personal conflict and sin issues.

Due Diligence
Care should be taken to be sure that no function of the church is overlooked, no member left out, and that we not repeat the mistakes of our those who have gone before us.

Critical Evaluation

The use of plain old common sense still has an important place in following Christ. Scripture tells us not to lean on our own understanding, but doesn’t prohibit us using our brains. Genuine critical analysis was deveoped in the modern era, won’t go away any time soon, and can serve us Christ-followers well.

Modern tendencies we should ADAPT:

Utter dependence on logic/reason.
Matters of faith are logical by human standards to the extent to which they “make sense” for the group/individual.
God cannot be proved, contained, or fully defined. But, since He reveals to us His character, He is knowable. We must recognize the beauty of the mystery of God.

Fight for the Faith
Modern Christians often see themselves as “Defenders of the Faith” whose task it is to hunt and expose false doctrine wherever it may be found by exposing its logical inconsistancies, ridiculing it, or personally attacking those who believe it. “Good” theology is revealed by the living and active God and is not such a fragile thing. We should, however, lovingly confront false teachings whenever they come up in our relational sphere of influence. Discipleship and mutual submission/accountability require it.

Absolute Truth
God’s truth (the only truth) is indeed absolute, but our understanding of it is always subject to the limitations of our human perspective. We will never have full and complete knowledge of truth this side of heaven, and we must always recognize that our interpretations are from a limited perspective.

Truth is knowable as a person. Jesus is God revealed to humanity in history, and He continues to be active today.

Labels are helpful. While labels tend to be negative and prone to gross generalizations, they are indespensible for meaningful conversation. If we cannot define what we mean, we cannot communicate anything.

Modern tendencies we should REJECT:

Radical Dichotomies
Faith/Science: Faith should not/does not come into play only at the limitations of science. Science is good for helping humanity learn about the ourselves and our environment. This shoud allow us to be better stewards of the resources God blesses us with.

Christian/NonChristian: The (now global) Christian subculture is an example of the people of God withdrawing from the world and creating their own “safer,” “better,” “God-pleasing” version of it. It is neither “safer” nor “better,” and only serves to remove us from the mission God has commissioned us to.

Good/Evil: The Enemy is not God’s opposite. Fear has no place in the Christian Life. God’s good has/will overcome evil in the world. C.S. Lewis said that “Even the devil is God’s devil.” This leaves a lot for us to work out (i.e.: the problem of evil), but is a more Biblical perspective.

That Faith Requires Religion
Jesus rejected the religious requirements of the Pharisees every time He came across them. Yet moderns tend to replace the child-like faith Jesus talked about with religious traditions. While faith necessarily brings with it good works, Jesus did not come to start a new world religion. The first “Christians” continued to identify with and continue in the Jewish religion. We must recognize that as we mature in Christ there are a) certain things we are compelled to do, b) certain things we are compelled to avoid, and c) things we should continue to do, but with a new, Christian motivation.
Mimicking the World’s Systems
The Church is not a business. To manage it as such is to subjugate it to the world’s standards of success, performance, and relationship. This affects the way we “hire” and “fire” personnel, manage interpersional conflict, and approach the lost people around us.

The Gospel is not just information. There is more to the Good News than the propositional message. The Christian task is more than dissemination of information; it is contextualization, translation, and lifestyle support of the Truest Message of All.

Missions must not be viewed as a finite task, but as an ongoing act of obedience. Years of “what’s it gonna take?” mentality has perpetuated a human-centered, militaristic, utilitarian interpretation of the Great Commission that effectually keeps us one step ahead id the Holy Spirit.
Institutionalization
To many modern thinkers, the church IS the institution we see around us. The goal of the whole Great Commission exercise is to build a better institution which does a better job of getting to gospel out (or of discipling, or raising money, or whatever). Postmoderns would simply rather do these things themselves, organically or in affinity-related groups.

The distance between the scripture and my life is actually quite short: I read the scripture and I obey it. All the better if I can obey it with some others who are willing, like-heearted and (hopefully) fun. There is no reason to make this distance unnecessarily greater by requiring that we build instituions to obey scripture.

Some things work better in instituions: car manufacturing, delivery of gas, electricity and other commodities, surgery (!) all require infrastructure or a controlled environments which necessitates institution.

Relational things, heartfelt things, passionate things don’t institutionalize well. We shouldn’t try.

The “Silver Bullet” mentality
This mentality, rampant in modern thinking and in churches, assumes that when the right formula, combination of factors, leadership or Tipping Point is discovered, success will inevitably result. This thinking, an outworking of modern mechanization, simply deosn’t work in God’s economy. He’s much more concerned about our obedience and our heart for Him than in us finding and practicing the right formula. The only Silver Bullet in following Christ is…well, following Him.

Well, what do you think?

Be True To Your School

In my last post, I wrote about the resolution to “Develop an exit strategy from public schools” that is being proposed to the Southern Baptist Convention. Since we’re trying to put together an effective entrance strategy here in Western Europe (doing the opposite of what the resolution calls for), I’ve decided to put myself in the shoes of someone back in the states and give some suggestions for engaging our communities through the public school system:

They aren’t well-paid. They work long hours, and they are “on call” 24 hours a day. Their impact is great, but they receive little recognition. They share their testimonies and beliefs every chance they get, thought they often deal with strict regulations against openly sharing their faith. I’m not talking about missionaries to far-off places, here; this is the life of your average Christian public school teacher. Which brings me to my first point:

1. Local churches need to start treating public school teachers as missionaries. I mean it. A commissioning service, full prayer support, maybe even some financial assistance. They are doing missions by sharing life with people in natural ways. Everything they teach, every opinion they give is heavily influenced by their relationship with Jesus. We see it so clearly in foreign lands- missionaries in China teaching English classes- but for some reason we put teachers in a different category. They go through culture shock. They have to learn a “foreign” language. They have to be creative, patient, and culturally relevant. It’s time we recognize that.

What if, instead of pulling out of the public school system, we pushed our way into it? What if the public school system was flooded with Christian students, teachers, and administrators?

2. We need to start sending teachers into the system. Whenever a young person asks me about becoming a missionary, I always encourage them to look for ways outside the professional missionary system. Having the title “Missionary” brings with it more barriers and obstacles than we often realize. What if we started recruiting, training, and sending young people into the public school system as missionaries to their communities? We send short-term semester and summer missionaries to rough, inner-city areas to minister, why not send qualified teachers into those schools that are desperate for teachers anyway?

3. We need to be intentional about training and sending our children to public schools. What if we trained them, even the young ones, to study the culture of their class at school? What if we prepared them to face the dangers of their particular mission field and helped them get spiritually ready to face each day in that context?

4. Parents must get involved. The public school system began it’s sex education program in the fourth grade when I was in public school. My mom went and previewed the films and curriculum, and then made me read a James Dobson book to supplement what was being taught. Ok, so I don’t recommend giving kids a James Dobson book, but I think she had the right idea. If parents know what’s being taught to their kids, they can counter those worldly things with truth. This way, kids know what the world says, and learn to contrast that with what the Bible says.

But parents aren’t only limited to reviewing curriculum. They can join the PTA, be a “Class Mom,” or a Teacher’s Aid. They can get on all those committees, boosters, clubs, and organizations that actually decide what the public school does. At our local school, there was a PTA committee that decided whether or not a church plant could meet on the campus on Sundays. Parents can even substitute teach. This would extend the parent’s influence to reach not only their own kids, but other kids in the community as well.

5. To affect change, service is the answer. We have “work days” at church, why don’t local churches organize and sponsor work days at the local public schools? The administrators are always looking for ways to save money. What if some Christians came in and raked leaves or repainted the lockers? Schools always need recess monitors and traffic controllers and crossing guards. A Bible Study group could supply refreshments for the School Board meetings. Doing these things, without expecting special favors in return and without any strings attached, would affect the local public schools for the better. What if the school administrators didn’t have to see Christians as their enemies? Wouldn’t it be something if, when faced with a need, the principal felt he could call the local church for help?

So I guess what I’m proposing here is that we develop an “entry and engagement strategy” for the public schools. Not so we can make them “Christian,” but so we can make to most of this great opportunity we have to interact with and serve our communities. Our involvement is what will help our children. It is being salt and light.

In Western Europe, missionaries develop and implement these sorts of strategies in order to engage their communities and plant churches. We would start here and go even further, looking for those existing entry points into the community and making the most of them. What if the churches that send us were doing the same back home?

Entrance Strategy

Every year, Southern Baptists from across the United States get together in an annual Convention. This is a time for them to discuss denominational direction, elect leaders, and share what God is doing. One key part of the meeting is the proposal of resolutions. These are actions that members would like the denomination as a whole to support. Because they are passed by majority vote, approved resolutions say a lot about the Southern Baptist Convention. An example would be the resolution to boycott Disney. It was passed in 1997, and called on all Southern Baptists to boycott all media, products, and properties of the Walt Disney Company.

As this year’s convention in Greensboro, North Carolina nears, several resolutions are being proposed. One that I find particularly troubling is a resolution calling for Southern Baptist churches to develop an exit strategy from public schools.” Now this is not a new one- Al Mohler proposed it a couple years ago. But the attitude behind it is frustrating.

As a missionary, my job is to enter into a community and translate the gospel into the culture of the people there. It isn’t easy. I spend a lot of my time the things that influence people and learning how they think and behave. The most challenging part about it all is finding ways to meet people and interact with them in meaningful ways. With rules against us taking jobs here and no funds to pay for joining clubs and other activities, we struggle to find common ground with the few people God brings to us. Despite the difficulty, (and the fact that we aren’t wanted here!) we continue to seek new ways to engage the population. Why? Because God brought us here to be salt and light, and He has given us everything we need in order to be who we need to be.

But while we are looking for an entrance strategy to get access to lost people, we hear about believers back home wanting to develop an exit strategy. These are brothers and sisters who share our same commission to make disciples, but don’t face a language/culture barrier, and have natural access to the lost people of their communities. Forgive my frustration, but it seems that these folks don’t appreciate the opportunity God has provided in the public school system.

I know what goes on in public schools. I understand that they aren’t teaching biblical truth. I know that things go on there that are not God-honoring. Sure, people are concerned about their children’s learning and development. It makes sense that parents would want to protect their kids from the sin that infests the system. I’m not interested in getting into a debate about home-schooling. Really. Please. I respect a parent’s right and responsibility to select the best form of education for their kids. I don’t think homeschooling is wrong. I know there are other ways for kids to be involved with their peers. As far as I’m concerned, it about the attitude.

I am frustrated that my denomination would consider supporting the development of an “exit strategy” from public schools because it is indicative of an attitude that is the opposite of missional. If the people who are in favor of this resolution were really thinking of themselves as missionaries; really looking for ways to engage the people around them, I wonder if they wouldn’t reconsider. On the field, our families are in constant spiritual danger. We are surrounded by materialism, sexual sin, drug use, the occult, and other enemy activity. Obedience to God’s call and direction requires exposure to sinful things. When God sent us, He knew what our kids would go through. He knew how it would break our hearts to see MK’s deal with things that children shouldn’t have to deal with. We know first-hand the importance of putting on spiritual armor. But we do it because we’re here to be incarnational to the people here.

We see it pretty clearly here. Have our brothers and sisters in the States lost sight of that?

I’m concerned about the message this attitude sends to our children. This sort of isolationism is what has made Christianity ineffective and irrelevant; not only to the world, but to our children and ourselves. It has led to the construction of a “Christian” subculture that takes us off the front lines of ministry and lulls us into complacency, trusting our “Christian” version of the world to be safe and, well, Christian.

How can we justify separating ourselves from the world because it isn’t pleasing to God? How can we prepare our children to engage the culture and to work redemptively within it if we take them out of it? Shouldn’t we as parents expect to supplement our children’s education with discipleship? Couldn’t we use their exposure to sinful things as an opportunity to teach them to find bridges to sharing the gospel, discern right from wrong and truth from lies, and to avoid fear of the world? What if we started thinking of ourselves as missionaries, and started training our children to be on mission as well?

A Package Deal

Lately I’ve been accused (and by “I,” I mean someone else entirely, but with whom I mostly agree) of wanting to “pick and choose” from contradictory “systems” of belief. The accusation sounded a little bit like this:

“Your concern for social justice is clearly “Social Gospel.”
Your anti-death penalty stance is taken from the Liberal’s political agenda.
Your references to God’s sovereignty in salvation sounds very Calvinistic.
You talk about postmodernism as though you’ve really bought into all of it.
You quote R-rated movies like someone who is well acquainted with worldly things.
Your environmental concerns put you in the company of hippies and tree-huggers…”

Ok, I’m sure you get the point, but it goes on.

“And all of the above sounds just like that Blue Like Jazz guy, so you’re one of those.”

Or, even better (worse?):

“You may not recognize it, but I’ve seen all this before. It’s just the same old liberalism dressed up in new, trendy clothes.”

Where do we get the idea that everything comes as part of a package? (Ok, so I’m pretty sure I know where we get it, I’m asking for the sake of discussion.) Why do we have to put everything in neat little categories? Even more importantly, why do we assume that belief in one aspect of a system means adherence to the whole thing?

I’m really into the idea of redemption lately. I’ve seen God take things that were clearly not God-pleasing and turn them into beautiful instruments of praise. To me, that should be our standard for picking and choosing. Environmentalism is good stewardship of creation. I that’s a redeeming quality, whether the “issue” is associated with nature-worshippers or not.

Just for fun, here are some more things I believe in. I am:

-Pro-life because I believe that life is sacred. (Not just criminally innocent lives, but all life.)
-Pro-peace, because I am pro-life, and because peace is evidence of the Spirit.
-For engagement of culture, because Jesus’ incarnation modeled that for us.
-For immigration, because the places people come from aren’t always good places for them to live.
-For church/state separation, because it might not always be “us” in charge.
-For freedom of expression, for the same reason.

Just Asking

I recently attended a conference workshop where the speaker asked a lot of questions. She was talking about postmodernism (yeah, we still have to have the “Postmodernism” talk every time we get together), and sharing from her experience with a postmodern European guy. She presented their interaction as a case study, to illustrate the challenge of cultural translation of the good news. After she told her story she, for the sake of discussion, asked her audience: “So what would you do if you were in my shoes and ministering to this postmodern European guy?”

And then it began.

Instead of taking the speaker’s question (she is an excellent communicator, by the way) as a conversation-starter, they heard her asking for advice on how to handle the situation. Never mind the fact that the speaker was asked to speak because of her wisdom and experience in ministry to postmoderns. Never mind that she had already been ministering to this individual for some time. People actually raised their hands and offered their answers to her “problem!”

“Have you tried confronting him about his sin?”
“You should give him a copy of ‘Evidence That Demands A Verdict.’”
“I’d move him to the back burner and look for someone more open to the gospel.”

I’ll admit that I was secretly comforted by the response the speaker received. I’ve often found myself in the same situation; asking questions to inspire discussion but met with words of advice from an oblivious audience. Until now, I thought it was me.

Now, please don’t hear me say that I don’t want or need the wisdom of others. I, of all of us, certainly do. But there’s something disheartening about interactive discussion being shut down by a know-it-all. More than the answers, I think it’s the attitude that ruins things. It’s the “I’ve already got these things figured out. I’ll go to the trouble of sharing the solutions with you, but I won’t venture to honestly revisit the question.” You can almost hear them saying: “Look, I gave you the answer. I solved your problem. If you spend any more time talking about it, you’re a fool.”

But what that says to people like me (as if there were more than just me) is that the know-it-alls don’t really have it figured out at all. They have a working “solution,” and either for fear, laziness, or ignorance, won’t suffer questioning it again. I never want to be that guy. But for some reason, our subculture often seems to hold “that guy” up as the leader.

I am encouraged, though. It’s been a long time since “that guy” has been invited to lead a workshop.

I say, let’s ask questions. Even the ones we answered a long time ago. Especially the ones that are scary to ask. Let’s, for the sake of discussion, re-ask questions about God and His people from the perspective of know-nothings. I think there’s a lot to be learned by asking questions. Don’t you?

Degrees of separation (from Jesus)

1. Kate Winslet was in Titanic with Leonardo DiCaprio
2. Leonardo DiCaprio was in Catch Me If You Can with Tom Hanks
3. Tom Hanks was in Apollo 13 with Kevin Bacon

You’re probably familiar with the game “Six Degrees of Separation (Kevin Bacon),” where one player picks an actor, and the other players list a string of co-stars and supporting actors that connect that actor to Kevin Bacon. Apparently, Kevin Bacon is the center of the film universe. If you’ve never tried it, you should. If you’re lazy, or if you don’t want to admit to watching rated-R movies, there’s a Bacon Calculator to do it for you at the “Oracle of Bacon.”

Lately I’ve been reminded of the Kevin Bacon game a lot. I spent the last week talking with missionaries from around Western Europe, and I was encouraged to hear their stories. I really had no idea what some of them were doing in their places of service (and in more than one case, I had never even heard of their place of service). Anyway, one thing that struck me about nearly every story I heard was how they related the great spiritual need they they found every day. It seemed like everyone I spoke with felt the need to tell me how lost their people group or city really was.

For example:
“We’re working with university students in Salamanca. There are one hundred and fifty thousand students there, and the city is less than point-five percent evangelized.”

“Our team is working with Cambodians in Dusseldorf, and they are the largest UPG in the world.”

It’s not just the numbers. As if work in a city of five million was somehow more important than work in a village of thirty thousand. Ok, so maybe it is the numbers that bother me. But I’ve written enough about how I don’t think we should let numbers determine our strategy. My question now is about degrees of “lostness.” Are some people more lost than others? What is it that makes missionaries measure their importance by the perceived challenge of “reaching” a bigger, “loster” people group?

Is a historically “Christian” people group closer to Jesus than a Muslim one? Maybe we should measure lostness by distance from the land where Jesus Himself walked (as the crow flies). Should we consider the ones that sin more to be further from salvation? Maybe the less civilized? I guess that biblically, we could argue that the richer nations have a harder time entering the Kingdom…

So now we’re back to the Kevin Bacon game: Are there degrees of separation from God? Are some people more lost than others? I get that some people are more spiritually minded than others, and that some are nearer than others to that point of belief that comes with a relationship with the Creator. And of course, God uses encounters with believers to draw people to Himself. But if a person or people group is separated from God, aren’t they still only one step away from Him? I believe that people are only separated by one degree from God. After all, it isn’t us that bridge the gap between them and Him. Forget Kevin Bacon, Jesus is the relational center of the universe.

It’s My Job

I have devoted the last four years of my life to the study of a language and culture that are not my own. When I started, I thought of these people only in stereotypes and generalities. Every new observation or bit of insight was applied to the whole. “Everyone here,” I can remember thinking, “hates me because I’m an American.” To me, the rude guy at the gas station represented an entire nation of rude people just like him. The poor customer service at the post office meant that it didn’t exist anywhere in the country. Ok, so maybe some of my observations were universal.

Life in another language is like taking a cold shower. The best way to start is to just jump in all at once. Even then, you don’t enjoy it. We say that we get used to it, but really we just become so numb it doesn’t bother us anymore. It takes about a month to get over the feeling that everyone around is talking about you. Another month before you can tell the difference between angry shouting and just regular talking. Every week after that, your chances increase that you’ll get what you think you ordered in a restaurant. I love picture menus, even though the food never really looks as good in person.

So now I know stuff. I know that I’m not the only one that the waiter is rude to, and that the person I’m meeting will be late, but if I am, I’ll get a text message asking where I am. I can really notice how much I’ve learned when new people come. Volunteers can be pretty oblivious, but other missionaries are the best barometers of cultural acclimation. I love the feeling of knowing what’s going on while the new guy is totally lost. I replace “When I was your age…” with “when I first got here…,” but otherwise, I’m the wistful old man of our team. All I need now is a rocking chair (and a porch), and I could keep you up all afternoon telling stories of times when I put my foot in my mouth or accidentally called a police officer a woman to his face.

I continue to study because it’s my job and I’m fascinated by it. I love learning why people here do what they do. Especially when they don’t even know. In a way, all this study, all this intentional living amongst these people makes me a bit of an expert. I’m not trying to sound proud or anything, but I most likely know more about the people to whom I’m ministering than you do. (Easy for me to say since I haven’t exactly told you who the people are.) Odds are that you’ve never even met someone from my people group, much less turned down the alcoholic beverage he offered while sitting on his sofa watching home videos of his niece’s Confirmation.

So that’s what I bring to the table. I’m not a good public speaker, and I don’t know how to play any musical instruments. But I have cultural insight that is unique to the people I work with here in Western Europe. I can tell you how someone from this city might respond to a gospel presentation. I know how they are likely to view us as outsiders, and I’m familiar with their felt needs. I have seen glimpses of the Church in this culture, and it doesn’t look very much like it does in American culture. In a lot of ways, that has been the payoff for all the work and stress of living in another culture; to see the Church in a different light.

Thank you for supporting us to be students of these different cultures. Thank you for trusting us to represent Jesus among people that aren’t looking for Him. Thank you for allowing us to translate the gospel into these cultures and plant indigenous churches that worship God in their own languages. Thank you for providing a way for me to do what I’m called to do.

Full Time

One of the most difficult things about this job, as any professional minister will tell you, is figuring out what the job is. Sure, lots of churches go to great lengths to define the roles of their staff members. And I answered a pretty well-written job request when I came to the field. But no matter how hard we try to make it look like one, my job will never be a real job. Even if I punch a clock, it won’t ever begin at 8:30 am and end at 6:00 pm. Being a church planter defies planning. Preparation, of course, but there is no way to schedule the birth and growth of a spiritual family.

Busyness comes in waves. We’ll have a hundred volunteers in one month, and that’s when national friends come out of the woodwork to spend time with us. Then we’ll go months without a call. We find ourselves pursuing anyone who will take our calls. So far, the only way we’ve found to guarantee that people call us is to schedule a vacation. As soon as we book our flights we’re certain to get an invitation to a wedding or baptism or soccer game.

A lot of what we do seems like busywork. We fill out reports. We start projects, make contacts, and build websites. Sometimes, it’s easy to get so caught up in the preparation for ministry that we don’t have time to, you know, minister.

I’m still not sure if we all start out that way, or if it’s being on the field that affects us, but missionaries are weird. We work really hard to learn language, which ends up making us really dumb in our own language. We talk about missing things like Wal-Mart and American Idol and customer service. We still wear the clothes we bought off the Gap sale rack while we were on our last stateside assignment. In 1997.

Our job depends on something only God can do. Only He can save someone. Only He knows the heart of the people we’re here to love. Only He can start a movement of faith among these people. My job is “Church Planter,” but only God can plant a church. Sometimes, I wish I was a mechanic or something. A job where you’re done when the car is fixed or the clock strikes six, whichever comes first.

Babble On

I had been here six months when I found myself talking with a friend who was not a believer. The only English he spoke was the HTML code he had picked up in a “Web Design for Dummies” class. I had only been studying his language since I arrived on the field, so I could hardly claim to be fluent. As usual, we started off talking about politics. Anarchy, I think, or something else I know nothing about. Then we got to the topic of family. His was very important to him, but he often felt suffocated by their constant dependence on him. He hated always having to help his grandparents and run errands. I say, that’s what you get for living at home until you’re 32.

Our leisurely discussion explored the limits of my language skills. I’ve always measured how well I can speak by how much the other person scrunches their face as they work to understand me. In any given conversation, my friend would go from a James Dean to a Gilbert Gottfried. He was at about a Dirty Harry when we got into spiritual things that day, and I was struggling to find the words to express such abstract concepts as forgiveness, prayer, and Vacation Bible School. I started to pray panic prayers when I realized that he was very interested in what I had to say, but that my language level wasn’t yet good enough to allow me to communicate.

But something happened as I shared my faith with my friend. Actually, nothing happened, which was strange. We just kept on talking. About knowing our creator, and about fuller life and about purpose. We talked about Jesus, and I shared some of my most personal thoughts about my faith. My friend told me that if he were ever going to believe in a god, that mine was the kind he’d like to believe in. Before our talk, he didn’t even know Jesus was a way, much less the way.

It wasn’t until I was home, praying for my friend to be haunted by the truth in our conversation, that I realized how un-scrunched my friend’s face had been while we talked. My friend had understood me, and he hadn’t been distracted by my American accent that often gets in the way. I had said things correctly in a language I had hardly known. We had talked about things I wasn’t capable of discussing. I had used words I had never learned. He didn’t have to correct me, help me, or ask his usual “What is it that you’re trying to say?” He heard Good News in his heart language.

The discussion replayed over and over in my mind that night, like one of those television dramas that frames the flashbacks in hazy, blurry border in order to make them seem more, you know, dramatic. I am convinced that the Holy Spirit spoke for me that day. I’m certain that He gave me words beyond my ability in order to communicate with my friend through me. Something supernatural had happened. Just to keep me humble, I had a miserable experience at a restaurant that night. I didn’t get what I thought I had ordered. The waiter didn’t understand me.

I don’t speak in tongues. I’m not allowed to. IMB policy prohibits me from participating in that sort of thing. It might not have been only the Holy Spirit that helped me, anyway. It was probably more like half Him, and half the intensive language course that I had taken. In fact, maybe I was just having a really good language day that day. I’ve been praying for more of those every day.

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.