Words, Symbols, and Pictures


Though I’ve finished with my series on the scripture translating The Seed Company, I can’t stop thinking about the importance of translation to mission.

Early Spanish and French “explorers” (their countries refer to them as “missionaries,” others call them “conquerors”) traveled to the New World to expand kingdoms- both God’s and their kings’. Not being able to communicate verbally, the Catholic explorers used the pictures in their Bibles to share Christianity with the natives. When all you’ve got is one picture of a mother holding her child and another with her crying at his feet as he hangs on a cross, you end up with a syncretistic Virgin Mary cult.

Mission is translation. Taking the gospel from one context (the one in which you received it) and translating it into another context (that in which you find yourself) is the human aspect of mission.

Translation into written languages is a challenging enough, but translating the gospel into a culture that has no written language can be extremely difficult. The language must be learned by the translator, codified with the assistance of nationals, and then taught back to the people. The process takes a very long time and requires persistence, creativity, and skill.

Since we’re all missionaries, we’re all translators of sorts- taking the gospel from the Christianized context in which we received the message and translating it out to those around us who do not know Christ. What you may not recognize, though, is that many of the “tribes” we work and live among are post-literate.

A group is post-literate when images, or symbols becomes their primary mode of graphical communication. Post-literates may technically be able to sound out words on a page, but they understand and retain little of what they’ve “read.” They have become so used to bullet-points, excerpts, and snippets that their eyes do not track from one line to the next in large blocks of text. autocorrect has supplanted the ability to spell. Acronyms, emoticons, and avatars have replaced the written word. Reading is becoming a lost art.

In some ways, our efforts to accommodate post-literacy has perpetuated and even caused it. Everywhere you look you can find evidence of reading-attention deficit disorder. News articles became blurbs on a ticker and 140-character status updates. Restaurants traded descriptions of dishes for depictions of them. Churches replaced pew-back Bibles with Powerpoint slides. There are “universal” symbols for peace, laundry, and gay pride. We communicate concepts not with words but with symbols. No one has to write the word “recycle” because we all know that the triangle made of three arrows means “plastic, paper, and glass go here.”

The answer to post-literacy may lie in missionary strategies among the pre-literate. Where people have no written language, missionaries tell the gospel through story. Rather than spending time teaching people to read, Christians are relaying the story of God’s interaction with humanity through simple, memorable, and easily-retold stories. This, of course, is how the Torah was handed down through generations, and how the gospel was retained through the early spread of Christianity, the Dark Ages, and the the 1970s.

Will this work to effectively share the gospel among the post-literate? I think it can, but we must improve our story-telling abilities. As we leave the realm of Bible translation for a more subjective scripture storying, we begin to compete with the best tales and tellers a culture has to offer. As we’ve seen with the mainstream public’s indifference to film and audio adaptations of scriptural events, non-believers are more used to being entertained than challenged. I’m not suggesting we try to outdo Hollywood, I’m saying that we can’t depend on Charleton Heston anymore.

Any discussion of scripture translation is incomplete without addressing post-literacy. While we must preserve both the words of scripture and the ability to read them, we must also be prepared to share the gospel with those who do not and cannot read.

A Shocking, Scandalous Message

Joel Osteen was recently a guest on CNN’s Larry King Live Piers Morgan Tonight, where he was asked about his stance on homosexuality (clip here, entire segment here). Joel answered, in a round-about way, that he agrees with the Bible, and that the Bible was clear about homosexuality being “a sin.”

Outrage ensued. Joel was labeled “judgmental” and rebuked for “imposing his beliefs on others.” It was as if the audience had never heard a follower of Jesus communicate the belief that homosexuality is less than God’s best for humanity. Even couched in Osteen’s obliviously earnest grin, the Christian perspective on a social issue is foreign to the masses.

The truth is, it’s quite possible that millions of Americans have never heard that God has a different plan for humanity. They may never have heard a Biblical understanding of sin. Despite access to the Bible online, a church on every corner, and evangelists on TV, a great many people have never heard the gospel.

It would shock them that entry into heaven isn’t based on how good or bad we are. That God has interacted with humanity personally since the beginning of time. That Christianity isn’t about living like Jesus, it’s about dying to our sin-filled selves. The sad fact is that millions of people around us have never heard the gospel presented to them in an intelligible, coherent, and personal way.

The gospel is a shocking, scandalous message. We can never find redemption apart from Jesus. It’s offensive, really. Unfortunately, most people are not offended by the gospel because they don’t hear it.

Ask A Missionary

It’s time for another installment of the Communication, Misunderstood tour, where I offer completely unsolicited advice to missions organizations about their communication strategies.

I first stumbled upon the Ask A Missionary site while I was researching, well, questions people ask of missionaries. I was curious if anyone had compiled a sort of “frequently asked questions” for missionaries. It turns out, they have.

According to the site, Ask A Missionary was started by missions mobilizer John McVay in 1998. The site was assumed by Missions Data International (M-DAT) in 2009. Though it has a section for questions about short-term mission trips, Ask A Missionary is geared toward those who are considering long-term service. It’s basically a Yahoo Answers for long-term missions (with the answers being provided by missionaries rather than teenage girls.) The concept is pretty straightforward– users can submit questions about missions, and missionaries provide answers.

First, the good: the site is a brilliant way to make missionaries accessible to everyone. Many believers truly have no connection to a real live missionary, and the site makes it possible for people to ask very specific questions (like “I am a meteorology major and I want to serve overseas. Is there any way I could use this degree in missions?” and “How does a male, non-medical spouse fit in who raises the children? My wife is a healthcare professional and we want to serve overseas long term.”). Nothing about being a steampunk Civil War reenactor wanting to become a missionary blacksmith in Viet Nam. Yet.

The site is well-designed and easy to use. The “Ask,” “Answer,” and “Search” sections are clearly marked. Posting a question is easy (you’ll have to guess which one is mine), and it’s easy to peruse answers already given. Twitter and Facebook, integration are everywhere, and the site includes some resources for those who are ready for next steps.

There are other “Ask a missionary”-type sites, such as Urbana.org‘s  Ask Jack. But these sites use more of an “ask the expert” format, where “Ask A Missionary” seems to allow pretty much anyone who claims to be a missionary and doesn’t use foul language to post an answer. That said, I’m pretty sure answers are screened and edited before they can be seen by the public. I won’t tell you what research may have led to that conclusion.

And that’s the problem with Ask A Missionary; something about the answers on the site seems too, well, nice. In response to the question, “How can I prepare for missions when others try to discourage me?”, missionaries to Colombia and New Zealand answered with encouraging notes about having patience and self-esteem. If I were to write for the site, my answer would be more like: “Take the hint! Maybe the reason people are trying to dissuade you from going is that you’d make a terrible missionary. The last thing we need on the field are more uninteresting Lifers with no social skills.” But maybe that’s just me.

Ask A Missionary doesn’t feature many photos, but the few it does use are some of the most sterile and generic I’ve seen. I’m not sure what it is about missionaries and stock business photos, but surely an open, wiki-style site could solicit a few photos from the field. A video answer would add some visual interest, as would some photos from the field or profiles of question-askers.

Also, because answers are provided by a variety of “missionaries” from different perspectives and approaches to ministry, the site lacks a consistent voice, tone, and mood. The result is a collection of answers that lack a certain credibility or honesty that make other “expert” sites so appealing. The reason USA Today’s “Ask The Captain” works so well is that users can get to know Captain John Cox by reading the column. This builds expectations for the answers, just like call-in radio advice shows like Dr. Laura‘s or Dave Ramsey‘s. Ask A Missionary doesn’t necessarily lend itself to that sort of personalization, and suffers because of it.

Furthermore, it’s clear that some missionary responders on the site are mobilization specialists and agency recruiters. This means that their participation on the site is primarily PR. Though most of them have previous missions experience, they’re expanding the online presence of the organizations they represent. (By the way, if you are an organizational representative, you really should take advantage of Ask A Missionary as a platform and weigh in with answers to at least a couple of the questions posed there.)

If I were going to develop Ask A Missionary’s communications strategy, I would build a bullpen of several missionaries that each have some specialty. I’d then develop their personalities on the site and have them tell more of their stories as they answer questions. This would help build credibility and establish a more personal connection between “askers” and “answerers.”

In an attempt to be a bit more proactive, I’d add a section of “Questions Users Don’t Ask, But Should,” where missionaries ponder questions they wish they’d asked or known to ask.

I would approach multiple major missions sending organizations and ask them for money in exchange for links and representation on the site. When a candidate for missionary service has a question about missionary service, they go to Ask A Missionary to get quick answers from an “actual” missionary. Most organizations have layers of bureaucracy to go through; it can take several hand-offs before a curious person is connected to someone who might be able to answer their questions.

Finally, I’d have the site include commentary and questions about missionary service that are being asked on other websites. In other words, scour the internet for questions that are being asked, and address them as though they were being asked on Ask A Missionary. Then link to the original post and interact with the answers that were given. For example:

“Over on Missions Misunderstood, a commenter recently asked about the viability of business as mission in the Middle East. Our business as mission specialist, John Smith, had this to say about it…” Ideally, Ask A Missionary could then comment on E.Goodman’s answer to the original question: “Goodman advised the commenter to look into opening a Subway franchise. This is a terrible idea, because Subway sells bacon….”

You get the idea.

Though Ask A Missionary didn’t ask me, those are my two cents about their communications strategy. To M-DAT, Ask A Missionary, and all the contributors to the site, I thank you for offering such a valuable service to the church.

If there’s an organization you’d like suggest for my next Communications, Misunderstood post, please leave a comment.

YWAM, Misunderstood

In my last few posts, I offered an outsider’s perspective on Youth With A Missions’s communication efforts and strategy. I want to reiterate that my efforts were totally unsolicited, but sincere. I’m only here to help. YWAM has been very gracious in their interaction and response, and I would love to help them however I’m able.

In wrapping up my thoughts on YWAM, there are a couple things I’d like to add a word about the YWAM logo.

Every organization uses a logo. Logos serve as graphical representations in any visual media. The “about” page of YWAM’s website features what I assume to be the evolution of the organization’s logo:

Organizations often become emotionally attached to their logos. It is, after all, more than a picture, it’s an identity. But YWAM’s current logo, a stylized image of a person carrying a torch (usually with the obligatory missions-agency globe) has evolved from a literal man carrying a torch into what can only be described as a bat on a gusty day.

Previous YWAM logos explained too much– an organization carrying the Light to all the world. But the current mark needs more than an explanation, it needs a translator (and possibly an apology for frightening small children). I’d encourage YWAM to go for something professionally-designed; meaningful and recognizable without being too cheesy or typically Christian.

Finally, I encourage all the YWAM bloggers, tweeters, and Facebookers to keep the lines of communication open. The more you’re communicating, the more opportunity there is for awareness, support, and realistic expectations about missions and missionaries. Tell your stories well and often.

Love Your Filthy, Disgusting, Sinful City

I meet lots of pastors, church planters, and Christian leaders in my travels. Usually, “Where are you from?” comes only after, “What’s your name?” If you’re planting a church in inner-city Pittsburgh or rural Oklahoma, I’m going to assume that it’s because you feel called to that location. I’m not here to judge, but what other reason could you possibly have to live in Needles (which probably shouldn’t count as “California”) or Kentucky (which probably shouldn’t count as the “United States”)?

How you talk about your city says a lot about how you see it (and how you see yourself in relation to it).

“We have the largest homosexual population after San Francisco.”

“Most violent city in America.”

“Worst traffic in the country.”

“Most unchurched.” “Least evangelized.”

“Highest percentage of (_insert sin/vice/malady here_).”

If God called you to live in and love your city, why can’t you tell me anything good about it? Why not tell me about how creative the people are? Or how active? I’d like to hear about how friendly people in your town can be, or generous, or hospitable. I’d know you loved your city if you lead by bragging about its commitment to literacy, its efforts toward public health, or its fascination with high school sports. Tell me about the great food, the well-kept parks, or the quaint downtown. You say you love your city. Don’t you want me to love your city too?

My perception of many cities was colored by your description long before I even visited them. Houston and Amarillo smell bad. L.A. has gangs and traffic. Everybody in Tennessee is a narrow-minded bigot. Detroit is falling apart. Seattle is lazy (I just made that one up), and the gays are taking over Minneapolis. You don’t get extra points for living in a place you hate. The value of your presence isn’t determined by the lostness of your city.

Your focus on the negatives says a lot about how you engage the people of your city. Are you for them, or against them? Do you see them as guilty sinners (they are), or as powerless slaves? (They are.) Do you see the creative spark that God put in every human being? Do you see value in their existence? If you do, I can’t tell, because all you’ve talked about are the challenges and obstacles.

How do you talk to the other people who live in your city about your city? Say you’re watching your kids at the playground, talking to some of the other parents. Do you sound like someone who wants to be there? In line at the bank, do you come across as someone who loves your city, or someone who’s afraid of it?

Next time we talk, I’m going to ask you about your city. If you don’t have anything good to say, I’ll encourage you to move.

More than Words

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

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

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

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