The Joy of Failure in Missions: Part 1. Analysis


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Key Point #1.  Failure Analysis is beneficial to us.

My father was a mechanical engineer whose expertise was in the testing and failure analysis of roller bearings. When I was younger, I was also a mechanical engineer. When I was working on my Master’s Thesis, I was testing pultruded GRP composites for creep rupture (don’t worry if the terms don’t make sense to you… it’s “engineer-speak”). When I would check my test rig, I would be so happy to find a failure. That is because that provided a data point for analysis. When it hadn’t failed, no data point could be plotted since the only conclusion was that the failure point was at a greater time than I had, thus far, tested. Discovering failure points helped me understand the material behavior better… and that better understanding should lead to better/safer use of that material.

I believe that we should find more joy in failures than we do. Not because failures are fun. Not that they should be sought. But failures should be risked. If we never fail, perhaps it is not a sign of God’s favor… but our lack of willingness to take risks. Or perhaps our lack of willingness to analyze.

Key Point #2.  Failure Analysis Takes Balance

I recall a medical mission trip to a mountainous area in Northern Philippines. After the trip we had a meal gathering and evaluation. The meeting started with “Praise God for the victory He gave us…” and “I am so thankful that…” and so forth. Since there were some definite problems in the trip, I said: “It is wonderful to hear all these great testimonies, but so that we can learn and grow from this trip, it would also be good to talk about problems and things we can do so that they don’t happen again.” This started small. A couple of mildly negative comments… and then it grew and grew into a waterfall of problems and accusations. Oops! I did not do a good job of ensuring balance. If we simply pretend everything was perfect, we will not learn. But if we only focus on problems and failures, we also won’t learn. There were great things that happened on that trip. One of the most awesome things about that trip was how successful the trip was despite the stunninging problems.  Balance is needed.

Key Point #3.  We Should NOT Be Too Quick to Label the Cause of a Failure

Failure analysis takes… analysis. Christians often don’t care to do this (does anyone like to do this?).  When a failure in Christian ministry occurs, IF it is acknowledged, it is often labeled with one of the following (this is not an exhaustive list):


  • -Doubt or lack of faith (they are not the same)
  • -Failure to persevere
  • -Lack of spiritual disciplines
  • -Sin


  • -Not God’s will
  • -Not His timing
  • -“God is testing us”        (always a fun one… great way to avoid learning)


  • -Human opposition
  • -Spiritual opposition

Most of these have examples in the Bible.  Lack of faith can be seen with Peter faltering while walking on the water. Sin can be seen in the siege of Ai. Lack of spiritual disciplines can be seen in the disciples’ attempt to heal a demoniac child.   Spiritual opposition can be seen in the messenger of God’s delay in the book of Daniel.  Most of the others have such examples.

But look at this… if all (or at least most) of these can be found in the Bible as actual causes of failure, then (at a minimum) these ARE A NUMBER OF POSSIBLE CAUSES OF FAILURE. So when a problem comes up, Christians should consider all of these.  That takes real analysis.

What happens when we don’t analyze at all?  We repeat the same mistakes.

What happens if we are too quick to label the cause without sound analysis? Well… Consider some specific risks of mislabeling:

a.  Lack of faith? If we think failure must come from lack of faith, there is the temptation to act without contingencies in our plans. Why? Because doesn’t contingencies demonstrate a lack of faith? (I don’t believe so… I believe contingencies demonstrates our lack of omniscience regarding the future and of God’s will… both quite reasonable areas of ignorance). But many think that Plan B means lack of faith in Plan A.

b.  Lack of perseverence?  (As well as “God is testing us“)  If we assume one of these stances we ultimately refuse to learn and adapt. We keep doing the same thing the same way thinking that eventually the obstacle will give way. But sometimes we should go around a mountain or wall rather than go over or through it (or change direction).

c.  Lack of Spiritual Disciplines?  This has become popular. If God doesn’t do what you want… pray harder and longer, fast, and so forth. Unfortunately, this tends towards a more magical understanding of God(s). We become like the priests of Baal who think they can impress god by being louder, moving faster, and harming themselves more. The Bible does not describe God as one interested in homeopathic magic. For example, the Bible portrays God as one who is pretty ambivalent about fasting. Fasting may have a place as a way of physically expressing sorrow, but Micah 6 and other passages show that God is more impressed by expressions of love and justice than of starving oneself.

d.  Not God’s will or God’s timing.  Being too quick to label a failure as proof that something was not God’s will, leads to a fatalistic passivity. Even if one takes the theological view that the sovereignty of God demands that He must exercise it through complete active control (I don’t), it still seems to me that one should be open to the possibility that it is God’s will to learn, adapt, and try again.

e.  Human or Spiritual Opposition.  Perhaps these are the most popular. We are rather uncomfortable blaming God… and we are often even more uncomfortable in blaming ourselves. Human (the “them” in “them or us”) and spiritual opposition are easy targets The problem here is demonizing. Opposition implies an external enemy. But, particularly with human opposition, we may learn to work with rather than attack. The Crusades ultimately failed not because of spiritual or human opposition, but because they constituted a bad plan, poorly executed, and selfishly motivated. Ultimately, the labeling of a failure as being from human or spiritual opposition, is saying “We refuse to analyze and learn because the problem is not us… we are on God’s side and must overcome this enemy.”

f.  Sin.  Labeling failure as due to sin can often lead to a “witchhunt”. One is reminded of the Salem witch trials that were motivated by failures in the community. When I was in the Navy, I had also seen how the military (at least in the US) dealt with scandal (a form of failure). The pattern was “cover up” followed by more “cover up.” If that failed, then “witchhunt” and then “more witchhunt”. In the military I believe this was more due to public relations and “spin” rather than an honest appraisal of the cause of failure. In Christian circles we often follow the model of Joshua in Ai, searching for the sin in the camp, on the presumption that that MUST be the cause..

Can these possible causes be an actual?  Absolutely. The problems listed above are what happens when proper failure analysis is not done. Proper analysis is needed to determine the actual, rather than desirable cause of failure. However,…

Key Point #4.  Failure Rarely Only has One Cause.

I love watching Air Crash Investigation (and similar shows). It is often discovered that there was a chain of seemingly unrelated events that led to failure. They understand that finding “a cause” does not mean that one has found “the entire set of causes”. We learn from finding the whole picture rather than finding one thing or person to blame.

Key Point #5.  Labeling the Failure is NOT Addressing It.

The book of James describes a person looking in the mirror and walking away forgetting what he saw. Analyzing a failure is the same thing. Just discovering the problem is useless unless it is remembered and dealt with.

Another Roland Allen Quote. Missionaries and Leadership

Roland Allen

“The secret of success in this work lies in beginning at the very beginning. It is the training of the first converts which sets the type for the future. If the first converts are taught to depend upon the missionary, if all work, evangelistic, educational, social is concentrated in his hands, the infant community learns to rest passively upon the man from whom they receive their first insight into the Gospel. Their faith having no sphere for its growth and development lies dormant. A tradition very rapidly grows up that nothing can be done without the authority and guidance of the missionary, the people wait for him to move, and, the longer they do so, the more incapable they become of any independent action. Thus the leader is confirmed in the habit of gathering all authority into his own hands, and of despising the powers of his people, until he makes their inactivity an excuse for denying their capacity. The fatal mistake has been made of teaching the converts to rely upon the wrong source of strength. Instead of seeking it in the working of the Holy Spirit in themselves, they seek it in the missionary. They put him in the place of Christ, they depend upon him.

In allowing them, or encouraging them, to do this, the missionary not only checks the spiritual growth of his converts and teaches them to rely upon a wrong source of strength; he actually robs them of the strength which they naturally possess and would naturally use. The more independent spirits amongst them can find no opportunity for exercising their gifts. All authority is concentrated in the hands of the missionary. If a native Christian feels any capacity for Christian work, he can only use his capacity under the direction, and in accordance with  the wishes, of that supreme authority. He can do little in his own way; that is, in the way which is natural to him. Consequently, if he is to do any spiritual work outside the Church the opportunity which is denied to him within her borders, or he must put aside the desire which God has implanted in his soul to do spiritual work for Christ, and content himself with secular employment. If he does the first, he works all his life as a cripple: if he takes either of the two other courses, the Church is robbed of his help.”

This was written by Roland Allen in 1908 (Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours, A Study of the Church in the Four Provinces, chapter 8). Even if the words are over 100 years old… not much has changed. There is still a tendency for many missionaries to hoard ecclesiastical power. Perhaps the only major change is that now we are finding that some of the the next generation of local leaders have finally assumed positions of power that they hoard with as grim determination as the missionaries before them. The missionaries did it due to pragmatics and (perhaps) bigotry. The new generation theologized it. Be it locals or foreigners, the accumulation of power stifles the use of God’s gifts in the church.

Not Being Heard…

Cover of "The Call of Stories: Teaching a...

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Quote by Robert Coles in “The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination, (page 22-24) regarding people (medical patients in this case) telling their own personal life stories.

“Dr. Ludwig urged us to let the story itself be our discovery. He went so far as to joke with me: “Let’s see, this is chapter ten we’re discussing today.” He urged me to be a good listener in the special way a story requires: note the manner of presentations; the development of plot, character; the addition of new dramatic sequences; the emphasis accorded to one figure or another in the recital; and the degree of enthusiasm, of coherence, the narrator gives to his or her account.     …..  

He remarked that first-year medical students often obtain textured and subtle autobiographical accounts from patients and offer them to others with enthusiasm and pleasure, whereas fourth-year students or house officers are apt to present cryptic, dryly condensed, and yes, all too “structured” presentations, full of abbreviations, not to mention medical or psychiatric jargon. No question: the farther one climbs the ladder of medical education, the less time one has for relaxed storytelling reflection. And patients’ health may be jeopardized because of it: patients’ true concerns and complaints may be overlooked as the doctor hurries to fashion a diagnosis, a procedural plan. It is not the rare patient who approaches a second doctor with the plea that he or she wasn’t heard, that the first physician had his or her mind made up from the start of a consultation and went ahead accordingly with a diagnostic and therapeutic regimen.”

This is about medical patients and counselees, but it applies in missions as well. What is our tendency.

1.  Since we are to be witnesses for Christ, we often think that our job is to talk, not listen.

2. Since we recognize that we know what the world needs, we think that there is nothing we can learn from others. But no matter how extensive our training is, only God is all-knowing.

3.  When we do listen, we are too focused on a spiritual diagnosis leading to a response from us (evangelize, argue, proof-text, encourage, disciple), rather than listening. When we are focusing on what we are going to say next, we are not really listening. Charlie Benton, a chaplain friend of ours, likes to say that “The greatest gift you can give a person after a crisis is your full, undivided attention, trying your best to understand what they have been going through.” Listening and reflecting should proceed diagnosis.

4.  We often focus on getting them to incorporate our jargon than on gaining understanding. We often focus on spiritual health with the use of our own preferred jargon. This can become so strong in us that we confuse spiritual health with the jargon. If a person can say the right things in the right way, then they must be okay. But if we honor their own jargon as they use it, we will better understand them and what they truly think and feel.

5.  We often feel that we must defend God, rather than allow the other to express painful perceptions. Elijah, Moses, the Psalmists, and  Habakkuk all argued and challenged God. God seemed to like it. People who care, confront. If you care about God, you will probably confront him. A phrase that was used in the Navy (for the sake of quote accuracy, please excuse my use of language), “A bitchin’ sailor is a happy sailor.” If a sailor is complaining, it shows that he cares and feels that he can freely express he problems and concerns in a healthy manner. In my time in the Navy, I had one suicide on my ship and two AWOLs (UAs). All three tended to repress their feelings, walking around with a bland smile. We are not looking for a bland repressed agreement with what we are saying. And neither is God.

However, there are advantages to listening to others.

A.  It’s consistent with the Golden Rule. If I had a burden on my heart, I would want someone to listen to me, trying to understand what I am going through, without being quick to judge me. If that is what I would want, others would probably want the same thing. This builds relationship.

B.  We can really understand someone by actively listening… and we will understand them best through their personal stories. If you ask someone to describe themselves, they will probably give some statistics (such as their age and schooling) and their social groupings (gender, nationaligy, occupation). But it is their stories that their true self becomes evident. This also builds relationship.

C.  Respect given is as respect received. If we respect a person enough to listen to their stories, we can anticipate being given enough respect for them to listen to ours. If they give their stories but refuse to listen to ours, they are selfish and/or disrespectful. But doesn’t that tell us something? If we expect others to listen to us but do not listen to others, it is reasonable that we are considered selfish and disrespectful.

D.  We may say, accurately, that everyone needs God… but that doesn’t mean that we know how they need God. God works in different ways with different people challenging them and encouraging them in different ways. Jesus told some to join Him on His travels being “fishers of men”. Others He told to stay behind and witness to friends and family. Some He healed first. Some He would talk as equals, while others He would discuss as a teacher, or as a prophet. God works with individuals individually, and sometimes groups as a group. But God is not a medicine that must be taken one way and one way only. We need to know the person to understand what God is looking to do in their life.

Serving in Jesus’ Name

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The longer article is HERE The article looks at the use of the term “In My name” or “In Jesus’ name” or similar constructions. What does the expression mean? In Evangelical Christian circles, there is a tendency to use the expression as an incantation. That is, we pray whatever we feel like and then tack on “In Jesus’ name, Amen”. It seems to be a thought that the use of such an ending, means that our prayer will be answered in the affirmative regardless of how short-sighted, selfish, and basically ill-advised it may be. While most of us as Christians know that incantations are not part of the Christian faith, it is easy to fall into that trap. After all… John 14:13-14 says, “Whatever you ask in My name, I will do it so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.” (CSB) Some use this to justify asking for the most silly things because as long as we add the tagline “in Jesus’ name” Jesus promised to do it.

I recall a friend of mine who worked for CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network). The person worked on the prayer hotline. One day a woman called in asking that the “prayer warrior” would pray that God would raise her cat from the dead. My friend did that prayer because it was the policy of CBN to pray for whatever is the request regardless. This rule, of course, may not have been due to theology as much as keeping potential donors happy. Don’t know if the cat was resurrected… sorry.

The problem is that we have never bothered to look at what the term “in My name” or “in Jesus’ name” actually means. In the Bible, the term, with its many variants is used many times. Most of the time, it expresses a concept of being an ambassador, one who speaks for another. Sometimes, it expresses a relationship, and on a few number of occasions, it expresses faith. The Ambassadorial role is the key point. It is driven home in places like Deuteronomy 18:15-22 and Jeremiah 14:14-15. In these verses, the warning is given against those who say they speak “In My (God’s) name” and yet were telling lies. It is clear that to speak or ask “in My name” means that we are speaking God’s word and will, not our own. To do otherwise risks our healthy relationship with God. Asking in Jesus’ name is dependent on our:

  •  Relationship with Jesus (the sons of Sceva in Acts 19, lacked that relationship, so they could not ask or serve in His name).
  • Our Role under Jesus. If we are ambassadors of Christ, then what we ask must be His will, not our own selfish desires.
  • Our Faith in Jesus. We need to trust Jesus will do what He says.

It is pretty clear that there is a progression here. Our role as an ambassador of Christ is dependent on our relationship with Him. Our faith is only justified by our role in Him. To suggest that our asking is limited only by our faith, is foolish and places God as subservient to fools.  It be limited by our role under Christ. If an ambassador speaks incorrectly words of his government or makes promises that his government does not support, he is a bad ambassador and is likely to lose His job. No amount of “faith in his country” will overcome the fact that he has violated the trust of his country.

It is interesting, and I believe relevant, that the term missionary (one who is sent out) and the other missionary term apostolos (holding the same) are related to the idea of an ambassador. All Christians are called to be ambassadors of Christ and to ask in Jesus’ name as His ambassador. But Christian missionaries hold an even greater responsibility to act, speak, and serve “In His Name”. This responsibility should never be misunderstood or considered lightly. The power of God is based on our relationship with, role under, and faith in Jesus. To seek to throw that power around selfishly or carelessly is to risk being put aside (as any bad ambassador would). Indeed as Stan Lee wrote, “With great power, there must also come great responsibility.”

Quote on the Role of Church in the World

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“One of the questions that is being asked and will be asked over and over again is that of the authenticity of the church. Nationalism, ethnicism, and political ideologies all rise up to ask the same question- ‘Is the church genuine?’ In the context of real-life concerns, human suffering, isolation, hunger, displacement, loss of franchise and basic freedoms, they may also be asking, ‘Where is the church?'”

                 – John Cheyne, Incarnational Agents: A Guide to Developmental Ministry, 56.

Salvation versus Conversion. Missiological Implications

The Great Commission

The Great Commission (Matthew Version) Image via Wikipedia

I believe missionaries/evangelists should focus on “salvation” than “conversion.” Of course, there are so many different meanings for the terms, I will give what I mean by them. If you don’t like the definitions… I understand.

Conversion is a single, one-time divine event where a person transitions from a state of judgment to a state of grace, being adopted into the family of God.

Salvation is a process that starts at birth, goes through a time of searching to divine justification (freedom from the penalty of sin) through a process of sanctification (increasing freedom from the power of sin) and ultimately to eternal glorification (freedom from the presence of sin).

A lot of people think of salvation as a one-time event… but I think that theologically speaking, that concept really applies to conversion/adoption/justification/redemption. So one might say that “I am redeemed” but also say “I am BEING saved.” However, even if you don’t like terms as they are used, I think you can agree that these are reasonable concepts (at least within the Evangelical understanding of Christianity). Term “A” refers to a one-time “saving” event. Term “B” refers to a process of growth leading to eternal life (that includes the “saving” event).

8 Reasons for focusing on salvation (process) rather than conversion (event) in missions.

  1. The Great Commission (Matthew version especially) sees mission work in terms of life process. Go into all the world and preach the Gospel (share God’s word to all), baptizing them (those that are responsive), and teaching them to obey (long process of sanctification). There is no “fire and forget” in missions. The John version suggests we are sent out in like manner and calling the Jesus was sent out by the Father. This also suggests a broad understanding of our mission since the mission of Christ was broad.
  2. Overemphasis on the Sinner’s Prayer. While the “Sinner’s Prayer” is a nice encapsulation of some basic Gospel truths, it is just words. We are saved by faith, not by words. Maybe in some parts of the world this is not a problem… but in the Philippines, it is easy to get people to mumble some words if you do some act of kindness for them. Telling a person of faith that they are not saved because they haven’t said the sinner’s prayer is wrong. Telling a person who says the sinner’s prayer that they are saved regardless of their heart is dangerous.
  3. It tends to disconnect “faith” from “faithfulness” and the cognitive from the volitional and active parts of our being. Overemphasis on the one-time experience can confuse us into thinking of faith as a momentary cognitive logical assent. However, faith without faithfulness is not faith. Faith without volitional and active involvement is not real faith. I am not arguing for losing one’s salvation. I am not arguing for a works-based salvation. I am simply pointing out that the idea that faith is simply a “mental assent to a doctrinal truth” is not well-grounded. We should be emphasizing that a Christian is to live a faithful life, choosing daily to follow Christ, ignoring temptations to go astray. A Christian perhaps can be converted without faithfully following Christ, but a young follower of Christ should understand this person to be abnormal… a mutant of sorts. We need to focus on the Christian as a faithful follower/disciple of Christ.
  4. Focusing on conversion tends to make us stereotype non-Christians. Non-Christians may be hard or soft atheists, closed or open agnostics, ignostics, are an innumerable broader range of religious/philosphical and emotional convictions. If conversion is our goal in every gospel presentation, then every presentation without a conversion response is a failure. However, if one recognizes that some non-Christians are completely ignorant, or woefully misinformed about Christ and living as a follower of Christ, then any conversation that leads to a better understanding and brings them to a point that they can ultimately start to follow Him, is a successful conversation. This is the Engel Scale in action. Likewise, if someone is hostile to Christ, and is brought toward a more positive attitude about Christ and following Him, then this also was a success. This is the affective axis on the Gray Matrix. One could turn the straight line scale (Engel) to a plane (Gray) and then to a cube by adding a third axis. This axis would be behavioral. We can not only work to explain God’s truth (cognitive growth) and increase affective/emotional growth of unbelievers, but we can also help them to conform behaviorally. This is touchy since the world is fully of people who conform superficially. However, if we recognize that behavior can be self-destructive and addictive. Helping the unbeliever to find release from the destructive behavior may also be a useful part of their path towards following Christ. Some people need to be freed from their personal demons before they are able to move forward in the path of Christ.
  5. Focus on conversion means that we often expect too much in too little time. It is perfectly normal and healthy for a person to “count the cost” of following Christ. A missionary/evangelist should help them gently through that process rather than forcing a poorly thought out (and perhaps unreal) response. In the case of where a person comes from a culture or family network that is actively opposed to Christianity, focus on a radical conversion experience leads to a clash of culture that the person is ill-prepared (yet) to deal with. Must he or she reject his new faith (at least externally) and revert back to the culture/religious system of those around? Must he/she radically separate themselves and become an outsider? Must he/she become a compartmentalized “closet” Christian. Is their another option? Focusing on following Christ as a journey may allow those interested in following Christ in these situations to work through these challenges with the help of a loving and Christlike mentor.
  6. Focus on conversion is built on the questionable premise that we know who is converted. The Bible, such as in I John, describes how we may know that we are children of God. However, the Bible does NOT give definitive guidelines for knowing if another person is a child of God. The Bible focuses on self-examination. If one is simply focused on conversion, this is a problem. Who should we try to convert? If someone says they are a Christian, should the missionary try to prove to him that he is not really? Of if someone says that he is a Christian, should the missionary ignore him since “he is already saved?” This gets into some of Paul Hiebert‘s ideas regarding Centered Sets, Bounded Sets, and Fuzzy Sets. But even if you don’t like set theory, the concept is pretty simple. A conversion-focused missionary is focusing on the boundary (between the converted and unconverted). But if you can’t be sure where the boundary is (since God is the judge of faith/hearts of others, not us), then what are we really supposed to do? On the other hand, if missionaries are salvation-focused, they are focused on Christ. Why? If a person is not a child of God, what should a missionary do? Direct them to follow Christ and become conformed to His will. If a person is a young believer, what should a missionary do? Direct them to follow Christ and become conformed to His will. If a person is a mature believer, what should a missionary do? Direct them to follow Christ and become conformed to His will. That is much clearer.
  1. Focus on conversion tends to lead towards nominalism. I suppose this is obvious, but the term “easy-believism” came from the over-emphasis on the conversion experience. “All you gotta do is accept the free gift of Christ. It doesn’t cost anything. Jesus paid it all. Just say ‘Yes’ and the blessings of God are yours.” This understanding is so shallow (following Christ has led many to martyrdom… salvation may be free, but it is also costly) and has left many open to apostasy. The church, the mentor, must disciple and nurture young believers, seekers, and mature believers alike. This requires focusing on the full lifespan of a follower of Christ.
  2. Conversion is more quantitative, Salvation is more qualitative. Conversion is an easy metric. I was reading a website of an evangelist of someone I hadn’t heard of who claimed to have led (I believe it was) 800 million people to Christ. Is that true? Presumably that is not even remotely true. But outward conversions (remember, we can’t know what is going on in the heart) is easy to measure. We can count people “walking the aisle,” raising their hand in church, saying the sinner’s prayer, or testifying. In some other religious traditions, one could count going through confirmation, joining a church, or exhibiting some “miraculous” manifestation. Counting this way is easy. But salvation is hard to measure because it is process orientated (Romans 12:1-2 becoming conformed to Christ and transformed) is hard to measure. It is not measurable except in the lives being changed. It is easy to get credit from man and church for conversions, but for the transforming of lives to faithful followers of Christ, we have to go to God for credit. One might argue that the quantitative nature of conversion is better for missionaries to focus on because it easier to measure. But the missionary is meant to be a catalyst of change… not a numbers keeper. In the long run, transforming a few lives will cause greater impact than a lot of shallow decisions.  This is a better thing.

Quoting Harvie Conn regarding Christian mission work in some Muslim cultures:

“’Sound conversion’ become largely limited to one-step transitions of allegiance. That step is essential as initiation into the process. But it must not be isolated either from the process of growing in understanding of what commitment to Christ means or we face again the onslaught of ‘nominal Christianity.’ Faith thus becomes devalued to the act of one moment rather than the attitude of a lifetime that has a beginning at a moment in time,… Conversion must be genuine by all means. But its genuineness will be tested by a lifetime of fruitbearing, not a quick step to some altar rail more ideological than biblical.”

(The Muslim Convert and His Culture, Harvie M. Conn)

Fallacies and Questions Surrounding Redemptive Analogy

The following are some thoughts that I have with regards to Redemptive Analogies. Redemptive Analogies have been popularized by Don Richardson through “Peace Child,” “Eternity in Their Hearts” and more. However, Redemptive Analogies have always been with us. In fact, the Bible is full of them. A few would include:

Isa (Jesus) bringing down heavenly food for hi...

Isa (Jesus) bringing down heavenly food for his disciples (Quran 5:111-115) John, ch. 6) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Redeemed (slave auction)
  • Ransomed (kidnapping)
  • Adopted (Roman adoption)
  • Justified (courtroom)

Don Richardson brought back the idea that analogies need to be updated and contextualized to be effective. Below are a few thoughts on what I consider to be errors or issues with the idea of Redemptive Analogies.

  1. Redemptive Analogies are created by God. I won’t call this a fallacy, but it is certainly a question. It has been suggested by Don Richardson and others that God creates redemptive analogies and we must discover them. Is that true? Possibly, but it is hard to tell. In some cases, such as the story of the Incan Emperor Pachacuti and the god Viracocha, or the Karen people and the great book, it sounds as if God had stepped into the culture to crack the door open to Christian witness. We do need to be reminded at times that God is at work in all times and all places, and not only in and through Christians and the Church. But to assume that this happens in every culture seems doubtful (to me at least). In general, redemptive analogies are created not disovered, I believe.
  2. Some Cultures do not have redemptive analogies. This is a bit opposite of the first point. For example, Don Richardson, being interviewed by Dick Staub for Christianity Today (February 2003), claims that he has “fully studied the Quran” and found that there are no redemptive analogies in Islam. The reason is that every concept with a Christian connection (heaven, salvation, Jesus) has been distorted. I believe this is a flawed view. The first and obvious problem is that to have studied the Quran (the primary of the two uniquely Islamic holy books) is in no way saying you have studied various Islamic and Islam-influenced cultures. Redemptive analogies are culture-related more than book-related. However, I believe the main problem is a basic misunderstanding of what a redemptive analogy is. A redemptive analogy is a symbol. In semiotics (study of symbols) there are three components, the sign vehicle, the sense, and the referent. Rather than dealing directly with that, let’s simplify that to the idea of a redemptive analogy:

To say that there is no redemptive analogy is to say that there is no story or symbol that exists or can be imagined that could help a person in Culture A to grasp the divine truth of redemption. Our commonality as humans (hope for the future, a desire for the truth and the divine, a need for relationship and love, recognition of our failure for perfection, and our own frailty) pretty much guarantees that there are things in our individual and societal experiences that are resonant with divine truth.

  1. Redemptive Analogies have to be perfect to be beneficial. This is not normally said, but does appear to be commonly felt. So it must be emphasized that ALL ANALOGIES BREAK DOWN AT SOME LEVEL. Analogies help us to bridge the concrete and the abstract, the human and the divine. Take the most well-known extrabilical redemptive analogy… the Peace Child. The peace child was human, not divine. The peace child was not permanent but was limited to the lifespan of the peace child. While Jesus was killed by the people He was given to (and thus made the sacrifice complete), the peace child must not be killed by the recipient to complete the peace. Clearly, this redemptive analogy has limitations. One of the most well-known redemptive analogies in the Bible is Jesus as the ransom for sinners (Mark 10:45). Yet the idea of a ransom implies a literal kidnapper. But who would that kidnapper be? Is it God, is it Satan, is it someone else? Or are we trying to take an analogy too far? Those who feel that certain cultures do not have redemptive analogies believe (in my opinion) that they must find a perfect analogy. Perfect analogies simply do not exist… in any culture.

4. Redemptive Analogies leads to syncretism or relativism. This assumes that redemptive analogies must involve a moral judgment about the culture. For example, Hinduism has the concept of Moksha. Moksha refers to the release from the suffering involved in living in this world. To use the concept of Moksha to help Hindus understand the Christian concept of redemption does not mean that we are accepting the full understanding of Moksha (as it is tied to reincarnation, for example). Likewise, Taoism seeks harmony between the divine, humanity, and nature. Linking that to grand narrative of the Bible (with harmony between God, Man, and Creation in Genesis 1 and a restoration of that harmony, through Christ, in Revelation 21) in no way necessitates a pluralistic relativism of belief. Clearly, poorly explained analogies can lead to confusion. For example linking Jesus in some way to the concept of the “avatar” can be enlightening or misleading depending on how it is used. But let’s face it, propositional doctrine is just about as prone  to distortion and confusion if there is inadequate commentary/explanation. I believe Christian missions is enhanced by the use of redemptive analogies, storying, and parables. However, a misunderstanding of their characters and limitations can take something useful and destroy it or discount it. <Note: This is part of my book, “Theo-Storying: Reflections on God, Narrative, and Culture“.>