Is Dialogue Contradictory to Evangelism?

Dialogue is in contradiction to Evangelism. Or is it?  Dialogue is generally thought of as conversation between two equals (certainly equals in terms of roles in conversation) so as to achieve mutual understanding. As such it is not driven by a desire to coerce another, or change another’s mind. From this standpoint, it is certainly understandable if Dialogue is seen as contradictory to Evangelism. Some even explicitly (or at least implicitly) say this:

Leonard Swidler:    The primary purpose of dialogue is to learn; that is, to change and grow in the perception and understanding of reality, and then to act accordingly.

Peter Feldmeier:   Be without covert or ulterior motives.  Do not secretly be trying to convert them or prove yourself superior.

Frankly, I agree with them. Dialogue is not to be manipulative. It should be built on mutual respect and openness to learn.

So does that put it at odds with proselytizing? Does it work against evangelism?

No, I don’t think so:

Dialogue IS NOT Evangelism… but it IS Foundational to Evangelism

Dialogue helps one…

  • Understand each other  (head level)
  • Have greater insight with each other (heart level)
  • Reduce social distance (relational level)

So consider three forms of evangelism

#1.  Testifying. Sharing one’s own experience (serving as a witness of what God has done in one’s life).

#2.  Proclaiming. Sharing the gospel message and Christian dogma.

#3.  Arguing.  Seeking to demonstrate the superiority of the Christian faith over the faith of the other (two-way conversation where each is seeking to change the mind of the other).

Now consider these.  Testifying is a more personal form of evangelism and that certainly is helped by a reduced social distance. It would also be aided by an understanding of the thoughts, beliefs, and values of the other so that the testimony can be presented in a way that would be understood well by the other and be relevant to the other.  The same could be said in terms of proclamation and even argument.

So, dialogue  is not evangelism. the process and goals are different. However, healthy dialogue helps to bring connection between the two and better understanding of each other which is pretty necessary to effectively evangelize.

Let’s be honest here. Most of the evangelisitic methods that have been created are based on the presumption that the other person is already (essentially) Christian. For example, the Romans Road presumes that the respondent accepts the authority of the Holy Bible, and essentially has a Biblical understanding of who God is, who Jesus is, and what sin is. The respondent may or may not be “born again” (having allegiance to Christ) already, but probably already is already at least nominally or culturally Christian. Hardly surprising that such methods don’t work well with those of distinctly non-Christian religions or cultures.

If you are interested in knowing more about Interreligious (or Interfaith) Dialogue, consider clicking on the menu above for “My Books” and look at the book “Dialogue in Diversity.” It can be clicked on to purchase, or simply to preview some of it.

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The Counterproductive Missionary?

So… let’s talk about some well-known expansions of Christianity. One of these was the growth of the church in the Roman Empire, and adjoining territories during the first 3 centuries. The church grew rapidly. If I remember right (and am quite prepared to be wrong), the church averaged growth of around 20% per year. That is pretty huge. Both Islam and Christianity is recently growing around 3%, more or less, per year. Some smaller religions are growing at a faster rate, but 20% is pretty huge for any group.

China has been an area of great growth of the church (both “underground” and “above ground”) in the 20th century. In recent years, people have been writing about the apparent growth of the underground church in Iran, mirroring in some ways the growth of Christianity in the Iranian diaspora. Perhaps a fourth one worth mentioning is the African Indigenous (or Initiated) Church (AIG) movement.

What do these movements have in common?  One is that there was persecution. That cannot be discounted. However, persecution is not a magic growth formula. In fact, the Chinese church has undergone several waves of persecution going back to the 9th century AD. Of those waves of persecution, it seems as if the only that last of these resulted in growth (Maoist persecution).

Persecution can lead to resiliency, but that certainly doesn’t guarantee growth— perhaps nothing guarantees growth. But a few more things seem worth noting for these growth movements.  There Christianity is

  1.  …a religion of (relative) poverty. In some cases, Christianity in these movements was the religion of the poor, and the poorest of the poor. In other cases, Christianity is impoverished in terms of structure. Religious structure, in this case, refers to some things like complex organization, physical religious buildings, and paid clerical class within the church.
  2. … a religion of the people. It is started, expanded and propagated by locals, rather than foreigners, and often by laity rather than clergy.
  3. … a religion in which missionaries are not active. Or… if they are active, they are taking on a background, supportive role rather than a leading or controlling role. In fact, the AIC movement often found itself in conflict with missionaries. In China, the Christian church really began to grow after missionaries left the country. Successful missionary work done by foreigners there is now more often in terms of assisting with training or other support roles rather than leadership or apostolic tasks. Much of the early church growth in the Roman Empire happened in the 2nd and 3rd centuries when Apostles/Missionaries as a group were slowly fading away. By the 3rd century, they were barely recognized as a group. I would also suggest that the Iran church have thrived in the absence of foreign missionaries planting and leading churches, while in Iraq, the access of foreign mission workers has NOT been a boon. (Again, open to correction in this area.)

So suppose these three things are true? What does this mean for foreign missions? I would suggest three things.

  • Missionaries today seem to be selected wrong. Many mission agencies, including the main one in my denomination, tend to select missionaries based on their “evangelistic spirit” and sense of calling to plant churches. Maybe, however, this is NOT what is needed. Maybe we need missionaries who support locals who are called to be evangelists, apostles, and churchplanters. Perhaps missionaries should be selected on their passion to serve locals rather than lead, and support locals rather than replace.
  • Be very careful as to where missional churches send short-term mission teams. In many places in the world they can easily do great damage. And in places where they can go, they are more likely to be useful in supportive tasks requested by the receiving Christians, not doing the stuff that their sending churches think is needed.
  • However, missionaries, in the broader sense of the term, should be everywhere. The church is universal and we tend to remember this when we learn and grow with and from each other. Perhaps this means having people who are less thought of as “missionaries” (leaders, evangelists, churchplanters) and more as cross-cultural workers, supporting local work, as requested by locals.

This last point may seem a bit odd, but it is pretty straightforward. When Christians come to the US to serve, they do so without much “hoopla.” Some may pastor churches or be involved in various ministries, but there is no presumption that as a foreigner that they must have a very specific role of leadership or task. Rather, the assumption is that there are needs, and if that person can meet that locally-determined need, then they can serve. What makes sense in the US, should perhaps be recognized as making sense elsewhere as well.

 

 

 

Asian Christian Theology? (Part II)

Years ago I wrote an article on Asian Christian Theology, where I expressed some questions or concerns about how some consider this.  (You can read it by CLICKING HERE).

Recently I was in a meeting where exploration of supporting Asian Christian Theology books was explored. Some questions came up that commonly come up when this topic is being considered. For example, what defines Asian Christian Theology? If one is Asian does this make one’s theological writings Asian or not? Many Asians are trained (and sometimes indoctrinated) in Western schools or traditions. Will the results of these Asian writers be Asian theology, or simply Western Theology written by an Asian.

Additionally, do Asian Christian Theologies have characteristics that make them distinctly different AS A GROUP from Western or other Christian Theologies? Considering the variety of Asian cultures it seems doubtful that there is one unifying theme. Continental identity does not seem adequate.

Further, does Asian Christian Theology have unique methodologies (or at least foci) different from Western? Perhaps there is a greater focus on narrative over propositional truths. Maybe the dominant metaphors would be different. Perhaps systematization would be less valued. But if an Asian wrote a systematic theology with a strong focus on propositional truths, would that make it “un-Asian”?

For me, the key point is not on any of the above.  I would suggest something different.

cultural-bridge

The above figure suggests theology as a man-made construct that relates God’s unchanging revelation to Man’s changing culture(s). Since human cultures are diverse and changing, good theologies should be:

  • Contemporary
  • Culturally Practical
  • Making sense within the culture

<Consider reading the post where I talk about this more. It was meant to be part of a book that I never finished.  Click Here.>

With this in mind, what is an Asian Christian Theology? It is one that is

  • Relevant to people living in a present Asian culture
  • Has practical value to these same people in that culture
  • Utilizes metaphors, thought processes, and such that make sense to people in that culture.
  • AND… effectively links accurately and fully to God’s revelation.

I could add a fifth point. Ideally, it should speak to people of other cultures as well. That is because we are not only part of a local community of faith, we are part of a universal community of faith. As such, it should not serve as a wedge between local and non-local Christians. (Theology should both unify and diversify.)

Ultimately, the best test of whether a theology is Asian is “Does it give God’s answers to the questions that come from Asians within an Asian culture?”

How to Teach Missions Anthropology?

A few weeks ago a friend of mine who teaches at a small missions school asked me what is the most valuable way to teach missions anthropology. I suppose the most valuable way to teach missions anthropology is to do missions anthropology. However, the question was given in the context of a course taught in a predominantly classroom environment.

I think I said at the time that I think the most important or valuable is to do ethnographic research. I still think that is probably the most important… but perhaps I would say things a little different now that I have thought about it more.

The most important or valuable way would involve three things that all, potentially, tie together.

  1. Do a simple ethnographic study of a sub-culture or micro-culture. Ideally it is on a group that one is actually interested in, or one that one plans to minister to. Choose a topic of interest as the focus of curiosity. Determine the right method of research. Carry out the research. Analyze the findings. Reflect on the findings in terms of ministry and culture.
  2. Hold dialogues with people of other cultures. These can be semi-structured or unstructured. Write down the conversation. Reflect on the conversation.
  3. For both items 1 and 2, present to a small group in a clinical case format. That is, one presents the work as a case to a small group. One then interprets the case, and reflects on it theologically, ministerially, and culturally. One then opens oneself up to questions, clarifications, comments and insights, from the rest of the group. Then one reflects on the experience of the small group. (And being part of the small group, one also is on the other side, listening and responding to the ethnographic studies and dialogues of others in the group.)

This I find the most effective for a few reasons. First, it is embedded in the real and relevant. That makes it more practical, and usually more interesting. Second, it helps to learn through the experiences, words, and actions of others. Third, it pushes one towards change of values and perspective. It helps one to see the world from others’ perspectives (both those being studied, and those in one’s group.) Fourth, the actual behaviors can be easily tied to the more academic topics such as taxonomies of groups, and special terminologies.

Can You Learn Something Good From “Playing God”?

We generally use the term “Playing God” to

ground group growth hands
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

describe a bad thing. But let’s try to think of some ways that are a bit more positive. Being a parent (or a pet owner) and leading a government involves a bit of playing God— embracing some of the roles that God has, but on a smaller scale. In fact a couple of metaphors for God are “Heavenly Father” and “King.” However, I would look at being a Community Developer as also being an analog for many of the roles of God  A community developer seeks to take on a redemptive role among people, and to help and transform.

What are some things one learns as a community developer?

  1.  One generally learns that what people need and what they think they need are not the same. While a CD practitioner may start with paying attention to felt needs, staying with felt needs usually means working on fixing symptoms rather than curing the disease(s). Ultimately, that doesn’t bring long-term change.
  2.  Symptoms of a problem are less important than the underlying problems and one must really learn to seek the underlying problems and work on them.
  3.  Solving problems for people tends to backfire. Solving problems for people tends to make them more dependent… and that dependence often makes the underlying problems worse, not better.
  4.  CD practioners are generally seen as needing to live with and identify with the people they serve.
  5. Serving is the critical term. The goal is not to lead long-term, but to train, empower, and release people to lead themselves.

Let’s just stop at these five and consider how these may be analogous to some of the areas of theology that we struggle with.

  1.  God does not always give us what we want. God does not always answer our prayers as we wish and this does not always give us what we want. This is based on  His love for us, not His indifference or his anger.
  2.  God focuses more on our underlying problems (such as our moral brokenness and social disconnectedness) rather than the symptoms that we tend to talk about more, and more interested in having “fixed.” God may uses awesome signs to open the door… but seeks to move from there to more core issues soon. These core issues are not fixed by miraculous signs.
  3.  God doesn’t hand out “prosperity” because it is typically bad for us. As broken, selfish, disconnected people, the power associated with prosperity is likely to make our situation worse, not better.
  4.  God does not help us from a distance. God is not fully transcendent. God is very much immanent— in the temple, in the incarnation of Christ, and in the presence of the Holy Spirit.  The presence of God is not irrelevant but key to our transformation.
  5.  God chooses to work primarily through people. Dependence on God is tied to recognizing our need for God, but is NOT tied in God trying to keep us incompetent. God seeks our development and empowerment to serve. God serves us so we can serve Him, and others. We are blessed by God, not to live in a state of being blessed, but to be blessings for others.

 

 

Missions Theology— Problems of Reaction

Consider Quote from Corbett and Fikkert’s book When Helping Hurts:

As numerous scholars have noted, prior to the twentieth century, evangelical Christians played a large role in ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of the poor. However, this all changed at the start of the twentieth century as evangelicals battled theological liberals over the fundamental tenets of Christianity. Evangelicals interpreting the rising social gospel movement, which seemed to equate all humanitarian efforts with bringing in Christ’s kingdom, as part of the overall theological drift of the nation. As evangelicals tried to distance themselves from the social gospel movement, they ended up in large-scale retreat from the front lines of poverty alleviation. This shift away from the poor was so dramatic that church historians refer to the 1900-1930 era as the “Great Reversal” in the evangelical church’s approach to social problems.

It is important to note that the Great Reversal preceded the rise of the welfare state in America. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty did not occur until the 1960s, and even FDR’s relatively modest New Deal policies were not launched until the 1930s. In short, the evangelical church’s retreat from poverty alleviation was fundamentally due to shifts in theology and not— as many asserted— to government programs that drove the church away from ministry to the poor.    <Corbett and Fikkert, page 45>

In the 1960s another shift reaction occurred but this time in Missions. During this time, theological liberalism was having a growing impact on Western Protestant missions due to the growth of belief in pluralism among Protestants, and a unique interpretation of Missio Dei. The former reduced the feeling that non-Christians needed an allegiance shift to Christ. The latter saw Missio Dei, the understanding that God is working on mission everywhere at all times on earth, as making the role of Missio Ecclessiae doubtful. In fact, from a mission perspective, if God is working in other cultures, for a missionary to come in an challenge the beliefs and practices of a people, could it not be a working against God? As such Missions is seen as a ministry of Presence rather than Proclamation.

In reaction to this, there seemed to be a narrowing of mission work among Evangelicals to proclamation and church-planting. Exacerbating this was a focus on what I would call Apocalypticism. That is, Christ is returning any moment, so what should we work on right this minute to be ready for this return? While this focus may seem reasonable, the result was that anything that might be considered a “long-term investment” in terms of ministry (such as poverty alleviation, cultural transformation, community development) were seen as too slow and not a priority. Further, Kingdom of God over the decades tended to be associated more and more with Heaven so problems on earth (ecological and social injustice) were seen as lacking value.  We still find these problems. I was reading a recent mission CPM book that discouraged social ministry or even friendship evangelism as “slowing things down.”

I could go on. But let’s stop here a moment and think what’s been going on:

  • Evangelical Missions has often been reactionary. Rather than centered on God’s word, it tended all too often to react against theological liberals, or pluralists, or liberationists, Catholics or others. (Often these other groups were seen as “the enemy.”) As such, Evanglicals often were guilty of what they charge others (of not treating the Bible as authoritative and basis for faith and practice).
  • Relatedly, short-term marketing choices were often given formal “blessing” regardless of whether they were based on solid principles.

There has been success in Evangelical Missions over the last 6 to 7 decades, but there has been a cost. It has lost relevance in many sectors not because of opposition but intentionally pulling out of those sectors. Failures in social justice and poverty alleviation, and focusing on Heaven only, have resulted in reinforcing the charges of Marxists that religion is about serving as an opiate for the masses. Failures to transform (or even try to transform) societies and cultures has led many to see as a failure of Christ and Christianity, rather than simply a failure of Missions theology. Focusing on UPGs (and an abusive use of Matthew 24:11) led to poorly considered and invasive tactics.

This post is long enough. But we can clearly do better.

Better than Scribblings on a Scrunched-up Piece of Paper at a Bus Stop

I was in a seminar in our seminary about doing research. The issue came up of what sources are legitimate for research. Image result for bus stop litterWhen the issue of blogs came up, the speaker, one of my colleagues, said that while many professors don’t allow citations of blogs or “personal websites” not all feel that way. For the speaker, it depends on who the blog writer is— what is his or her academic credentials. The speaker specifically named my blogsite as one she deems to be acceptable for citations.

That is an honor. So many weird blogsites out where if a student says “I got this information from a blogsite or a personal websites” is akin to saying “I found it scribbled on a Scrunched-up Piece of Paper at a Bus Stop.”

But it did get me wondering about how I thought about my blog being used for citations for research. I guess the best answer I can give is “ambivalent.”

First, I do put a lot of work into this blog— content-wise, even if not in terms of look or style (Howard Culbertson’s webpage has great stuff even if the style is… awkward.) Since I put a lot of thought and work into it, I feel great that people are able to make use of it. But… on the other hand,

Second, I use my blog as a bit of a ministerial and reflective diary. As such, some of my thoughts are disorganized, and perhaps a bit half-baked. Do I want to be referenced for things I am not even sure whether I believe myself? On the other hand,

Third. My words are my words. As such, quoting what I put on a blog is probably better than quoting what I say off-the-cuff. Given a choice, I would rather be quoted in something I had thought, written down, and edited, rather than something that just came to me in a moment, and then perhaps incorrectly, copied down by another. In addition to this,

Fourth. Some of the things that I put on my blog are original thoughts. Some of those thoughts tarnish over time. But some thoughts that started out as tentative blogposts did eventually mature into something I feel pretty good about. Among these are:

  • Questioning the primacy of Power Encounter (as espoused by Charles Kraft) and suggesting that Love Encounter is far more important, and more universally applicable, than Power Encounter. I feel pretty solid on that one.

  • Suggesting the incompleteness of the Three Waves of Protestant Missions (by Ralph Winter) and suggesting that we are entering a fourth wave where UPGs are being replaced by GUCs (great urban centers). Yup, time seems to be supporting this one pretty good.

  • Suggesting that Christan perfection is better identified in terms of redeemed flaws rather than flawlessness, and that our aesthetic language may create some problems in Biblical understanding that is not really in the text. I think this is a pretty important one… and I see that in recent years it has been a growing trend to express Christianity in terms of metaphor of an aesthetics of flaw and age.

Even if I am wrong on these, they express well-developed thoughts that are worthy of consideration regardless of whether they are in peer-reviewed journals, formally published books, or not.

I guess my final conclusion is not so much dwelling only on how I feel about being cited in a blog, but what should I do about it.

I think it places a responsibility to put more quality effort into my posts. I should take research more seriously as well as citing works. I should also (at least consider) figuring out ways to make my blog more user-friendly.

If some people take my writings as more authoritative than a message scribbled on a scrunched-up piece of paper at a bus stop, that places a certain responsibility on myself to not just treat blogging as a scribbling on a piece of paper that will be thrown out and read by no one.