College-Age Missions Questions

I was never a part of one of those groups— mission organizations that focus on college-age students both as active ministers and recipients of ministry. I won’t name groups because there are so many of them (both big and little) and they vary so much. I have often wondered about them.

As I said I wasn’t directly part of such a group. In college, I worked at a Christian summer camp for 9 or 10 weeks a year. That was very intense ministry, but it was temporary— having no impact on the remaining 40+ weeks a year. I also did ministry work at a children’s home— 2 hours a week of youth ministry on Sundays and 2 hours a week of tutoring on Tuesdays. Again, these had little impact on the remaining 164 hours a week.

The groups I am talking about are ones that:

  • Presses for a strong group identity. Your primary identity is being in this particular group. In some cases, this identity competes with their church identity.
  • Use language (missionary, minister, and so forth) that identifies them in recognized strong vocational roles with high expectations, rather than words such as volunteer or member.
  • Places them in a strong parachurch hierarchy with high expectations of obedience and submitting one’s own will to the vision and mission of the group.
  • Has high standards for busy-ness and ministering, with metrics kept to track the activity.
  • Often also serve as fund-raisers for the organization— either directly trying to fund the organization, or indirectly fund it by raising their own support (which is given to the organization)

Are these good or bad? Or a bit of both? I have seen some of the tracking used for some groups. They will ask their “missionaries” to weekly or monthly to list their evangelistic contacts and their responses. They will ask stats on follow-ups and discipleship. To me these are probably reasonable things to ask, especially if the young adults are being supported financially by the organization. They may ask regular feedback on their “spiritual life” as least in terms of spiritual disciplines, life milestones/significant events, and relational conflicts. These can be reasonable if the organization is doing real one-on-one mentorship. Otherwise it may be a bit intrusive. Some will ask for weekly or monthly updates on all the contacts the young adult has done to raise support and what responses and promises have been made to give to the ministry.

This last one is a bit creepy. I have on occasion had people from these groups come to try to raise money from my wife and I. I think there is still the vestiges of the old belief that Western missionaries have money in the collective mindset in Asia. This myth is generally not true, and each year becomes less and less true.

In theory, I don’t have problems with young people seeking to raise money for their ministry. In some cases it makes sense. My wife and I have done almost NO fundraising, and we have been able to survive…. but I in no way want to suggest that this should be normative. I don’t agree with Corrie Ten Boom that her personal conviction not to do formal fundraising should be universalized to everyone. (She only developed that conviction after she was well-known enough to not really need promote herself.) However, this issue does start to bring us into the “real problems” in my mind.

  1. Conflict between Parachurches and Churches. I like to say that the conflict between parachurches and churches is normal, because parachurches are parasitic and churches are selfish. This may be an oversimplification, but it is pretty true. Parachurches often seek to pull manpower and money out of the church. Sometimes, there is clear competition with churches. One large such organization famously encouraged their converts NOT to join a local church. A small organization that a friend of mine was part of decided to structure itself like a church to keep its members from being part of different local churches. Adding to that, young people going around and actively soliciting money from the deeper pockets of the church community, and one can see where some of the animosity comes from. I am not against parachurches. I have both founded parachurches and am (perhaps, depending on how one defines the term) a member of more than one presently. In the early years we got into some competitive conflict with at least one local church. We had to work hard to undo that and set up standards to avoid repeating that.

2. There is a risk of abuse. While we often think of those in the transition from teen years to adult years as stubborn and unmanageable, that is not necessarily the case. Some are genuinely seeking a sense of purpose and identity and lack the life experience to identify a good organizational relationship versus a bad. Some of the groups seem pretty legitimate in their recruiting and their team expectations. However, I have personally seen some that most definitely preferentially filter so as to have those who are more passive/malleable. I have seen some groups that use the “follow Christ versus follow family” inappropriately to drive a wedge between the young person and their own family/community. <Of course, this is not just a parachurch thing. Many churches do the same thing, and some utilize MLM principles to manipulate new members.>

3. Sometimes these types of ministries attract the wrong types of people. I have seen several religious leaders get involved with college-age ministries and it seems as if they do it because of power. Pastors, businessmen, politicians, bureaucrats, and more want to have power. Go online and look up books on leadership, and you will see there is a great thirst for power and influence both inside and outside of religious communities. The thing is that college-age ministries give opportunity to exercise power at a much higher level due to the fact that normal power dynamics are accentuated due to larger gap in age, experience, and finances. I have seen good people in these roles, but I have seen some who really power trip. I knew one who expected to have control over who dated and who married who in their organization. When they were involved in sports activities, he expected to be on the winning team every time. Things did not go well if this did not happen. Obviously we know all too well the religious leaders who utilized their influence and age difference to manipulate children and young adults for their own (often sexual) gratification.

4. Sometimes these parachurches are idealized and seen as models for churches. I have seen churches embrace vision and mission statements similar to these groups. I have seen churches embrace high pressure mission requirements and metrics— pressuring people to make promises regarding giving, evangelizing, discipling, and the like. At one time this seemed like a good idea to me. Churches aren’t doing enough and they should change to pull their own weight. But I have had to reconsider. I have been active in many many churches over the years. There are dead, lifeless, churches that I don’t understand why anyone attends. But there are probably good things about them. I have also seen churches that utilize some of the high pressure motivational tactics of parachurch groups and MLMs. These seem exciting at first because they feel like they are “doing something.” However, over time, the church begins to feel toxic. It doesn’t feel like a community. It doesn’t feel like a family. It feels like being a tool of the vision of the leader (again, a bit like an MLM… multi-level marketing business, since I haven’t identified the initials before). It feels like a place to avoid rather than attend. Then there are churches that focus on fellowship and community. They certainly have ministries and activities, but they don’t try to dominate the lives of their members, but enhance their lives. They don’t look like they are doing as much their parachurch counterparts, but I would argue that they are doing more of what they are called to do— be the body of Christ— the embodiment of, in some small way, the rulership of God on earth.

So are these groups bad. No. In fact, some have done some great things. But one has to watch out for the temptations. Bad leaders are not always easy to identify. They seem fine until the power they secretly (or even subconsciously) sought is not given. The temptations to control and manipulate. Years ago we ran a children’s ministry, and much of the volunteers were high school age, approaching college. It was amazing sometimes the level of investment they would make in ministry. It took a certain amount of leader discernment to ensure things do not go bad.

  • We would avoid trying to put a wedge between the worker and their family. In fact, we would, when we could, work with their families. On those rare occasions where there was tension between the volunteer and their family, we would tell them to honor their family wishes.
  • We made no pressure to come between their school responsibilities and their ministry responsibilities. Their school responsibilities come first. This (and the family one before) seem obvious but many groups do expect highest commitment.
  • We made no pressure to come between their church and their ministry responsibilities. Many of them chose to join the church we were part of. We had no problem with that, but those that did not we put ZERO pressure to switch churches. If anything we sought for them to stay at their present churches so that our ministry could seen as interdenominational, non-sectarian. (On more than one occasion we did actually have conflict with our own pastors because they wanted the ministry to be used as a way of pulling people into our own church.)
  • We created a very flat organizational structure with limited power dynamics. As such, the opportunity for abuse is limited, and the temptation towards positions of power is reduced.
  • We focused on opportunities to grow and do, rather than pressure and metrics to perform.

We did this successfully for a few years. We ended up shutting down the ministry after Typhoon Pepeng (2009) because we decided to change focus at that time. Many of the youth workers continued on in various church ministries, and one of the ministry sites continued on for another 10 years without our leadership. This reminds me of a story of sorts. When I worked at a Summer Camp, we got a new director. One thing he did early on was put up a sign that said that “No One is Indispensable.” Of course that is true, but it is equally true of leaders. I believe that a healthy organization can survive without its leader. And even if the organization shuts down, its members thrive in new places to serve. (This was certainly true at the Summer Camp. That leader was fired some time later, and the camp endured and even thrived.)

Quote on Myth

‘The myths of primitive society are merely the result of an endeavour to express certain ways of thinking and feeling about the facts of life which are brought into existence by the manner in which life is regulated in society.’ —Alfred Radcliffe-Brown (as noted by E.O. James in ‘The Nature and Function of Myth’ in Folklore, 1957).

There is nothing wrong with the quote. But I still want to play with it. My first point is that the term “primitive” is completely unnecessary in the quote. All societies have myths that support the dominant perspective and idealization in it. And since we are talking about removing words, let’s get rid of “merely” as well. There is nothing trivial about this role in a society. We can also get rid of the first “of society” since the only myths I am concerned about are one’s that are embraced by society. Oh yeah, we may as well get rid of the first “The” as well. That gives us:

‘Myths are the result of an endeavour to express certain ways of thinking and feeling about the facts of life which are brought into existence by the manner in which life is regulated in society.’

This is pretty good, but I am not British, so I would like to avoid the term “endeavour,” regardless of how it is spelled. So maybe I would go with.

‘Myths are an attempt to express certain ways of thinking and feeling about the facts of life which are brought into existence by the manner in which life is regulated in society.’

I don’t know, I think it works. A society is regulated partly through certain cultural values. However, these are very abstract, and so symbols, metaphors, stories are created or embraced that reinforce or express these values.

I recall years ago talking to missionaries who worked with a tribe that dwell in the Amazon basin. They had actually made a picture book out of one of the central stories of this tribe. The story seemed to be a bit nonsensical. The missionaries, however, noted that it was less nonsensical than the other stories they had heard in the tribe. But my suspicion is that it made good sense within their culture. The story had lots of animals doing strange things, but I would assume that the animals mean something within the culture. By knowing the values of the people, and what the animals symbolize PROBABLY would make the story clear. I could be wrong, of course. However, if you watch a movie like “Spirited Away” you see a great example of story that can be extremely confusing if one does not understand the symbols from Japanese/Shinto culture.

If a myth doesn’t make sense, one of two things may have happened. One, it may have lost relevance in the culture. As such, it may be called a myth still, but lacks that function in a society. Two, one is too much of an outsider (etic perspective) to understand its significance.

Biblical Theology Presentations

I taught a short-course on Biblical Theology back a few years ago. Actually, it was two short-courses— one for Old Testament and one for New Testament. Biblical Theology is not my strength, but I was excited to teach it at Maranatha Bible College because it is a passion of mine. I used, primarily “An Old Testament Theology” by Bruce K. Waltke (2007). I also used Walter C. Kaiser Jr. “Toward an Old Testament Theology” (1978), and Christopher J. H. Wright “The Mission of God” (2006).

I suppose my interest in Biblical Theology is partly because of the poor Biblical Theology that underpins most Missiology. It is a frustration of mine.

Anyway, I decided to put two of my presentations on Slideshare that relate to the OT Biblical Theology. They are the first and last presentation of that course— actually the two presentations that are the least related directly to Biblical Theology. On is foundational to an understanding of Biblical Theology, and the other is more historical and transitional towards NT Biblical Theology.

10 Years

Today is the 10 year anniversary of the formal launching of our organization, Bukal Life Care. But then I realized that we are approaching the 10 year anniversary of this website. My first post was on October 30, 2010. Now we are approaching 1200 posts.

I have not been posting much in the last few weeks and yet the view rates are up almost 50%. Not sure why, but I certainly appreciate the interest. I have been working on a Missions Theology book (that I MIGHT someday finish), lots of sorting papers, and lots of lots of house projects.

Below is the link to the 10 year post for Bukal Life Care

10 Year Anniversary

Three tests of Quackery: Too Much, Too Well, Too Costly

All three of my children were afflicted with atopic dermatitis. Two of them have got beyond most of the symptoms. One of them still has problems with it. Over the years we got an awful lot of advice on how to treat it. A few were thoroughly unhelpful… but most had at least a bit of truth in it. A lot of these were so called “alternative medicines” or cures. For the most part, it seems they were of limited help (Lagundi leaves, both as a tea and as a bath, appeared to provide limited but real help). To be fair, however, conventional medicine wasn’t very helpful either.

Photo by energepic.com on Pexels.com

All three of my children were afflicted with atopic dermatitis. Two of them have got beyond most of the symptoms. One of them still has problems with it. Over the years we got an awful lot of advice on how to treat it. A few were thoroughly unhelpful… but most had at least a bit of truth in it. A lot of these were so called “alternative medicines” or cures. For the most part, it seems they were of limited help (Lagundi leaves, both as a tea and as a bath, appeared to provide limited but real help). To be fair, however, conventional medicine wasn’t very helpful either. about:blankImageUpload an image file, pick one from your media library, or add one with a URL.

This got me thinking about quality care versus “quackery.” But there is no easy measure to determine what is good and what is not. For example, many of the things that are considered quackery are useful in limited ways. There are relatively few forms of care that have no value in all circumstances. It is perhaps true that iridology or astrology have no value at all— at least if it is true that the underlying premises are false (that the iris of the eye informs about the body’s health, or that the stars and planets guide one’s destiny. Most treatments are good for at least some situations, however. So what might be the characteristics that separate quality and quackery.

  1. Too Much. When a treatment promises to do too much, the assumption is that there is some quackery involved. This is a matter of breadth. One is reminded of the classic joke product “snake oil.” Or perhaps one may have seen the classic movie, “The Inspector General” with the product “Yakov’s Golden Elixir.’ Such products probably had some limited value— even if only as an emetic or laxative. But in both cases, the product was described to cure almost all physical maladies. Many alternative medicines do have value in limited forms of treatments. And that is fine. Unfortunately, some of these are used, at the encouragement of their practioners/marketers, for things that are dubious.
  2. Too well. Sometimes, a treatment is appropriate but is marketed as being far more effective than it really is. This is a matter of depth rather than breadth. Skin problems are classic for this. There are different creams, injections, pills, baths, and more. There are few if any such products that work nearly as well as they are advertised. When much is promised but only a little is given, the question of legitimacy can come up.
  3. Too costly. Even if something is legitimate in care… when it is far too costly, especially when compared to other options, the care must be considered questionable.

Can this apply to Christian ministry? I heard a person online expressing the belief that Pastoral Counseling may be quackery. My first response, since my wife and I run a pastoral counseling center is to gainsay this. However,pastoral care and counseling can easily fall into the trap of quackery. It rarely falls into the category of “too costly” (except perhaps with some ‘retreat’ seminars perhaps) but it can easily fall into the traps of “too much” and “too well.” One should know one’s limits. One should know what one’s own limitedness is. One needs to know the proper depth and breadth of care that one can reasonably provide. I certainly have seen pastoral counselors who act like their little corner of care is all one ever needs.

In pastoral counseling, one must embrace humility, and one’s own limitedness. We don’t know all things, and we certainly don’t have control of all things. When we pretend otherwise, we have fallen into quackery.

The same can be true of other ministries as well. Community development is a good thing, but one’s limitations need to be embraced from the start. It is good to instill one’s vision into the people. But one must be careful not to promise too much. Evangelism is another area. Some evangelists sound like snake oil salesmen— everything, but everything, becomes perfect if one says a few words.

When we overstep the bounds of our limitations… when we act like we can offer perfect solutions in an imperfect world… when we offer too little for too much, we are dishonest, and it is no surprise if we are not believed.

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This got me thinking about quality care versus “quackery.” But there is no easy measure to determine what is good and what is not. For example, many of the things that are considered quackery are useful in limited ways. There are relatively few forms of care that have no value in all circumstances. It is perhaps true that iridology or astrology have no value at all— at least if it is true that the underlying premises are false (that the iris of the eye informs about the body’s health, or that the stars and planets guide one’s destiny. Most treatments are good for at least some situations, however. So what might be the characteristics that separate quality and quackery.

  1. Too Much. When a treatment promises to do too much, the assumption is that there is some quackery involved. This is a matter of breadth. One is reminded of the classic joke product “snake oil.” Or perhaps one may have seen the classic movie, “The Inspector General” with the product “Yakov’s Golden Elixir.’ Such products probably had some limited value— even if only as an emetic or laxative. But in both cases, the product was described to cure almost all physical maladies. Many alternative medicines do have value in limited forms of treatments. And that is fine. Unfortunately, some of these are used, at the encouragement of their practioners/marketers, for things that are dubious.
  2. Too well. Sometimes, a treatment is appropriate but is marketed as being far more effective than it really is. This is a matter of depth rather than breadth. Skin problems are classic for this. There are different creams, injections, pills, baths, and more. There are few if any such products that work nearly as well as they are advertised. When much is promised but only a little is given, the question of legitimacy can come up.
  3. Too costly. Even if something is legitimate in care… when it is far too costly, especially when compared to other options, the care must be considered questionable.

Can this apply to Christian ministry? I heard a person online expressing the belief that Pastoral Counseling may be quackery. My first response, since my wife and I run a pastoral counseling center is to gainsay this. However,pastoral care and counseling can easily fall into the trap of quackery. It rarely falls into the category of “too costly” (except perhaps with some ‘retreat’ seminars perhaps) but it can easily fall into the traps of “too much” and “too well.” One should know one’s limits. One should know what one’s own limitedness is. One needs to know the proper depth and breadth of care that one can reasonably provide. I certainly have seen pastoral counselors who act like their little corner of care is all one ever needs.

In pastoral counseling, one must embrace humility, and one’s own limitedness. We don’t know all things, and we certainly don’t have control of all things. When we pretend otherwise, we have fallen into quackery.

The same can be true of other ministries as well. Community development is a good thing, but one’s limitations need to be embraced from the start. It is good to instill one’s vision into the people. But one must be careful not to promise too much. Evangelism is another area. Some evangelists sound like snake oil salesmen— everything, but everything, becomes perfect if one says a few words.

When we overstep the bounds of our limitations… when we act like we can offer perfect solutions in an imperfect world… when we offer too little for too much, we are dishonest, and it is no surprise if we are not believed.

Cultural Landmines and “The Pineapple Story”

Otto Koning served in Irian Jaya back when it was part of the Dutch East Indies. He wrote the story, “The Pineapple Story.” It was a story we covered in our Intro to Missions class years ago. The story is all over the Web, so I will let you read it yourself. One could argue that the story addresses the issue of anger in missionaries. In many parts of the world, anger is seen as a sin. I was brought up in a church where anger (except for so-called “righteous anger”) was thought sinful. I don’t think anger is sinful in itself… but when one cannot control one’s temper, sin can result… and certainly undermining God’s work because one cannot control one’s temper is a sin. The story can also be seen as the problems of ownership. A lot of our problems as missionaries reduce if we can stop bringing our own sense of ownership with us. If all things are seen as God’s not our own… we are better prepared to deal with different understandings of material goods.

That latter part was where I had a bit of a problem with the story at first. The story emphasized that the local people were thieves. Koning had planted pineapples and the people kept stealing them. I had some concerns about this. After all, he planted tropical plants on tribal lands. Isn’t it possible that as such, the fruits were considered community property. In fact, it seems that the tribe’s attitude is “You plant it, you eat it.” Since the missionary owned the land BUT did not plant the pineapples, they were not seen as his to control. Sometimes different models of ownership can cause problems in the mission field. After all, Biblically speaking, stealing is a sin, and stealing is illegal taking of what is someone else’s. However, what is someone else’s is generally culturally defined. That is why stealing is not only deontological, it is also contextual. (There was an interesting episode on Gold Rush where Parker and friends are about to go after “gold thieves” only to discover that under Australian Law, what the people were doing was not theft, neither was it illegal. But if Parker and friends had harmed these “thieves,” Parker and friends would have been in trouble.)

However, as I looked into the story more, it was clear that the taking of stuff wasn’t just about community land. Koning talks considerably about the rampant thievery that went on pretty generally. I don’t know whether this was done by everyone against everyone else, or if the missionary family were especially targeted. I do have a friend who lived in foreign country who’s house was commonly broken into. It seemed to my friend that the people there were “just a bunch of thieves.” However, I am familiar with the people he worked with, and they do not generally have a culture of breaking into people’s houses. Thinking of “The Pineapple Story” there seemed to be a correlation. My friend had an anger problem and he lived in an area were emotional self-control was very much esteemed. So perhaps he was targeted because he was considered a bad person in that place.

Alternatively, some cultures have very different ethical rules regarding who are treated “Us” versus “Them.” Perhaps because my friend was a “Them” (and he was) it was considered okay to treat him poorly. Hardly surprising. I am from the US, and the US has a history of mistreating people based on their ethnic or racial background. Today, that is looked down on… but legal status still is held onto as a place for being an ethical “respecter of persons.” Some people in my home country think mistreating illegal aliens as a righteous thing. Weird, but hardly surprising. Jesus said that one must love one’s neighbors— both friends and enemies— because, people loved their friends but hated their enemies— Roman, Greeks, Pagans… whatever.

There are a lot of landmines in missions. I will add one more. If you click on the link above (okay, I will add it also HERE) there is talk that Koning gave on the pineapple story. It is very entertaining, but also rather “cringy.” You see, the talk was given some time ago… looks like late 80s or perhaps early 90s. He says some things that are a bit hard. He speaks “jungle folk,” talks about how bad the people there smell, and mentions how much they sterilized a can opener after it had been worn as a necklace by one of the local women. Terms like “thieves” and “rascals” were used. Of course, he was trying to be entertaining (and he was). It is also true that language that may be considered “normal” in one generation can be pretty offensive in another. Further, back then, I suppose there was an understanding that one could say whatever one wanted to when preaching in the US because the people in New Guinea would never hear it. I am sure that was true then… but not now. I have friends from tribal groups in New Guinea who can surf the Web as good as anyone else. It is awkward to talk about people when they are listening in.

There is no condemnation here. In fact, I like the fact that much of Koning’s talk is humor directed at himself. Humor is touchy when one crosses cultural lines. However, when one’s humor is self-depreciating, it is more likely, at least, to be accepted.