Struggles with Short-Term Missions

A lot of Short-term Mission teams come from “The West” to the Philippines. And quite a few STM teams leave the Philippines to serve in other parts of the world as well.

And they can do genuine good. When they come in as genuine partners of local ministries, when they come in with welcome skills (especially) and resources, when there is a humbleness of spirit, such teams are great. The best teams, from what I have seen, are small… less than 10. Some of the best ones are just 2 or 3 people– there for transfer of specific needed skills. STM can also be a reminder that the church is not merely local, it is universal– it is not merely united, it is diversified.

But then there are other STM teams. They are a different story. There are many sub-stories in this, but I would focus on five groups. These groups are somewhat related and overlapping.

  1.  Churchy Vacationers. People who join STM often have jobs or school, and so are investing their limited vacations in the trip. But even though it is vacation time, it is still not vacation. Some focus on sight-seeing and creature comforts. Others are shutterbugs taking pictures of (exploiting) people who are struggling. It is tempting, and in many parts of the world, the rules of hospitality can make this attitude seem okay for STMers. At the other end of the spectrum, rarely, one can see the opposite where a STM trip was set up to work, work, work, and leave. However, a properly designed STM trip is more like work, work, fun, work.  Mixing a bit of fun with the work will also help make the work more fun.
  2. Cultural Critics. Some come as (very poorly trained) cultural anthropologists. They bring their ethnocentric views of their home with them, and can’t help but note how the food is not as good in their ministry location as it is at home– How the people are so “primitive”– How their houses are so crude, their clothes so odd, and their work so unorganized. Of course, a good cultural anthropologist would not come in and critique compared to one’s own culture. And in STM, one is not generally in a location long enough to critique competently anyway. Even if one is competent, it is commonly wise to keep one’s mouth shut anyway. None of us really enjoy outsiders coming in a disrespecting our country or culture.
  3. Unwitting Burdeners. Some STMers come in and want to help. But too many people helping too much can prove a very big burden on the locals. A team of 15, for example need to be fed, housed, and driven around. Even if the team comes with finances to cover the costs of their stay, the visit can still be a logistical nightmare, and a drain to time, and energy. When we have had short-term mission teams come, I have talked to my church here first, and let them know that it is likely that the STMers will gain more from the experience than the church. Is that okay? That understanding up front really can help. I have seen short-term mission trips where the host got the impression that the STM trip would be a financial and ministerial boon for them. It may or may not be true, but it is certainly not a healthy attitude regardless.
  4. Visionary Dominators. Sometimes, STM teams come in with a clear vision of what they want to do and what they don’t want to do. In many cases, the local hosts are seen more as means to accomplish their vision, rather than partners in ministry. Since locals are experts of what is needed, typically, the vision should come more from them. Often locals have a greater sense of what needs to be done, but are not able to bring that across to the STM mobilizers who are dictating what will be done.

Often STM is touted as a great boon for missions, or even a substitute for a long-term mission presence. Such views are far too rosy. A more realistic view is needed. On the other hand, some see STM as a problem, or at best a good way to inspire the members of the STM team to greater missions awareness. That may be true, but short-term missions can be far more than that.

Dark Night of the Soul

My son is a member of a theology club at the seminary he attends (that is coincidently the seminary that both my wife and I teach at). He led a discussion, while all were eating samgyeopsal, on Christian Mysticism. He sought to avoid the obvious stereotypes… Mysticism as “New Age” of syncretistic, Mysticism as Heresy, and Mysticism as self-absorbed contemplation. It is not to say that those stereotypes are meaningless, but can be used broad-brush to ignore more positive aspects of Christian Mysticism. The key point here is to note that Mysticism can be Christian— doctrinally Christian, and committed to Christ. Its goal in this context is communion with God.

He used as his primary source Evelyn Underhill’s 1911 classic, Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness. The topic was interesting, and the discussion was lively. The main interest ended up however, being in the sub-topic, “The Dark Night of the Soul.” The term, a translation of a phrase coined by St. John of the Cross, and the title of a poem he wrote, describes a season of emptiness.

In the journey to communion with God, many Christian mystics (and I don’t see it limited to them only) experience a time of spiritual “dryness”– a feeling that God is not near, and is not listening. In this situation, the individual will often have symptoms of depression, and feel temptations for vices thought long conquered.

What should be made of such symptoms? Some perhaps would join Job’s friends in seeing it as evidence of punishment for ungodliness.

I would argue that this “Dark Night of the Soul” is far from limited to the Christian mystic. I think all of us have times where we see God as distant. I think many of us feel a disconnection and depression… and don’t always know why. Job did not know why, and as far as the text goes, it was never explained. Jesus felt a disconnection from the Father. Jesus cried out on the cross, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken Me.” Some try to read that through the lens of Penal Substitutionary Atonement theology (Jesus took on our sin at that moment, and so the Father was forced to look away).  Others push towards a fulfillment of prophecy thing. But perhaps we are trying to be too theologically clever. Many have felt that they were trudging through the “Valley of Death” with little evidence of upcoming greener pastures and stiller waters.

A number of the Lament Psalms appear to describe a similar feeling. Psalm 44, especially expresses this, for it sees God as the cause of misery, but without the classic justifications:

All this has come upon us,
 though we have not forgotten you,
 and we have not been false to your covenant.
Our heart has not turned back,
 nor have our steps departed from your way;
yet you have broken us in the place of jackals
 and covered us with the shadow of death.
If we had forgotten the name of our God
 or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
would not God discover this?
 For he knows the secrets of the heart.
Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughered.
Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
Why do you hide your face?
 Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
For our soul is bowed down to the dust;
 our belly clings to the ground.
Rise up; come to our help!
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!
             Psalm 44:17-26

These times are probably better a time for self-reflection and a call out to God. For others, it is a time for understanding and support. Many have seen these times open to greater joys and closeness with God.

A nice little article from Christianity Today on this is HERE.

Multiplex Relationships Through the Church

Discussion can not only reveal new things… it can make old things more clear and vibrant.

I was teaching Cultural Anthropology the other day, and I was talking about Simplex versus Multiplex relationships. Simplex means that there is only one relationship between two individuals— for example, boss/worker. Multiplex means that there are several relationships— for example two people may have a boss/worker relationship, also a Sunday school teacher/student relationship, and a neighbor/neighbor relationship, all at the same time. Or it can be a web of relationships

Figure 17

Simplex Structure

Cult Anthrop Rev - Kindl_html_m566baa79

Multiplex Structure

At first it sounds backwards, but small communities tend to have multiplex relationships, and large urban settings tend to have simplex relationships. Consider the following urban example (from the Philippines perspective). Paul wakes up and starts getting ready for work and he here the “Pandesal Guy” walking through the neighborhood selling bread rolls. Paul buys some pandesal from him. They exchange pleasantries, but they really don’t know each other, Their only relationship is between “Pandesal Guy” and “Customer.” Paul leaves and walks out to the main road to get a jeepney. Along to path Paul sees some neighbors. They are friendly enough but he doesn’t know them beyond being neighbors. The jeepney driver picks him up. They know each other but really only in terms of driver and rider. He goes to work, eats lunch, continues work, and returns home. All along the way, he interacts with dozens of people, but all of them with simplex relationships… he knows them only in one type of exchange, and commonly, those individuals don’t know each other.

Is there anything wrong with this? Well, yes., as was noted by one of my students. Moving from a small community to a large city, he noticed how unsatisfying and shallow the relationships were. Reflecting on the class discussion, he believed that the dominance of simplex relationships is much of the cause. It takes multiple levels of interactions to provide a certain closeness or richness in a relationship.

What are some implications of this? I would hazard a few tentative ones:

  1. A healthy and close relationship should have multiple levels, and web-like cross-connections. “Bowling Buddies” may get along well. But it takes other levels of reltionships (kinship, occupational, religious, etc.) to provide depth to these relationship. One of the closest relationships I have had as a missionary is a friend of mine who I have worked with for years in ministry. But I have also served for a time as his benefactor. He has also served as a time as my benefactor. I have worked for him in ministry, and he as trained under me for ministry. These different, and conflicting, roles strengthen the relationship, I believe.
  2. Perhaps it is out of the struggles of mutliple levels of relationships that true depth in relationship occurs. Imagine two brothers who run a business together. You may expect that there would be a lot of fighting. The kinship and the financial relationships clash with each other. The struggle can tear apart a family. But if the two can learn to deal with conflict, it seems possible that they would have a level of closeness that goes beyond typical brothers. The husband and wife relationship always has conflicts due to the web of interconnections, but also because the multiple roles leads to conflicts. Some groups promoting so-called “Biblical Manhood” and “Biblical Womanhood,” look at the relationship in fairly simple terms– the man is the decisionmaker for everything regardless of whose role or responsibility the decision is related to, while the woman is always submissive or sometimes even passive, even in areas that are tied to her role in the family. That hardly seems particularly Biblical. Marriages in the Bible always seem to have a certain amount of conflict and dynamism associated with them. Perhaps trying to reduce the normally multiplex relationship of marriage into a simplex one would produce a more stable family (Confucian rules of submission do give stability, for example) but hardly a relationally rich marriage.
  3. The church, in an urban environment especially, has the opportunity to provide rich multiplex relationships to contrast the shallow simplex relationships within the surrounding society. A church may have a hierarchal structure, or a more flat democratic structure– I am not sure that that matters. But from a relationship level, the messiness of a small community should be encouraged in the church, I believe.

Visiting a church and a Bible school in Hong Kong, I met a lot of women from the Philippines who serve as domestic helpers (maids, yayas, nannies, and so forth). They work long hours, often from before sunrise, to well after sunset 6 days out of 7. So what do they do on their day off each week? They go to church. They join a Sunday school class, and then they exuberantly join in the main worship service. After, many of them go off to have lunch together, and then many still join together to go off to the Bible school to be trained. Sitting in on one of those classes, I was amazed at the level of camaraderie, and the joy they had to learn together. Also while I was there, an instructor who had taught there for three months, came back for a short visit. She was swarmed by students so happy to see her back. Afterwards, many of us went off to have a meal together. For these women (and a much smaller number of men) this camaraderie compensates to a large extent for the long hours, and in many cases mistreatment, related to their jobs, and at least alleviates a bit their disconnection from their families.

I think that the church, especially in urban settings, or in diaspora/expatriot circumstances, can provide that deeper multiplex relational network that creates a community.

Ya Ain’t So Smart…

It is sometimes useful to be reminded that we aren’t as smart as we sometimes delude ourselves into thinking. And this has considerable bearing on ministry and on theology. What reminded me of this was two-fold. Yesterday, I was teaching Cultural Anthropology, and my students kept asking questions that I could not answer. Truthfully, most of the questions were ones that no one could answer— or at least answer with justified confidence.

Today, as I was throwing away papers in preparation of our house move, and I found an old test from my days in the Nuclear Navy. The test claimed to be the “Naval Reactors Aptitude Test.” Even though I was given the test approximately three decades ago, I was never actually required to do the test. That and the fact that it is one of the few documents I have seen come out of US Naval Reactors lacking a classification stamp makes me suspect that maybe— just maybe— the test was not meant to be taken completely seriously. Regardless, it is a good reminder that “ya ain’t so smart.” Here is the test. (Remember that the test is at least 30 years old since a couple of the questions are a wee bit out of date.)

NAVAL REACTORS APTITUDE TEST

Instructions:  Read each question carefully. Answer all questions. Time limit 4 hours. Begin immediately. Work in numerical order (equipment remaining from question 1 may prove useful with questions 3 and 6).

  1.  Medicine. You have been provided with a razor blade, a piece of gauze and a bottle of Scotch. Remove your appendix. Do not suture until your work has been inspected. You have 15 minutes.

  2. History. Describe the history of the Papacy from its origin to the present day, concentrating especially but not exclusively, on its social, political, economic, religious, and philosophical impact on Europe, Asia, America, and Africa. Be brief, concise, and specific.

  3. Public Speaking. Two thousand drug-crazed aborigines are storming the classroom. Calm them. You may use any ancient language except Latin or Greek.

  4. Biology. Create life. Estimate the difference in subsequent human culture if this lifeform had been created 500 years earlier, with special attention to its probable effect on the English Parliamentary system.

  5. Music. Write a piano concerto. Orchestrate and perform it with flute and drum. You will find a piano under your seat.

  6. Engineering. The disassembled parts of a high-powered rifle have been placed in a box on your desk. You will also find an instruction manual printed in Swahili. In 10 minutes, a hungry Bengal tiger will be admitted to the room. Take whatever action you feel is appropriate. Be prepared to justify your decision.

  7. Sociology. What sociological problems might accompany the end of the world? Construct an experiment to test your theory.

  8. Management Science. Define management. Define science. How do they relate? Create a generalized algorithm to optimize all managerial decisions. Assuming a 7600 CPU supporting 50 terminals, each terminal to activate your algorithm, design the communications interface and all necessary control problems.

  9. Economics. Develop a realistic plan for refinancing the national debt. Trace the possible effects of your plan on these areas: Cubism, the Donatist controversy, and the wave theory of light.

  10. Psychology. Based on your knowledge of their works, evaluate the emotional stability, degree of adjustment and repressed frustrations of each: Alexander of Aphrodinias, Ramses II, Gregory of Nicea, and Hammurabi. Support your evaluation with quotations from each man’s work. It is not necessary to translate.

  11. Epistemology. Take a position for or against truth. Prove the validity of your position.

  12. Classical Physics. Explain the nature of matter. Include in your answer an evaluation of the impact of the development of mathematics on science.

  13. Modern Physics. Produce element 107. Determine its half-life.

  14. Energy Resources. Construct a working fusion reactor.

  15. Philosophy. Sketch the development of human thought. Estimate its significance, and compare with the development of any other kind of thought.

  16. General Knowledge. Describe in detail, briefly.

  17. Extra Credit. Define the universe. Give three examples.

Actually, it is good to remember that one is not that smart. Our identity as humans starts from the recognition that we are not God. We are limited beings— limited in time, space, power, knowledge, and understanding.

This is true in terms of theology as well. Stephen Bevans suggests that in all theological reflection, we must be humble. Millard Erickson describes good theology as tentative. Some might balk at this. Many theologians (arm-chair or otherwise) and ministers seem to be awfully certain that what they believe is true. Their argument for this confidence is often built around the logic that they simply believe what God revealed in His word. That may seem sound. If the Bible is fully reliable, it may seem reasonable to suggest that our own theology should also be fully reliable. The problem is that theology is a contextual interpretation of divine revelation. As such it is a human construct. So a person who is 100% confident in their own theology is 100% confident that they can comprehend and interpret God’s message and intentions as it applies to their own context.

Frankly, none of us are that smart. A bit of humility, recognizing our limitations is a wise start to hermeneutics, theological reflection, and ministry. Our faith should be in God, not in ourselves.

Can Bad News Still Point Us to the “Good News”?

I read an article recently (not sure I could figure out which one) that said that Pat Robertson of 700 Club/CBN fame would not allow testimony stories on his show where God did not answer the prayer of the testifier. Or to be more accurate, God did not do what the praying person wanted God to do. Is that true? I have never seen 700 Club so I don’t know. But I know the temptation of many churches, and not merely those that preach (material) prosperity, to seek “happily ever after” testimonies. To encourage unbelievers to accept the Gospel (Good News) and believers to trust God more, it just seems to make sense to tell stories of God granting what we want.

But there are problems with this. I think some testimonies of “bad news,” meaning not getting exactly what we want, can be useful to point us to the Good News, or strengthen our trust in God.good-bad-news-400px

  1.  Some “bad news” stories can be more inspirational than other stories. Joni Eareckson Tada’s life story, or the story of Fanny Crosby would not be more inspirational if Joni was healed of quadriplegia or Fanny of blindness. Many of us really need to know that an abundant life is still attainable in whatever state we are in. If God’s benevolence can only be seen in the lives of the healthy and wealthy,  how can the downtrodden visualize a great future that still dovetails with there present condition?
  2. “Bad News” stories can help us be sympathetic with those whose lives are painful. I can’t help but think the theology of Job’s friends would be a little better nuanced if they had suffered in ways that they could not connect to their relationship with God. A friend of mine had skin problems. Well-meaning Christians would suggest all sorts of things to “fix” him. That is okay I suppose, although it certainly gets old. Others would try to sell him stuff to solve the problem. This is a bit self-serving, but perhaps they honestly thought they could help. Others would subtly, or not so subtly, suggest that he had sin in his life, or perhaps his ancestors who had sinned.  Not all that helpful, frankly. Skin problems are especially difficult because they are visible. People can hide other problems, and look like things are okay. But humans can only see the external, and skin problems are external. Much of Job’s suffering was in the boils, and much of the suffering in the boils wasn’t physical, but social. Job needed more sympathy and support, not finger pointing. He needed friends who were not only familiar with Deuteronomy and Proverbs, but also Ecclesiastes, Jeremiah, and I Peter.
  3. “Bad News” can strengthen faith. This seems a bit counter-intuitive, yet our faith in God as our Good Shepherd is not only found in His bringing us to greener pastures and stiller waters, but also in leading us (and protecting us) through the valley of the shadow of death. For us, a few years ago, we had a major financial setback. It was of a sort that we were pretty sure that one or both of us would have to leave the mission field. However, we kept delaying going back and delaying going back. God did not suddenly deluge us with new financial support… just a trickle. But it has been enough. We have been able to more than survive. Before, we could quote verses like in Matthew 6 where Jesus talked about the Father knowing our needs and His intention to care for us. But in living that out with God sustaining us, despite Him never completely reversing the situation, has definitely increased our faith. Frankly, I believe that testimony would strengthen/embolden a Christian in ministry more than several “Praise Jesus” TV testimonials. The writer of Hebrews in chapter 11, a section known as the “Hall of Faith,” sought to strengthen the faith of young Jewish Christians by looking back at Old Testament saints. Half were happy and half were sad. In some cases, God gave victory and vindication, and in some God comforted those who were faithful despite torture, killings, and losses. We need both sides.
  4. “”Bad News” can empower our theology. I periodically get responses from students or ministry partners where they struggle with the fact that God doesn’t seem to be answering their prayers. For many, the theology they were taught suggested that through the right kind of prayer, they could get God to be their servant, rather than they becoming His servants. Flabby theology is disconnected from reality. A strong theology is reflective and iterative. Our theology should help us through the dry and cold times in life, not just the rosy and lush. Is this important? Absolutely. Our theology is tied to our sense of purpose, and our ethics. A good theology gives us an understanding of who we are, and our relationship with both our world and our God. A theology that misrepresents these areas will not stand well when our circumstances change. And if bad theology leads to bad ethics (understanding of what we should do and should be), our responses to adversity are likely to lead to wrong, or at least unproductive, activities and thoughts.
  5. “Bad News” helps us identify the Good News. We identify things typically through contrast. In biking, it is the uphills that help us understand the good news. This may be a bit obvious… but it is still worth dwelling on. The goodness of God is not really identifiable except in contrast to struggles and pain. But perhaps that doesn’t go far enough. Sometimes those very struggles of pain help us to recognize God’s goodness in their  presence. In Proverbs, King Agur prays

Give me neither poverty nor wealth;
feed me with the food I need.
Otherwise, I might have too much
and deny You, saying, “Who is the Lord?”
or I might have nothing and steal,
profaning the name of my God.

Proverbs 30:8-9

Our continual need of God’s care makes us more dependent on God. Having all of our prayers answered, can make us forget God. We are forgetful people. We need some bad news to remember that one who cares for us.

Three Functions of Contextualization

If you want to read the article by Darrell Whiteman, you can click HERE. But grabbing some excerpts, the first  purpose is as follows

Darrell L. Whiteman

Contextualization attempts to communicate the Gospel in word and deed and to establish the church in ways that make sense to people within their local cultural context, presenting Christianity in such a way that it meets people’s deepest needs and penetrates their worldview, thus allowing them to follow Christ and remain within their own culture.

This function seems at first to be self-evident, but it is clear we have not always done mission in this mode. Why, then, this sudden burst of energy and excitement, at least in the academy, about this notion of contextualization? I believe the answer lies partly in the postcolonial discovery that much of our understanding and practice of faith has been shaped by our own culture and context, and yet we often assumed that our culturally conditioned interpretation of the Gospel was the Gospel. We are now beginning to realize that we have often confused the two and have inadvertently equated our culturally conditioned versions of the Gospel with the kingdom of God.

Now the second function

Another function of contextualization in mission is to offend—but only for the right reasons, not the wrong ones. Good contextualization offends people for the right reasons. Bad contextualization, or the lack of it altogether, offends them for the wrong reasons. When the Gospel is presented in word and deed, and the fellowship of believers we call the church is organized along appropriate cultural patterns, then people will more likely be confronted with the offense of the Gospel, exposing their own sinfulness and the tendency toward evil, oppressive structures and behavior patterns within their culture.   …

Unfortunately, when Christianity is not contextualized or is contextualized poorly, then people are culturally offended, turned off to inquiring more about who Jesus is, or view missionaries and their small band of converts with suspicion as cultural misfits and aliens. When people are offended for the wrong reason, the garment of Christianity gets stamped with the label “Made in America and Proud of It,” and so it is easily dismissed as a “foreign religion” and hence irrelevant to their culture.  When this happens, potential converts never experience the offense of the Gospel because they have first encountered the cultural offense of the missionary or Westernized Christians.

Ant the third function:

A third function of contextualization in mission is to develop contextualized expressions of the Gospel so that the Gospel itself will understood in ways the universal church has neither experienced nor understood before, thus expanding our understanding of the kingdom of God. In this sense contextualization is a form of mission in reverse, where we will learn from other cultures how to be more Christian in our own context.

This is an important function of contextualization in mission because it connects the particular with the universal. The challenge is creating a community that is both Christian and true to its own cultural heritage. Peter Schineller points out in addition that “every local Christian community must maintain its link with other communities in the present around the world, and with communities of the past, through an understanding of Christian tradition.”