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.

Is Jesus Allah?

Adesegun Hammed Olayiwola recently published a book, “Is Jesus Allah?” with the sub-title “Arab Christians Called God Allah Long Before Muhammed.” I find it to be a valuable book that addresses the issue from a historical path. The book looks at the term “Allah” as a term that well-predates Muhammed. It has been used by Christians, and others, to describe chief deity. However, more of the book looks at Islam as springing out of a centuries old tradition of Christians struggling with the question of “Who is Jesus?” I think the book is definitely worth a read… especially compared to the many books put out by people who don’t really know the subject well, but are good name-calling.

The author asked me to write the Foreward to the book. Here is is:

FOREWARD

David Tracy in his book Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope (page 84) notes that a religion (an admittedly loaded term) is seen as having a vision of Ultimate Reality that has been passed on to its adherents in “religious classics” or sacred scriptures. These scriptures lead to two conflicts. One conflict occurs when the sacred writ demands its followers to break free from the status quo— the “as it always has been.” The other conflict is when adherents attempt to interpret these writings. This type of conflict springs from the fact that we must wrestle out meaning that often is clouded by centuries, language, and our own biases.

Christianity shares a common heritage with Islam in identifying God’s breaking into our world through Abraham and Moses, among others, to reveal a sliver of Ultimate Reality. The two faiths also see God revealing Himself to mankind through Jesus or Isa. With so much in common, it seems strange that enmity has defined much of the historical interaction between Christianity and Islam.

This book, by Adesegun Hammed Olayiwola, addresses the two conflicts expressed by Tracy. First, how do we overcome centuries of conflict in history, language change, and biases to draw out meaning from Scripture particularly as it pertains to that most important question— Who is God? Second, in understanding Scripture, what must we do to pull away from the status quo, following God’s self-revelation not our own traditions?

This book asks the questions of Who is God? Who is Allah? Who is Jesus? Who is Isa? These questions have often been obscured by politics (secular and religious) and factions, and by the challenges of understanding what is revealed in Scripture. If, however, we are able to answer these questions based on God’s revelation, we are left with the next challenge: How should that truth affect our lives and our relationships?

In emphasizing these two conflicts, the author is avoiding the more common path of devolving the conflict into historical wrongs and injustices. As important as they may seem from our perspectives, they must fall away to near meaninglessness compared to the nature of and revelation of our Creator.

Robert H. Munson

Inconvenience and Negativity

A few weeks ago, I was online with a meeting of team of supporters. Another missionary who we are connected with here in the Philippines was also in the online group. This meeting we were invited to join, but we were not the focus of the meeting. Nevertheless, we were asked to give a quick update of what is going on with our ministries here in the Philippines.

Afterwards, several people said how nice it was for us and the other missionary family to join. One of the comments was “It was so nice that they were so positive and not complaining.” A couple of days ago, I (and a few other missionaries) were asked to give a short video to a church and were asked to share prayer requests while “keeping it positive.”

I found that interesting. Why twice in a few weeks was positivity especially called out.

One possibility is that I (and maybe other missionaries) are so negative normally, or perhaps only contact friends and supporters when something is lacking. I know my wife and I have supported ministers and missionaries who would NEVER contact us unless there was a need they have. I can assure you that after awhile one gradually shifts from feeling like one is a partner, to feeling like one is being used. Still, I don’t know that I am negative all that often. Maybe I am, and maybe other missionaries are as well. But this is only one possibility.

Another possibility, however, is that there is a tendency “back home” toward negativity. I do know that looking at social media from back in the US, there is a lot of negativity. It seems like Evangelical Christianity there has become hypersensitized to… well… pretty much every little annoyance (except, perhaps, things that annoy others outside of themselves).

I remember talking to a pastor in the US some months ago who was so annoyed that church meetings were being limited in his state. He felt that this was a huge encroachment on his freedoms. I tried to reframe it as sacrifice… the church has the opportunity to sacrifice some of its rights TEMPORARILY as a blessing for the community. His response was, “Well, that is a pretty huge sacrifice…”

I thought about that. It really isn’t much of a sacrifice. Quoting one of my favorite Youtubers, Ryan George, it is a sacrifice that is “Super easy— barely an inconvenience.”

It seems like many Christians right now are struggling with a reversal of St. Paul’s testimony— In whatever state we are in, therein to be discontent.

But maybe I am reading into things. Maybe it is about me. Maybe I am too negative in my reports. In the end, I can’t DIRECTLY change other people, I can only change myself. So what should I take from this?

  • I probably should ask for clarification. Guessing doesn’t really help.
  • should find a balance in my newsletters home. I should be more positive, encouraging those who are feeling discouraged. However, I should also not simply send home “happy letters.” I need to tell the full story. With happy letters, I can get fans. But I don’t need fans, I need supporters, prayer warriors, and accountability partners.
  • I should model sacrifice. Sacrifice and inconvenience seem to be a challenge for many (Western Evangelical) Christians today. Telling people that they just need to “suck it up” probably won’t work. But if I make it clear that I can find contentment in all circumstances, and the peace that passes all understanding, perhaps it will rub off.
  • Avoid catastrophizing. Some mission organizations create financial or other disaster scenarios as a way to drive support. But “God is in his Heaven— All’s right with the world.” Having to change plans, adjusting to reality is not a catastrophy.

Bad Miracles– Does God Allow Us to Do Bad Things With His Power?

Miracles have a long and respected place in Judaism and Christianity. Often miracles are seen as evidence of God’s reality and His goodness and justice. After all, miracles are considered to be acts or events where the natural processes are disturbed by divine act. So, if something occurs outside of the natural order of things, and outside of direct human or social action, then we see this as God stepping in miraculously, and we probably assume that this breaking in has significance. Miracles don’t really “prove” God because it is frustratingly difficult to prove causation of… well… pretty much everything. Generally, however, miracles are supposed to be a sign. That is, they are meant to be signs for those already share a theocentric worldview. Generally they have little to tell those whose worldview is more naturalistic.

But let’s wrestle with the second point a bit… miracles point to God’s goodness and justice. I believe this point is sound, but perhaps the point gets taken in wrong directions.

First, miracles may point to God’s goodness and justice, but some miracles may not be “good” from a human perspective. There are numerous cases in the Bible where God miraculously does things that are arguably harmful to man. The Noahic Flood and the Plagues of Egypt were certainly miraculous, but so many people were harmed by them. Sometimes we like to separate between benevolent miracles (commonly called “miracles”) and malevolent miracles (called “curses” or “judgments”), but that is our choice.

Second, while miracles may point to God’s working through a person, it does not necessarily signify God’s total approval of that person. This is actually the main point of this rambling post. A miracle is a sign about God, but NOT NECESSARILY a sign regarding the miracle worker, the tool God uses to carry out the miracle (especially if the miracle is not a benevolent one). Frankly, this should hardly surprise us. Habakkuk had this struggle with God when God informed him that He was going to use the Babylonians (ungodly idolaters) to punish Judah (halfhearted followers of the God of Abraham). Habakkuk struggled with how God could use the ungodly to carry out his work. God appears to make it clear that He will use who or what He chooses to carry out His mission. Even more challenging is Jesus saying that there are many who will carry out (presumably genuine) miracles in His name who God “never knew.” More on this later.

So are there genuine servants of God who sought to use miracles wrongly, and God still empowered them— empowered them to do something wrong? God certainly allows us to use the created world around us and our own talents (all gifts of God’s power) to do wrong. So what about more— showy— demonstrations of God’s power? I would like to suggest there are examples in the Bible that should make us suspect that God will sometimes allow us to do wrong… even in the miraculous.

  • A classic example is the case where Moses struck a rock to bring forth water even though He was commanded to speak to the rock (Numbers 20). Many of you know the classic typological argument for why Moses was punished. The rock is supposed to represent Jesus— one time (Exodus 17) the rock is struck to show that Jesus is the redeemer. The second, time one is supposed to just speak to the rock since there is no more need for sacrifice (“being struck”). I suppose it can be looked at this way, but I feel this is more about preachers wanting to be clever. This is a long-standing tradition in the church to allegorize or see pretty much everything in the Hebrew Bible as a type of Christ. That is not to say that none of this has merit. For me, however, what is more interesting is that this is a clear example of God doing a miracle and that miracle DOES NOT demonstrate support for the miracle worker. In fact, the miracle was done because the people were thirsty, and thus it was done IN SPITE OF Moses, rather than because of him. This would be an example of God doing a benevolent miracle for the people, while not rejecting (in the moment at least) the tool He used to initiate the miracle.
  • Prophecy is miraculous at least when it involves knowledge that is not knowable without divine revelation. As such, people such as Balaam (Numbers 22) and the “witch” of Endor (I Samuel 28), could be seen as examples of God doing the miraculous despite the one (God) who truly did the miracle not in support of the person. We know elsewhere in Scripture that we are supposed to look on Balaam negatively despite the prophecy. We don’t know much about the witch of Endor, but we know that she was practicing divination, or necromancy. These were strongly prohibited. This may be in line with Judas who did miracles in the Gospels and yet was still described as the “Son of Perdition”— miracle workers that God did not know.
  • Elisha on two occasions did miracles where there seems to be a good question whether this is in line with God’s desires. One of those was when Elisha was the new successor of Elijah. He asked for a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit (presumably, ability to effect miraculous change). Not long after this, Elisha is verbally accosted by some young men who insulted him, comparing him unfavorably to Elijah. Elisha then called a curse on them and many were mauled by two bears. I have heard many commentators try to explain why what Elisha did was justified. However, taken in the broader context it seems pretty clear that Elisha was in the wrong. The passage seemed to describe an insecure man taking (literally) the mantle of his predecessor. The part of the story before Elijah left suggests this insecurity. The part after really reinforces it. His first miracle was a completely unnecessary one to repeat a miracle that Elijah did just previously. Then when questioned of his ability to replace Elijah, he calls down a curse. To me it is a lesson to those who seek divine favor that (like in Spiderman), where there is great power, there is great responsibility. The other miracle was when he cursed his servant with leprosy. This curse may or many not be appropriate. However, he also placed the curse on the servant’s descendants forever. This is not only extreme, it seems to be in opposition to God’s will and word. The punishment (just act, not simply natural results) of one who does wrong is not to be placed on future generations. Elisha’s miracle appears to be against God’s justice. So what happened? Since we don’t know of any family today with perennial problems with leprosy, I would assume that maybe God did not honor that part of the curse, OR perhaps Elisha calmed down and corrected his error.
Who Did Ananias and Sapphira Lie To? — As It Reads
Ananias and Sapphira, with Peter
  • Peter in chapter 5 of the Acts of the Apostles appears to curse Ananias and Sapphira with death. Again, I have heard many attempts to explain why this was appropriate. However, in the context it is hard to see it. Chapters 1 through 4 of the book shows an idealized church with no problems. Certainly, this was not fully the case. The ideal church still consists of non-ideal humans. However, this story of Ananias and Sapphira is the first recording of the problem and the first recording of the response by the apostles. It seems unlikely that death was God’s preferred response. In fact the passage described how the event engendered fear among the Christians. Immediately after this, is the recording of only benevolent acts by the apostles. And then we move into a new conflict— ethnic strife and gossiping. Instead of placing a curse on them that were at fault, the apostles sought a peaceful, non-miraculous, solution. In Chapter 8, a case somewhat similar to Ananias and Sapphira comes up before Peter. A man named Simon Magus seeks divine empowerment from God and is willing to pay the apostles for that power (another problem with money). Instead of cursing him, Peter told him that he needed to repent.

Peter, like all of the Twelve were new to the power and responsibility they had. And the Apostles had problems with power and responsibility in the past. Shortly before Jesus’ death, Peter tried to kill a man with a sword (only managed to slice his ear). A couple of years before this, James and John asked Jesus if they could call down fire on a village that had failed to show them hospitality. Jesus suggested a better idea… go to a different village.

Sometimes we need to learn responsibility with power by making mistakes. When I was fifteen I had an awesome chemistry set with a lot of chemicals that one cannot find in such sets today. I was often quite cavalier with my safety protocols (and lack thereof). I made a stupid mistake and my set exploded sending chunks of glass and who knows what else into my back, right arm and neck. Obviously, I recovered, but I learned a lot from that lesson. I believe I learned more through the misuse of the power I had than I would have learned if God had simply prevented me from making the mistake that day.

I do think that miracles are always a sign of something. But sometimes it can be the sign of God’s desire to do what is right in spite of, not because of, the miracle worker. And sometimes, it is a sign to the miracle worker to embrace his or her role as God’s servant with greater mercy and gravity.

Missions Anthropology Thoughts

<The following is actually some guidance for my students in Cultural Anthropology class. But others can read it if they want.>

Cultural Anthropology has been called Missions Anthropology by some, and when Cultural Anthropology is used by missionaries for solutions to ministry questions, the term Missions Anthropology is quite appropriate.

One of the goals of Missions Anthropology is to change how missionaries and ministers react to cultural differences. Here are two ways of looking at cultural differences.

#1. The Common Response. A Christian sees something different in a culture.

a. That cultural behavior is done by them (non-Christians). And…

b. That cultural behavior is not being done by us (Christians). Therefore…

c. That cultural behavior is unchristian, and must be stopped.

But is that a good response? For hundreds of years, Christians did not use cellphones. This does not mean that cellphones are unchristian. It also does not mean that cellphones cannot be utilized for good. So here is a second response…

#2. The Uncommon Response. A Christians sees something different in a culture.

a. That cultural behavior is done by them (non-Christians). And…

b. That cultural behavior is not being done by us (Christians). Therefore…

c. What would this cultural behavior look like in a Christ-redeemed culture?

Let me give an example.

In Japan, the dominant religion is Shintoism. Actually, Shintoism is in many ways, more of a collection of values and practices than a fully functioning religion. Shinto shrines are all over Japan, and even in public places such as subways. For many Japanese, their practice is to fit religion into their brief moments of free time, so they may step into a shrine for a couple of minutes while waiting for their train to take them home from work.

So let’s look at this situation from the two different responses.

Response #1. These little Shinto Shrines all over Japan are not Christian. They are places of worship to false gods, and must be destroyed so that Christ can be glorified. Japanese people should stop going to shrines at different times of the week, but should go to church on Sundays at 10am… just like us.

Response #2. The Japanese look for opportunities to pray, meditate, and express religious reverence in quick little moments in their lives. What would a vibrant Christianity look like within this culture? Maybe it would have little prayer rooms scattered throughout the country, where Japanese people can take a quick break from their busy lives to pray to God… to read some words of Scripture… and to meditate on God and His message. In some larger prayer rooms, they may have chaplains there to help them with their concerns and to be a guide for them.

I think Response #2 is better than Response #1. Response #1 says that Japanese can come to Christ by destroying the things that make them unique. To become Christian, they have to stop being Japanese in any culturally distinct ways. Response #2 recognizes that Christianity around the world is diverse and centered on God. Therefore, Japanese Christianity can be uniquely different from other forms of Christianity, much like Greek Christianity was very different from Jewish Christianity in the first century.

Why am I mentioning this? A few of you have made some rather strong statements. For example, one might talk about something which is done in their culture, but then say, we (Christians) don’t do that because it is unchristian. To me, that is not a good answer.

  • If it is unchristian because it is sinful, then is there a way that it can be done without sin? For example, in the Philippines, fiestas often are tied to adoration of saints and icons, and often have a lot of drunkenness and gambling. These may be sinful, but is there a way that fiestas can be participated in that is not sinful?
  • If it is unchristian because it is something practiced by non-Christians, then is there a way that Christians can connect with the culture through the practice, while still being Christian. For example, if one is in a Muslim country where Ramadan is widely practiced, is there a way that Christians can show that they are part of the culture (not members of an alien or foreign faith)? Can Christians honor the cultural practice of Ramadan as a show of honor to the culture and to their neighbors, while still honoring Christ?

My point here is that for that class, when you are talking about a cultural item or a cultural practice, if you say that it is “wrong” or that it is unchristian… I will ask you, “Why is it wrong?” or “What makes it unchristian?” And I may ask you, “What needs to change for it be a healthy part of the lives of Christians who are of that culture?”