Joanne Shetler, a Wycliffe Bible Translator, in her book “And the Word Came with Power,” says on page 108
“Balangaos had always had village elders, older men informally chosen by group consensus to guide them. I usually sought these older people to work with me on translation; their status and their experience were invaluable. In the course of helping with the translation, they ended up with an unusually solid knowledge of the Word of God. They were naturals to become a new kind of elder, elders in the Balangao church. Early on they began teaching others what they’d learned about God from the Scriptures.”
It seems to me that this expresses an ideal way to bring an unreached group to faith.
- Enter a community with the blessing of the elders/leaders.
- Seek help and guidance from the elders.
- Get the elders involved with the ministry— even before they have chosen to follow Christ.
Why is this ideal?
- Entering the community with the blessing of the elders gives one immediate status. When entering a community, any community, people will label those who dwell with them. A great label is “Welcome Guest,” especially if the welcomers are the leaders of the community. Other good labels are teacher or healer. But if one doesn’t have a good and clear label, eventually one will be given less desirable labels like… “foreigner,” “stranger,” “alien,” or perhaps even “troublemaker.”
- Seeking the help and guidance of the elders supports the societal structure. It honors those that the people have already honored. There are times that one has to challenge the leadership…. but certainly not at the beginning. If one reads the book of Nehemiah one finds that Nehemiah strongly challenged the local leaders. However, he did so only years later. Initially, he utilized the local leadership.
- Relatedly, the local leadership knows how to allocate resources and get things done. Getting their blessing is more than symbolic, it is also very tangible.
- Getting the elders involved in ministry sets things up for group conversion. As the elders were trained in the Bible through their translation work, they were slowly made ready to change and follow Christ. Upon their conversion, the community is much more ready to change with them. It reminds me of the conversion of Iceland to Christ, that came after a vote of the clan leaders.
- Translators become experts in Scripture even before they become followers of Christ. Be open to the possibility that God works backwards with some… where they are discipled before they are converted. Adoniram Judson would be another example of one in whom early converts of his were his translators. However, they were translators in his ministry long before they were followers of Christ.
- All of this leads to elders/leaders in the community who are now Christians and also well-trained in the Scriptures. They make ideal church leaders.
Some missionaries like to enter a community seeking out the youth because they are often the most ready to change. (I like to say that in the US, college students rebel by dabbling with agnosticism or atheism. In the Philippines, college students rebel by dabbling with Evangelicalism.) However, ignoring the older generation often leads to divided families. Will divided families happen? Of course, sometimes. But taking the extra time to work with leaders and the older generation can really lead to longer-term community transformation.
The young can minister, but will often have great limitations. I had a friend who was an 18 year old and a pastor of a church. It was an Ibaloi church (Ibaloi being a traditional tribal group that has an elder leadership structure much like the Balangao). Why would an elder-based group have an 18 year old pastor? They liked his musical ability and liked his preaching. But he had no spiritual authority in the church. He did music and talking, but the elders in the church were the spiritual (and administrative) leaders. It would have been must wiser, in all probability, to have had one of the older members serve as the senior pastor, and have the younger as an associate pastor or worship leader.
In Joanne Shetler’s situation things worked out… and that is a blessing. I know some people personally who are the fruit of her ministry there. It seems to me that one should seek this pattern, especially for pioneering work. Sometimes the ideal is not possible, but going for soft targets, ignoring the patriarchs and matriarchs and leaders, may actually hurt growth long-term.
Finally got my book updated. Previously, I was trying to finish the book “Ministry in Diversity” quickly so that it could be used in my Cultural Anthropology class. So I was a bit… sloppy. My son helped me fix a lot of it. We got most of the problems fixed now (HOPEFULLY all of them). Also added another chapter. Chapter 17 is on Interreligious Dialogue (IRD). Additionally, I expanded my chapter on Language a bit. However, because of changing the formatting, it is now about 60 pages shorter, despite having more content. That also reduced the cost a bit. Kindle version will be up soon,
In the first two or three years of our mission work in the Philippines, we would go back to the US for a few weeks to visit friends, families, and churches. And at churches I would be asked to preach. Sometimes, I would choose a Missions topic and sometimes not. When I preached on something else, I would get a bit of a surprised response. Somehow, they just assumed that since I was a missionary, I would preach on the Great Commission, or perhaps give a rousing Missions testimony.
I felt like saying, “I am not defined by my vocation. A baseball player may well know more than sports. A missionary may know more than missions.”
Perhaps it was my stubbornness. but it took me awhile to get this straightened out in my head. Church leadership did not assume that I knew nothing beyond Missions.
In any community, there is Status and Role. So, for example, when a person visits a foreign country…. members of that society look to assign a status to that person. The most likely status given is Tourist. Associated with the status is an associated role. For tourist, the fairly modest requirements is to obey local laws and spend money. Some other possible statuses would be International Student, Missionary, or Diplomat. Each one of these has an associated role. It is often best for that person to help the community in assigning a status, because if he/she does not, the community could assign an undesirable status such as Alien, Stranger, or Enemy.
In cross-cultural work, one must know one’s status, and one’s role. Erik Erickson described the 5th life stage (age 12-19) as Identity versus Role Confusion. Frankly, all of us can struggle with role confusion, and even more so for those of us from societies that place higher value on Individualism.
When I am invited to visit a church, they are commonly assigning me a status as well. I have had a few different statuses given to me:
- Seminary representative
- Pastoral Care “specialist”
- Stewardship expert
The last one is interesting. I am certainly no expert in stewardship. However, Filipino pastors often want visiting preachers to speak on tithing. Many churches in the Philippines have very little giving, and so many pastors serve with starvation wages, or worse. They feel ashamed to talk to their own churches about money, and so ask visiting preachers to take on that role of stewardship expert.
Each one of these drives a different role. To fail to take on the assigned role is, in fact, to fail.
When I went back to the US, I was foolish. I was given the status of visiting missionary. As such, I was simply stupid to act as if that status comes without assigned roles. One must know that status and live up to it.
I think I have learned a few things over the years. I try to find out the status I am given and the role expected of me.
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
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
I am happy to say that I don’t hear this much anymore… the idea that the gospel message needs not be contextualized or made to be recognized relevant to the hearer. On occasion, one hears someone quote Isaiah 55:11, believing that God word accomplishes what it is supposed to do, despite us.
So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth;
It shall not return to Me void,
But it shall accomplish what I please,
And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.
Usually, rather than attacking contextualization, what is challenged is the motive behind contextualization… the belief (or perhaps fear) that contextualization is some sort of pluralistic relativism, diluting the Christian faith. Can it be that? I suppose… one can interpret almost anything as anything… that is the characteristic of pure symbols. However, such fear can be a lazy excuse to use just one presentation of God’s message, even where such a presentation would in all probability be a failure. Or it may be a lazy or selfish choice to not understand others.
Let’s consider a rather extreme case of bad contextualization of the Gospel. It is the story of Emperor Atahualpa, and the Conquistador Pizarro. You can read the story in one of my previous posts… HERE. This version of the story is from Jared Diamond in “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.” Look at the method of presentation of the Gospel, and the results.
On the quick read one might argue that it wasn’t a presentation of the gospel at all. For Evangelicals it does not push toward the tradition of the “Sinner’s Prayer.” There is also no focus on sin, repentance, and faith. Yet it does have a couple of features that make it an even more theologically sound presentation of the Gospel. Consider the following:
A. The friar was offering to teach the people to be friends of God. This focus on discipleship certainly places it superior to calls for belief without Lordship of Christ, or a call even to follow Christ in any meaningful way.
B. The message of Good News was actually from God’s Word, the Bible. In fact, the friar gave the Emperor the Bible, and sought to help him use the Bible. This certainly places it superior to presentations that are more logical or clever, but clearly outside of utilizing the whole of Scripture.
So if this was such a good presentation of the Gospel, why did it fail so miserably. (Frankly, I hope most readers would identify the killing of thousands of non-Christians and the subjugation of the rest as an undesirable result of a gospel presentation.) Many of the problems with the presentation were due to the cross-cultural gap that had to be bridged. But there were other problems as well that may not have as much causation from poor contextualization. Let’s consider the contextual issues first.
- The Word of God wasn’t really presented in a way where it could be responded to. The Incan Emperor did not know how to read Latin, so he could not have read it, to say nothing of responding to it after understanding it. Giving the Bible to someone who can’t understand it, thinking it will have a positive result is quite foolish. The power of the Bible is in the message it conveys… not some magic associated with it, and not the physical structure of the Bible.
- The Bible was not even in a medium that the Emperor could appreciate. The Incans had no written language, so he had no concept of written language. He did not even know how to open the book. The present the Bible utilizing a medium that the people cannot connect to is much like establishing a Christian radio station in the 16th century— an impressive accomplishment, but no one will be able to receive the message. They won’t even know that there was a message being sent in the first place.
- The message was given disrespectfully. When the Emperor did not know how to open the book, the friar tried to reach up to help. The Emperor was angry. Probably, although I am just guessing, the behavior was inappropriate when dealing with the Emperor. Of course, making the emperor angry through a social faux pas is quite likely to drive a wedge between the two rather than leading to agreement.
- The behavior of the friar and Pizarro was thoroughly ethnocentric. It was so ethnocentric that when the Emperor tossed aside the Bible (tossing something he had never seen before– and did not look all that interesting since he could not read), the friar called them enemy dogs and the Emperor a tyrant. In all likelihood the friar did not know the Emperor well enough to know if he was a tyrant. He may well have been no more of a tyrant than the Spanish royals. Calling them dogs is a disappointingly classic form of dehumanization and of self-elevation. In the 1500s explorers and theologians struggled with the question of whether the strange beings they found in other lands were truly human or not. The wise of that time didn’t know the limits of what is, so it is understandable if there was some confusion. Still, if one was actually superior, it hardly seems appropriate (or even necessary) to degrade the others further. Certainly presuming that their deaths were less of a tragedy than one’s own people, qualifies as ethnocentric.
There were other problems as well:
- Mixed motive. Pizarro was a conquistador… driven forward by the desire for conquest (thus the term “conquistador”) and wealth. The friar actually joined the group because of his desire for plunder, not hearts turned to God.
- Mixed allegiances. Pizarro calls for the Incans to be subject to God, the the King of Spain, and the Roman Catholic church. It is understandable that missionaries sometimes identify themselves with their nation of origin or their own denomination so strongly that they struggle in separating those allegiances from allegiance to God. History does have many stories that may lead one to concern about mixing denominationalism (or creedalism) or nationalism, with allegiance to God.
- Mixed methods. Mixing the message of God’s desire to make peace with all mankind with an army bent on destruction and colonization certainly sends a double message.
I think it is safe to say that contextualization, and proper motivation has a strong effect on how people respond to the Gospel.
Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary (www.pbts.net.ph) will start its 2017/18 academic year starting June 13th. Looking forward to it, as I will be teaching three courses I love.
- I will be teaching Cultural Anthropology again. This will be for the M.Div. program. I will be using the book I wrote, “Ministry in Diversity,” as the main text book. Still trying to think about what project I want to do with that. Traditionally, I ask people to do either an ethnography or an RRA (Rapid Rural Assessment). However, we are doing some ministry work in a jail this year, and it would be an exciting exercise in sub-culture contextualization. Not sure yet.
- I will be teaching “Contemporary Issues in Missions.” This is a BTh course. I taught it years ago, but in more of a modular, rather than semestral, format. Additionally, the book I used back then is probably a bit long-in-the-tooth to be thought contemporary today. I may have to teach the course without a single textbook. I will probably make it more research-oriented.
- Celia and I, and maybe one or two more, will tag-team to teach “Clinical Pastoral Orientation.” It is a mini form of Clinical Pastoral Education, designed to fit a bit better into a semestral system. Might use our book “The Art of Pastoral Care” but not sure. It depends how many have already used the book for Intro to PC&C. This is a cross-over class in the sense that both Bachelor level and Master level students can take it.
My wife Celia will be teaching Intro to PC&C for the BTh Students. I will also be supervising theses and dissertations at Asia Baptist Graduation Theological Seminary, and thesis students at PBTS and Maranatha Graduate School.
My wife is working with Drug Surrenderers here in Baguio, and both she and I (and our team from Bukal Life Care) will be continuing to expand work in two jails here. Some people find it strange that I teach both Missions and Pastoral Care. However, I believe it is in places like jail ministry, and drug treatment, where Missions and Pastoral Care overlap quite nicely. It is also in such ministries where the argument that social ministry is not really missions is shown to be without merit.
It should be an exciting year. I am not sure whether I will be so busy that I can’t keep this blog updated, or whether the classes and ministries will inspire me to write more.