Training in Missions

On occasion I have thought about what topics should be covered in Missions Training. I looked at some stuff I put together in 2010. Looking it over, I liked a lot of it. The main lacking I think was not recognizing the importance of theology in missions. So I would like to divide missions training into three levels and three areas.

Missions Areas:

Missiological. This is a vague term, but relates courses that fit into a lot of the “practical topics” that fit into missions.

Theological. While many of the missiological topics could be described as being part of practical theology, this section involves very intentional theological rigor as it relates to Missions.

Sociological. This is that part of Missions that focuses on the social sciences… especially anthropology.

Levels:

Level One. Should be taken by all seminary or Bible school students. Or, for those seeking to g. o formally into missions, these may include courses that would be considered introductory… and perhaps taken in the first year or semester or module (depending on the structure of the training)

Level Two. Should be taken by all missions students— especially in the middle, meaty, part of the training.

Level Three. Electives or finishing courses for missions students.

With that in mind, the curriculum would break down something like this (I guess):

MISSIOLOGY

-Level One

-Introduction to Missiology

-Level Two

-Missions History

-Strategy and Planning of Missions

-Contemporary Issues in Missions

-Level Three (examples)

-Missionary Member Care

-Short-term Missions

-Urban Missions

-Community Development

THEOLOGY

Level One

-Biblical Theology of Missions (NOT “Biblical Basis for Missions”)

Level Two

-Missions Theology

Level Three

-Localizing Theology

SOCIOLOGY

Level One

-Introduction to World Religions

Level Two

-Cultural Anthropology

-Cross-cultural Communication

-Interfaith Dialogue

-Ethnographic Research

Level Three (Possible examples)

-Ethnomusicology

-Specific culture/religion-targeted missions

Of course this list presupposes other trainings that are more general but valuable to missions students. I am assuming that Evangelism, Discipleship, and Churchplanting are not seen as specifically in the Missions Department— even though in the areas above they would loosely fit under the Missiological section. Likewise, it is presumed that students would get Biblical Theology, Historical Theology, and Systematic Theology (along with Biblical Studies) from other departments. And in terms of the sociological side of things, it is assumed that students are trained in other departments homiletics, Christian education, music and worship.

Better Questions and Al Yagoda

The Dunning-Kruger Effect has become popularized in recent days. Unfortunately it sometimes gets reimagined as “Stupid people often think they are smarter than they really are.” Of course, that is not the issue. It is that people tend not to be self-aware of their own incompetence in a subject. People who are very ignorant in a topic often feel that they are quite knowledgeable in the topic. This is hardly surprising, since it is a truism that…

“We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know”

This reminds me of a satirical post in the “Babylon Bee.” The title was, “Scholars Now Believe Job’s Friends Were First-Year Seminary Students.” Since the story was certainly used in the training of young men in rabbinical schools for millennia, I can’t help but wonder if it is more truth than satire (“Not the Onion”-worthy).

“It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance.”

— Thomas Sowell

Perhaps a bit more surprising is that people who are genuinely experts in a topic often feel that they are more ignorant than they really are. The more one studies a subject the more one understands how vast it is. Although experts tend to be more realistic than novices, one may become so focused on the vast vistas of the unknown that one may lose sight of the level of competency that one has achieved. When I was in first year college for mechanical engineering, a question had come up in mathematics that was new to me. I decided to ask my dad. He told me that he had no idea what the answer was. I was shocked. My father had a bachelors degree in mathematics (magna cum laude), had been “human computer” (back when those were the only computers that existed) in missile design and then a test engineer at a high-performance bearing company. As I went on in my education, I gained a better understanding of how vast mathematics. It is so vast that no one embraces all of it with any level of competence. Expertise narrows. When young, my dad was an expert in college-level mathematics… as well as mental math. When older, his expertise became Weibull distributions and failure analysis (small but important parts of the vast, infinite, plane that is mathematics).

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

–Charles Darwin

So:

  • Incompetent people in an area tend to think that they much more competent than they actually are.
  • Highly competent people in an area tend to think they are somewhat less competent than they actually are.
  • Highly competent people in an area tend to think that they are more competent than they really are in areas that they lack expertise.

It could be suggested that the first point on the list is unnecessary. Pretty much all of us are experts in something, and every single person on earth who is an expert in something is going to be incompetent in a vast range of things. So you get people like astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson speaking about philosophy with great confidence but without competence. I shouldn’t pick on him alone. I find people talking about climate change with great confidence (actually on both sides of the issue) but with know training in the matter. I have seen Nobel prize winners talk with great confidence on topics that they have little expertise in.

In fact, we all do it. We are all rather incompetent in most ways…. but we really don’t want to go around and sound ignorant. We all want to appear competent and that we know exactly what needs to be done. I teach Interreligious Dialogue and I have my students write up case studies of themselves in interreligious dialogue. So many are uncomfortable because they are afraid of being asked something that they don’t know the answer to. They are afraid of that “Gotcha!!” moment where they feel stupid. (Strangely, in most cases, the person they were talking to probably would have respected them more if they simply said, “Wow, that is a great question. I need to research that. Or maybe we can figure it out together.”) We want to be the Gotcha!! guy like Ben Shapiro focused more on belittling the other than on seeking truth.

We all want to be Al Yagoda.

Who is Al Yagoda? One of my bosses back when I was a mechanical design engineer told me to avoid Al Yagoda. When we have a question, don’t listen to people that answer with, “Al Yagoda do is….. ” or “All you need is…”

Answers are rarely that easy. We rarely know the answer. I tell my seminary students to embrace the sentence, “I don’t know.” It is a good sentence because it is commonly true. It is also often true when you think it is not true (As the Dunning-Kruger Effect suggests).

This does not mean that one must end with “I don’t know.” I don’t know is a starting place, not an endpoint. In the classes I teach, someone asks a good question. I often will say, “I don’t know… but here are some thoughts I have on this.’ Or maybe, “I don’t know… but maybe someone else here knows.”

Sometimes, I don’t know is followed by a strategy to find out. I remember as an engineer, a friend of mine was making an electronic cabinet and wasn’t sure what thickness of sheet metal he should use. He asked me what I thought would work. I said, quite correctly, “I don’t know.’ However, I then followed with, “I think I know how we can find out.” I took him downstairs to the testing department where there were a number of electronic racks. I pointed to three of them and told him to sit on them and push on them. He did. I told him the thicknesses of sheet metal used for each. Based on that he had a good idea what to use. He discovered the truth, and did so in a way that was more visceral. Me telling him what I thought was the best thickness may or may not have been right… but it certainly would NOT be the best way to inform him.

Being an expert in a field is often not about having better answers, but having better questions. I think this is especially true in missions and in theology. I like to tell my students that they should not expect that I have the best answers. I can be wrong. I am wrong every day. I have met people who think that they are experts and so should be believed. I don’t think anyone living today is such an expert in a subject that they have earned the right to be unquestionably believed. But PERHAPS they should be taken seriously.

That is what I tell my students. They can disagree with me… and they may be right in doing so. Based on my training and experience, I don’t expect to be believed… but I DO expect to have my thoughts taken seriously. If all I do as a seminary professor is indoctrinate them to parrot my beliefs, I have done little, if any, good.

But if I can train up people to gain some sense of the vastness of theology and missions, have the self-awareness to recognize their own expertise AND ignorance, and help them to ask better questions, I have accomplished something wonderful.

That is something that I am pretty sure that I know.

Should Missionaries be Evangelists?

So I was talking to a friend of mine named Tom (his name is NOT Tom) who is a minister in an Asian Country where Christians are a tiny minority. He was talking about mission work in his country. He noted that missionaries had brought a lot of good things to his country… such as hospitals, church buildings, and community development projects— among other things.

However, he said that one way missionaries haven’t been that helpful have been in terms of Evangelism. He noted that foreign missionaries are not all that good at evangelizing people in his country… because they are foreign. He noted, that in some rural areas, they have had some success in gifting the poor with things they need and these poor respond, converting and joining the church. Later, however, when the missionaries are gone, the gifts stop or slowly break down, and the people drift back into their community’s majority faith.

Of course I have heard this before… even here in the Philippines where many Filipinos are comfortable with English, and the there is commonly enough Bible literacy so that the American-style gospel presentations are effective. (I will not address the question of whether these presentations lead people to Christ, or bring people who are already saved to a different denomination.) It is well understood here that Filipinos are better at evangelizing than foreigners. Foreigners are not that effective even with other religions. I mean, even the American Mormon boys (and girls) sent to the Philippines to proselytize their own message are more and more often matched up with Filipinos. It is entertaining to listen to American youth stumbling through the Mormon message in Tagalog or Visayan or Ilocano, but it is simply not that compelling. The biggest mosque here in our city has worked very hard to fund local boys so that they can train them to evangelize their Tawhid to others here. There are many foreign Muslims here… but few if any have any impact in the presentation of their faith.

But if Christian Missionaries are not good Evangelists, is this a new thing? No. Apparently, Occam (a Native American) was a much better evangelist to Native Americans than Wheelock (a European) in the 1700s. In the 1800s, Karen Evangelists were more effective in sharing the gospel than their American counterparts. Of course, one may go back to 1st century missionaries, such as Philip and Paul and Barnabas in hopes of finding something different. However, in these cases, these missionaries were reaching out to people who were not that different from themselves (E-1 or at most E-2). Paul and Barnabas were Hellenistic Jews from Asia Minor and Cyprus, who reached out to Hellenistic Jews and Hellenistic Gentiles in Asia Minor and Cyprus. Philip, presumably a Proselyte to Judaism before becoming a Christian, reached out to Samaritans (who shared the language used by the Jews, and almost all of the beliefs of the Jews), and a (presumably) proselyte to Judaism from Ethiopia. Their effectiveness, outside of divine empowerment, was linked to the commonality of language and culture.

So let’s look at it a different way. Consider three settings where a Missionary can Serve.

#1 is Where the Church IS NOT. (No viable church within the region, or culture)

#2 is Where the Church HAS NOT. (The local church may be weak or young and needs help to empower them to carry out its work.)

#3 is Where the Church CANNOT. (The local church may be strong, but still lacks unique capacities such as ability to support radio transmission, publishing, medical services, and so forth.)

So what should the role of Missionary as Evangelist be in these three situations?

For #1. Of course, The missionary is an apostle in the classic sense— sent into a place where the church is not. As such, his (or her) role is to proclaim God’s message of love, and draw those who seek to follow Christ to come together as church bodies. Yes, such a missionary pioneer should evangelize, but really should focus on training new believers to evangelize and then move to new roles of discipling and leader development so that the missionary (as soon as possible) is not needed there.

For #2. Maybe. The Missionary MIGHT be needed to evangelize occasionally— especially if the local church has not embraced its role as a proclaimer of the gospel in its area. But such a role should be very temporary and cautious. After all, even a young church can have young believers who can effectively evangelize. Thus, if it is not happening, having missionaries do the job can easily maintain an unhealthy dependence on missionaries. In fact, that unsatisfactory condition may exist because missionaries as pioneers focused too much on evangelizing and not on encouraging that role to be passed on to locals.

For #3. No. Every church can evangelize. The local church may not be able to establish a publishing house, or operate a counseling center, but they can share their faith with others. Missionaries doing the evangelism in these settings is unhealthy… except as simply a fellow participant with local Christians.

Tom when noting all the good things that missionaries brought to their country noted one thing that they really did not bring. They did not establish seminaries. Mission groups come over to evangelize, and they come in to teach locals how to share their faith like a foreigner. But they did not help establish schools for locals to be trained to contextualize/localize the Christian faith… and remove their scholarly dependence on foreigners.

A few years ago, I was investigating joining a major mission agency. At the time this agency was moving away from theological education and developmental ministries, and seeking missionaries who had a strong “evangelistic spirit” and focused on rapid church multiplication.

On the surface, this seems so right… but I think it is flawed. Most countries don’t need a bunch of foreign evangelizers coming in with big dreams of saturation strategies and CPMs. Are these things wrong? Probably not. However, Big Dream Missions (DAWN, AD2000, and other such missionary-driven movements) promise much but tend to deliver little. The biggest movements come from small groups of local Christians faithfully doing small things to transform their small places.

So should Missionaries be Evangelists? Sometimes, but few if any should have it as their primary passion. The vast majority should be passionately motivated to empower local Christians and local churches to reach their Spirit-empowered potential.

Men of NO Ideas

One of my favorite essays is “Men of One Idea.” It was written by Josiah Gilbert Holland (1819-1881). Some sources say it was written by Timothy Titcomb. However, that was his pseudonym. I have a copy of the essay in the Union Sixth Reader, a book published in 1862. Long have I sought an electronic copy of the essay. I really did not want to type it out. Thankfully, someone else did. If you want to read it, you can CLICK HERE.

Here is a short excerpt from that relatively short essay…

Man cannot live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God, whether spoken through nature or revelation. There is no one idea in all God’s universe so great and so nutritious that it can furnish food for an immortal soul. Variety of nutriment is absolutely essential, even to physical health. There are so many elements that enter into the structure of the human body, and such variety of stimuli requisite for the play of its vital forces, that it is necessary to lay under tribute a wide range of nature; and fruits and roots and grain, beasts of the field, fowls of the air, and fish of the sea, juices and spices and flavors, all bring their contributions to the perfection of the human animal, and the harmony of its functions. …

A mind that surrenders itself to a single idea becomes essentially insane. I know a man who has dwelt so long upon the subject of a vegetable diet that it has finally taken possession of him. It is now of such importance in his eyes that every other subject is thrown out of its legitimate relations to him. It is the constant theme of his thought–the study of his life. He questions the properties and quantities of every mouthful that passes his lips, and watches its effects upon him. He reads upon this subject everything he can lay his hands on. He talks upon it with every man he meets. He has ransacked the whole Bible for support to his theories; and the man really believes that the eternal salvation of the human race hinges upon a change of diet. It has become a standard by which to decide the validity of all other truth. If he did not believe that the Bible was on his side of the question, he would discard the Bible. Experiments or opinions that make against his faith are either contemptuously rejected or ingeniously explained away. Now this man’s mind is not only reduced to the size of his idea, and assimilated to its character, but it has lost its soundness. His reason is disordered. His judgment is perverted–depraved. He sees things in unjust and illegitimate relations. The subject that absorbs him has grown out of proper proportions, and all other subjects have shrunk away from it. I know another man–a man of fine powers–who is just as much absorbed by the subject of ventilation; and though both of these men are regarded by the community as of sound mind, I think they are demonstrably insane.

Timothy Titcomb’s essay: Men Of One Idea http://fullonlinebook.com/essays/men-of-one-idea/nibb.html

Since we are talking about the Bible, I am reminded of a few verses that (I would argue) relate strongly to the point of Holland…

Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.

Proverbs 15:22

Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.

Proverbs 11:14

For by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory.

Proverbs 24:6

Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.

Proverbs 27:17

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.

Proverbs 12:15

Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance,

Proverbs 1:5

After three days they found him (Jesus) in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.

Luke 2:46

By insolence comes nothing but strife, but with those who take advice is wisdom.

Proverbs 13:10

Reading these verses, one sees a couple of clues to gaining wisdom. First is Dialogue. Luke 2:46 and Proverbs 27:17 suggests this directly. The Luke passage is especially important since Jesus (we are tempted to think of Him as one who needs no wisdom from others) is described as holding dialogue and asking questions with experts. A few verses later, in verse 52, Jesus is described as growing in wisdom. The other verses I shared describe interaction with others, and presumably this implies dialogue of 2 or more people. Second is Counsel. Wise people listen to others. They don’t simply trust in their own self-sufficient awesomeness, but take seriously others’ perspectives, knowledge, and understanding.

But if the counsel of many leads to wisdom, what is the character of this wisdom?

#1. Broadly defined. What I mean is that it should be BOTH eductive and deductive. Deductive is classic advice-giving. The counselor tells the other something that this person does not know. This is the classic one. Eductive is the preferred method of modern psychological and pastoral counseling. Eductive counseling is a form of drawing out. It presumes that the person already knows what is right and true, but needs help in drawing this out or identifying the internal inconsistencies in that person. We see Eductive counseling masterfully integrated into broader counseling in Nathan’s counseling of King David regarding his affair with Bathsheba (and with killing Uriah). I think broadly defined also suggests both “sofia” and “phronesis.” These Greek terms suggest wisdom based on theoretical understanding of the way things are (sofia wisdom) and the practical understanding of the way things should be and how to accomplish this (phronesis wisdom).

#2. Multi-perspectival. Wisdom comes from listening to different perspectives. Because of this having a group of “Yes Men” does not count. This is not counseling. It is parroting back what the one says and thinks. They tickle the ear and confirm the prejudices of the one who needs wisdom rather than affirmation. There is no doubt that this is a failure… because there is only one perspective— the “Perspective of the Self.” But that brings up another thought. What if there is only one perspective— the “Perspective of the Other?” That is, what if one surrounds oneself with only one perspective. I would argue that this is no better. We learn by being surrounded in a sea of ideas. While we may fear drowning in such a sea, we are likely to be parched with the trickle from a spring that feeds only one stream of thought. Walter Wrigley Jr. has the great quote, “When two men in a business always agree, one of them is unnecessary.” Perhaps this bit of wisdom applies in life as well.

It seems to me that we are suffering from this today. Perhaps as a defense against being inundated with too many ideas, we shield ourselves off from all but one viewpoint. I see this a lot. I teach in a seminary and am often shocked at how little seminarians (who are supposed to be “experts” in religion and theology) know about other religions, or even the church of a different denomination or tradition just down the road. I occasionally get notes from friends sharing interesting information. They tell me where they got this information. That is a good thing because citations are important. However, in some cases, it is clear from the context that I should believe it because it came from news source “A,” and not from news source “B.” In fact, I have had people gainsay things I have said simply because I referenced a source that they have identified as “fake.” Often, however, fake just means that it expresses a different perspective. Truthfully, I get that. There are some sources of information I am tempted to reject off-hand. I have to remind myself that even a person who is 99% wrong, must then be 1% right, and it is possible that in that 1% is something I need to hear.

If you think about it… surrounding oneself with those who share one perspective is likely to create an echo chamber that leads to more extreme and unquestioned opinions. It is in this environment that groups with cultic tendencies (authoritarian and separatist structures with extremist views) and fascination with conspiracy theories thrive. Sometimes people describe this as the “new tribalism,” and perhaps the term has some merit. Years ago, people spoke of the Internet, along with migration, and ease of travel and communication leading to a sort of globalistic mega-culture. But we love to identify with smaller groups. There are good and bad sides to this. But one bad side is the temptation to sanctify our own group (and our opinions), while demonizing other groups and opinions.

And if one places oneself into this setting where one willingly becomes a reflector and transmitter of the insulted views of another(s), it may not be enough to say that this person has become “A Man of One Idea.” Such a phrase suggests some amount of personal creativity… a bit of innovation. Creativity comes from interacting with diversity, rather than indoctrination from uniformity. As such, this person perhaps may be best described as “A Man of NO Ideas.”

I believe that God has gifted all of us with the potential for wisdom that, in part, springs from our uniqueness. This uniqueness comes from our:

  • Talents
  • Calling
  • Circumstances
  • Experiences
  • Relationships

To give a trivial example. I am “White” (Swedish-American) raised up in a region that was almost 100% White (a small percentage of Native Americans made up the remainder of the population at that time). I was raised up in a culture where an awful lot of people shared a common identity and perspective. Nothing wrong with that… geography and socio-economic factors would drive a lot of people to a common perspective. However, the US Navy got me out of the area and allowed me to see many other parts of the United States and the World. This travel in some ways helped me to treasure the uniqueness of my upbringing, but it also helped me to see its limitations. Marrying a woman who was raised up in a different country of a different ethnicity, and raising children who are considered biracial, helped me see things from a yet broader perspective. Then living for 17 years in a country where I am not part of a 99% ethnic majority, but rather a 1% ethnic minority, has further helped me see things from a decidedly different perspective.

I believe that these different circumstances have helped me grow as a person. I also believe that my perspective may also be valuable to someone who has had a decidedly different background. This doesn’t mean that I got it all together. This doesn’t mean that people of narrower experiences are of no value to me.

Multi-perspective dialogue helps. Some express fear of individuals “losing their faith” whatever faith position one is speaking of. For me, however, a faith that goes unchallenged is likely to both brittle and rotten. Rotten means it goes from something good to something bad (Holland’s essay speaks to this). This is where extreme viewpoints tend to take a person to a very bad place. Brittleness means that one has not developed the faculties to think through ones beliefs. When challenged, the person is either forced to react with hostility, or retreat ignobly. “Losing one’s faith” in this situation may be either (a) losing a faith that was unworthy of basing one’s whole life upon— or (b) never having really embraced that faith in a constructive, reflective, and creative way.

A “Man of No Ideas” will devolve toward a from of insanity (falling pray to the mind-control of a few), or instability of poorly reflected upon opinions that yield to the will of others.

Selective Exposure, Confirmation Bias, and Information Overload (Part 2)

So what can one do to avoid falling prey to groupthink, confirmation bias, selective exposure, and being overwhelmed by information overload? Well I had several awesome ideas for this post…. but then I took a few days off, and I can’t remember some of them. But let me see where this goes.

  1. Doubt. Paul Westphal noted that we cannot look over God’s shoulder. God knows the truth, and is Truth, but others are not privy to truth without error. In practice, that means we must be humble and forgiving of ourselves, embracing our own limitations. And the same must apply to others. No human is correct all of the time… and no human is incorrect all of the time (though I swear, some really try).
  2. Respect. Doubt should minimize our trust of individuals as authorities, but if we recognize that every person is right about some things and wrong about some things, it is also likely that a person who is wrong 97% of the time is still right (in that 3%) in something that I am wrong about. That means that pretty much every person on earth I can learn from, if I am open to valuing every person. I believe every person is worthy of respect inherently because each is lovingly designed by a fully capable and creative God. But if each person is someone I can gain by learning something from, I have another reason to respect each person. After all, we tend not to learn from people we don’t respect.
  3. Dialogue. People love to preach, to teach, to talk, and to argue. They don’t like to listen much, and even less to dialogue. Yet it is in dialogue that we tend to learn. That is why people and groups that want to indoctrinate their followers do it first by isolating followers from alternative viewpoints. They also tend to breed disrespect for the people who hold other views. And this indoctrination scheme would be really a great idea if the group was right about everything. But no such group exists. We learn from each other. (I have talked enough about dialogue elsewhere, you can look at DIALOGUE IN DIVERSITY for more).
  4. Reflection. Learning is iterative… but it often takes a certain intentionality. Much religious education (and even civil education) is focused on rote learning… memorizing dogma. There is value in that, but the value is wasted if one is not also is also not trained to think reflective.

I feel like I forgot one of the big thoughts for this post, but I cannot remember. Perhaps someone else has a suggestion to share. I am happy to reflect on it.

Fingers Pointing Back

A couple of blogposts prior, I noted a situation in one of my classes where I was (somewhat justifiably) unhappy with how my class responded to a situation. It was justifiable in the sense that the behavior of the class was 180 degrees out of line with what I was teaching. On the other hand it created a great learning opportunity.

A couple of days ago I had the reverse happen

Children’s Activity held in Tublay, Benguet after a typhoon

where I realized that I was the one who was 180 degrees out of line with what I was teaching. I am teaching a course in Strategy and Management of Missions. I wanted my students to formulate and implement a missions project.

Based on a Rapid Assessment done by a previous class, the group decided to do a cleaning project in a community. I thought that was a good choice. It is something simple, recognizable, and can be done in partnership with a local church as well as local government.

Anyway, three weeks before the event, the team went to the community to plan out details. As they went around they decided that they had made a mistake. Instead of a cleaning project, they should do a children’s event.

When I heard that, I was annoyed. With everyone’s crazy schedules there was no way that we could change course this late in the game. It seemed to me they were setting things up to fail.

But then as the situation was explained to me, I realized they were doing exactly what I told them to do.

  1.  I told them that they need to periodically evaluate the plan and vision and see if it was appropriate. In this case it wasn’t appropriate. Although a few months ago the community had issues that would be helped by a work day, things were better now. Perhaps, the report from my previous that was given to the community inspired them to fix some of the problems on the list. When circumstances change, one must be ready to change with it.
  2. I told them that one should always seek to link short-term projects to long-term programs. As they were working out the details of their plan, they realized that it would be much more difficult to link a cleaning day to a long-term ministry (not impossible… but a long-term program of periodic work days is not necessarily the best idea). On the other hand, a short-term project with children could be linked quite easily to VBS, backyard Bible clubs, to Sunday School and more.
  3. I told them that the key attitudes for doing a ministry project are (1) Love of God and desire to follow the example of Christ, (2) Respond compassionately to human need, and (3) Assist the Church or the Kingdom of God to expand.  As such, doing something to get a grade is not an adequate reason. As such, I can hardly pressure them to go back and do something that was originally planned simply because “it is feasible to do within the time constraints.”
  4. I told them that key things to look for in a community to help identify of God’s love can best be shown is to discover what the community’s hopes and fears are. Concern for the children of the community was very high, while dirty walking paths was little more than an annoyance. So they were right to reevaluate.

With all of this, my little class (6 members total) still were looking to get everything put together in a bit over 2 weeks. While not impossible, the students have crazy schedules to handle. I didn’t want to burn them out, or let them put together a hastily-constructed project. That was something the class was suppose to warn them against. I jumped in and said that we will aim to do the project in April (over a month after the class finishes). The job of the class would be to work out the full plan, schedule, budget, and all the other niceties that entail a mission project. The host church will implement the plan in April with the help of those members of the class who are able to (voluntarily) join.

It is easy to identify when other’s don’t do what I want them to do. It is less comfortable when I discover that my irritation was misplaced as they were doing exactly what I told them to do.

Reflection on Interreligious Dialogue Class

Background. I was teaching a class on Dialogue with Asian Religions at seminary. One day, one of my students, a Muslim Background Believer, came to me and asked whether he could teach a couple of class hours on Islam. I was rather relieved by this. Islam is not a religion that interests me particularly, but I also know that it deserves to be taught well, since it is the largest (organized) non-Christian religion in the world, and probably the second most important religion in Southeast Asia.

Dialogue/Incident. M will stand for the student teacher in Islam. S1 will be Student 1. S2 will be Student 2. P will be the Professor (myself). <The story was written down over a year after the incident, so due to poor memory, some specifics are fictionalized although the overall story is accurately given.>

M: Good morning class. I will be teaching you about Islam today. I was born and raised a Muslim in a Muslim community, and today I will share about Islam from the perspective of a Muslim. Now Islam is a religion of peace. The name Islam is related to the word “Salaam” meaning peace and relates to the Jewish word Shalom.

S1: Excuse me. But why are Muslims so violent then if they are a religion of peace?

M: Islam is about peace. One can’t judge our faith on a few who are bad or violent. Would you like to have Christianity judged on a few bad Christians?

M: <Continuing, M read Genesis 17:17-18, 20. This speaks of God’s plan to bless Ishmael> As you can see God chose to bless Ishmael as the first son of Abraham, the inheritor of God’s favor. And as we see here <showing another slide> Ishmael was the father of the Arab peoples and one of his descendants is Muhammed who is the one who passed onto us the Quran as the final prophet of Islam.

S2: But Ishmael was not the inheritor of God’s blessing to Abraham, it was Isaac! This is what the Bible teaches.

M: Ah, but is that what it says here in Genesis 17? Verse 20 says And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget and I will make him a great nation.”

What does it say in the Taurat (Torah)? And in the Quran Surah 2, it says that Ishmael is the son who was blessed not Isaac. Ishmael was the son who was taken to be sacrificed in Arabia, and the one who Ibrahim took with him to Mekka to build the Kaaba– the first mosque of Islam.

<Some rumblings and jokes started going around that the student is a “secret Muslim.” M continued to speak talking about how Yakub (Jacob) spoke to his sons about the need to follow Allah, the god of Ibrahim, Ishmael, and Isaac. M then spoke of the prophets of Islam: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Isa (Jesus). More questions were brought up by the students. However, the questions were not actually questions to understand Islam or what M was saying, but were questions to undermine the arguments of M. Finally, I jumped in.>

P: <Angrily> You know that M said tha the was going to be speaking about Islam from the standpoint of a Muslim. So stop the little jokes about him being a closet Muslim. Your job is to listen and learn…. not debate!

Theological Reflection: Theologically, we are often insecure. We can be so insecure that we struggle when people express beliefs that are different from our own. As humans we were designed with a Fight/Flight adrenal response to address threats. That can be very useful when we are threatened— when we are under attack. However, when we are faced with a person who believes something different, the same response is often triggered. We often get angry (and wanting to respond agressively) or with fear (and wanting to escape). I think this is a socio-cultural response. Cultural establishes groupings of people who generally share a belief in how experiences are interpreted and how such interpretation would guide action. Anyone who expresses beliefs that interpret experiences quite different and have beliefs that guide actions that are very different—- they are outside of one’s cultural grouping. People who are not part of our cultural grouping are THEM (as opposed to US). “THEM” are foreign, aliens, strangers, outsiders. Such people are naturally seen as threats. Of course, people within one’s own culture (“US”) can also be seen as threats. However, they usually are less threatening because we feel like we understand them (because of the different way of interpreting experiences and guiding behavior). This feeling can be so strong, that we react even when a person is “playing a role.”

Ministerial Reflection. I believe I responded correctly in redirecting the students. They were so focused on joking and challenging, that they weren’t really listening. However, I may have come on too strong. People started focusing on listening so much that they did not really ask many questions after. The presentation became more like a one-way lecture.

Personal Reflection. Why did I get angry. I wasn’t angry at M, but I was angry at the students. I am not totally sure. Maybe I was angry because I felt like I had failed. I was trying to teach them the importance of Dialogue with those of other religions, yet even in the controlled environment of classroom (on Dialogue!) the students immediately went to Debate. Or maybe my anger wasn’t really at the students at all. Maybe I was angry at myself— thinking that I failed as an instructor. I think that maybe I was also sad. Christianity has existed for almost 2000 years. In most of those centuries, Christians have struggled in how to relate to non-Christians. Most commonly, the example of Christ is not lived out in these interactions. The class on this day gave a little snapshot of centuries of struggle in this area.

Response. It was foolish for me to get angry at my students. I was, in a sense, responding the same way they were. They reacted to the presenter, and I reacted to them. In the future, I think it is more important to have students get more practice in Dialogue. As such, I will spend less time on lecture. It is a class on Dialogue after all.

I could also give better ground rules if we do a similar exercise again— warning the students not to react to the speaker, but focus on the principles of active listening, dialogue, and clarification. Or maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe it is better not to prepare them. Rather, let things happen as they happen, and use whatever happens as a learning moment for all of us. I am not sure what is best in this case.

Making Little Ones Stumble

My children went to a Christian school in middle and high school. Overall, it was probably a good experience for them. In their previous school, also a Christian school, they were bullied for being “foreign.” But the school they transferred to was multi-ethnic and multi-national. They fit in quite well.

The school genuinely sought to integrate Christian instruction with more national and international educational objectives. They would have spiritual emphasis week. They would have weekly chapel services and  some Bible training as part of the curriculum.

One year, my wife and I and some friends led Spiritual Emphasis week. We THINK it went well (hard to tell, really). On a few occasions I spoke at their weekly chapel services. Again, they went well enough I suppose. Some friends of mine also spoke there and taught there and did chaplaincy work as well.

But one year that stopped. A nearby church took over the spiritual instruction of the school. The church was one that I was familiar with… one that I guess I would describe as theologically “sketchy.”

As was relayed to me by a few students, the year was strange. Here are a few comments…

  • Dogmatic and ‘Preachy.’ They were quite committed to pushing a very targeted dogma and did not help students explore issues of faith. One incident was rather interesting. They were explaining how all other religions were wrong. When they got to Buddhism, they said it was from the devil because it was all about how to get rich. It is true that some of the versions of Mahayana Buddhism as it is practiced especially in some predominantly Chinese regions does place of lot of focus on good luck and prosperity. However, “orthodox” Buddhism rejects focus on materialism and on desire. It seemed like they were simply taking a caricature of one form of Buddhism and using it as a strawman. (Strangely, I had always thought that the church in question was a “prosperity gospel” church. I hope I am wrong, rather than them being hypocritical). Since more than half of the students came from places with a large Buddhist population, that particular lesson taught the students that the trainers were not reliable.
  • Anger.   Students noted some members getting angry at the students in the spiritual training. I am somewhat sympathetic. It is easy to get frustrated and angry at teenagers. However, apparently the anger stemmed from the students not responding to the worship in a way that they liked. Apparently, the students were supposed to groove to the worship kind of like how people do on worship concert videos.
  • Blame.  Near the end of the year, one of the teachers from that church got angry again at the students and blamed the children for spoiling or destroying THEIR destiny. “Their” in this case meant the trainers. I am hoping the students heard this wrong because it is just to immature for words. Seemingly, they believed they would come in at the begining of the year and train and come out with a school full of students who have been turned onto their beliefs and style. I understandhoping this would happen, but people who pick their own destinies commonly are really picking their own disappointments.
  • Not itching where it scratched. The big issue however, was that the trainers “did not itch where it scratched.” They talked about the things that were really important to the trainers, not what was really important to the students.

Most of the students were nominal Christians or immature Christians. They were raised with a globalistic, pluralistic perspective, and this background left many of them confused about what they believe and how they should live their lives. The students needed help, not just another person with limited perspective preaching at them. The spiritual training actually shifted a lot of students from, loosely speaking, Christian, to Agnostic. some even became interested in other religions. (When annoying people say something is bad, that something becomes more appealing.)

Actually, I don’t really blame the church. I don’t expect a church to be competent to train teenagers who have already become rather disillusioned by religion. But the school should have known better. The leadership of the school had no denominational or theological affiliation with that church. They said YES to the church helping simply because it made their own lives easier, not having to develop a spiritual formation curriculum or a set of trainers themselves.

This story is a caution to me. I have seen many a teacher/trainer who has led people astray. Sometimes it is with bad example, but often it is just by making the Gospel so unappealing, that a different ‘gospel’ looks better… or even no gospel at all.

This story also reminds me of two passages of Scripture, and they serve as a caution to me:

And whoever welcomes a little child like this in My name welcomes Me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.  -Matthew 18:5-6

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.  James 3:1

Projects Update

I don’t normally add personal updates here. But once in awhile it seems like it may be appropriate.

Books. My book work has gone down, partly because my teaching load has gone up.  But I still am trying to plug away on things.

  • The Dynamics in Pastoral Care.” This book I have been working on for awhile. It has been going slow because of other priorities. However, I have been getting good research done lately in Pastoral Theology and Theological Reflection. Both of these are major topics in this work that includes Group Dynamics, Family Systems, Pastoral Supervision and more. The goal is for the book to be a follow-on for our first book “The Art of Pastoral Care.” The first book is for beginners in Pastoral Care, or CPE. The other book is for more advanced work, especially 3rd and 4th units of CPE.
  • Ministry in Diversity.” I am doing a moderate revision of it. I have taught a couple of Cultural Anthropology classes using it already and can see some modest changes. However, also had my son techedit it, and he found lots of little problems to fix. So I am around 1/3 of the way done with that. As soon as I am done, I will get the book updated on Amazon. I don’t really want more people ordering it until these changes are made.
  • The Art of Pastoral Care.” This is our most popular book. My son is also doing tech edit work on it as well. The problems with this one are much smaller, in my opinion. But I will be updating things on Amazon soon. Still, unlike “Ministry and Diversity” I still feel good about this book, so feel free to check it out on the web if you want.  THE ART OF PASTORAL CARE.
  • Iam also looking into helping a friend of mine get his book cleaned up and published. It is another pastoral care book… but this one dealing with substance abuse. That is an important topic… especially here in the Philippines.

Articles.  I don’t really do much work on articles, preferring the rampant freedom of blogging. However, I am working on an article: “Holy Defect: Reflections on Wabi Sabi as a Metaphor for Christian Perfection.” It is about half done. I have hopes that it will be a valuable work. Planning to present it in January.

Classes. As I said, my writing has been slowed by my classes. I will be teaching four classes this coming semester here in Baguio City. They are:

  • Interreligious Dialogue. I taught this last year, and felt it went quite well. It is a frustration of mine that preaching/polemics is taught extensively in seminary, as is teaching/didactics. Argument/Apologetics is taught far less, but Dialogue is almost always ignored. It is really time for this to change.
  • Strategy and Management of Missions. This is the first class I ever taught at seminary. I get to do it again. It is almost always a fun course because of its hands-on quality.
  • Introduction to Missiology. It is a long-time since I have taught this course. I have to admit that it is not my favorite course. However, the number of students for it should be low (because it is a bachelor-level course here) so I hope it will be exciting.
  • Clinical Pastoral Orientation. This is an introduction to the training system known as Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). My wife supervises CPE (two groups this semester) while I take CPO. This will be the third time I have taught it, but the first time that I will take the lead on it.  The last time we taught it, we had illness, travel complications, and a household move… so it was very hard. This time things SHOULD go better.

Along with two CPE groups, my wife Celia will also be teaching “Interpersonal Relationships” at seminary.