Reaching the Elders

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?

  1.  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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

 

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A Language of Foolishness

I have been reading a couple of books on Pastoral Theology. One is a classic:  “The Minister as a Diagnostician” by Paul Pruyser. The other is “The Word of God and Pastoral Care” by Howard Stone. Both of these books note a problem with chaplains and other ministers.  The problem is the rejection of theological language in ministry in favor of the language of psychology (or sociology or social work).

There can be a number of reasons for this. First, some of the language of theology is academic and little adapted to practical ministry. Second, the language of the social sciences are often more precise and agreed upon (at least at a specific point of time).

But another thing is that sometimes ministers are rather apologetic about their tradition. In chaplaincy work, one has to minister to people that do not necessarily respect or understand one’s tradition and language. As such, it is tempting to incorporate the language of the social sciences on the presumption that it will be more accepted by those they minister to. Additionally, some chaplains become embarrassed by the sloppy thinking and language of popularized (TV) Christianity. They don’t wish to be identified with such forms of Christianity. (I can understand that concern.)

Unfortunately, much is lost. The language of Christian theology is better for existential questions, meaning, and ethics than the social sciences. Additionally, religious faith and spirituality are of great importance for countless millions of people.

This is not just a problem in chaplaincy but in missions as well. We want to contextualize our faith… interpreting it in a way that is understandable and appreciated by those who are not Christians. The challenge is finding the balance.

At one end, one can use language and concepts that make no sense to the hearer. It may be clear to Christians… but not very effective in bringing truth to others.

At the other end, one can lose the language and Christian concepts in the quest of being relevant in the context.  Again, not very effective.

Clearly, the goal is between the two extremes, finding relevance in context while holding to the truth in the message.

Losing one’s heritage is not the solution to contextualize to another heritage. There needs to be a tension between these extremes.

I have been there. I was at a Christmas gathering with a diverse number of people. Some were Christian of one variety or another, some nominal and some not. Some were generally secular. A couple were Muslim. I struggled in finding a comfortable language for expressing a religious Christmas message in that diversity. Using language that makes no sense to the hearers is useless. But using vague inclusive language essentially doesn’t say anything either.

I am reminded of the words of St. Paul,

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God   –I Corinthians 1:18

One must ultimately embrace a certain language of foolishness– a willingness to sounding foolish… while not embracing such a label as a badge of honor.

I am still struggling with this.

Dialogue and Different Faiths

talking-and-listening-copy

In “Acts of Faith,” Eboo Patel (2007), founder and director of the Interfaith Youth Core, reflects on the issue of religious diversity. Mirroring W. E. B. Du Bois’s famous statement that “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” Patel suggests that “the twenty-first century will be shaped by the question of the faith line” (p. xv). He goes on to defend a form of religious pluralism “that affirms the identity of the constituent communities while emphasizing that the well-being of each and all depends on the health of the whole” (p. xv). This approach neither reduces truth claims to the lowest common denominator, nor relativizes religious truth. Rather, it emphasizes the need for open dialogue between persons from different traditions that enables them to learn from, and even experience, each other’s perspective. Given the reality of the “faith line,” the need for interreligious dialogue on

-Marion Larson & Sara Shady (2009) Interfaith Dialogue in a Pluralistic
World: Insights From Martin Buber and Miroslav Volf, Journal of College and Character, 10:3, ,  http://dx.doi.org/10.2202/1940-1639.1086

I will be teaching Interfaith Dialogue this coming semester. I really look forward to that course. The above quote by Larson and Shady, I think is excellent. I would, however, not use the term “religious pluralism” as they use it since for me the term relates to a soteriological viewpoint, not an inter-religious attitude.

The key point is that good dialogue does NOT relativize our view regarding truth and faith convictions. A person of definite beliefs and understanding of ultimate truths is not necessarily less committed to or competent in interfatih dialogue.

It also does not involve trying to come up with common beliefs, often done by wording things vaguely enough so that it sounds like we agree– ignoring important differences. I remember talking to a guy who was a 5-point Calvinist (I am probably more like a 2-1/2 point Calvinist, or maybe a non-Calvinist) who was trying to dialogue with me based on the thesis that “really we both believe the same thing.” Then he went on and described his beliefs with language so loose and vague that almost any Evangelical Christian could agree with the wording. However, using language that obscures beliefs is not good dialogue. The same problem comes from the “Well, don’t we all really worship the same God?” camp.

Dialogue comes from honesty and respect, and just a wee bit of humility. Beyond that, I don’t know. I am hoping to learn a lot this semester, along with my students.

 

A Question of Contextualization

“After a significant pastoral ministry indewri-mandir an urban setting in the United States, a former student of mine returned to his home country of India to minister. When visiting him, I asked, ‘What is the most significant obstacle you face?’ He paused and then said, ‘The biggest I’ve seen recently has been working to overcome the impression left by some well-intentioned American short-term missionaries. When they came to my village, they gathered and marched around a temple in the village, asking God to tear it down in the name of Jesus. Later one of the priests of the temple told me, ‘You Christians are no different than we Hindus. We practice Hindu magic, and Christians practice Christian magic. I know because I saw those American Christians walking around our temple seven times praying. That’s no different from what we do.’

Was this prayer-walk an example of contextualization or syncretism? I am sure they thought they were engaging in appropriate spiritual warfare and would likely cite the Old Testament story of Joshua marching around Jericho (Josh. 6) to confirm it. The Hindu priest, however, read their actions as a ‘Christian’ version of a Hindu magical practice. The long-term worker was left to sort through the mess after the short-termers returned home.”

-Story told by A. Scott Moreau in “Contextualization in World Missions,” 2012, p. 123

Bronislaw Malinowski separated between Religious Thinking and Magical Thinking.

  • Religious Thinking is the view that one should seek to serve or be guided by spiritual beings or forces.
  • Magical Thinking is the view that one should seek to be served by these spiritual beings or forces. The goal, then, is to find ways to manipulate these powers.

If one accepts these definitions, then the STMers were certainly acting on magical thinking just as the Hindu priest stated. Of course, Christians seek to serve God… but entreating God is not outside of the Christian faith, so Christians should be mostly religious in their thinking, but still a bit magical, in thought, as well (based on the above definitions).

As far as whether these STMers were doing good contextualization or syncretism (over-contextualization), I would argue that neither was the case. Probably they were guilty of non-contextualization. Most likely they were bringing over the theology of “spiritual warfare” that they were taught in the United States. It is entirely possible that proponents of this sort of “spiritual warfare” or “power encounter” (such as Charles Kraft and C. Peter Wagner, along with others, developed) can be faulted with syncretism, but not these short-termers. They just took what they were told in the US to do, and did it. Additionally, grabbing the Jericho story and applying it to their situation is no more contextualization than if one of them brought five stones and began to fling them at the temple using a sling (another perfectly “Biblical” activity).

But if this group was only guilty of poor contextual theology and perhaps confusing a Hindu priest (although he doesn’t sound particularly confused) that would be understandable. What is much more worrisome is that their behavior was a poor reflection on Christ.

There is, in my mind, no satisfactory justification for publicly praying down a temple (or mosque or something similar). You might be tempted to say that it is justifiable because we find some kings of Judah praised for tearing down Ashteroth poles and the like. But even if it was done as part of national policy, I don’t believe there is examples of Jewish believers going to other lands to desecrate or attack other temples in other lands.

Even if one feels that one could see justification in the Old Testament, a point I would dispute, no such justification exists in the New Testament.

  1.  Jesus did not do it. He reacted to sacrilege of the Temple in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, Decapolis, Galilee, and more, He certainly had opportunity to decry alien places of worship, but we have no record that he had done so.  In John 4, he referred to the worship place of the Samaritans, but outside of pointing to the correctness of Jews in this matter, spoke nothing against the place or the people who worshiped there. (That is not to say that the Hasmoneans before or the Byzantines after were so respectful.)
  2. With Paul the evidence is even stronger. In Acts 17, we find him speaking publicly to the Areopagus without disrespecting the Athenian beliefs. Also, in Acts 19:35-41, we find the clerk in Ephesus defending Paul and Silas:

The city clerk quieted the crowd and said: “Fellow Ephesians, doesn’t all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven? Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to calm down and not do anything rash. You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of what happened today. In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it.” After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly.

But there is more:

3.  There is no way that people will recognize the love of Christ in people seeking destruction of a people’s treasured structure. In a somewhat parallel even here in Baguio City a few years ago, pastors and missionaries were joyous that they had managed to prevent the building of a mosque in the city. But why be overjoyed? The blocking of such a building was very temporary, it was probably illegal in a country that supports freedom of religion, and certainly helped poison a positive of witness of Christians in the Muslim diaspora here.

4.  It is inconsistent with the Golden Rule. If one is bothered by others attacking, destroying, or praying against church buildings, than one should certainly not take any of those stances against other houses of worship.

I think that if they truly felt the need to pray against the Hindu temple, they could have done so quietly and privately. Why hamper Christian ministry by behaving publicly in such a disrespectful manner?

(By the way, I do strongly recommend A. Scott Moreau’s book. It is a great expansion of Bevan’s book on Contextual Theology. One can click on the title after the top quote to get more info on it.)

7 Rules of Dialoguing

How does one do interfaith dialoguing? From the John Hick camp comes the idea that both must relativize their own beliefs. That is difficult to do in practice, and hardly seems appropriate for many— suggesting a sort of virtue in weak convictions.

A better, in my mind, view comes from an article (written in Afrikaans, one of many many languages I cannot read) from South Africa. I am drawing from someone else’s blog– a South African who can read that language. It all ties together with “Seven Rules for Dialogue Between Christians and non-Christians” by Max Warren. So rather than rehash anymore, I would suggest clicking on the various blog posts by

So… Yes… this is a blog of a blog or an article of an article.

     Introduction Blog:         Click Here

     First Rule: Acceptance of our Common Humanity:     Click Here

     Second Rule:  Divine Omnipresence:    Click Here

     Third Rule:  Accepting the Best in Other Religions:      Click Here

     Fourth Rule:  Identification:   Click Here

     Fifth Rule:  Courtesy:  Click Here

     Sixth Rule:  Interpretation:    Click Here

     Seventh Rule:  Expectancy:   Click Here

 

Fear and Power in Ministry, and Five Encounters

I just recently did a short talk on Folk Islam. Not the center of my expertise, but our regular speaker was not able to make it. So I tried to position the talk from an area of greater strength for me… anthropological reflection. So I showed the classic cultural triangle.

Cultural triangle

“Western” Cultures are more interested in Guilt/Forgiveness. “Eastern Cultures are more focused on Shame/Honor, while (so-called) tribal cultures emphasize fear and power.

The orange region tends to be the cultural setting of most Christians, while the green region tends to be the cultural setting of many, but not necessarily all, of other “great religions.” This arguably includes Islam.

The range is dependent on three factors:

  • The Broader culture. An adherent to a religion in a broader culture that is, for example, honor-shame focused would tend to share that focus.
  • Religious Denomination. Denominations tend to needs in a specific region or range on the triangle. For example, I was raised Fundamentalist Christian. There is a strong proclivity toward Guilt and Forgiveness. Charismatic groups are more like the half-way point between Guilt/Forgiveness and Fear/Power.
  • Religious Class. Religions have Formal Religion and Folk Religion. Formal Religion tends to have “religious thinking”— with the adherence to formal doctrines and having the goal of serving spiritual powers. Folk Religion is more emotional rather than doctrinal, and tends towards “magical thinking”— seeking to manipulate (rather than be manipulated by) the spirit work. Folk Religion tends more toward the Fear/Power side of things while Formal Religion (at least of major, non-primal, religions) is away from that vertex of the triangle.

Since the vast majority of most religions are more folk practitioners than formal practitioners, one has to deal with the fear/power side of things more. I noted that for Folk Islam, Charismatics, and probably to a lesser extent Pentecostals, have an advantage over Conservative Evangelicals because their cultural center is closer on the cultural triangle.

That brought up the question, not surprisingly, as to what Conservative Evangelicals can do to reach Folk Muslims. Two bad solutions present themselves above. Becoming “charismatic” (unless of course one decides to based on personal theological reflection) as a means to connect more with Folk Islam seems a bad idea, as is becoming a Folk Christian. While the distance may be reduced, it is reduced by violating one’s own personal integrity. Another bad solution is syncretism… mixing one’s religion with the religion of another to make it more palatable. In my mind, Charles Kraft did that in taking the Fear-Power orientation and spirit world of West African religions and redefining it with Christian language. (Not everyone agrees.)

Some better solutions I believe are here (although they might sound a bit at times like the options above).:

  1.  Reduce cultural distance. Enculturation comes through interacting in and seeking to understand the behavioral and cognitive patterns of a culture. Removing distance culturally does not undo one’s beliefs, but it may broaden them. After all, Jesus was not only an atoning sacrifice, but was also a liberator, and bestower of honor. Understand what the people are most concerned about. They may not be most interested in Heaven. They may not be most interested in forgiveness. They may be most interested in family, community, health, and prosperity. One doesn’t necessarily have to redesign Christian doctrine to these different priorities, but it should speak prophetically to these concerns.
  2. Be open to the possibility that God will demonstrate Himself through power. I have little time for those who feel that God constantly does demonstrate Himself through power. It tends to lessen focus on God’s more common method of working through the weak, the foolish, and the vulnerable. It also puts pressure on people to “fake it,” label as from God what was not from God. However, God has power, and it seems like, especially in situations where the Gospel message is first entering a community, God will demonstrate power as a sign.
  3. Focus on symbols and rituals. Power is often seen in amulets, talismans, incantations, and various rituals. I don’t recommend totally embracing this worldview (wiping handkerchiefs on a religious icon, or getting them “blessed” by a televangelist) adding to local beliefs on contagious magic. But one can’t simply throw away these things and assume that there is not a vaccuum that will be filled by something else. Consider rituals. Rituals are tied to lifecycle, to crises, and to the calendar. In each case, they provide comfort in the providence of God (or god, or gods) that the future is secure. Rituals and symbols can and should be used to provide comfort, while helping them understand that true faith is more relational than magical.

Consider Five major “Encounters”

  • Power Encounter.  The interaction of the power of God with the powers (whether spiritual, natural, or human) within a people.
  • Truth Encounter.  The interaction of the truth of God with the false beliefs within a people
  • Allegiance Encounter.  The interaction of the call of God with the prioritizations/allegiances within a people.
  • Cultural Encounter.  The interaction of the Biblical perspective and behavioral patterns with the culture of a people.
  • Love Encounter.  The interaction of the Love of God with the selfish valuations within a people.

What should be done first? Love Encounter should always be first, I believe. To encounter a community demonstrating God’s love is always foundational. In folk religion, faith is more emotional than cognitive, so love encounter is even more critical.

But what is next? For some cultures it might be truth encounter… but for Folk Religionists, power encounter tied to cultural encounter hand-in-hand probably comes next. After all, folk religionists commonly are linked to their faith through their culture and their priority of power to overcome fear.

Next would be truth encounter. After a foundation of God’s love, and the bridges of God’s demonstrated concern and power translated through culture, God’s message must be made clear in the language, thought patterns, and priorities, of the people..

Ultimately, there must be a change of allegiance. They must choose to follow Christ or the old way. Of course, following Christ does not destroy all aspects of the old way, nor, on the other hand, should it syncretize it. It should transform and fulfill it.

An interesting thing to note is that the five encounters start and end with emotions. It starts with dealing with love and fear and ends with dealing with trust. The other two are more cognitive, truth and culture… dealing with symbols and meanings. None of the five are, strictly speaking, addressing behavior directly. Behavior is the natural fruit of spiritual transformation. Spirituality is the intersection of power and meaning (ideas and values). If behavior does not change, one must question the spiritual transformation.