Advice for Undertrained Missionaries like John Chau | by Jackson Wu

Please click on the link below to Jackson Wu’s blog.    (If you don’t want to read my comments…. then click here now  Advice for undertrained missionaries like John Chau | Jackson Wu).  It has a great article on the recent situation regarding John Chau, and his ill-fated contact with the North Sentinalese. Actually, it is the second of two articles he wrote on the subject. The first one points out that fallacy that many have that since the plan didn’t work, it was a bad idea. It also points out that passion is very different than competence. Bad ideas work… sometimes. and likewise good ideas can fail.

I would also argue that people’s initial “kneejerk” responses to situations like this are often wrong. Some label Chau a great martyr. I am not sure of this. The church in the early centuries modified its standards for the title “martyr” to require more than simply dying for one’s faith. One also had to be an example to others. This was because some in the early church would intentionally go into harm’s way and do something that could be anticipated to lead to death. But the Church Fathers felt that being a good example to the church was also needed to be considered a martyr. Therefore, a martyr avoided high risk confrontation, but when captured would be faithful unto death. On the other side, some consider Chau a fool. These people appear to be expressing a bit of snarky schadenfreude. Arguably most all of us are fools in one way or another. The fact that his actions happened to lead to his early death hardly makes him a greater fool than the rest of us.

Anyway here is the article  via Advice for undertrained missionaries like John Chau | Jackson Wu

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Listening at the Mosque

Each year in my Dialogue with Asian Relgions class, I have my students visit a local mosque. I also have them visit the Sikh temple and the Budhist temple. And sometimes other places are visited. The Sikh temple has been the favorite so far. But I especially want them to visit the mosque and the Buddhist temple since those are the places of worship of the two groups that my students are most likely to interact with with regards to other world religions.

The experience at the mosque is always different. I tell my students, however, that they are not to proselytize. They are to listen and to learn.

Each year there is some small attempt by those at the mosque to try to persuade my students that they really should join their religion. I am glad they do this because I want my students to learn the art of listening. If they learn the art of listening, they learn a skill that few if any have mastered.

A few years ago, the presentation the imam used to try to gently suggest that the students should become Muslim was pretty abysmal. The argument boiled down to something like “Islam is not a religion but an ideology. It has adherents in every country on earth and is the fastest growing.” If one was of a mind to argue one might respond with “#1. There is no clear line separating ideology and religion, and since Islam has chosen to embrace most of the trappings of a traditional religion, calling it an ideology does nothing to enlighten. #2.  Christianity has adherents in every country on earth as well. It would be pretty likely that this would be true of Hinduism and Buddhism as well. Hardly an interesting bit of trivia. #3. In sheer numbers Islam is growing faster than Christianity right now, but both religions have gone back and forth over the centuries in who is winning the adherent race. Not very persuasive, and even less so in that many religions have a growth rate (including Evangelical Christianity) that far outstrips Islam. And finally, the ideology of secularism right now is almost certainly growing in numbers faster than either Christianity of Islam.”  Sorry, did not mean to turn it into an argument. But you can see that the presentation was really poor.

Last year one of the young men at the tawhid school there tentatively tried to start a debate. My students told him that they were not there to argue but to listen and learn. (I love it when my students listen to my instructions. Some years they do not.)

This year, my students described the presentation my the mosque leadership as “persuasive.” That is quite different from what has come back to me in the past. Therefore, I asked them to talk about the presentation. A few key points came up:

First, The presenters first noted the many things in common between Christianity and Islam. We worship the same God (well… sort of). They (Muslims) see the Old and New Testaments of the Bible as written by God, and they also see Jesus as a prophet of God and a miracle worker.

Second, They noted differences after first noting the similarities. They see the Bible as having become distorted due to copy errors and translation, thus explaining why it disagrees with the Quran, Hadith, and Islamic theology. They also noted that they do not see Jesus as being one with God.

So why did my students find this presentation to be more persuasive than that from previous years? Clearly, there were problems with their presenation. The part where they say that Jesus is not part of the Godhead is hardly new. Most people are well aware that Muslims see God as having oneness without discernible divisions. They also balk at most anything that presents God in terms of immanence (with the exception of some Sufist groups). The part where they suggest that the Bible would agree with the Quran and Islamic beliefs if it weren’t copy and translation errors… well as seminary students they knew that this is highly dubious. We have the Bible available in the original languages so there is no errors from that. As far as copy errors, perhaps 300 years ago that argument may have sounded plausible. But in the last couple of centuries there have been great strides in textual criticism. It is pretty clear that there are substantive differences between the message of the original autographs of the Bible and the message of the founder of Islam (as it was compiled a few decades after his death at least).

Since the second part of the presentation wasn’t very compelling, presumably what made it compelling would be the first pat. This was the part where the presenter pointed out all the things that Muslims and Christians can agree with. Of course, these agreements were a bit deceptive. To say that Muslims agree that the Bible was from God, but since they teach that it is reliable only to the extent that it was correctly transmitted– and correct transmission is only recognized if it doesn’t disagree with the Quran— the Bible is given NO AUTHORITY by the followers of Islamic teaching. However, that is not whay my students heard. They did not hear the presenters say that Muslims give the Bible no authority. What they heard was that Muslims believe they Bible was given by God.

This is classic marketing, right out of Dale Carnegie. Carnegie noted that to influence another person, get them as soon as possible to say “Yes” to you or “I agree.” Additionally, to get them to agree with you, you agree with them as much as you possibly can. A lot of Christian evangelists and evangelistic presentations seem more focused on disagreeing with or discounting others beliefs.

Interestingly, Paul focused on agreement in his presentation to the Athenians. He agreed with the philosophers on many many things, before finally bringing up the divisive point of the resurrection of Christ.

What the presenters at the mosque did was actually what we as Christians should be doing. Start with finding common ground and agrement, before bringing up differences. Although their argument was, to be honest here, a bit weak, it sounded strogner because they started with building agreement from the beginning.

In sharing our faith, we should START WITH AGREEMENT, NOT ATTACK AND NOT ARGUMENT!

Dreaming Small in a “post-Christendom” World

I am reading through the dissertation of one of my students when I was struck by a quote. She quoted Ed Stetzer who was in turn quoting Douglas John Hall.

“Our Lord’s metaphors for his community of witness were all of them modest ones: a little salt, a little yeast, a little light. Christendom tried to be great, large, magnificent. It thought itself the object of God’s expansive grace; it forgot the meaning of its election to worldly responsibility.”

(Ed Stetzer, Planting New Churches in a Postmodern Age, 15)

This quote reminds me of one of my favorite posts, “Dream SMALL!!!” Feel free to read it HERE.

The context of the above quote is that of three eras of church history, as suggested by Alan Kreider (also referenced by my student):

  • pre-Christendom EraImage result for small
  • Christendom Era
  • post-Christendom Era

The pre-Christendom era began to end with Emperor Constantine (circa 311AD). The Christendom era began to disolve between the two World Wars. In Christendom, the Church and State are strongly linked.

I am a citizen of the United States and I minister in the Philippines. The Philippines is a product of Christendom. The archipelago was made up of many different peoples who did not have common identity until Spain came with a cross in one hand and a sword in the other. The first 300 years of its collective identity found Church and State strongly linked together. Since then the Philippine identity has been more complicated.

The United States has been complicated from the very beginning. I have many friends back home that will loudly declare that the United States “is a Christian nation.” They argue that the US was founded on Christian principles and has some unique link between the Christian faith and the governance and identity of the US. I also have friends that make a nearly opposite claim— that the United States is the first “secular state.” The US governance radically separated ecclesiastical power from civil power, and absolutely rejected the notion of a “state religion.” Both views have strong support (as well as weak aspects). Probably a more accurate statement than either is that “The United States was the first post-Christendom nation.” The governance of the US was not founded on rejection of Christianity. On the other hand, it was seeking to break free from the strong link between church and state found in Europe. It was post-Christendom.

That is not to say that everyone was comfortable with that back then, or now. I am a Baptist missionary. I find it interesting that the Protestant Reformation was a challenge to (Catholic) Christendom in Western Europe. The Baptists, Anabaptists, and other Dissenter groups challenged the Westphalian Christendom accepted by both Catholics and Protestants. Despite this double-strength rejection of Christendom, Baptists are likely as any other group to struggle with understanding the Christian faith in post-Christendom terms.

We like “Big Dream” metaphors:. War (“Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching as to War), Victory, and “Civilization.”

But the metaphors of pre-Christendom are small— As noted by Hall above, Jesus utilized yeast, salt, and light to describe Kingdom of God. That is interesting since the term “Kingdom” sounds big and much in tune with the thoughts of Christendom. Yet, Jesus makes it clear that the Kingdom is small— it is here and not here— it is inside of us… it is a bit of yeast worked into dough, a tiny seed hidden in the soil. It is a small grapevine in a big vineyard. Paul’s metaphors are not any bigger. The church is as a human body, or as a family.

In post-Christendom we can disengage our faith from our culture. We are not stressed out whether our government is passing laws that make our faith practice more comfortable or less comfortable. We are not concerned whether geopolitics appears to be working in our (however we define “our”) favor vice anothers’. We can be that bit of salt, light, and yeast used by God to transform bit by bit where we are.

Our language is not “Winning the world for Christ,” but being a witness of God’s grace to my neighbor and being an agent of transformation in my community. As I noted in the other post, “Dream SMALL!!!,” the Great Commission is actually pretty small— share your faith with someone, bring them into the church body, disciple them to be faithful followers of Christ, and repeat. It’s success is in its smallness— a perfect process for the post-Christendom world.

A Lot Like Lot

This post makes the, controversial (?), suggestion that Lot lacked cultural flexibility, and that this led to his downfall. If curious, please read on.Image result for lot in sodom

I was teaching a little seminar on Missionary Anthropology in Hong Kong a couple of days ago. I was talking about levels of acculturation— the fact that we often go through stages of adjusting ourselves to new cultures… and we never get to a place where we are comfortable with certain aspects of another culture. One of the students came up afterward and said that in an Intro to Missions class, she was taught that missionaries received a gift to acculturate to other cultures. What was my view on that?

I said that I basically agreed. And I think I can still say that after reflection.  I like to say that there are two major characteristics of a missionary:

  • Willingness (to go)
  • (cultural) Flexibility

I often note that a third characteristic of “Spirituality” is a myth. Missionaries rarely have a quality of spirituality that lines up with most Christian’s understanding of spirituality. Few are heavily pious or contemplative. And yet, it is quite narrow to limit spirituality to such things. Perhaps, it is wise to add a third characteristic that I could call:

  • Spiritual Resilience

A missionary can recognize God being with her whether being in her home culture, or far from home, whether being well-connected in a supportive community of faith, or spiritual alone— a stranger in a strange land.

Returning, for a moment, to the question above… is there a Missions Gift— a special gift to adapt to other cultures?  Maybe. Some have a gift or talent for language. (I don’t care about it being a gift versus a talent… both come from God. Worrying about which is which is a matter of labeling, not of substance.) Maybe some have a gift of cultural adaptation.

I have certainly met those who lack such flexibility— those who are culturally “brittle.” Some appear to be unable to see things through any other filter than their own culture. These probably should not be in Missions. Does cultural flexibility come as a gift from God? I don’t know. But I would suggest a few things.

First. Cultural flexibility does come, in part, from a personal choice. One commonly must make a conscious effort to bracket one’s natural tendency to respond via one’s cultural filter.

Second. Cultural flexibility is not an ON versus OFF thing. There is a spectrum. I have gotten stories of people on Short-term Missions who seem to have no capacity (or at least no desire) to learn ANYTHING from another culture. Every other culture “sucks” except their own. I have not met such extreme people in missions… but have found some that come close. These people get angry and frustrated very easily in other cultures. They often see people from other cultures as bigoted, dishonest, and manipulative. Since pretty much all people have those qualities, there is truth to their assessment. But more and more they attach these qualities to people of another culture. Such individuals ultimately either run back to their home culture… or wall themselves off from the culture they are in.

Third. Cultural flexibility is part of an overall process of adaptation to a culture. It continues with some aspects of a culture becoming normalized to the person, while other parts remain foreign for years and years.

Now… Let’s talk about Lot

Particularly, let’s examine Lot as a person with limited cultural flexibility. This is counter to the normal interpretation of the man. In fact, the more common view is that Lot was TOO flexible, while having too little spiritual resilience. This view may be correct… but I would like to suggest an alternative view.

Lot was described in the New Testament (II Peter 2) as a righteous man. This was also implied in Genesis 19 when God promised to save Sodom if there were 10 righteous men. This number wasn’t achieved, and yet Lot was rescued from the city regardless. Both the Old and New Testament suggest that he was righteous.

There are arguments against this. First, his choosing the nicer land for grazing rights over Abraham is seen by some as selfish. While I suppose that is somewhat true, Abraham did give him the choice, with the implication that either choice was acceptable. If Abraham offered for Lot to make a choice, but only one of the choices was moral, then Abraham would be the one at fault more than Lot.  Second, his move toward Sodom is seen metaphorically as a drift to sinfulness. This, of course, could also be true, but this involves considerable reading into the passage. Third, his lack of impact on the community he was in, as well as in his own family, can be seen as evidence of his lack of spirituality. Again this is a possibility, but there are other possibilities.

Let’s consider the possibility that Lot lacked cultural flexibility. Cultural flexibility does not mean, moral flexibility— allowing oneself to drift into sinfulness because “everyone else is doing it.” Cultural flexibility means able to be a channel of God’s light and blessing in a different culture. In essence, it is an adaptation to a culture that allows one to have impact on it while in it.

Consider II Peter 2:7-8. Here Lot is not the main issue, but is used as an example of God’s intent and ability to save the righteous from His judgment of evil. Speaking of God, it says:

He rescued Lot, a righteous man distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless 8(for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)—

The passage says that he was distressed and tormented. At first this sounds like good behavior of a righteous person. Yet, we don’t really find Jesus being described as distressed and tormented by sinful behavior around Him. He seemed more distressed by hypocrisy of “righteous” people, than the behavior of the unrighteous. Paul is described as a bit distressed by the great idolatry he saw in the Greek cities. However, the only time he seemed to be greatly distressed was against those who attempted to worship him. In Athens, a major center of idolatry, he was able to commend the Athenians in their great drive to be religious. Both Jesus and Paul (and Barnabas, and the other apostles) were able to adjust themselves to the culture they were in.

In other words, the description of Lot may not be typify the missionary ideal of spiritual resilience so much as inadequate cultural flexibility. A prophetic role in a sinful community is one of being an agent of change… while still learning to adapt to that culture.

Lot had essentially no impact on the community. This may suggest that he became as morally depraved as they were. But if that was so, why was he described as righteous and bothered intensely by the sinfulness of those around him? While moral failure may be a cause for lack of impact in a community, another reason can be cultural separation. In cultural separation, one holds onto one’s own culture too strongly without integration into the broader community. When this happens, the person is encapsulated in the community by his own culture… having an enclave that has little interaction with the broader community except as necessary.

This hypothesis finds support, I believe, in the vignette in Genesis where two angels (messengers of God) come to visit Lot, and some of the men in the community want to rape them. Lot seeks to protect the angels by offering his daughters. At first, this sounds like more on Lot’s moral depravity. But think about it for a moment. Sodom wasn’t a big city so Lot, a successful man in the community, should have the social capital and relational bonds to dissuade his neighbors. Yet he could not. This suggests that he was socially disconnected from the society within which he resided. His offering of his daughters, whether real in line with extremes of Middle East hospitality, or simply a ploy, points to a man who did not know how to interact with his neighbors. This is in line with a couple of short episodes with Abraham. Abraham, a righteous man and man of influence in his community, fell apart socially in other cultures. At the court of Abimelech and in Egypt, Abraham was so uncomfortable with the settings that he, in essence, protected himself by putting his wife at risk. There are similarities between this and what Lot did.

People who enter a new culture willingly without cultural flexibility will fail. If they lack spiritual resilience, they will fail morally. If, however, they have decent spiritual resilience, they will fail by failing to have an impact in the community. They will be culturally disconnected, distressed by the broader community, and unable to handle the social intricacies of the society. Chances are they will become a lot like Lot.

 

 

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.

 

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.