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.

Advertisements

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.

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.)