IRD, Culture, and “Just Making Sense”

I am teaching a class on Asian Faiths with focus on Interreligious Dialogue (IRD). I gave this scenario. The story is real, with only trivial changes.

Baha’i is a rather uniquely challenging religion in a number of ways. Years ago I had an acquaintance who was Baha’i. I found one challenge was its pluralism. Brian would say that Baha’i and Christianity agree in theology— and would say that other major religions also agree with Baha’i. When I would bring up some fairly obvious differences, Brian would say, “No, we are in agreement.” I felt like he was being deceptive or perhaps illogical.

Right or wrong in this, my error in talking to him was probably in trying to focus on the differences between Christianity and Baha’i. When I am focused on pointing out differences between the two faiths, and Brian is focused on pointing out similarities between the two faiths… the conversation definitely struggles.

Question:  What should I have done to make the conversation go better, and ultimately (prayerfully) be able to express my faith in a way that would understood and appreciated by Brian?

1.  Should I have stuck with my plan of argument based on differences?

2.  Should I have adjusted to Tim’s aim, in focusing on similarities?

3.  Some third option  (State what that would be)

Explain your answer.

From the answers I got, I had a couple of thoughts.

A. I got some interesting answers from my students. Probably the most interesting was one student who suggested that the best answer was to neither focus on differences or similarities. Rather, he suggested to focus on personal testimony. In other words, spend less time on issues of religion as it is believed, and more on religion as it is experienced. This is actually a recommendation I have heard given for talking to people who are more post-modern in worldview. (I believe that Brian McLaren suggested this in his book “Finding Faith.”) Pre-modern tends to look to ancient authority (focus on the past). Modern tends to look at issues of expertise— looking to experts and (perhaps) an empirically-centered form of rationality. But in Post-modernism, there is doubt of both ancient authorities and present-day “experts.” As such personal experience is more… compelling. The issue in all three cases is not what is true but what is more likely to be accepted as good evidence— what is more compelling.

B. I also noticed a trend. Most of my students come from places where Christians are a minority sub-culture within a majority culture of a different faith. In the case of my students, it was either Islam or Buddhism. However, there were a few who come from places where Christianity is either the majority faith, or a strong sizable sub-culture within the larger society. I noticed that those who come from a more Christian-dominant society tended to prefer Option #1— argument… focusing on differences. Those from a place where Christianity was a much smaller and weaker sub-culture, they tended to prefer Option #2. They prefer to focus on finding similarities.

Why is that? One reason may be that those who come from cultures where Christians are a small minority, know not to “make waves.” Don’t rile up or upset the majority group. And YES, that can be a genuine concern. But there are other possibilities as well. Cultures are an amorphous changing set of values and ideas that people share and transmit to each other. One of the products of culture are the “Just Makes Sense” perspectives. One could call it a “worldview.”

Within a culture, it is the dominant group that tends to define what “just makes sense.” I am from the United States where there is a strong tendency towards Religious Relativism/Pluralism, as well as a more secularist view that we are ultimately the result of a near infinite series of happy (or unhappy) accidents. From a strictly outsider perspective, it is no more reasonable to think that all religions (except for small little unpopular ones) are essentially correct, than it is to think that one is correct, or that all are wrong. It really is no more reasonable to think that happy accidents with no defined purpose resulted in our Universe, than that it was designed with intellect and forethought. But, depending on the culture or sub-cultures, one will tend to “just make sense” while the others seem dubious or foolish.

So… when a Christian lives in a small sub-culture in a society dominated by another belief system, the Christian faith is on the losing side (culturally-speaking) of the “just makes sense” battle. Thus, the reasonable way to sound compelling is to show how one’s faith fits with the “just makes sense” beliefs in the society. On the other hand, if one lives in a place in which Christian beliefs and values are predominant, the more compelling argument is to show how other faiths fail in the “just makes sense” test.

Let’s take a simple, but obvious example. In Islam it is humiliating, even blasphemous, for God to be born physically (incarnated). In cultures dominated by an Islamic worldview to argue against their point just sounds really foolish. On the other hand, the opposite occurs in a place where a Christian worldview dominates. That is because both Christianity and Islam claim an all-powerful and loving God. In the Christian worldview, God is loving because He identified with us, and sacrificed for us, and rescued us when we cannot rescue ourselves. In a Christian culture, to believe in a loving God but then undermine the primary evidences of that love is… well, again, foolish. Because of this, the strategy is quite likely to be at least a little different depending on the dominant faith.

Of course, there are other factors to consider… I am being oversimplifying here. But I do think the general trend holds true. We want to sound compelling to others in our society. We don’t want to sound stupid (although I have met Christians who are exceptions in this). As such, the strategy we use to sound compelling will differ somewhat depending on the role that Christianity has in the broader dominant worldview.

Choosing Between the Sinner’s Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer

I was listening to a podcast of N.T. Wright. He was talking about Evangelism. In it he spoke somewhat negatively about “The Sinner’s Prayer.” He suggested that when a person decides to follow Christ, that saying the Lord’s Prayer may be a better choice than the Sinner’s Prayer.

We probably need to step backwards and say something that SHOULD be obvious, but sadly isn’t—-


We are saved by faith. That faith may be expressed in a shorthand way with the Sinner’s Prayer, but if a person had saving faith in Christ but did not say the Sinner’s Prayer, that person would still be saved. And a person who said the Sinner’s Prayer but did not have faith would not be saved. In other words, the Sinner’s Prayer has no power to make effective salvation.

Some go further and argue that the Sinner’s Prayer is un-Biblical. I think that is taking it too far. The Bible does tell us to choose who to follow and the path to take. The Bible does tell us to “call on the Lord” and to “confess Jesus as Lord.” All of these are consistent with the Sinner’s Prayer, even if the prayer is not specifically mentioned in the Bible.

The problem is when the Sinner’s Prayer is treated like an incantation. An incantation is a word or phrase that is believed to have power of itself to create change either on its own, or by compelling a spiritual being to act. In other words, it is magic. I get that. I have thought that way. When I was 7 years old, I said the Sinner’s Prayer in my room at home with no one else around. For the next few months I wondered whether I was saved or not. “What if I said it wrong?” At least twice more I said the Sinner’s Prayer as best I could remember, hoping that I “got it right.” Eventually I figured out that my salvation was in my faith and determination to follow Jesus, NOT in saying some words the right way.

But I have met people who have struggled with the meaning of the Sinner’s Prayer. One person I knew was told that she must not be saved because she doesn’t remember whether she said the Sinner’s Prayer— despite the fact that she had many times expressed her faith in Christ and actively sought to serve Him faithfully. I have known other people who assure a person over and over again that they are saved and secure because that repeated some words in the past, not considering whether the person meant the words he said or whether he has faith now. Rather than saying that the Sinner’s Prayer is un-Biblical, I would rather say that it is theologically dubious.

The Sinner’s Prayer has different forms but it generally has some common elements.

  • Admitting to being a sinner
  • Seeking forgiveness from God through Jesus Christ
  • Asking to be saved by Christ

Some would add other things like saying that they were saved through the ‘blood of Christ’ embracing the metaphor of penal substitutionary atonement. Some statements expressly say that Jesus is Lord of the person’s life. Others seem to embrace a lower standard, more akin to intellectual assent.

Instead of looking at the merits or lack of merits of the Sinner’s Prayer directly as something to do when one becomes saved, let’s instead compare it to saying the Lord’s Prayer.

#1. Both the Sinner’s Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer share the common elements. Both describe admitting to being a sinner. Both express the wish to be forgiven by God. both express desire to be saved by God (delivered from Evil).

#2. The Lord’s Prayer also expresses the broader Sinner’s Prayer that vocalizes the desire for God to be Lord in the pray-er’s life (“Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”)

#3. The Lord’s Prayer is more than an entreaty. It is also an act of worship— expressing that God’s name is to hallowed. And the longer version has more worship language (“For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory forever).

#4. The Lord’s Prayer is less self-focused than the Sinner’s Prayer. While it does entreat of God for self— it also entreats for others and for all creation.

And these are all good things. Since the Lord’s Prayer covers the elements of the Sinner’s Prayer… and more, it does seem a bit unclear why the Sinner’s Prayer was artificially created for a person to say at salvation. It seems pretty unnecessary. Nothing wrong with it I guess. It is true that the Lord’s Prayer does get overused in church, I can imagine it being looked down on by Evangelists fearing it to be “vain repetition.” However, I see little reason to think it is likely to be more meaningless than the Sinner’s Prayer at times.

I do have three more reasons that I definitely think push the Lord’s Prayer across the finish line as the better choice.

#5. The Lord’s Prayer is given by Jesus to His disciples. Even though we may call it “The Lord’s Prayer,” it is probably better understood as “The Disciple’s Prayer.” So when one decides to submit to Christ as Savior and Lord, one is choosing to be a disciple of Christ. What is more natural than to express that decision by saying “The Disciple’s Prayer”?

#6. The Lord’s Prayer has throughout Church history been seen as a prayer of community. Even in my own faith tradition, that tends to be highly skeptical of set prayers, the Lord’s Prayer is still respected as a recitation to be done by the faith community. (I have, however, met a few who are legalistically opposed to any prayer or recitation that is not extemporaneous. A bit strange.) When a person follows Christ, she is not just “getting saved.” She is becoming a part of the community. What is more natural than for the evangelizer to say the Lord’s Prayer with the new believer as an act of Christian Community. When the evangelizer tells that new converst to “repeat after me” the Sinner’s Prayer, the evangerlizer is not really praying because he is presumably already saved. But with the Lord’s Prayer, both can pray it with relevance. They both can say it with meaning, much like a young alcoholic and the seasoned sponsor can both state the Serenity Prayer with equal conviction in AA.

#7. The Lord’s Prayer, if done this way, as a symbol of salvation would add meaning in the liturgical use of the prayer. Now it is not only a reminder of being a disciple of Christ and part of the community of Christ. It is also a commemoration of the salvation experienced by each member of the body.

Find us Faithful

I don’t put sermons here very often, but I thought I would share one I did today at my church.

Find Us Faithful

Matthew 24:42-51

Chapter 24 of the Gospel According to St. Matthew is a message that Jesus gave His followers about the future. Jesus’s time on earth was coming to a close. He wanted His disciples to be ready for the challenges that will be coming after He is gone. He speaks of many things:

  • Deceivers coming– False prophets, Messiahs, teachers, Miracle workers.
  • Violence, evil, and natural disasters will increase
  • Persecution and Death will come to the Followers of Christ
  • Despite this, The Gospel will be preached throughout the whole Earth
  • Although there will be signs, we will not know when the end will be

BUT HOW THEN SHOULD WE LIVE? Thankfully, Jesus gave us a clear picture of what a person would look like if he or she follows Jesus’s advice.

42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

Jesus gives guidance in what to do so that one is ready for the end.

Be watchful and ready. But there are two different ways that one can be watchful and ready.

  • Others have come up with dates more recently. People like Harold Camping on Christian radio and Jack van Impe on Christian television kept coming up with new dates of Christ’s return. Here in Baguio I saw a truck driving around with a big sign telling everyting that Jesus was returning on May 22, 2011. I did not see that truck on May 23rd. I also did not see that truck going around in October 2011 when Harold Camping’s next prediction for Christ’s return was, nor in 2012 which was Jack van Impe’s prediction.
  • There are a few dates being shared as to when Jesus is returning. A couple of predictions for 2020 just passed by, but there is one in 2021, another in 2024, and yet a third in 2028. I suspect if one looks deep enough one can find someone some where who has predicted Christ’s return every year in this decade.

It is not just Christians who do this. Many other groups. Muslims also believe that Jesus will return and have come up with all sorts of dates when this will happen.

  • So we need a different type of watchfulness and readiness. We need to be faithful.

Jesus explains this type of watchfulness and readiness in the Parable of the Faithful Servant.

45 “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? 46 It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. 47 Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 48 But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ 49 and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. 50 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. 51 He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 24:45-51)

This story, this parable shows two types of readiness.

Let’s look at the Ready, Watchful, Faithful servant.

-Always doing what he is supposed to be doing.

-Always setting a good example for those he has responsibility over.

-Always faithful, he is always ready.

Now let’s look at the Ready, Watchful, Unfaithful servant.

-He figures that the master will be late in returning

-He mistreats the servants and misuses the master’s home, setting a bad example for them.

-He thinks that he can figure out when the master will return and have everything ready.

A Faithful servant is always ready, while an Unfaithful servant thinks he can become ready.

A Faithful servant is watchful because he wants to Welcome the master, while an Unfaithful servant is watchful because he is Worried.

A Faithful servant is a good example for those he works with, an Unfaithful servant is a bad example, and inspires bad behavior in others.

Many preachers as the question, “What if Jesus returned today?” It’s a good question. Am I watchful and ready to welcome Jesus? “Are you ready if Jesus returned today?” I cannot answer this for you. No one else can answer this for you. Have you chosen to have Jesus as your master— Lord and God of your life? If you have not… I think it is safe to say that you are not ready. If that is the case, I strongly recommend that you speak to one of the church leaders. Ask “How can I be ready for Jesus?” Being ready is not about giving away everything you own, dressing up in a white robe and standing on the roof so you don’t bump your head when Jesus draws you up to Him. It is living a life of faithfulness with Jesus as your Savior, and as Your Lord.

But here is another question, “What if Jesus returns 500 years from now?” It’s just as good of a question. Suppose you know (somehow) that Jesus will not return for 500 years? Does that mean that we can be like the unfaithful servant. Can we misuse and abuse all that God has given us here on earth, because you have lots of time to make things right later?

Of course not. First of all, if Jesus returns 500 years from now, then we all will die and go to God before Christ comes at the end of the world. I am 55 years old, so it is likely that I will die sometime in the next 10, or 20, or 30 years. But I really don’t know when. And neither do you. Either in death or in Christ’s return we need to always be watchful, ready, and faithful.

In fact, if Jesus returns in 500 years from now instead of today, there is even more reason that we need to be faithful everyday. If Jesus returns in 500 years, we need to be an example for future generations. The closing song that we will sing speaks of this:

O may all who come behind us
Find us faithful,
May the fire of our devotion
Light their way.
May the footprints that we leave,
Lead them to believe,
And the lives we live
Inspire them to obey.
O may all who come behind us
Find us faithful.

We need to live ready, watchful, faithful lives to set the example for our children, for the next generation in church and in our community. If I am not faithful, ready, and watchful, and Christ returns today, I hurt myself. But If I am not faithful, ready, and watchful, and Christ returns 500 years from now… I not only hurt myself, but I set a bad example that hurts my children… the next generation in my church and community. My bad example can result in a cascading effect… of people not ready for Christ years and years after my death.

So I believe this passage asks us two important questions?

Am I faithful to Jesus so that I am ready if Jesus returns today?

Am I faithful to Jesus so that I am readying generations after me if Jesus returns in 500 years?

Sodalities and Modalities in Missions

This is part (early rough draft) of a chapter I am doing in my Missions and Theology book. Understand it as a very preliminary text. Thanks.

Christian Missions is done by people who come together as part of the Kingdom of God, as members of the Body of Christ, as those joined in the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Such coming together can exist in more than one way.

Ralph Winter speaks of Modalities and Sodalities. Modality Structures as it pertains to Christianity are social entintities that exist based on biology, geography (generally) and shared faith. The local church in its many diverse manifestations is such a structure. It draws from the synagogue, which is also a modality structure. A sodality structure is one that is driven primarily by common purpose. Such purpose is not simply shared by the members but is the actual reason for its existence. As much as churches have embraced the idea of having mission and vision statements, if these statements were changed, or not even written down, the church would not cease to be, and even may not even change markedly. And members of the church may affirm their church’s covenant, as well as vision and mission statements, but few actually kick people out who do not fully embrace, enforce, and execute these statements. (I have seen a few churches try to do this… it gets ugly.)

Sodality structures include mission bands, seminaries, and pretty much any other structure within Christianity in which joining absolutely requires acceptance of and adherence to a very specialized mission. This mission is much more narrow, and is generally inadequate to the overall needs of the individual Christian. Because of this, it is generally understood that all Chrsitians should be part of a church, regardless of whether they are part of a specialized structure.

It is the narrow specialization of sodality structures that give them some specific advantages in doing missions. Since all members can selected based on their shared vision, common desire to be trained to work cross-culturally, and willingness to limit one’s resources to focus on that vision over others.

It is pretty clear that sodality structures, such as mission societies, are important. Comparing the Roman Catholic Church to the Protestant Church(es) reveals some of the challenges. The Catholic Church had a universal leader— one who was seen as responsible for every person on earth (“Vicar of Christ”). It also had the monastic system that served as a sodality structure for a number of roles— especially missions. In early Protestantism, the church often meant the national church, or the local church, with no role for identifying responsibility beyond local or national boarders. And in focusing on the church, the monastic system was uprooted, without a replacement., In effect, it literally took centuries for the Protestant church to embrace missions in any beyond fits and starts.

The Danish-Halle Mission was a joint venture between the King of Denmark and the University of Halle. A university can be thought of as a sodality structure since it exists as a group driven by purpose. As such, the university served as a replacement for a monastic order, and the King of Denmark, as sovereign over his land and colonies, served as a replacement fot the pope.

For both the Roman Catholic setting and the Danish setting, the church, as a modality structure, had little role in missions. Their primary role is to produce Christians to feed the machinery of missions being handled outside of the church.

This was not the only option, however. The Moravian movement followed a model more akin to the idea of the missional church. The church as a whole seemed to act in many ways as a sodality structure. The Unitas Fratrum (as they are formally known) did not replace the Pope with another entity, but with theology. Since the church was not tied to a national or regional government, they saw their “parish” as worldwide. And with a leadership that was, for centuries, quite missional, the church embraced a strong missionary vigor without having a distinctly separate structure. History seems to support the idea that a Pope (or equivalent) is not really needed, as long as a church/denomination doesn’t define itself by its locality or state. However, over time, is seems like the church, as a modality structure, rarely holds onto a strongly missional stance over a few generations. The calling of the church is broader than that of a mission organization and so eventually, there is a tendency to shift focus or broaden focus. While from a missions standpoint this seems bad, I must admit that I have seen churches that are so focused on task that they lose sight of caring for their own people. This can create a toxic condition in a church.

Justinian von Welz proposed the establishment of a mission society in the 17th century. His Jesus Loving Society was ahead of its time, seemingly. It provided a structure that allowed churches to support missionaries with resources and prayers and receive reports back from missionaries. The attempt failed, but it did inspire others later. By the end of the 18th century and into the 19th century, there was a huge number of mission societies that sprang up. This led to a golden age of Protestant missions. As time when on, some mission agencies were swallowed up as mere arms of denominational church structures. Others went the opposite and became more independent of, and sometimes even competitive to churches.

With the growth of the missional church movement as well as short-term missions missions seems to be taking a direction more akin to the Moravians presently. Time will tell whether missions works best driven by the church, as a pawn of the church, or as a competitor of the church (or something else entirely).

Other things to read:

Ralph Winter on Modalities and Sodalities

Robert Munson “Lack of Early Protestant Missions”

The Good Follower

Who can lay a hand on the LORD’s anointed and be guiltless? As surely as the LORD lives,” he said, “the LORD himself will strike him; either his time will come and he will die, or he will go into battle and perish. But the LORD forbid that I should lay a hand on the LORD’s anointed. (I Samuel 26: 9b-11a)

I have heard so many religious leaders use this term for suggesting that they, as religious leaders, are to be immune from action against them from their followers. Since the context is about killing, I guess I could agree. Religious leaders should not be killed by their followers.

But how far beyond that can one take this passage? In the context, David saw Saul as the anointed king of Israel, anointed by God, and so did want to be the one who killed him. Seemingly, he was okay if someone else would kill him, but he did not want to do it himself. I reckon that is commendable. However, it must be noted that David, in almost every other way was insubordinate to King Saul, having an armed force that worked outside of Saul’s rule, and even for a time served the enemies of King Saul. And David also chastised Saul publicly.

So, if one wished to apply accrurately the words and actions of David to King Saul, to a strictly religious setting, then a follower can avoid laying a hand “on the LORD’s anointed” and still:

-Disobey the religious leader

-Chastise him (or her) publicly

-Form factions to undermine the leader’s authority

-Serve the enemies of that leader

Of course, some of this may be questionable. But this is part of the problem of (mis)using an piece of Scripture for a very unrelated setting. But that then brings up the question of what one SHOULD do? What does it mean to be a good follower of a religious leader.

I believe a good follower should love and support his religious leader. But what does that entail

  1. A good follower holds his leader accountable. Leaders need help to avoid straying from their true calling. They need people who will support them so as not to stray. They don’t simply need fanboys.
  2. A good follower holds his faithfulness to God as inviolate… but his faithfulness to the leader as contingent. Followers sin when they follow a leader’s path into sin.
  3. A good follower neither demonizes nor glorifies the leader. The leader is human and so fails. The job of the follower is to help the leader do what is right, not find excuses for why the leader did wrong (or trying to justify why the action is not wrong).
  4. A good follower recognizes that the leader is NOT more important than God, and is NOT more important than the congregation.
  5. A good follower seeks to maintain the good reputation of the leader by helping the leader to do right, rather than to cover-up what is wrong.

In the Old Testament, there were Free Prophets and Court Prophets. Court Prophets served in the court of the king. He or she was a counselor to the king. Court Prophets often had the reputation of being sycophants— saying what the king wants to hear, and agreeing with what the king does and thinks (think of Hananiah in the book of Jeremiah). The Free Prophets, on the other hand, had the reputation of being a thorn in the sides of their kings. That was because they said what God wanted them to say, and God’s message is normally to motivate the king to change rather than to say, “You are doing well… keep up the good work!” Jeremiah then is the contrast to Hananiah in this regard.

Free Prophets were the real supporters of the King. Far too many of the Court Prophets (Nathan being a good exception) were not supporters… only fans.

Top Five Posts for 2020

Today is December 2, 2020. Today my dad would have turned 96. It has been a challenging year. But days roll by, the earth keeps spinning regardless. I thought I would share the top posts this year.

  1. Reflection, Restoration, and Redemption, and the Three Little Pigs. 2015. This was a story I wrote that utilized the characters of the pigs to explore the differences between the 3 Rs. I feel it does that quite well.
  2. Oral Transmission and “Rida Rida Runka.” 2013. This is an odd post. I looked at the Scandanavian children’s rhyme Rida Rida Runka and how it was transmitted generation after generation, even in places where the original language competence has been lost. I kind of used this to show the importance of understanding oral transmission even in literate societies. In ministry one should never forget the importance of orality and the techniques that help oral communication to survive and even endure beyond written communication.
  3. Reminiscing with Mr. Bean. 2014. This is a bit more autobiographical and talks about our transition from living in the US to serving in the Philippines. A weird mixture of wistful nostalgia and anxiety.
  4. The Chicken that Laid the Golden Egg. 2018. A modest reworking of the classic The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg. The story was fleshed out a bit with it incorporated into a sermon. Actually, it was one of my better sermons, IMHO.
  5. Problems with Spiritual Gifts. 2017. This one is also a bit autobiographical. I used to lead spiritual gift seminars. But as I continued I realized that much of what I was teaching was stuff that was made up. I also started to see that while Spiritual Gifts are given by God to empower the church to serve, it has become used to divide the church in recent years. That is still true. Just this last Sunday a member of our church was confused because of pastor from another church was telling her that she should “speak in tongues” because people who do have a special “communion” with the Holy Spirit. Such a belief is not in the Bible, and certainly does not appear to be in line with the purpose of Spiritual gifts. The pastor, sadly, appears to be trying to cause problems in a different church. (If he wants to cause trouble, he should do it in his own.) Anyway, I feel the post covers many of the problems with how Spiritual Gifts are understood today.

Should a Missionary be a Theologian or a Dogmatist… or Neither?

A missionary serves in a place where he or she must teach new believers. But should this role be handled as a Theologian or a Dogmatist?

The term “dogmatist” is commonly used in a negative sense. This alone may indicate that I think it is the wrong answer to the question I pose. Let’s however, consider a more gentle definition. Two more perjorative definitions are:

Definition #1: a person insists that her beliefs amount to knowledge, and this leads her to insist that others are ignorant.

Definition #2: a person who believes too strongly that their personal opinions or beliefs are correct.

Gentler Definition: a person who inflexibly considers himself or herself knowing the truth and seeks to train others to agree.

This definition sees the person as having a great deal of conviction regarding beliefs and sees the person as focused on preserving and transmitting those beliefs with as little change as possible.

In a previous post, (, I had quoted Charles Hodge:

“If your review shall have the effect of commending the views which they advocate to the favorable regard of our younger theologians, I shall rejoice. I have but one object in my professional career and as a writer, and that is to state and to vindicate the doctrines of the Reformed Church. I have never advanced a new idea, and have never aimed to improve on the doctrines of our father. Having become satisfied that the system of doctrines taught in the symbols of the Reformed Churches is taught in the Bible, I have endeavored to sustain it, and am willing to believe even where I cannot understand. … I feel this the more because may of our brethren in this country have expressed great dissatisfaction with those articles. I am persuaded, however, that they contain nothing more than the common Protestant doctrine on the subject.”

-Quoting Charles Hodge in “The Life of Charles Hodge” by Archibald Alexander Hodge (published 1881) . Note that this passage is quoted in part by Edward William Fudge in “Hell: A Final Word”)

Hodge, based on the quote above could be described as a dogmatist. He believes that his denominational flavor of Christian theology is correct and so he embraces simply passing it on to his students. In this sense, he really might not be called a theologian, but rather a conservator of past doctrine (a dogmatist). Of course, a study of his work may show that he did actually attempt to express the Bible creatively in new settings. I am simply referring to the quote as the basis of describing him as a dogmatist.

The theologian must create the bridge between God’s revelation and human culture (since theology is a human rather than divine construct). And since human culture is constantly in flux, and theology must change.

Based on this, if nothing else, a missionary must be a theologian rather than a dogmatist. However, we should not jump on this too quickly. After all, a missionary serves a mission board, and/or a denomination, and/or a church. As such, a missionary is commonly expected to take a conservative role in terms of doctrines. A missionary is likely to be chastized for choosing to do Eucharist in a manner different from the sender. Generally, the supporters would much prefer a dogmatist.

On the other hand, the missionary is also expected to be an effective communicator of God’s message. As such, the message should not come out garbled or deceptive to the recipient culture. The senders certainly don’t want the missionary to confuse or mislead the hearers. As such, they certainly want the missionary to do more than simply indoctrinate with little consideration for the culture and symbols of the hearers.

Of course it could be said that a missionary doesn’t have to be either. A missionary can simply evangelize and churchplant and leave theologizing and indoctrinating to others. In practice, this cannot be done. In ministry, there is a road with theologizing at one end and dogmatizing at the other. In between are different shades of each. In ministry you don’t have to be at either extreme of this road, but you do not have the option of simply not being on the road.

Much like a lot of things in the Christian faith, the concept of “Creative Tension.” Missionaries are cultural “Agents of Change” and “Agents of Preservation.” But this exists with Theology as well. One serves one’s denomination and church. But one also serves God. The priority is God, meaning faithfulness to His message. To do this means to preserve the message through creatively contextualizing it in a new culture.

However, one is also part of a supportive community and tradition. I have seen pastors and missionaries simply ignore their heritage, things can turn prety ugly fast.


On October 25 is the 10th anniversary of this website. Kind of exciting. Ten years ago was also when my wife and I formally launched our ministry along with our partners— Bukal Life Care & Counseling Center. It is now are major ministry. I guess October 2010 was a big year for us.

I will share a couple of posts here.

The first is the third post I put on this website: “The Role of Church as a Communal Organism.”

The other is a new one by Carrie Vaughn and shared through Jackson Wu’s Patheos site: “A Plea to Mission Agencies.” by

College-Age Missions Questions

I was never a part of one of those groups— mission organizations that focus on college-age students both as active ministers and recipients of ministry. I won’t name groups because there are so many of them (both big and little) and they vary so much. I have often wondered about them.

As I said I wasn’t directly part of such a group. In college, I worked at a Christian summer camp for 9 or 10 weeks a year. That was very intense ministry, but it was temporary— having no impact on the remaining 40+ weeks a year. I also did ministry work at a children’s home— 2 hours a week of youth ministry on Sundays and 2 hours a week of tutoring on Tuesdays. Again, these had little impact on the remaining 164 hours a week.

The groups I am talking about are ones that:

  • Presses for a strong group identity. Your primary identity is being in this particular group. In some cases, this identity competes with their church identity.
  • Use language (missionary, minister, and so forth) that identifies them in recognized strong vocational roles with high expectations, rather than words such as volunteer or member.
  • Places them in a strong parachurch hierarchy with high expectations of obedience and submitting one’s own will to the vision and mission of the group.
  • Has high standards for busy-ness and ministering, with metrics kept to track the activity.
  • Often also serve as fund-raisers for the organization— either directly trying to fund the organization, or indirectly fund it by raising their own support (which is given to the organization)

Are these good or bad? Or a bit of both? I have seen some of the tracking used for some groups. They will ask their “missionaries” to weekly or monthly to list their evangelistic contacts and their responses. They will ask stats on follow-ups and discipleship. To me these are probably reasonable things to ask, especially if the young adults are being supported financially by the organization. They may ask regular feedback on their “spiritual life” as least in terms of spiritual disciplines, life milestones/significant events, and relational conflicts. These can be reasonable if the organization is doing real one-on-one mentorship. Otherwise it may be a bit intrusive. Some will ask for weekly or monthly updates on all the contacts the young adult has done to raise support and what responses and promises have been made to give to the ministry.

This last one is a bit creepy. I have on occasion had people from these groups come to try to raise money from my wife and I. I think there is still the vestiges of the old belief that Western missionaries have money in the collective mindset in Asia. This myth is generally not true, and each year becomes less and less true.

In theory, I don’t have problems with young people seeking to raise money for their ministry. In some cases it makes sense. My wife and I have done almost NO fundraising, and we have been able to survive…. but I in no way want to suggest that this should be normative. I don’t agree with Corrie Ten Boom that her personal conviction not to do formal fundraising should be universalized to everyone. (She only developed that conviction after she was well-known enough to not really need promote herself.) However, this issue does start to bring us into the “real problems” in my mind.

  1. Conflict between Parachurches and Churches. I like to say that the conflict between parachurches and churches is normal, because parachurches are parasitic and churches are selfish. This may be an oversimplification, but it is pretty true. Parachurches often seek to pull manpower and money out of the church. Sometimes, there is clear competition with churches. One large such organization famously encouraged their converts NOT to join a local church. A small organization that a friend of mine was part of decided to structure itself like a church to keep its members from being part of different local churches. Adding to that, young people going around and actively soliciting money from the deeper pockets of the church community, and one can see where some of the animosity comes from. I am not against parachurches. I have both founded parachurches and am (perhaps, depending on how one defines the term) a member of more than one presently. In the early years we got into some competitive conflict with at least one local church. We had to work hard to undo that and set up standards to avoid repeating that.

2. There is a risk of abuse. While we often think of those in the transition from teen years to adult years as stubborn and unmanageable, that is not necessarily the case. Some are genuinely seeking a sense of purpose and identity and lack the life experience to identify a good organizational relationship versus a bad. Some of the groups seem pretty legitimate in their recruiting and their team expectations. However, I have personally seen some that most definitely preferentially filter so as to have those who are more passive/malleable. I have seen some groups that use the “follow Christ versus follow family” inappropriately to drive a wedge between the young person and their own family/community. <Of course, this is not just a parachurch thing. Many churches do the same thing, and some utilize MLM principles to manipulate new members.>

3. Sometimes these types of ministries attract the wrong types of people. I have seen several religious leaders get involved with college-age ministries and it seems as if they do it because of power. Pastors, businessmen, politicians, bureaucrats, and more want to have power. Go online and look up books on leadership, and you will see there is a great thirst for power and influence both inside and outside of religious communities. The thing is that college-age ministries give opportunity to exercise power at a much higher level due to the fact that normal power dynamics are accentuated due to larger gap in age, experience, and finances. I have seen good people in these roles, but I have seen some who really power trip. I knew one who expected to have control over who dated and who married who in their organization. When they were involved in sports activities, he expected to be on the winning team every time. Things did not go well if this did not happen. Obviously we know all too well the religious leaders who utilized their influence and age difference to manipulate children and young adults for their own (often sexual) gratification.

4. Sometimes these parachurches are idealized and seen as models for churches. I have seen churches embrace vision and mission statements similar to these groups. I have seen churches embrace high pressure mission requirements and metrics— pressuring people to make promises regarding giving, evangelizing, discipling, and the like. At one time this seemed like a good idea to me. Churches aren’t doing enough and they should change to pull their own weight. But I have had to reconsider. I have been active in many many churches over the years. There are dead, lifeless, churches that I don’t understand why anyone attends. But there are probably good things about them. I have also seen churches that utilize some of the high pressure motivational tactics of parachurch groups and MLMs. These seem exciting at first because they feel like they are “doing something.” However, over time, the church begins to feel toxic. It doesn’t feel like a community. It doesn’t feel like a family. It feels like being a tool of the vision of the leader (again, a bit like an MLM… multi-level marketing business, since I haven’t identified the initials before). It feels like a place to avoid rather than attend. Then there are churches that focus on fellowship and community. They certainly have ministries and activities, but they don’t try to dominate the lives of their members, but enhance their lives. They don’t look like they are doing as much their parachurch counterparts, but I would argue that they are doing more of what they are called to do— be the body of Christ— the embodiment of, in some small way, the rulership of God on earth.

So are these groups bad. No. In fact, some have done some great things. But one has to watch out for the temptations. Bad leaders are not always easy to identify. They seem fine until the power they secretly (or even subconsciously) sought is not given. The temptations to control and manipulate. Years ago we ran a children’s ministry, and much of the volunteers were high school age, approaching college. It was amazing sometimes the level of investment they would make in ministry. It took a certain amount of leader discernment to ensure things do not go bad.

  • We would avoid trying to put a wedge between the worker and their family. In fact, we would, when we could, work with their families. On those rare occasions where there was tension between the volunteer and their family, we would tell them to honor their family wishes.
  • We made no pressure to come between their school responsibilities and their ministry responsibilities. Their school responsibilities come first. This (and the family one before) seem obvious but many groups do expect highest commitment.
  • We made no pressure to come between their church and their ministry responsibilities. Many of them chose to join the church we were part of. We had no problem with that, but those that did not we put ZERO pressure to switch churches. If anything we sought for them to stay at their present churches so that our ministry could seen as interdenominational, non-sectarian. (On more than one occasion we did actually have conflict with our own pastors because they wanted the ministry to be used as a way of pulling people into our own church.)
  • We created a very flat organizational structure with limited power dynamics. As such, the opportunity for abuse is limited, and the temptation towards positions of power is reduced.
  • We focused on opportunities to grow and do, rather than pressure and metrics to perform.

We did this successfully for a few years. We ended up shutting down the ministry after Typhoon Pepeng (2009) because we decided to change focus at that time. Many of the youth workers continued on in various church ministries, and one of the ministry sites continued on for another 10 years without our leadership. This reminds me of a story of sorts. When I worked at a Summer Camp, we got a new director. One thing he did early on was put up a sign that said that “No One is Indispensable.” Of course that is true, but it is equally true of leaders. I believe that a healthy organization can survive without its leader. And even if the organization shuts down, its members thrive in new places to serve. (This was certainly true at the Summer Camp. That leader was fired some time later, and the camp endured and even thrived.)

10 Years

Today is the 10 year anniversary of the formal launching of our organization, Bukal Life Care. But then I realized that we are approaching the 10 year anniversary of this website. My first post was on October 30, 2010. Now we are approaching 1200 posts.

I have not been posting much in the last few weeks and yet the view rates are up almost 50%. Not sure why, but I certainly appreciate the interest. I have been working on a Missions Theology book (that I MIGHT someday finish), lots of sorting papers, and lots of lots of house projects.

Below is the link to the 10 year post for Bukal Life Care

10 Year Anniversary