What Direction Do We Point People Towards?

This is May 24, three days after Harold Camping predicted the start of the Apocalypse. This is not a gloat message. Most people were not particularly surprised that Christ did not return at that time. But some were surprised and confused. This story makes me think about what direction do we point people toward as missionaries.

Here in Baguio City, Philippines, a couple of months ago we started seeing jeepneys with the announcement of Christ’s return May 21. The advertisement seemed to direct people to three different places… or directions.

1. It pointed people to the Bible

2.  It pointed people to Family Radio

3.  It pointed people to Harold Camping

The problem is that the first direction given by the ad (the Bible) was a bit muddy. After all, those concerned about Christ’s return would find nothing in the Bible saying that Christ was returning on May 21. In fact, the Bible appears to say that we cannot know (and should not dwell on) the exact time of Christ’s return… but rather be faithful every day. To come up with May 21, 2011, one has to use numerology… certainly tempting… but numerology is not a Christian field of study. It is doubtful that a Christian should ever be involved in numerology… to say nothing of assuming that God gives us secret information through this pseudoscience.

The second direction of the advertisement was to the website of Family Radio. This is a more clear message.

The third direction was less direct, but still very clear. Since the Bible did not say Christ was returning May 21… one had to rely on the obscure interpretation of the Bible by Harold Camping. Family Network also pointed people very directly to Harold Camping

In the end, the advertisement had the wrong effect. It said to trust the Bible… that the Bible said that Christ would return on May 21. Since He didn’t, the clear implication is that the Bible is false. With Family Radio, it was much easier… All they had to do was change their website to remove all references to “Judgment Day”.  The Bible is timeless, but the stench of a bad advertising campaign will not go away anytime soon.

As missionaries we need to know where to point people. Do we:

-Point people to God?

-Point people to the Bible (God’s revelation)

or do we

-Point people to a”prophet” or “denomination”

-Point people to a narrow interpretation of God’s revelation

It does matter.

Amish Missions?

<This is not about those Christians who seek to minister to the Amish. Frankly, I have absolutely no opinion about them. This is about missions done by Amish Christians to non-Christians.>

One of the frustrations I (personally) have in evangelism is the lack of separation between sharing God’s message and sharing one’s denominational message. Not only do Christian witnesses connect these two but often:Image result for amish buggy

  • don’t see the two messages as being different.  And…
  • don’t see the inappropriateness of linking the two messages.

As I have noted in a previous post, I have had people share Christ’s message. But as soon as they realize that I am already a Christian, their message instantly changes to their own denomination’s message. The mild disappointment they exude upon learning that I am already a Christian switches to frustration and unhappiness  that I have no interest in becoming their type of Christian. Because I did not respond, they feel like failures.

One might assume that the linking together of God’s message and one’s denominational message is normal… even necessary.  Most Christian evangelistic methods target those who are a “different type of Christian”. For example “The Romans Road” and the “Bridge Illustration” targets people who were raised up in a “Christian” culture, already believe in Christ, value the Bible, and may even be active in a church. But they focus on Christians who are nominal (or perhaps) lacking in faith, or are in a Christian tradition that does not utilize the Sinner’s Prayer as a demonstration for conversion.

But can Christians point people to Christ without NECESSARILY pointing to their own church?  I would like to give an example of one such group.

I was raised in Upstate New York very close to a large Amish (Old Order Mennonite) community. While Amish communities vary, this one is quite conservative. They do not use cars or tractors, and they do not use electricity. They wear blue or black clothes of a 19th century rural design. Their livelihood is farming or providing services for farming community. They seek to minimize dependency on the outside world.

The Amish are a fairly closed society, and one might assume that like many closed Christian societies in the world, they have no interest in sharing the Christian faith. I cannot speak for all Amish groups, and I can’t speak for all of the members of this particular community. However, some do share faith, particularly in written word.

One might assume that if one read such evangelistic literature, one might see long arguments why outsiders (sometimes labeled the “English”) should become Amish. Actually, that is not what this literature says. Often their writings explain who the Amish are, what is their history, and why they act different than others. However, when they give the gospel message, there is no call to become Amish.

The reasons for this is simple.
  1. Amish Christians realize that their sub-culture is extremely different from the culture around them.
  2. Amish Christians realize that it would be very difficult for people to gain the life skills and priorities shift to make the cultural leap.
  3. Amish Christians understand that there is a difference between God’s universal call and message to all peoples, and the basis for their own sub-culture and denomination.

Therefore, these Amish believers who shared their faith did not ask people to become Amish… but become faithful followers of Christ within their own cultural context.

The Amish example is difficult in practice, if a person comes to Christ through their ministry, it is hard for them to do discipleship. Another problem is that linking Christ and denomination is so rampant. Here in the Philippines, American, Australian, and Korean churches send missionaries here to reach out to (mostly nominal) Christians. What type of churches do they start?  They make american, australian, and korean churches. And that is what the Philippines mostly has… poorly run american, australian, and korean style churches that mimic the home denominations. Very few churches make an honest attempt to contextualize to the culture. Most of the one’s who have culturally adapted end up with deeply flawed theology.

Why is this? Does contextualization necessarily produce heterodoxy?  I don’t believe so.  If the denominational message and God’s message is given mixed together, how does one know which is which?  It is hard to tell. People accept the full message… producing uncontextualized churches. Others reject the denominational message but, confusing it with the God’s message, ends up rejecting much of God’s message… creating their own message instead.

I think we need to learn from the Amish here. By separating God’s message from their own denominational message, people are more open to accepting God’s message. Additionally, people are less likely to be confused about what God’s message is.

As Christians come into greater contact with people of other faith cultures, -Buddhists            -Hindus                        -Muslims            -Secularists -Neo-Pagans            -Post-Christians            -Atheists            -New Agers

we need to remove the confusion between God’s message and our own. If we have trouble knowing the difference, so will they.

An article that speaks more specifically about Amish Missions can be found HERE.

Christ and Government?

Richard Niebuhr is well-known for his 5 possible relationships between Christ and Culture (from the book “Christ and Culture” (1951)). While these may not be a complete set of choices, but they do provide a good list of options.

Christ against Culture

-Christ above Culture

-Christ transforming Culture

-Christ and Culture in Paradox

-Christ of Culture

Culture is important, but we also need to think hard about the role of Christ and Government. It was easy in the second century to see Christ against Government. It may have been easy in the fourth century to see Christ of Government. With the growth of the concept of “Christendom”, and state (Christian) religions, the blurring of Christ and Government increased.

The faith group I am in tends to uphold the Jeffersonian ideal of a “high wall of separation” between religion and government. Not seeking to disagree with my group, but there are obvious problems. First, religion and Christ are not the same thing. Even if one holds to this ideal, it does not answer the question of the government’s relationship with Christ. Second, in many cultures, faith is integrated with all aspects of life, including governance. Is it appropriate to tell a culture that a foundational aspect of their way of life is flawed?  Third, secularism is a religion (although an unorganized religion) in that it provides answers for the key questions of life and guidance as to how to evaluate experiences and make life decisions. Therefore, removing (a) religion from governance simply replaces it with another (for practical purposes).

Some would suggest a smaller wall of separation. This would be a religiously neutral governance. Religion is not anathema within government, but no religion is placed above another. This is almost impossible to practice consistently. Secularism tends to still become the “favored religion”. This may work better than some choices (or not), but it still does provide little answer to the question of the relationship between Christ and Government for Christians. With the big wall and the small wall, there still tends to be a compartmentalization of faith in the lives of Christians.

On the other hand, some Christians aggressively believe in a theocratic ideal. Christ rules a “Christian nation”. This has been promoted by many Christians. It certainly removes the issue of compartmentalization of faith. However, it seems to seek more of an Islamic ideal for the relationship between faith and governance than a Christian ideal. This ideal has problems when Christianity is the minority faith (as it is in Islamic, Hindu, or Buddhist dominant countries). Even in countries such as the United States or Philippines where Christianity is dominant, there can be communities where other religions are dominant, such as Mormonism, Islam, or Secularism. It is easy to love the power of being the dominant religion in a community. But is one willing to accept the active or passive persecution associated with being a minority faith? Many Christians in the US want to see public prayer restored to schools, but are they willing to accept public prayers in schools where the prayers are directed to the local dominant deity (such as the Mormon Elohim or the Islamic Allah)?

Why is this important? In missions, people come from one government system into another government system. When Christ is brought over, so are attitudes about government (for good or for ill). If a missionary comes from a democratic system, should one assume that Christ loves democracy and wants to change all governments to democracy?  On the other hand, is Christ only interested in spiritual change? Does He lack concern about social injustices and corruption that are allowed (or even encouraged) by the local government. Should missionaries be active in governmental change, or just be quiet and happy as a “guest” of the host country?

How should churches relate to government. Can they love their country while opposing their nation? Should they risk losing registration or tax benefits by challenging the government?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent his entire adult life mulling over this question. His denomination attached itself, for the most part, to the local governance of Nazi Germany. Shouldn’t their allegiance to Christ take preeminance over their allegiance to Hitler?  But if so, how should they have demonstrated that?  American churches often closely link faith and patriotism.  Are their problems with that? Here in the Philippines, there is a fairly low wall of separation between church and state. Many evangelicals here assume that by voting evangelical Christians into political office that government will improve. But would improvement be the result? And what is the real agenda… is it seeking to improve government or to take the power away from other religious groups for themselves?

This is a rambling post. But this is something we as Christians, and ambassadors to the world must think about. What is the relationship between Christ and Government, and how should that affect what we do as individuals and as people of God?