Last night we had dinner with a new single gal on our team. In the course of our conversation, her previous service in SE Asia came up. While we talked about the typical rhythms of ministry in our Central Asian context, we also encouraged her to think about her experiences in SE Asia. It may be that some of the ministry tools that she learned there might be surprisingly effective here also – even if our team would never have thought of them. Our people group is a hard nut to crack. Within the spectrum biblically-faithful methods we simply have a lot of experimenting to do in order to find out what kinds of ministry methods are actually effective here. We’ve been quite surprised in the past as efforts that felt very traditional or cliched turned out to really resonate with locals – while some popular and novel methods turned out to be duds. Book clubs turned out to be much better than we thought they would be. But our locals didn’t really resonate with oral Bible storying – even though they’re a largely oral culture. No one saw that one coming.
There are several ways to fall off the proverbial donkey of methodology. The traditional or colonial missionary largely reproduced the traditional Western methodology that he learned in his home country – hymns, pews, collared shirts, catechisms, etc. In other words, he was not very strong in effective contextualization. Yet even though this traditional figure has become the whipping boy of popular missiology, he’s essentially died out on the actual mission field. Far more common now is the opposite error – contemporary workers who are allergic to any methodology or tools that feel traditional or old-fashioned to them. Before even studying their local context to find out what good contextualization might be, we have prematurely decided that we must not import any methods that we ourselves benefited from in our own discipleship back home – not to mention the methods that feel hackneyed or overused. Don’t you dare bring your puppet ministry to the mission field! In reality, until someone has tried it we really have no idea if puppet ministry might be effective or not (Though I admit, I don’t really want to try it!). Such is the distance still between most missionaries and the ability to predict how the local culture will respond to new and different forms. And yet in our fixation with novelty and cutting-edge methodology, it would be just like the Lord to use a “foolish” method to bring about a spiritual awakening.
I remember sharing the gospel one more time with my friend Hama’s wife, Tara, back in the fall of 2008. She kept insisting that she indeed loved Jesus and that she had always believed in him. But it was clear to both Hama and I that she was still on the fence and had not yet trusted in him as her only savior. On a whim, I pulled out an old preacher’s illustration about true faith being like sitting in a chair.
“See that chair over there?” I pointed and Tara nodded. “You might say that it’s a good chair, it’s a nice chair, you respect it and you believe that it will hold your weight.”
Tara waited to hear where this was going. I got up, walked across the room and sat in the chair, cross-legged.
“Well, dear wife-of-my-brother, this is me actually trusting in this chair to hold me, actually having real faith in it. If it breaks, I will be injured. Your faith in Jesus right now is like you sitting across the room saying that you like this chair, but you need to get up and actually sit in it, risk falling down by putting all your weight on it. You need to actually have faith in Jesus like that – risking all, life and death, on him – and until then, it’s not yet true faith.”
Simple and cliched as the example was, that night was the turning point for Tara. A full decade later we visited their family in their new country where they’ve been resettled as refugees. And Tara brought up that chair illustration once again as what God had used to push her over the line of saving faith. Really? Of all the things that Hama and I shared with her, it was a simple and very traditional concrete example that proved to be the breakthrough.
I’m not saying we need to bring over all the silly gimmicks that have made their way into Western evangelicalism. For the love of everything sacred, no fog machines, WWE wrestlers, or Jesus action figures are needed among the unreached people groups of the world. Yet straightforward contextualization is needed, the kind where the most important questions are whether something is biblical and whether it is clear and effective in the local culture. These questions need to trump asking whether something feels old-fashioned or novel to us or not. There may be abandoned methods in church history that prove to be mightily relevant in foreign contexts. The key is to not prematurely rule them out for the wrong reasons. Consider that certain methods were so powerful because of where a certain culture found itself at a given time – things like open air preaching. Is it possible that your adopted culture is in a different “place” than your home culture is is? It’s more than possible. It’s extremely likely.
Practically, this will mean giving our teams room to experiment – and room to fail. It will mean moving beyond a reactionary missiology and toward one that is simply and faithfully trying to find the best tools for the job, even if that turns out to be grandpa’s tools. It may be that we design the tools that lead to awakening among our focus people groups. Or it may be that we dig them up in the most unlikely corners of church history. Why should it matter? Tools are tools. And as long as they remain explicitly governed by biblical principles and emphases, then we should feel tremendous freedom to utilize them.