Those who have spent time in this part of the world soon realize the importance of things appearing official. Seals, stamps, big desks with name plates, suits, important-looking dossiers… and certificates. One must not underestimate the importance of certificates in Central Asia.
One of the core questions of a worldview is this: What is real? In Central Asia, this coincides closely with what is respectable. In fact, if something is informal or unrecognized, if it doesn’t reach a certain threshold of respectability, then in a very real sense it’s not understood to be serious or real.
One of my close friends who grew up in this region told me a story from his youth. A respected teacher offered to give him private lessons without pay on a certain subject. My friend thought this was a kind offer and took him up on it. However, when his father found out about this he was not pleased at all, even though this situation was saving him money and giving his son a superior educational experience. “No,” said my friend’s father, “If you are not in the paid class, then you will not receive the certificate. And without the certificate, it’s not real.” My friend promptly withdrew from the free private tutoring and joined the paid group class. And in time he received his certificate.
Notice how the free private tutoring was not valued by my friend’s father because it would not have produced the all-important certificate. In this case and many others, Central Asians will often prioritize a certificate over the actual value of the content they are learning. This is not because they do not recognize quality of education. It’s simply that they believe that most education without the paper proof – sealed and signed and hung on the wall – is not really real at all.
The certificate is indicative of a broader trend that runs throughout the entire culture. Central Asians are loath to attach themselves to anything that has not sent the appropriate signals of seriousness and respectability.
Enter a global missions movement of post-institutional Westerners that focuses on planting organic, grass-roots, informal discipleship groups and house churches, and you have a situation ripe for misunderstanding – and ripe to be rejected as not really respectable or real. While many missions methods focus on the importance of reproducibility (not an unbiblical concept, depending on how it’s defined), few methods that I’m aware of are really asking hard cultural questions about respectability and reality. The Westerners make their pitch for house church and the locals wonder why they should be expected to risk their necks for something that seems so unplanned and so flimsy, so unreal. A crisis of trust emerges between the local believer and the missionary. Do these foreigners I have entrusted myself to actually have a plan?
However, the fact that most of Central Asia also contains some measure of government or societal persecution means that it’s often impossible or at least very tricky to start a church in a way that would be considered respectable – even if you could find a missionary willing to help start said respectable church (which might end up feeling very old-fashioned and unreproducible to them). So the Westerners end up with an aversion to the forms of church the locals are more naturally drawn toward, while the locals have a cultural aversion to the forms of church the Westerners are excited about. So much for contextualization.
The Westerners, in their own cultural stage of post-institutional ferment, can’t understand why Central Asians aren’t into house church, as their training had assured them they would be. The Central Asians, only recently emerging from a tribal past, recently urbanized, and seeing in their own society corrupt and phony institutions, are starving to experience healthy organizations and institutions. They can’t understand why the Westerners seem to be so against all the markers of respectable entities. But these things seldomly get spoken of openly.
In our previous city, a local believer with terrible English was an extremely loyal attendee at the international church. Knowing he was receiving very little spiritual edification by his attendance at this registered English service, his expat friends repeatedly urged him to join the local-language group they were trying to start. He stubbornly resisted, seemingly unwilling to commit, always talking about the need for a complex plan for that kind of a group to actually work. The verbal explanations about simply following the Bible that he was repeatedly given were not having their desired impact. One day while chewing on these things, I encouraged one of his mentors to try an experiment. I told him to write out their strategy, plan, and biblical principles for their local group and to present it to their friend as a thick portfolio. Feeling like anything was worth a shot at that point, they indulged me and did this very thing. The experiment worked. The thick stack of paper outlining their plans for this local church startup made something switch in our friend’s brain. It was real now. And as such, he was willing to risk for it. He started visiting their local group the next week.
Again, it will not be possible in much of Central Asia (or the Middle East) to plant officially-recognized, fully open local churches. But I am concerned that many of our favorite forms, because of where we are coming from culturally, are somewhat repellent to our Central Asian friends, because of where they are culturally. We dream of flat, bottom-up movements that never institutionalize (“forever young”) while they dream of hierarchical, top-down healthy institutions that are mature and serious. If house churches are popular among the hip middle-class residents of the Pacific Northwest, we should ask why that is, and we should not really be that surprised that they might not resonate with war-weary Central Asians. Somehow, we must find the areas of overlap between our cultural preferences and missions books, and what Central Asians consider real enough to risk for.
We may not choose to give out certificates, but if not, we should wrestle seriously with why our local friends are so upset if we do not. When it comes to what Central Asians think is real and respectable, how can we at least meet them half-way? When locals start new organizations, associations, or entities, what elements do they consider necessary in order to be viewed as legitimate?
We shouldn’t claim to be serious about contextualization if we do not wrestle with what our local friends believe is actually real. I might not care at all about a stamped piece of paper. But I am not planting churches based on my personal cultural preferences. Or am I?