A Question Very Few Are Asking

Today a colleague asked me a very good question.

“Assuming that the worldview of the West is more youth and future-oriented, how do you think that influences missionaries?”

I responded that two effects come to mind right away. The first is the preference for new and novel methods over those that are old more traditional. These older methods, “Grandpa’s tools” as it were, are dismissed out of hand simply because they feel traditional or old-fashioned to us. Very few Westerners would even ask if these older methods are contextual (Since the assumption is that they were mindlessly imported and therefore are not). And even if they turned out to be, few would be without some kind of emotional resistance to employing them. Why is this? Because our future-oriented worldview biases us to the new, the exciting, and the ground-breaking. These novel approaches scratch a very powerful cultural itch that has to do with what we find to be convincing and compelling. Add to this Westerners’ ever-present underlying fear of being paternalistic or of even being perceived as colonial-lite, and we have one powerful combination. Out with the old, in with the new. And very few asking what is actually contextual for a specific foreign people group – meaning what method is the most effective for living and communicating clearly within the locals’ culture? That should be the rubric, not some emotional new-always-better-than-old bias I brought with me that grew from the soil of my passport country.

What of Western culture being youth-oriented? Here I believe there is a connection with our obsession with movements. If you think of the life cycle of a group of churches, the beginning is incremental, steady growth. This could be compared to birth and early childhood. Then comes the movement stage, when growth and multiplication take off at breakneck speed. You could compare this stage to adolescence and young adulthood. After this comes stabilization and institutionalization, which corresponds to mature adulthood. Finally comes decline and possible disappearance, which could correlate to old age and death. What part of the life cycle of a group of churches is missiology obsessed with? The movement phase. Adolescence and young adulthood – just as our culture is obsessed with this very same stage of our individual physical lives. Westerners dream (and sing) of being forever young. So does our missiology*.

I have sat through missions and church planting trainings where this life cycle of churches is graphed out and the goal of the session is to show how bad institutionalizing is and how good the movement phase is. The goal of said trainings is to keep churches forever in the movement stage, always multiplying and growing at remarkable speed. As if a 40-year-old should be expected to grow six inches and three shoe sizes in a year just like he were an adolescent. The implication is that one stage of church life is where the Spirit is really at work, and childhood and mature adulthood are well, just not really where it’s at. And God forbid we ever get old and start to decline. Young, sexy, and multiplying is evidence that we are truly doing ministry like the book of Acts, while stabilizing and forming healthy systems might even be evidence of compromise.

The problem with cultural blind-spots like these is just that – we often can’t see them. Missionaries are very good at seeing the blind-spots of the church back home, but we need help finding our own. I’m convinced that this future and youth-orientation seep into our methods and missiology often unexamined, priming us to leap at the novel, the exciting, and the informal, and to prematurely dismiss the traditional, the slow, and the formal. Thankfully, we do have some wonderful allies for exposing these blind-spots: the global church and church history. There is a reason I post excerpts from the stories of the ancient church in Ireland and Central Asia. They provide me a welcome and very different draught to the ever-present kool-aid of the present age. I don’t always agree with everything they did, but these long-dead saints have many things to teach us as they poke at our blind-spots from beyond the grave. Local believers can also be wonderful allies on this front, as they see through some of our cultural assumptions so well.

The key thing is to recognize that our Western worldview really does influence us, and to humbly and courageously admit this, without falling into any silly cultural self-deprecation that forgets that all Christians in every era and culture have to deal with their own version of this very same thing. Once we’ve owned this and developed a healthy curiosity for where this might be happening, then we’re in a good place to begin the difficult task of recognizing our biases. We may end up keeping them, but at least then they will be intentional biases, and not those that exist by mere cultural default.

Missionaries are very good at studying other cultures. May we become just as good at studying our own.

*for some good data on this, see the book “No Shortcut to Success” by Matt Rhodes

Photo by Nicholas Green on Unsplash

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