The Transformation of JJ the Bully

This Sunday our pastor preached on loving our enemies, from Matthew chapter 5. As he challenged us to consider if our lives will contain any stories of radical love for our enemies, I remembered observing just such a story in my elementary school days. It’s a story of how my mom modeled returning good for evil – and thereby helped her younger sons to experience the power of actually following Jesus in this regard.

My second grade year was the roughest so far since we had returned to the US in the middle of my pre-K year, when my dad had died on the field. We had moved to a different town in the Philadelphia area, and that meant a new public elementary school. Overall, I didn’t have it as bad as my older brothers. My classroom experience was merely downgraded from wonderful to okay. Though I do remember the frustration of having to leave class movie time every Thursday in order to attend a speech therapy class. Those American R’s are tricky. But I had good friends in my class and a decent, if somewhat reserved, teacher. No, it was the bus ride where things were downright bad.

My fourth-grade brother and I managed to become the target of a crew of fifth grade bullies, led by a ringleader named JJ. Sometimes this had to do with our insistence on trying to sit in the back row of the bus, even though these boys claimed this as their exclusive territory. I remember being wrestled out of the back row, flipped over seat backs, and thrown up against metal window frames. We were much smaller than these older boys, so I’m not sure what caused us to keep on trying to assert our rights to the back seats. Perhaps it was the principle of it. Or perhaps there was something we had absorbed from the Melanesian highlands where we had grown up, where the locals were always ready for a fight.

Other fights involved teasing over the conspicuous size of our family’s ears and how the morning sunlight would shine through them, creating quite the pinkish-orange glow on the sides of our heads. Or the cross necklaces that we wore, one of which JJ tore off during a fight. While it was mostly angry boyish wrestling, there were some times that punches were thrown, though I think this was mostly directed at my older brother. I have a distinct memory of him getting punched in the stomach.

These conflicts on the school bus, as well as the difficulty my older brothers were having in their other school relationships, began to bleed into our relationships at home. My brothers and I began to fight with one another more often, a development which concerned my mom. With the exception of occasional squabbles, we three boys had always been pretty close to one another and related not only as brothers, but also as good friends. These growing conflicts would ultimately cause my mom to pull us out of public school in order to homeschool us for a year and a half. But first she had a bully to transform.

My mom has always been a woman not just of word, but of deed. She not only moved with her young family to the mission field, but later moved back to the field as a single mom. In the US as well as in Melanesia, she was not only personally involved in ministering to others, but active in trying to find ways for her boys to do so also. This often went well, though I do remember one time when after a snowstorm our family tried to serve a neighbor by brushing the snow off his car. We very quickly found out that in America, you don’t touch other people’s cars.

All the fights with JJ must have had my mom’s sanctified imagination chewing on what could be done. One day she told us that we were going to 7-Eleven, an American convenience store common in the northeast (common, but in Philly not as beloved as Wawa, where you can get a hoagie and Yoohoo to enjoy with your Poppop). When we arrived at 7-Eleven, she asked my brother and I to pick out a slurpee for JJ. A slurpee is a blended ice drink also known as a slushie, icee, etc., a kind of gas station drink full of sugar that sends kids into acrobat mode and bright food dye that stains their tongues. We chose a large blueberry slurpee and our mom drove us to JJ’s house.

The next scene I remember we are standing at JJ’s door. JJ’s mom, a pleasant enough-seeming woman, had answered the door. JJ was standing beside and a little behind her, looking not a little shocked and seeming very small. My mom explained that we had wanted to bring something for JJ, and she handed him the slurpee. JJ’s eyes were wide, but he seemed genuinely thankful. And since this was the 1990’s, his mom didn’t seem weird about it either, but let her kid keep the drink, and made him verbalize his thanks. I’m sure my mom and JJ’s mom said lots of other grownup things, but that’s all faded from my memory.

What hasn’t faded is the transformation that was visible on JJ’s the bully’s face and in his demeanor. He had been downright cruel to us for months, a classic bully, but this act of unexpected, undeserved kindness seemed to deeply disturb him in the right kinds of ways. He was never the same after that. JJ the bully actually became kind to us, consistently, from that point on. That was one powerful blueberry slurpee.

The last memory I have of JJ must have been toward the very end of that school year, because the weather was warm and it felt like summer. He had invited us over to his neighborhood to join in a big game of capture the flag.

Years and years later I would find myself in an intense text fight with one of my Central Asian friends. The abusive texts kept coming long after I had, exasperated, stopped responding. Then I remembered JJ, and the power of a blueberry slurpee, the power of loving your enemies, and turning the other cheek when struck. My young wife and I grabbed some cupcakes from somewhere and we headed off to Walmart, unannounced, where my friend worked. The mean texts kept coming in as we drove. But when we found him at the back of the store, smiled, and handed him the cupcakes, a look came over him that I recognized. The hardness melted away, replaced by a kind of sheepish kindness, as if something powerful had suddenly been heaped upon his head. Just like JJ, actually obeying Jesus by doing something kind to someone cruel had made all the difference – had even proved transformative.

I had learned how to do this from my mom, who of course, had learned how to do this from Jesus.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matthew 5:38–41).

Addendum: After writing this post I found out from my mom that I had unintentionally changed or omitted a few important details from this story. I have written about these corrections here.

Photo by Thomas Park on Unsplash

Tell Me About a Time You Deeply Hurt Someone

We learn to ask certain questions only after experiencing significant pain or dysfunction. A new question was recently clarified for me, one that I will be sure to ask in any future interviews with those who desire to serve overseas. That question is, “Tell me about a time you deeply hurt someone, and how you made things right.” The ability to answer this question – or not – might make the difference between a teammate you can trust in the midst of conflict versus one who is dangerously self-deceived.

It is said (accurately, in my experience) that team conflict is the number one reason missionaries leave the field. That means that sending and receiving missionaries who are mature in the midst of conflict is of utmost importance. The pressures on missionary teams are immense. Culture shock can send stress levels sky-rocketing. Language learning can make you want to pull your hair out. Life logistics can be maddeningly cumbersome. Security threats can keep missionaries constantly on edge. Cross-cultural relationships are complex and often hurtful. Ministry disappoints. The organization’s or supporters’ demands can be overwhelming. Health issues press in. Marriage and parenting struggles often escalate in a foreign culture.

Who must bear the brunt of these pressures? Often, the small missionary team. A good team will seek to care for one another and as others have wisely emphasized, be “the front line of member care.” But the team itself is also a pressurized environment. Thorny ministry decisions must be decided. Work responsibilities need to be juggled and shared according to the season and abilities of the individual missionaries. The team is often church for one another, family for holidays, the friends who throw you a birthday party, and those you must depend on for all manner of life logistics.

Conflict is inevitable because teams are made up of humans, each of whom has a sin nature. But add in the above pressures, and it’s no wonder that teammates blow up at one another. It is in the prevention of these blowups and in their aftermath that someone’s maturity or character is so vital. Specifically, a certain kind of humility and honesty is needed regarding our own capacity to wound others, a self-awareness that leads to owning our sharp words, our weaponized silence, and our sinfully-expressed emotions. What I am speaking of here is the hard yet simple thing of taking responsibility for our own sin and seeking forgiveness and reconciliation when we have hurt others.

Many Christians end up on the mission field who do not possess this kind of maturity. In conflict situations, these individuals refuse to see or admit any wrong-doing on their part. They vigorously fend off any attempt to lay at their feet any part of the blame. They posture themselves like Teflon – nothing is allowed to stick. They claim there are circumstantial factors that explain everything. Or the wounded party is in the wrong for understanding it that way. Or it’s actually the team leader’s fault for creating this mess in the first place. Deflect, justify, attack.

The defenses employed by this sort of person are legion. But they all serve the purpose of protecting that individual from having to admit any blame or sin in the situation. And this kind of posture kills the possibility of true reconciliation. It can also kill the team – and any hope of doing healthy ministry through the team.

These teammates who refuse to own their sin seem to be engaged in a desperate attempt to protect themselves. From what exactly? What is so terrifying about admitting that we have wronged another believer? After all, it’s Christianity 101 to admit that we are forgiven sinners and saints who still stumble. In reflecting on a number of these situations, it seems there is a kind of terror there at what might have to be faced if they admit that they can and have hurt others. So the door to this part of their heart is guarded at all costs because they are horrified of what it might mean about them to be in the wrong. There are likely voices of condemnation always running in the background that must be silenced at all costs – even at the cost of a fellow teammate. This terror leads to enormous efforts to suppress these thoughts and emotions, to a kind of self-deception. They cannot admit to their team that they were wrong, because they do not dare admit it to themselves.

This kind of person needs the freedom of the gospel. They need godly pastors and counselors. They need to understand where their terror-fueled defense comes from and how to heal those deep roots. They do not need to be on the mission field. If they remain, they will slowly but surely poison their relationships through their inability to admit blame and pursue true reconciliation.

I have learned to ask upfront about a person’s awareness of their weaknesses, of those areas in which they will need to lean on others’ strengths. This is helpful, since it can show if someone has the spiritual maturity to delight in and depend on the diversity of the body’s members and gifts. This will prevent a certain kind of team conflict, since this missionary will be less likely to fall into the trap of thinking his unique gifts are really the superior ones. He will thus be less threatened by his teammates and more thankful for the ways they are different from him and the areas where they excel and he does not. But there is a way to acknowledge our own weaknesses that still might not show that a person is capable of being in the wrong, of truly repenting. “Sure! I’m bad at admin…” That’s why I want to ask about how they have deeply hurt someone in the past. This has the chance of getting closer to “seeing” their character. The cost on the field is too great to not have at least some evidence that a missionary will actually be able to navigate conflict with some maturity.

Some would name the kind of person I have described here as a narcissist. I heard a podcast this week where author Chuck DeGroat drew that connection. Just as the mythical character Narcissus was not in love with himself, but with an image of himself in the water, so some kinds of narcissists are committed to seeing themselves as never truly in the wrong. It was a new category for me, and one that I want to think more about. But if this dynamic really is describing narcissists, then that would mean that Central Asian culture (and most honor-shame cultures) is full of them. We must therefore be able to model on our teams something drastically different. We must be able to admit when we have hurt others, and to repent. We must even learn to glory in the ways the gospel has healed relationships where we have deeply hurt others.

Every spring the fields of our corner of Central Asia burst to life with green grass and spring flowers – among them the yellow and white narcissus. They are beautiful flowers, but they are ever so fragile, wilting remarkably quickly after being plucked. And they don’t stand a chance against the summer sun. In a similar way, too many missionaries have a kind of fragility in the midst of conflict that keeps them from admitting wrong, and which keeps them from faithfully enduring the tremendous pressure of the mission field.

Pastors and sending churches, make sure you only send missionaries to the field who are deeply honest about the ways they have wounded others, and who have the kind of character that is ready to own it when they do it again. Missionaries on the field, please screen those you are interviewing for these things. Conflict on the field is inevitable. Let’s do everything we can to be sending those who can navigate it with humility.

Photo by Mohammad Asadi on Unsplash

A Proverb on Conflict

A clap is not achieved by one hand only.

Local Oral Tradition

This one recently emerged in a context of – you guessed it – conflict. It’s the local equivalent of “It takes two to tango.” While exceptions to this principle exist, and greater and lesser degrees of fault are important to consider, conflict often has two parts: a sinful action and a sinful reaction. This is good news for peacemakers who are involved in conflict. There’s almost always a way to lead, to initiate, with a humble admission of our own sin or shortcoming. And that is often the key that unlocks the main offender’s repentance as well.

Photo by Guillermo Latorre on Unsplash

He Gave Gifts So That We Will Not Die

We recently had a mini team retreat where we looked into the spiritual gifting and personality wiring of the different members on our team. At one point, one of my teammates quoted me as once telling him, “You have the strengths you do for a good reason. Sooner or later, they will save the day. We need your gifts, honestly, so that we won’t die!”

While we had a good laugh together about this particular melodramatic wording, I honestly stand by these words. Not only do I recognize the goodness of the diverse natural and spiritual gifts on my team, I need them. Even if we weren’t engaged in church planting somewhere like Central Asia. My belief in the sovereignty of God is such that I know that he has brought these particular teammates, for this particular season, because their gifts and strengths will be the key to making it through tricky and terrible situations. When I will not know how to thread the needle, when I simply won’t know what to do or what to say – somehow, one of them will. And it will make all the difference.

Consider this quote by Corrie Ten Boom: “This is what the past is for! Every experience God gives us, every person He puts in our lives is the perfect preparation for the future that only He can see.”

I don’t think this is only true for experience and persons in our lives, but also for the natural personalities that God has given us as well as the supernatural gifts he has bestowed.

This is nothing other than a practical outworking of the sovereignty of God and theology of spiritual gifts. This is “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” meets “all things work together for good” (1 Cor 12:7, Rom 8:28).

Persecution is coming. Wolves in sheep’s clothing are coming. Suffering, awakening, complexity, breakthrough. How can I wish that you be just like me when I know that our differences are divinely ordained in order that we might face these challenges faithfully?

No, if everyone on my team was wired just like me, we would all die prematurely – metaphorically, and perhaps even literally.

This is true in general, but also true of my specific wiring. I have been created an ideas/vision guy. My brain gets flooded with hundreds of possible futures for the work here, most of which we can never pursue, and some that should never pursue. The problem is, in the beginning all of these ideas make a stunning and powerful rush on my brain, as if dazzlingly bright and accompanied by the Hallelujah chorus and rows of Central Asian picnic line dancers. And yet, they often turn out to be duds, or at least to be decent ideas that have not yet found their proper time. (Idea people out there, please find a place to store your ideas so that you can manage this issue, for everyone’s sake. I use the app, Trello. Time to marinate is key here.)

Should we quietly develop a legal network of friendly lawyers and judges in anticipation of coming persecution? Yes. Good idea, but premature timing. We don’t have the capacity or know-how yet for this. Should we start an illegal pork-smuggling operation in order to support local believers who have lost their jobs? Um… better take that one back to the drawing board.

My team (and my spouse) are my invaluable friends who help me know how to wisely move forward, in all kinds of situations, because Christ has ascended and has given them gifts (Eph 4:8).

Whatever our cooperative situation with other believers – be it church membership, ministry, the workplace, the family – let’s strive to more often view others through the lenses of sovereign gifts that might at some point save the day.

And who knows? Perhaps even our very lives.

Photo by Spencer Davis on Unsplash

Please Bring Your Holy Imagination

A few weeks ago we were asked by some future teammates if there is anything they can do to prepare for the mission field during their last few months in the US. I said something to them that I had not previously mentioned in these types of conversations.

“Try to go deeper in knowing yourselves. Ask your mentors, friends, and family for feedback on your strengths and weaknesses. Come to the field ready to be honest about those things and knowing how you will need to lean on others on your team. If you have a better understanding of who you are, you will be better able to understand your teammates – and you’ll be less likely to fall into unnecessary conflict.”

I said this because I am slowly coming to the conviction that a lack of self-awareness and a lack of holy imagination are at the root of much team conflict. And the two are related. Regarding self awareness, it simply takes a long time to truly see ourselves in relation to others. Most of us start off kind of ignorant of what we’re actually like, thinking that we are the definition of normal, balanced, and gifted, and that the world would be a better place if everyone else were more like us. It’s often after a long process of clashing and bonding with others who are very different from us that we really learn to live in a robust theology of the body of Christ – that there are all kinds of differences among the members and that this is actually worthy of celebration. We as individuals have some real gifts and strengths, and a unique slew of corresponding weaknesses. But the body of Christ working together is beautiful in how the members complement one another.

We need to get better at knowing ourselves – learning our own personal culture, as I like to think of it. But we also need to pursue growth in putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes – in what has been called holy imagination. I recently listened to an interview where professor Karen Swallow Prior was advocating for Christians to read more good literature – like Frankenstein. Her argument was a new one for me. She said that God has given us imaginations, and we will engage them somewhere. If we don’t engage them in healthy ways (like fiction books), then we will be more drawn to unhealthy things like conspiracy theories. Yikes. An underdeveloped imagination is also likely to lead to ugly conflict with others as we fail to exercise our imagination in interpreting their words charitably. For exhibit A, log on to Christian Twitter.

Yes, believers say things that seem hurtful or offensive all the time. But can we interpret those words in the broader context of our relationship? Can we understand why they would feel that way and speak that way given their history and their personality? Can we see things from their perspective? Feel things even from their perspective? This is what I mean by holy imagination. The Scriptures say that love bears and believes all things. Well, one way to practically apply that is to say that love puts itself in someone else’s shoes. When we consciously put ourselves in someone else’s situation and worldview, we end up more compassionate, patient – and better able to bear with their brokenness and their sin. And turns out this also makes us better at addressing their brokenness and sin.

Why are we so bad at doing this? I think I have more guesses than answers at this point. Though we are very strong in God’s book of revealed Scripture, I wonder why my tribe of reformed evangelicals is not particularly strong at reading God’s book of Nature – which includes things like culture, personality, and history. We are God-centered, but somehow not God-centered enough to study the complexity of God’s creation. We pride ourselves in knowing Paul’s logic in Romans, but for some reason use that as an excuse to not engage poetry as Paul did. Perhaps KSP is right, and we don’t engage our holy imaginations enough in things like literature and art. Is there something we are afraid of there? Or are we simply too busy doing ministry? Has anyone else ever found it ironic that the most influential fiction writers among evangelicals – Tolkien and Lewis – were themselves not evangelicals, but a Catholic and an Anglican?

As locals say when something doesn’t sit right, “there’s a hair in that yogurt.” Missionaries on the field are simply a reflection of our churches back home. And we are not very good at knowing ourselves and in our use of compassionate imagination. These are areas where we many of us need to pursue proactive growth – and I include myself in this.

So, to anyone reading this who is heading to the mission field, please do some hard work understanding yourself before you land on the field and join an already stressed-out team. Bring a metaphorical mirror to the field. It will really help. And please, bring your holy imagination.

Photo by Eddy Klaus on Unsplash

Roadmap Types and Compass Types

A number of years ago I was asked to crystallize the church planting vision and distinctives of our church’s elder team, and to build upon it. They wanted me to put these things into a written form that would bring some definition and guidance to what was emerging as a new international church planting network.

I remember reviewing one of the drafts of this project with the elder team. While the feedback was mostly encouraging, there was one piece that at the time I found confusing.

“I just don’t see a plan here,” said one elder.

Now, I had defined key terms, spelled out our distinctives, established the principles of our strategy, set some goals, and provided several pages of content covering what it meant for someone to be trained, sent, and supported within this network. So I was perplexed at what exactly it meant that one of our sharpest elders – a brother at the time working in management in the corporate world – couldn’t see a plan. We scheduled a follow up meeting together so that I could better understand what he meant.

Somewhere in the course of our meeting I came to clarity on a point that has served me ever since. Different personalities have different understandings of what that little word, plan, means. I illustrated the difference between myself and my fellow elder like this. He was a roadmap type, and I was a compass type. He was looking for detailed, step-by-step directions and definition to this church planting strategy. I had provided the vision, the distinctives, and the strategic principles, and simply hadn’t aware that anything else was necessary.

Compass types like me are happy to know where “North” is, and to navigate each situation according to the framework of theology and principles they’re committed to. But roadmap types, while recognizing the goodness of vision, principles, and theological frameworks, feel as if they’ve been given no clear leadership about what to do come Monday morning. If compass types are leading roadmap types, the roadmap types are often frustrated by the lack of practical detail. If roadmap guys are leading compass types, the compass types often feel micromanaged. When neither are aware of these different orientations toward planning, they are usually headed for a collision, often under the guise of other issues that might exist. I continue to experience the reality of these differences as I work with colleagues who are wired to be roadmap planners.

The good news is that both orientations are good and needed. The compass types can keep us from losing the forest for the trees and they excel in flexibility and adaptability – while all still tied to solid conviction. The roadmap types keep us rooted in the practical daily realities of what we actually need to do next. They are great at thinking through next steps and in providing liberating checklists that can melt away organizational fog. And they are often better at crystallizing actual methods and plans. I still don’t have a discipleship plan to give a new missionary if they request one. I prefer to weigh each new believer’s situation and to make a plan on the spot. But I have colleagues who can give you plans for phase one, phase two, phase three, etc.

The roadmap types can become a little too married to their plans and strategies and confuse application for principle. The compass types can forget that to actually do the work we need to commit to a defined method. If a roadmap type is tempted to think, “My method of evangelism is the biblical method,” a compass type is tempted to think, “Method? Who needs method? Just preach the gospel.” Both are off-balance.

One of the stranger realizations we’ve had since coming to the field is to realize that large “tribes” of missionaries are characterized in part by these different orientations. Let’s call one tribe the Church Multiplication tribe and another tribe the Church Health tribe. Many organizations, including my own, are made up of members representing both tribes.

The Church Multiplication tribe is the one writing all the books on new and exciting methodologies, movements, and strategies. They gauge if someone is part of their tribe by leading with questions about strategy and methodology. They are by far the bigger tribe. The Church Health tribe is the one writing all the articles and recording the podcasts which focus on the importance of theology and the local church in missions. They gauge if someone is part of their tribe by leading with questions about the gospel, ecclesiology, and a distrust of the current most popular method out there (today it’s DMM). The Church Multiplication tribe tends to be evangelical, sometimes reformed, but not usually coming from a background which emphasizes ecclesiology. The Church Health tribe is often strongly reformed and evangelical and deeply impacted by groups like 9 Marks which labor to recover the centrality of the local church.

I find myself a man with feet in both camps. I have roots in the Church Multiplication tribe, but have been mentored and greatly helped by many in the Church Health tribe. I often find myself trying to nudge the Church Multiplication guys to give more weight to theology and the local church and stop trusting methods so much – and then trying to nudge the Church Health guys to give more weight to culture, methods, and contextualization. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll recognize these emphases. Now, these are all very important issues and conversations. I’m not downplaying the importance of the local church in missions or the importance of being thorough students of culture. I’ll take both, thank you.

But there is at least one difference that is not an issue of biblical conviction, but merely of group personality – and here is where I return to the roadmap vs. compass orientation. When these two tribes get together and discuss/argue methodology, I’m convinced that at least some of what is going on is a hidden issue of cross-cultural communication. It usually goes like this. The Church Multiplication camp is excited about a given method. The Church Health camp isn’t convinced it’s biblical. The Church Multiplication camp is a little offended at these prickly brethren playing the Bible card and push back to see if they have an alternative method to propose. The Church Health camp responds with biblical principles (compass language) – not a plan or a method (roadmap language). The discussion goes back and forth like this for a while and eventually ends with everyone feeling unsatisfied. The Church Health camp isn’t convinced that the other camp has biblical convictions and the Church Multiplication camp isn’t convinced the other side has a plan at all and assume they are merely going to reproduce traditional methods. In one sense, you could say they are speaking on different frequencies. And yet they aren’t aware of it. They are speaking past each other.

I’m convinced that learning about our own wiring and the wiring of others on this compass vs. roadmap spectrum is one practical way we can move toward healthier partnership on the field (and perhaps back home too). We can learn to speak the language of the other tribe, as it were, when we are communicating about our ministry, vision, and strategy. This can help us deal with the distrust that emerges when we don’t initially hear the other side addressing things that we find to be crucially important. When roadmap guys can tie their methods to principles and a theological framework, that will gain them a better hearing among the compass guys. When the compass guys can break down their principles into a nuts and bolts plan, that will gain them a better hearing among the roadmap guys. For example, Church Multiplication missiology quietly but deeply values the ability of a practitioner to visually portray his strategy on a napkin, a whiteboard, or on a screen. When Church Health guys scoff at this visual communication and merely stick to their thick position papers, they are missing an opportunity to communicate their convictions in different, but valid ways. Similarly, if Church Multiplication guys would write up some position papers that are very well-grounded in the Word, I think they’d be surprised at the kind of traction they’d get in different quarters.

In my story earlier, my fellow elder and I were on the same page theologically, but we had reached a misunderstanding because of a different personality-orientation toward planning. Turns out we were wired to see planning differently, to the glory of God. I needed general plans with goals, principles, and outlines. He needed plans with step-by-step procedures and detail. Our differences led to a stronger document in the end, because we were able to figure out a way forward in a context where our unity around the gospel and the essentials wasn’t in question.

Now that I’m on the mission field, our network of partners here is mostly Baptistic and reformed – everyone has Piper books on the shelf. And yet there have been some very deep rifts and hurts in the past over methodology. I think this unacknowledged difference of orientation is partially to blame. It’s not always an actual disagreement over theology and principle that divides us. It’s often differences in personality, culture, language, and politics. This is tragic. The good news is there are practical shifts that can be made in terms of language used and questions asked that can make a big difference.

Sometimes there will be real convictional differences that underlie these rifts. I’m not saying that all conflict between missionaries is simply a matter of misunderstanding one another’s wiring. But some of it is! Let’s get rid of that some. And then, if we have other believers on the field who indeed have different doctrine and convictions – then let’s pursue with them the healthy practice of theological and methodological triage.

And let’s learn to understand and value the compass types and roadmap types that the Lord has placed around us.

Photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash

A Local Tale on Unity

Our focus people group suffers from an unusual amount of internal disunity. Just ask any local man in the bazaar and he will gladly elaborate for you on this theme. Now, I know that the entire world seems polarized right now. But there’s something about people groups that are still essentially tribal in their thinking – and who haven’t had a powerful unifying leader or consensus emerge – that keeps them particularly and continually divided by outsiders and among themselves. Even when the outside world fumbles and they have a chance to gain some advantage they “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Personal gain undermines the common good time and time again.

A local tale cautions against this kind of disunity and holds out the hope of a better strength that might someday be possible. It goes like this.

“There once was a father with seven sons. He was up on the roof working and he overheard his seven sons fighting… again. Frustrated, he descended from the roof and called his seven sons together. One by one he gave six of them a single stick.

‘Break the stick, my son,’ the father ordered his sons, one after the other.

Each of the six sons with a single stick was able to break his stick in half easily. The father, after observing this, gathered up the stick fragments in a bundle and handed them to his seventh son.

‘Break the sticks, my son.”

Try as he might, the seventh son could not break the bundle of sticks.

‘Pay attention, my sons!’ said the father. ‘When you are divided and each of you stands alone, you can be easily broken. But if all seven of you stand together, you will be unbreakable.'”

This tale reminds me of the wisdom of the scriptures.

And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:12 ESV)

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! (Psalm 133:1 ESV)

Unity for unity’s sake is always an illusion. Unity requires substance, a shared love, shared commitments, and confessions. It requires definition. Broadness and narrowness applied in the right places. I don’t know if the tribes and political parties of our focus people group will ever be able to achieve meaningful unity. Perhaps. But my hope is that if they do, it will be because they will have learned it from the brotherhood displayed by a future network of healthy churches. The gospel will advance among this people group. And that means that one way or another, a healthy unity among believers and churches here will one day emerge.

Photo by Lorenzo Campregher on Unsplash

But Is Your Language Good Enough for Conflict?

In our previous city we once tried to host a reconciliation meeting in our living room. Two key families in our young church plant had fallen out with each other. So we tried to get them in the same room together with a respected believing brother who we hoped could help mediate.

We quickly learned why locals do not attempt this sort of meeting format, but rather depend on each party sharing their side separately with a “judge” who then gets them together, but only to pronounce the binding judgement. This set up prevents the angry parties from breaking out into a shouting match or a fist fight, both of which almost took place in the middle of our living room “reconciliation meeting.” The gravitas of the honorable judge figure demands they keep their peace, at least in the meeting itself. I’m not saying that the kind of reconciliation meetings where both parties get to share their side in front of one another are utterly impossible here, once believers mature in their faith. But we quickly saw that we were at that point completely unable to keep that meeting from spiraling out of control. Hard hearts and sharp words led to an almost complete disaster.

We had by that point come into the Advanced-Mid language level, the much longed-for goal of all of the first term families with our organization. But having reached that point where we were able to teach, evangelize, disciple, and befriend almost entirely in the local language, we still experienced a very frightening thing that night. Our language level was nowhere near strong enough to handle angry and arguing local believers who were right about to throw punches. We were, having supposedly “tested out,” utterly linguistically incompetent for that kind of situation. It was a sobering and humbling realization.

A few months later one of those local men embarked on a campaign of slander, half-truths, and deception against us that ended up splitting that fledgling church plant. Once again, we found our language ability woefully insufficient to keep up with this divisive man who was practically running circles around us.

Why do I share these things? Well, my wife actually inspired this post. In a meeting today she shared this story as a way to spur our team on toward pressing on in our language learning, in spite of the difficulty and cost. To do church planting work well in places like this, we simply must get to the point where we are able to navigate angry and emotional conflict language. Our experience that night was that our comprehension, usually up around eighty to ninety percent, had dropped down below twenty. And the emotion of the moment meant that our tongues and brains were stuck. We were unable to broker peace at the crucial moment. And yet as cross-cultural church planters, we absolutely need to be able to do that – and to be able to counteract the Titus 3 divisive man when he emerges. To stop proactively learning language when we get to a point like Advanced-Mid is to leave the young believers in great danger.

So, we must press on. If you have been overseas for a number of years, then you know well the toll language learning can take. It is awfully tempting to plateau, assuring ourselves that we have enough language to do fruitful ministry. Often we do have enough language to do fruitful ministry. The question is, do we have enough language to do the urgent ministry required when it all hits the proverbial fan? This is another question entirely.

Press on, weary language learners. That phrase, that verb, that idiom – it may the key to defusing a dangerous situation, to saving a church plant.

Photo by Austrian National Library on Unsplash

A First Visit to the House Church

I waited anxiously at the hole-in-the wall restaurant where we had agreed to meet. It was the kind of place that specialized in a Central Asian pizza of sorts, flatbread with ground beef, oil, and spices spread on top of it. Not the most compatible meal with anxiety. *Hama was running a little late and I was worried that he would bail on me. I was excited that he had agreed to visit a local house church with me for their midweek evening meeting. But I also knew the great fear locals have of meeting with others from their own people group to do something technically illegal – to study the teachings of Jesus in rejection of Islam.

Thankfully, both Hama and *Aden arrived. Aden was another good friend of mine. He had been a believer for a couple years and was a passionate young evangelist as well as being a goofball. I hoped that they would hit it off given the fact that Hama was almost a believer and also appreciated a good prank. The first meeting could have been worse. They sized one another up and had some respectful dialogue, but I sensed some hesitation in Hama.

“Still want to go, Hama?”

“Yes, I still want to. I have some important questions and after what happened with my sister…”

“Well,” I said, “I’m glad you’re taking this risk. I’ve visited this group a few times over these past months and I think they’ll be very receptive to your visit and to your questions.”

I wondered if this visit would be the one to push Hama over the edge. He clearly was wrestling with faith in Jesus, but he knew it would come at a cost.

We walked the ten minutes or so to the house where the church was gathering. It was in a neighborhood just down the hill from the strip of restaurants where we’d met. We left our shoes at the front door, contributing to the couple dozen that were already fanned out there. As we entered the room, everyone broke from their conversation and immediately stood up, proclaiming respectful greetings, making honorable gestures, and shaking hands at the same time. We were pointed to the more honorable side of the room, where guests were always invited to sit. We chose a spot still considered honorable, but shifted over to the side a bit, communicating both an appreciation for the gesture and our own desire to let others take the better spots on the floor. The hosts waited to sit until we had already found our spots, sitting cross-legged on the carpet.

More choruses of welcoming phrases followed, accompanied by honorable responses from Hama and Aden and to a lesser extent, myself. Americans just say “thanks” to everything so it takes us a while to get used to utilizing the several dozen respectful greetings and responses that Central Asians fire, machine-gun style, into their every day interactions. Twelve years later, I’m still not a pro, but I’m certainly better at it than I was back then. It helped when I realized that the other party isn’t actually fully listening to your barrage of pleasantries, busy as they are producing their own.

Two men in their late thirties were the obvious leaders of the group, both dressed in traditional attire. Most of the rest of the guests were young twenty-somethings, like my friend Aden. They were dressed in Western clothing. There were only a few women present at this meeting and they chose to meet in the next room over. One of these men, *Zane, was the pastor, and *Allen was his assistant-in-training. Both had quite the background story, with Zane surviving assassination attempts and *Allen being a former member of a terrorist organization. As a twenty-year-old missionary, I was just going to sit back and pray and let these guys do the talking.

The plan had been to continue their study through the book of Revelation and spend some time in prayer together, but they condensed their meeting in order to have abundant time to interact with Hama. After a brief study and prayer together (lifting up one of the members who couldn’t come because he’d been beaten by his brothers again), we sang a few worship songs. This particular house church had some issues with tying their teaching too closely with the political aims of their people (sound familiar?), but man, could they sing. I’ve yet to be part of another group where the singing was as passionate as this one. They would often start their songs off in roaring A Capella, clapping, and in the wrong key and tempo, much to the consternation of the violin player who was supposed to be leading. Still, they meant it. Living through persecution together can have a powerful effect on corporate worship.

After this, they invited Hama to share his story and why he was interested in knowing about Jesus. Hama shared for about fifteen minutes, telling about his years in the UK, his disillusionment with Islam, his study in Matthew, and his sister’s recent healing. Zane listened intently, leaning in. I could see why all these young men were a part of his group. He was a natural leader. His sudden and secret departure for Europe a year later would largely shatter this church – an unfortunate result of him being offered some kind of position as a pastor in Germany.

After Hama was done sharing, Zane began his response. He probably spoke for about thirty minutes, weaving in and out of different reasons why Jesus was the true way and Islam was false. Hama listened and nodded soberly. I kept praying. Zane’s words were going deep. The one part that I clearly remember is when he gestured to a young man sitting in the corner.

“You see him? He’s a part of our enemy people group. His people committed genocide against us. If we were Muslims we would still hate each other. Right, *Elijah?”

“That’s right,” Elijah grinned.

Zane continued, “But because of Jesus we are brothers now. We love one another and we even love that American guy who brought you too. We are all one family now because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us. Jesus teaches us to love our enemies. Only by believing in him is this possible.”

Hama nodded and I stopped listening to what Zane was saying next as I chewed on what had just occurred. I hadn’t known that Elijah was from that enemy people group. What a powerful testimony to the unity the gospel can produce. These men really should hate one another and Elias should hate me, given his background. Yet here we are.

Zane finished up eventually and closed the meeting. We said our respectful goodbyes and walked back toward the restaurant area. Several of the young men were heading that way too. One of them kept pressing Hama with one evangelistic argument after another. Hama was half listening, but his brain was clearly already saturated. He wasn’t in need of more information, but in need of some time for reflection.

“It’s true, you know,” Elijah said putting his arms around me and Aden. I should hate you and I should hate you and you should both hate me! But we are brothers now… Look at what Jesus has done!”

Even though that house church eventually fell apart, Elijah’s words that night have remained with me. The power of his mere joyful presence in that group of natural enemies was a small window into what eternity will look like – and into what healthy churches among our people group can look like also.

Many in missions emphasize the need to plant only people-group specific churches. The logic is that planting churches combining those from different ethnicities will hamper church multiplication. While I understand the push for speed comes from a motive to see as many reached as possible, I can’t help thinking that the speed will come at the loss of a particular kind of power and beauty. The power and beauty I saw on display that evening as Elijah walked with us. No longer an enemy, now a brother.

Photo by Meilisa Dwi Nurdiyanti on Unsplash

*Names have been changed for security

Twelve Aspects of Culture that Can Impede Communication

Have you ever felt like you and another person are not speaking the same language, even though you are speaking the same language? Effective communication happens when the words and forms you are using convey your intended meaning to the one you’re speaking to, and vice-versa. Unfortunately, a different meaning is often what is understood despite our best efforts to make ourselves clear. What is going on when this happens? Turns out there are quite a few cultural elements at play in the midst of our miscommunication. It’s often when you study another culture and language that your eyes are opened to these dynamics of your native culture that have been there all along. But we like to assume that if we share the same language, we share the same culture of communication. Often, this is not the case at all. Here are twelve aspects of communication culture. How many of these dynamics might be at play in the conflicts we are currently experiencing? Given the complexity of communicating clearly, we should even more seriously take to heart the biblical wisdom of being “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:9). This post will be a flyover, with hopes of digging into these various aspects one at a time in the future.

  1. Personality – This one is a no-brainer. Different people with different personalities communicate accordingly. The complexity of individual personality bears on the way we communicate, as extroverts and introverts will readily attest.
  2. Family – Many a marriage conflict has been affected by different family cultures of communication. Growing up, did your family communicate directly or indirectly? Was there a lot of joking and sarcasm or serious conversation? How much emotion was normal in the home?
  3. Subculture – Generations have a particular subculture of communication about them, as do those who associate with different social movements. Evangelicals have a different vocabulary than Catholics do. Hipsters like to speak in tones that are emotionally-muted. Why? The effects of subculture.
  4. Region/Nation – Ever moved to a different region of your home country or to a different country altogether? It’s no secret that Yankees speak more directly than Southerners do, and that Southerners are far more likely to greet a stranger on the street. Regional culture affects communication, as does national culture. Canadians attach the friendly “eh?” to the end of their statements and Americans like to drop the honorary titles, “Just call me Jim.”
  5. Orality and Literacy – Most would be familiar with the categories of literate (able to read and write) and illiterate (not able). But literacy should be thought of as a spectrum, with many gradations along the way from illiteracy to highly literate. Many never read for pleasure, but only when necessary. Others can technically read, but struggle to summarize a text in their own words and write a response. The poor the world over lean more heavily on proverbs and truisms than the wealthy do. Some think in soundbites while others think in paragraphs. These are the effects of orality and literacy.
  6. Honor vs Justice – When it comes to motivation, does a culture primarily speak about what is right and wrong or on what is honorable vs what is shameful? Is a person guilty by nature of what he has done or guilty only if pronounced so by the community? How is one praised or condemned?
  7. Gender Roles – How does a culture idealize gender roles? Are they viewed as largely interchangeable or as distinct and unable to be exchanged without bad effects? Some cultures, for example, even forbid communication between unrelated men and women. Restaurants have sections for men only and sections for families. Western culture, on the other hand, used to distinguish between waiters and waitresses, but now uses the generic term “server.”
  8. Social Power – How does a culture idealize differences in positions of authority? Should the playing field be leveled or should the power differentials be maintained and strengthened? This effects the use of titles, first names, how communication proceeds to superiors (and back down to employees), and how the young relate to the elderly.
  9. Contexting – This is how directly or indirectly a culture communicates. In a culture with high contexting, individuals assume a shared understanding with those they are communicating to. Therefore, their communication is more indirect since everyone is supposed to know what a certain action or phrase means. In a culture with low contexting, individuals do not assume that there is a shared understanding of meaning, therefore communication is more direct and explicit.
  10. Individualism vs. Collectivism – Individualism and collectivism represent a spectrum of how people define themselves in different cultures. Is a person defined as primarily an individual or as primarily a member of a group? Which is more prominent, “we” or “I”?
  11. Time – Cultures tend to be either monochronic or polychronic in their beliefs about time. If a culture is monochronic it believes that time is unitary and dividing up time is not valued. Time is viewed as more of a circle and less like a line. If a culture is polychronic it believes that time is a commodity that can be divided up and used like a resource. Time is viewed like a line or a road. Does the meeting starting at 10 am mean 10:00 sharp or anytime from 10:00-11:00?
  12. Non-Verbal Communication – This refers to aspects of communication apart from verbal speech. These parts of communication account for the majority (75 percent!) of actual communication that takes place. When a person’s verbal communication contradicts their non-verbal communication, those on the receiving end tend to believe the non-verbal, emphasizing the power of this kind of non-speaking speech. This can include body language, the use of physical space and distance when communicating, and choice of clothing.

This flyover should suffice to demonstrate many of the factors that might be affecting our communication. While none of us can keep all of these things in mind at the same time, it’s helpful to be aware of these categories just enough to recognize when a conflict may be the result of some clash of cultural background or values. Sometimes merely clarifying that a conflict is a difference of culture rather than only a sin issue can bring needed grace into the conversation.

For items 6-12, I’ve relied upon the categories spelled out in Scott Moreau’s excellent book, Effective Intercultural Communication.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash