“There is learning the culture so we can function well in the guest room, drinking chai and being polite. But then there is a whole deeper level to the culture when you are invited into the family spaces of the home.”
A colleague shared this wise advice with me the other day. His family had just been affirmed by a local brother as the best foreigners he had seen when it came to functioning well in local culture. So I passed on this feedback to my colleague – and asked for all his notes! But as is so often the case, this family’s progress in learning the culture had been a process more intuitive than systematic, more of an art than a science. Some are just natural artists. They sense their way forward, catching the culture as it were. But I have wondered for a long time if there are ways to make culture acquisition more visible for the benefit of all learners, whether we have a high CQ (cultural quotient) or not.
The truth is that culture acquisition is much harder to track than language acquisition. And language acquisition is itself a very subjective and slippery thing to measure. But culture? It’s everywhere and yet at the same time invisible. At least language has academic systems like the ACTFL scale that can provide some handles to know where a learner is at. To my knowledge, nothing like this exists to measure culture acquisition. Perhaps tools have been developed for specific cultures, but is there a universal tool that can be used to approach any culture and provide some kind of a systematic roadmap for studying it?
An anthropologist specific to our people group has opened my eyes to the importance of categories such as kinship, honor and shame, fear and gossip, the modern state, gender roles, the body, and fate.
I’ve also stumbled into some very different categories I haven’t heard discussed, but which impact our work greatly, such as how a people group is oriented towards institutions and formal organization.
On a practical level, beyond these underlying worldview categories are the important life ceremonies. How does a culture recognize pregnancies, births, birthdays, circumcisions, coming of age, graduations, engagements, marriages, new homes, sicknesses, deaths, etc?
In spite of all of these important areas of culture (and so many more) running in the background, most of us merely acquire just enough of the target culture to become functional. Then we plateau. It mirrors language acquisition in this way. Without a conscious effort to keep intentionally learning, the mind naturally settles in to a level that is merely workable for daily life. This might work well for a season, but it’s often not sufficient for navigating conflict and crises, and it can prevent us from doing deeper contextualization that might lead to breakthroughs.
This post is a call for careful thinking that leads to an accessible method of measuring culture acquisition. If it already exists, it is obscure and not known to the broader missions community (at least my circles). If it does not exist, then it would greatly serve the global church for one to be developed.
We need to fight the tendency to plateau – especially those of us working in cross-cultural contexts. To do this, we could use a map whereby we are able to have some better handles on this whole idea of culture acquisition. If I could give my family and my colleagues a tool like this that could give them some idea of where to focus next, that would be a very practical help for our work.
No one’s ever told us about circumcision rites before? Let’s cover that next. The local culture’s understanding of circumcision (if they practice it as ours does – tragically on girls as well) is bound to be imposed upon the scriptures that speak of it. We would be wise to know what context locals are bringing to that Bible study. But without a map or a tool prompting us to ask about things like this, we could miss it entirely. Plateauing might not seem that serious, but examples like this help illustrate why pressing on in a comprehensive understanding of the culture can make all the difference.
“Covenant! We don’t know anything about covenant. All we have is contract…”
I was talking to a local believer who was about a year into his faith. He was beaming as he spoke, grinning from ear to ear.
He continued, “In Christianity, marriage is a covenant. In Islam, it’s just a contract. Everything is like this. Even our religion is like a contract. It can all be canceled. It can all be broken.”
“Really?” I asked. “Do you use the word for covenant for anything? Is there no meaning for that word in your language?”
“The only thing we use the word covenant for is Jihad. That’s it.”
I shook my head, feeling simultaneously the joy of deeper insight into the local culture and not a little corresponding trepidation. We are trying to church plant in a culture whose only understanding for covenant looks like Al Qaeda.
“But I love our church covenant,” said this local brother, holding up and waving around the paper it was printed on. “I’m so glad we read it together at our regular meetings. We need to learn how to live like this!”
The brother speaking with me is a member at an English-speaking international church here in Central Asia. He has been growing by leaps and bounds and leading family members to Christ. Ironically, many missionaries would be quick to dismiss the use of a Western church covenant in this context as a failure to contextualize. Paternalists, they might claim. Yet once again, part of grandpa’s traditional Christianity proved to be surprisingly effective contextualization. My local friend was delighting in how the concept of covenant had hit a blind-spot in his worldview – and had changed everything.
Yes, there were conditional covenants in human history that were similar in some ways to contracts. But covenants are deeper than contracts. They are sacred. They involve blessings and curses. They warrant abundant life when fulfilled and are worthy of lament and judgement when broken. When we dig into the meaning of the New Covenant in the Scriptures, we find that it is eternal – once for all – accomplished by the loving sacrifice of Christ (Heb 9:26). It is this truth of covenant love that transforms our relationship with God, our membership in spiritual assemblies, and everyday Christian marriage. It is the foundation of our gospel hope. That God will unfailingly keep his covenant with us, come fire, death, or even the end of the world. The local translation renders God’s covenant-keeping love as “love-unchanging.”
Imagine living in a society where your bond with God, with others, with your wife… is just a contract. Easily broken given the terms and conditions. Not secure. Fragile. Temporary.
Our local women go into marriage with tens of thousands of dollars of gold and contractual terms. In the event of divorce, they take all the gold with them, like an insurance payment. It’s almost as if they are planning from the beginning on the marriage being broken. And why not? All it takes in a religious family is for a man who is angry at burnt rice to cry out three times, “I divorce you!” And it’s over. His wife is now a divorcee. She takes her gold. And her shame.
If I had grown up in this kind system – and then found Jesus – I would be beaming and waving my church covenant around just like my friend was. Oh the joy of knowing in your soul that there is something stronger than a contract – and that the God of the universe offers it to you freely.
“With the way most plant churches among Muslims, we end up attracting only the rejects and the freaks,” said my friend with a scowl. “You’ll never start a movement that way.”
While spoken with some concerning overstatement, my friend’s comments were coming out of observations made within contemporary missiology, noting the largely ineffective traditional methods of church planting among Muslims. The shoe often fits. The congregations started by evangelical missionaries among Muslims have often attracted mostly the poor, the outcasts, and the mentally unstable. As the theory goes, most evangelical missionaries among Muslims have not focused enough on reaching the honorable leaders of the community – the patriarchs, chiefs, mullahs, and others. When these leaders are bypassed and the majority of attention is shown to those on the fringes of society, joining a movement to Jesus is prevented from being viewed as a real possibility by those in the mainstream of the culture – and especially by the leaders. And as I wrote in my previous post, these mental categories of “Not an option for people like me” or “It’s an option for people like me” really can make a practical difference in the mysterious interplay of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.
I feel this critique. It is true that those of us coming from the West often bypass the societal leaders of an honor-shame community. We often do this even without thinking about it. “Why should I go visit the mullah or the neighborhood strongman? Can’t I just move in and get to work building relationships?” I myself have not done the best job of honoring the community’s leaders through preemptive visits of respect. I am wired as a grassroots, bottom-up reform kind of guy. And sometimes I just forget. Other times, a part of me wants to ignore these domineering leader types just to mess with their sense of self-importance. Perhaps this is the red-blooded American in me that has inherited some distaste for hierarchy and classism? Yet there is wisdom in considering how showing honor to those in positions of authority helps us to have a good testimony (Rom 13:7), creates space for us to cause some trouble, and may even open the door for these leaders to embrace a costly belief in Jesus – and perhaps for others to follow them. I need to be more balanced in this area.
And yet whenever this conversation comes up, I hear this line from church history echo in my mind, “These are the true treasures of the church.” This sentence was spoken by Lawrence (Lorenzo – from Spain), archdeacon of Rome in the year 258. Emperor Valerian had issued an order to have all the leaders in the Roman church killed. And as the one in charge of the church finances, he had ordered Lawrence to turn over the church’s treasure, and he would be spared. Lawrence asked for three days and then slyly distributed all the church’s money to the poor. He then marched the poor, the crippled, and widows into the presence of the emperor and when asked about the church’s treasure, proclaimed, “Come out and see the wondrous riches of God.” He was, of course, then put to death. Tradition says that he was roasted on a fire and that he also had a witty sense of humor. “I’m well done, turn me over!” he is alleged to have said while being killed (thereby becoming the patron saint of the poor and of chefs at the same time). I like this guy.
When Deacon Lawrence proclaimed the poor and the broken as the true treasures of the church, he was echoing Paul.
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31 ESV)
And he was echoing Jesus, who proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor, and who scandalously befriended the sinners, tax collectors, and the demonized rejects.
This area is yet another tension we face as missionaries. We do attract the outcasts. And some of them are remarkably broken. Broken people take a lot of time and investment and while on the slow road of healing can wound many others around them. They are not always the most stable foundation for a new church. I often beg God to bring us stable locals who will not implode our fledgling groups because of their deep trauma and broken pasts. Yes, we are all broken to some degree. And yet we live in a region of the world with very recent (and ancient) scars from war, dictators, genocide, sanctions, and other horrific experiences. It seems as if everyone here is traumatized in one way or another. And this makes church planting in this place at times seem utterly impossible.
What are we to do? An ideal approach would seek to minister to both the outcasts and the leaders, improbable as that initially seems. This much is clear – In the end, we must not hinder the “little children” from coming to Jesus. The kingdom of God belongs to them. It would be just like God to build the foundation of the church among my focus people group on the nobodies and rejects, just like Jesus did 2,000 years ago with his group of motley Galileans. Does this openness to the “rejects and freaks” hinder a movement from taking place? The research may claim this, but I doubt it. That’s just not how the kingdom of God works. If it does prove a hindrance to multiplication, then so be it. It’s a risk I’m willing to take. What genuine believer, after all, could actually choose a movement of Christians that is mainstream and respectable, but not open to the broken and the outcasts? Is this really a better alternative? If I have to choose, I will opt to gather with those who repulse the respectable.
On the last day I would rather stand with the orphans and the widows than with those this world honors. This simply seems to be the route more consistent with the heart of God as displayed in the ministry of Jesus. That may mean we end up less “effective” in the metrics of missiology. But does that really matter when the king returns? Rather, we would be wise to pay attention to how he characterizes the ministry of his true, known, followers: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it unto me” (Matt 20:40).
Hallelujah, hallelujah, it's a line dance and a picnic
For the return of Jesus, honorable clapping
ّWe are in the midst of the day that Christ returns
Each and any colorful flower we place under his feet
Hallelujah, hallelujah, Christ is on his way
His return is soon, our hope is with him
We are in the midst of the day that Christ returns
Each and every colorful garment we place under his feet
Hallelujah, hallelujah, Christ has come
For the knowledge of God, he is the only way
We are in the midst of a project to record some local worship songs and some partners introduced us to this one. “It’s one of our believing friends’ favorites because it feels so local!” they said. And it’s true, in contrast to some of translated 90’s worship choruses, the melody is very much the local style. And the lyrics? Well, you bring in line dancing, picnics, and colorful flowers and you are speaking the love language of our local people group.
This is why it’s so important that local believers come to write their own worship songs. What Westerner would ever start a worship song or hymn like this? Hallelujah, hallelujah, it’s a line dance and a picnic? And yet in this culture, this is wedding language, family celebration language, the language of overflowing joy. These people burst out into line dancing whenever they are overcome with happiness. Just this past weekend we traveled to the top of a mountain during a snowfall. And what did we find there? A bunch of giddy locals playing music and line dancing in the snow (and also throwing snowballs at each other).
Our local climate is not exactly gentle. We have harsh winters and even harsher summers. But that means that locals are extra responsive to the gifts of beauty and green that creation gives. Every spring, when the land is reborn, it’s time for serious picnicking (I’ve never lived anywhere else where you have to factor in the reality of “picnic traffic”). How appropriate then that this song should envision the return of Christ, and the making of all things new, as a spring picnic scene.
In order to rediscover the amazing connection that Patrick made between the Gospel story and Irish life, we need to delve deeper into the consciousness of the Irish people at this singular hinge in their history.
Their consciousness – and, maybe eve more importantly, their subconscious. For in the dreams of a people, if we can read these aright, lie their most profound fears and their most exalted aspirations. We know something of Irish dreams, for we can piece together their mythology – their collective dream-story – from the oral tales of the pre-Christian period (such as the Tain) that were subsequently written down and from the artifacts uncovered by archaeologists. Since neither the tales nor the artifacts can offer us a whole mythology – the complete Irish dream cycle – we must read these materials as if they were the fragments of a great papyrus.
It would be an understatement to assert that Irish gods were not the friendliest of figures. Actually, there are few idols that we have retrieved from barrow or bog that would not give a child nightmares and an adult the willies. No smooth-skinned, well-proportioned Apollos and Aphrodites here.
Last night we were having dinner with some dear friends, one of the few families that has served here for more than a decade. They shared a story with us about the power of the title, pastor, here in this culture. In spite of being an ordained minister back in the West, learning the local language, and doing residential church planting work, many of the local believers were markedly more responsive when a visiting pastor from the outside would show up. All of the sudden, they would bring out great spiritual questions and want to sit and receive training – when they had resisted these very same things when offered in their language by a man who knew them and was actually living among them – because a real pastor was now present. My missionary friend, by doing the work of a church planter under the radar in a place where you can’t do so officially, was regularly not granted the respect given to someone who could afford to use the title of pastor or missionary openly.
“He’s been sacrificing everything for you for years! And you only show interest when the foreign pastor shows up? That’s the power of that title in this culture!” his wife said at one point.
What is going on here? Shouldn’t the one who does the labor of a pastor but can’t use the title for security purposes be granted the same level of respect as one who can use the title openly? At least part of this dynamic has to do with what is called high power distance and low power distance cultures.
Every culture has to deal with the unequal distribution of power within its own society. The difference between high power distance and low power distance cultures is how they think about what kind of power arrangement is most ideal. For those in low power cultures – like the West – we mentally and emotionally prefer to envision a culture where power is shared more equally. We don’t like authority figures to have too much more respect or power than their followers have. But those in high cultures actually value there being a big difference between how much respect and power is given to authority figures. In a low power culture, a more just society is one where everyone is treated equally. In a high culture, a more just society is where everyone is treated according to their status.
This comes out in interesting ways. Have you ever noticed how majority culture, middle-upper class Westerners have an aversion to titles? “Please, call me Bob,” a doctor might respond after you’ve just addressed him as Doctor so-and-so. However, this is not necessarily the case even in minority cultures in the West. In the US, African American and Hispanic cultures tend to put a higher value on the use of titles. Pay attention to the church signs and you’ll see what I mean.
High power cultures really value titles. They also value other signals of status, such as differentiation in dress and living standards. Framed certificates are displayed proudly in the workplace. Even in the home, titles for older siblings can often be used in place of their first name. To call an older brother (or any man) by his first name only can be taken as a grave offense. “Where’s your respect, you young whippersnapper?” The respectful maintenance and visibility of the hierarchy of power (age, class, position, etc.) is understood to be one of the cornerstones of a just and healthy society.
This is the unique situation my missionary friend found himself in, here in Central Asia. We, coming from a low power culture, deal daily with these strong dynamics of a high power culture. We live and work in a place where the use of the title missionary or pastor would actually accomplish a lot. But for security purposes, we can’t actually use these titles. And methodologically, we’re not always sure that we want to use them, given the ways these dynamics are often abused by local leaders. A local wolf in sheep’s clothing has no qualms about applying these titles and status symbols to himself, and thereby tapping into the honor the culture automatically extends to anyone who flaunts them. Domineering leadership is a real problem here, in basically every kind of authority. This gives us pause about merely taking on these authority status symbols uncritically. Yet to ignore them altogether is also not a very good option, because that often signals that we don’t actually think we have any authority at all.
Now, the Scriptures were written in high power cultures. The cultures of the ancient near east and the Greco-Roman world definitely held to the ideals of high power distance. And yet the word of God spoken into those cultures strikes an interesting posture. It both affirms the reality and goodness of authority, and the need to honor it appropriately, while also affirming the ideal of servant leadership and the equal dignity of every person (1 Pet 2:17, Eph 6:1, 1 Tim 5:17, Luke 22:26, 1 Pet 3:7). Going further, a common theme in books such as Luke and James is “the great reversal” where those the world does not honor are the ones who end up most honored by God: children, the poor, gentiles, and sinners (Luke 13:30, Matt 19:14, James 1:9-10, 1 Cor 1:26).
So, what are we to do when navigating these differences between low and high power cultures? We need to be able to study the whole counsel of the word on this topic, then study our own personal culture, and finally, study the different cultures we are interacting with.
We need to have a practical theology of power and authority. Again, the Bible affirms that authority is established by God (family, government, church, etc.) and therefore it is good and not to be rejected (Rom 13:1). However, our fallenness means that all authority here tends to be warped by sin (Gen 3:16, Ezekiel 34). Power in this age needs to be redeemed and transformed – but cannot discarded while living in the real world as God created it. What does redeemed and transformed authority look like? Jesus and the Apostles model this for us (Luke 22:27). Now, in the local church, the priesthood of all believers is to be celebrated, as is the special role of leaders within the body (1 Pet 2:9, Eph 4:11). Those with natural power are to rejoice in how the gospel makes them lowly. And those without natural power are to rejoice in how the gospel lifts them up (James 1:9-10). There are times when the use of titles is inappropriate, according to Jesus (Matt 23:1-12). And there are times when the use of titles can be done for the sake of godly respect (Mark 3:14). Wisdom, love, and context make all the difference here.
We also need to know our own cultural bent. If you are a Westerner reading this, it’s helpful to realize that we live in a culture that has serious issues with the very idea of power and authority itself. Western culture is philosophically bent towards living in a fantasy where power differences don’t have to exist. Yes, this even affects missionaries. Some have experimented with this fantasy in the house churches they plant overseas, trying to get rid of the role of a teacher or preacher altogether. However, being fantasy and not reality, this never works for the long term. Sooner or later leaders, teachers, and preachers always emerge. We might cringe when our local friends use respectful titles for us, but why is that? Where does that cringe originate? The Bible or some kind of cultural reaction we’ve inherited and continue to propagate? We need to take an honest look at our own power distance preferences and make sure we can pinpoint what is biblical and what is personal.
Studying the local culture’s power distance preference is also crucial. How do they envision the ideal distribution of power in society? And why? What of this needs to be redeemed and what needs to be rejected? In our local culture, I am thrilled that our local believers are trained from their youth to respect the elderly and to use respectful titles for them. This good cultural value needs to kept and deepened via gospel motivation. But the prideful arrogance that so often comes once a title like pastor has been bestowed – and the idea that this title is some kind of status for life that can be genetically passed onto children – that practice needs to be done away with among the new community of faith.
As with so many of these spectrums of culture, there are going to be cliffs on either side, expressions of a low power preference and those of a high power preference that clash with biblical principles. If you are flirting with the idea of getting rid of teachers in the local church, you’ve gone too far – just as you are if you believe that the pastor controls the decisions of the members of his church. Yet there’s going to be a range of expressions in the middle that are faithful to scripture, yet still feel very different from one another. It’s just not necessary that a church in Kentucky give a visiting speaker a special scarf in a public ceremony (complete with photos) after his sermon. But for Nepalese churches, this is highly honorable in the sight of all. When in Kentucky, privately give brother “Bob” an envelope containing an honorarium as a thank you, and that will do just fine.
Practically, it will be helpful for high power distance believers to wrestle with ways they can publicly honor the “least of these.” This will be radically counter-cultural. Just as it will be helpful for low power distance cultures to think about if there are particular ways they need to give “double honor” to the leaders and authority figures among them, as so much of the popular culture is raging against this – and even the leaders themselves might squirm when honored!
Fellow missionaries and anyone involved in ministry, let’s be sure we are making these decisions with scripture-informed intentionality, and not merely out of cultural default. This will take some work. But it will be work that will result in a community that leverages power differentials in a compelling and other-worldly way. In this world reeling from the abuses of the power and the abusive reactions to the abuses of power, this kind of redemption of power distances is desperately needed.
The following is an excerpt from an article I’ve been working on regarding missionary methodology.
“A wrong orientation toward missionary methods is one of the quiet cancers eating away at the health of the evangelical missions world. For the purposes of this article, we will distinguish between two errant camps demonstrating an incorrect orientation. These are the methodological relativists and the silver-bullet-true-believers. And sometimes missionaries jump from one camp to the other, depending on how hard a given term has been.
The relativists, for their part, have seized upon a real cross-cultural dynamic and have taken it to the extreme. They have found that certain principles can be applied in different places in wildly divergent, even contradictory forms, while still communicating that same principle or meaning. Hence the universal idea of respectful greetings means one kisses another man’s wife in France while not acknowledging the presence of another man’s wife in a country like Afghanistan. Radically different forms communicate the same meaning in different cultures, while other times the same forms can communicate radically different meanings from one place to another.
The relativists apply this idea across the board, believing that all or most forms and terms are ultimately relative, can be redeemed, and in the process filled with biblical meaning. This error is what Insider Movement advocates are flirting with as they advocate for Messianic Muslims, calling Mohammad a prophet, and the like. It is what one of the patron saints of missiology, Roland Allen, himself flirted with a hundred years ago as he wrote of finding “The Christ within Hinduism.” It is the error informing the Bible college missions major who floats replacing water baptism with an equivalent ceremony communicating burial and resurrection due to the negative reaction to water baptism in the Islamic world.
What this camp misses is that method always has a bearing on meaning, whether that bearing be small or large. This is true at least because methods and forms don’t emerge in a vacuum, but rather emerge in a historical and cultural time-slice with those stubborn clinging barnacles of previous and contemporary meaning. Nevertheless, the philosophical aspects to this way of thinking about the fluidity of forms and meaning are very attractive to intellectually-oriented cross-cultural workers who are frustrated by the slow growth of their work. This camp ends up being broader than scripture in the applications and methods of their work.
The camp of the silver-bullet-true believers falls into a different error. The true believers come to feel that there is only one faithful or effective method for a given context. They latch onto a method (often one proven more-or-less effective elsewhere) and vigorously seek to apply that method in their ministry. Sometimes these have been good methods that were developed in contextual conversation with a specific place and culture. But the true believer, whether the developer of that method or a proselyte, at some point decides it should go global.
Whether it’s oral bible-storying, T4T, CPM, DMM, Any3, 4 Fields, POP, the Camel Method, DBS, or myriad other methodologies, these practitioners can rival any cage-stage Calvinist in their devotion to their newfound creed. The practical plans and positive outcomes that many methods promise prove to be very attractive to workers who long to see the gospel spread quickly in their resistant context. Sometimes this camp is made up of those who are more pragmatically wired, but not always. Many members of this camp are committed to getting their methods from scripture. The problem is that they latch onto one portion of scripture, whether descriptive or prescriptive, and elevate it as the biblical model. They fail to balance it with the rest of the examples and commands of scripture. Unlike the relativists, the true believers end up being narrower than scripture in the applications and methods of their work.
What is to be done to remedy a missions world prone to relativism or silver bullets? Alas, many missionaries on the field are practicing their craft in ways that are broader or narrower than scripture would permit – and this is causing real damage. Instead, the remedy demands that missionaries have a clear understanding of biblical principles and a firm grip on the range of faithful applications of those principles.
To illustrate, let’s return to the vampire lore. Missionaries are like a group of villagers arguing about how to kill vampires in light of a spate of recent attacks. One group argues that yes, the old tomes teach that vampires can be killed by a silver knife, a stake, or a bullet… and yet, whatever is a metal weapon “in essence” should also be equally valid – at the end of the day metal is metal and weapons are weapons and silver shouldn’t have any greater effect than iron or steel. That silver stuff is probably just encrusted tradition, but now we are enlightened enough to truly grasp the metaphorical essence of what those texts were really getting at. So, let’s be sure to hit them with the big guns that were so good at taking out that human army from that other kingdom.
The other group of villagers argues that the earliest tomes deal mostly with the use of silver knives. Silver knives were used in the first generation that fought vampires and proved to be remarkably effective. To deviate from this original path is to risk too much and to fail to unleash the true promise of a vampire-slaying movement like was seen in the days of old. And after all, silver knives are much more reproducible than other options.
No doubt these villagers argue back and forth with case studies, journal publications, and moving personal anecdotes. What is needed to clear up this mess is a gnarled old village guard willing to step into the fray and proclaim through his missing teeth, “The idea is silver weapons, you fools!” Not broadly weapons “in essence”, and not just silver knives, but silver weapons. Make it too broad and you risk losing all effectiveness (and getting turned into a vampire yourself). Make it too narrow and you unnecessarily limit your effective options. After all, who wants to only have a silver knife when you could also have a revolver full of silver rounds in the chamber? These villagers need to recognize the key principle (silver) in the appropriate scope of its application (weapons that can pierce the heart).
Missionaries, like our vampire-besought villagers, should desire to be armed with the right kind of spiritual weapons and to be competent in and carrying as many of them as possible, skillfully applying them to particular situations.”
This past week I was looking back through recorded answers to prayer. I came upon a prayer from a few years ago for some local new believers to be baptized. I had written the date we started praying for this, and the date God answered that request.
The lead up to the baptism was tricky. This believing couple was pretty fearful of blowback from their community or relatives. As with many Muslim societies, the community here views baptism as the true point of no return, much more so than a verbal profession of faith. I’m not sure the historical reasons for this, but it is a powerful dynamic we must wrestle with as we work with new believers. Finding a place that is appropriately private and public – so that we honor the biblical requirements and the security realities – is often a great challenge as well. And we live in a climate labeled “high desert,” so there’s not exactly a ton of private swimming holes dotting the landscape.
After much discussion, a date was agreed upon. Then a place and a plan. The husband requested that we do the baptism at their house, in a kiddie pool that he would get ready beforehand in their garage. This would provide a measure of security and privacy, yet still allow the members of the young church to gather and publicly witness their profession and immersion. Initially, they wanted to choose which members of the very small congregation could be there and who couldn’t. Yet we insisted that it was crucial to allow all the members to attend – especially the locals. Locals tend to extend a lot of trust to us foreigners and almost no trust toward the other local followers when they are new believers, to the great detriment of church formation. We have to constantly push against this. It came down to the night before the baptism before they finally agreed the whole church (including all six locals or so) was welcome to attend.
By this point we were well aware of another cultural dynamic that was probably making them feel uncomfortable about their pending dunking. In this culture, it’s very important that men who are not relatives never see a woman wet, whether that’s swimming, wearing wet hair from a shower, etc. Wet hair and clothes are viewed as very sensual. So baptism, where a woman is publicly soaking wet, is the kind of event that could lead to strong feelings of shame, of dishonorably exposing oneself, a wife, sister, or daughter to the eyes of unrelated men. Families and close relatives go swimming together all the time, but its extremely rare for unrelated locals to be at a mixed-gender swimming locale. Because of this, all of the hotels have gender-segregated swimming hours.
To anticipate this fear and objection, our default has been to offer gender-specific baptisms, where the women only are present for the women going under and the men only are present for the men. Afterward, once the newly-baptized one has put on dry clothes and dried or covered their wet hair, all the believers celebrate together. I’ve heard that the early church in some places had similar practices for men and women and that the role of deaconess was mainly about modestly helping women with baptismal rites. When we extended this offer of keeping the genders separate, the couple pursuing baptism were noticeably relieved.
The morning of the baptism came and the members of the little church parked on the street and filed into the garage, beaming and shushing one another so that we wouldn’t make too much commotion for the neighbors. Baptisms, tricky though they are, are always an exciting time. We all stood around talking and inspecting the pool and making sure the water was deep enough for someone to go fully under – we are Baptists after all. We talked through some details for the celebratory picnic to follow the baptism and then it was time to start. We motioned to the newly believing husband and wife that now was the time when all the men would head upstairs.
“Actually, we changed our mind.” The husband replied. “We know that for our culture we should separate the men and the women, that only relatives should be present for a time like this.”
We all nodded and he continued.
“But you have told us that we are family now, that through Jesus we are family with every other believer here. So we want the men and the women to stay for both of our baptisms.”
Surprised, we pressed to make sure they really meant it. Then we shrugged our shoulders and proceeded. As foreigners, we try to walk wisely in how much we try to change certain cultural practices that we might not prefer, but which are not sin. But when the locals insist that they desire to go against the grain of the culture for the sake of Jesus and the church, that’s not the time to pull out our lines about missions methodology. That’s the time to support our brothers and sisters in their risky decision.
Due to the trickiness of getting someone all the way down, under, and back up when baptizing in a shallow kids pool, we’ve come to adopt the method of having two individuals do the actual dunking, while a third reads out the gospel questions and makes the Trinitarian baptism declaration. While we stumbled into this practice, we came to really appreciate the corporate nature of it, where the honor and authority (and physical weight) of the baptism can be spread out between three believers. This gives us a good chance to undermine any competitive “my baptizer was better than your baptizer” nonsense that can often crop up. And it visibly communicates equality of spiritual authority between the foreigner and the local if both are involved in physically laying the new believer in their watery “grave.” Locals want the foreigners to do all the baptizing. Missiologists want the foreigners to never do the baptizing. We’ve settled into a middle way.
The husband and wife both went under the water and came back out, gasping and all smiles. The ladies were lightning quick to wrap the wife in a towel as soon as she came up. The church members, far from acting awkward, burst out in their favorite worship song. At that point everyone there was fine with the neighbors being suspicious. Rejoicing had become far more important. Everyone shared their warm congratulations with their sister and brother, using those familial terms in an intentional and kind way. They were getting it – the church is the new family of God.
Then, because we’re in Central Asia, we went upstairs to drink chai, and to commence with the honorable haggling over picnic logistics.
“You know,” said my host, “in Islam, it’s approved for a Christian girl to marry a Muslim man.”
“Yes,” I responded, “but it’s forbidden to happen the other way around, isn’t it?”
With a sheepish grin, my host admitted that it was true. Muslim men can marry women from other religions, but Muslim women are not allowed to marry men from other religions. My village host had been jesting (mostly) about having our single teammate marry one of his sons.
“For us true believers in Jesus,” I continued, “we won’t do it in either direction. Both men and women won’t marry someone who doesn’t share their same faith. Our faith is that central to us. It’s the same for our single friend here.”
Our gracious new teammate was already being jokingly called the family’s “bride” and she was enduring it admirably. But it was important for them to know that jesting aside, this was out of the question.
The seemingly inconsistent Islamic position on marrying nonbelievers is not inconsistent at all when you understand the cultural belief that it sprung out of – something called patrogenesis. This Middle Eastern and Central Asian belief holds that children biologically generate only from the father. Mothers are merely carriers, vessels, but they do not contribute meaningfully to the biological or spiritual makeup of the child. Strange as it may seem, this was the dominant view in this part of the world until quite recently. It now exists in an uneasy tension with the growing knowledge of genetics and modern medicine.
Because of this belief in patrogenesis, traditional locals do not believe that a child can be half one ethnicity and half another. They are considered one hundred percent the ethnicity of the father. This also holds true for religion. It simply doesn’t matter if the mother is another religion. If the father is a Muslim, the children will be born biologically Muslims. Therefore it’s no threat to the faith to have a Muslim man marry a Christian woman. Rather, it means the tribe has gained a “carrier” from a rival tribe. However, in this understanding any Muslim woman who marries a man from another religion has been lost to an enemy tribe, and is no longer able to contribute to the continuity of her own community. Hence why it was outlawed from the beginning of the faith.
But that’s not fair! No, it’s not, but it is awfully convenient, and one of the many aspects of Islam that allowed it to slowly squeeze the life out of the religious minorities in its domains over the last 1,400 years. This belief also has Islamic legal ramifications. Children legally belong only to the father, and not to the mother, since they are considered the fruit of his loins alone. You can imagine the terrible position this puts local mothers when dealing with an abusive man.
Even when it comes to small talk, it’s traditionally a shameful thing for children to be said to resemble their mother’s features. In the West, it’s a celebrated thing that all of my children look more like my wife – she is by far the prettier one in this relationship! But here in Central Asia, it’s kind of awkward for more traditional locals (who still point it out for some reason) and I find myself having to attempt to rescue them from the shameful situation their comment just created, “Look! They really did get my ears, Eh?!” While thinking to myself, Why are you publicly questioning my virility? How is that not weird?
Worse still, the presence of patrogenesis presents the possibility of heresy for the new believing community here. “Congratulations, a new believer has been born!” was how one believing friend greeted the birth of our third-born, much to our horror. The cultural logic makes sense. Dad is a believer, so newborn is a believer. The problem is this cultural belief is radically anti-gospel, the kind of dangerous assumption that means the gospel can be lost in one generation as the parents come to faith and the children are merely assumed to be believers by nature of their father’s blood. It has already happened to communities of Christians present in the Middle East from ancient times as well as those converted to Christianity by missionaries in the 1800s. Most of them have become new ethnic people groups, and the gospel emphasis on the new birth has been lost. This is where the tragic term, CBB (Christian background believer), came from.
Some cultural beliefs are not wrong, just different (as every culture-shocking new missionary constantly repeats to himself). Patrogenesis is not one of them. It’s not only scientifically wrong, it’s also morally wrong, denying women their equal dignity as co-contributors to the biology of their offspring. Patrogenesis relegates them to the status of a mere carrier and denies them equal parental rights. It’s an affront to the image of God that equally resides in every woman and to the wonder of the created female body. Frankly, it is an idea that requires the oft-overlooked contextualization category called rejection. Good contextualization means recognizing that part of the culture is downright evil, and needs to be discarded as soon as possible. Discarded – yet replaced with a better theology of the image of God and the wonder of two people conceiving spiritual-physical beings that have a real beginning in time, but who also live forever.
It’s these kinds of landmines that propel us ever onward in our attempt to learn the cultures of our lost friends. These sorts of underlying assumptions can go unknown and unchallenged for years, even when Muslims have believing friends who are sharing the gospel faithfully with them. Though it takes time, getting into these areas of worldview and belief is essential because they touch core issues of identity, how a certain enculturated person answers the crucial “Who am I?” question. And last I checked, a biblical understanding of identity has something to do with genuine faith.
These are the kinds of issues that run through my mind when believing Western friends genuinely ask if focusing on learning culture is really that biblical and necessary. “Can’t we just preach the gospel?” Yes, technically you can just preach the gospel. But surely you will be a more skillful and effective preacher if you dig deep into what your audience actually believes about life, birth, and death – rather than assuming they share your assumptions about these things. As those called to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3), that also means attacking those worldview beliefs that radically disagree with the word of God. And that means tearing down anti-gospel strongholds like the belief in patrogenesis.
I continue to learn just how important self-awareness is in the effort to do good missiology and contextualization. In order to understand my target culture and know how to apply the gospel to it, I am deeply handicapped if I do not understand my own preferences and my own culture. The danger of confusing personal and cultural preferences for biblical principles and commands lurks ever hidden under the surface – not unlike the sea mines in the Bosphoros that prevented the allies from taking Constantinople in WWI. In this vein, I have been greatly helped by this article by Tim Keller that addresses church size dynamics.
Every church has a culture that goes with its size and which must be accepted. Most people tend to prefer a certain size culture, and unfortunately, many give their favorite size culture a moral status and treat other size categories as spiritually and morally inferior. They may insist that the only biblical way to do church is to practice a certain size culture despite the fact that the congregation they attend is much too big or too small to fit that culture.
My mistake as a former house-church-only advocate was this very thing, confusing a house church size as being a more biblical choice. Small was holier than big. Simple was holier than complex. Just as good missionaries need to constantly remind themselves that many strange things in their new culture are “not wrong, just different,” so Christians must remind themselves of this same truth when interacting with churches of different sizes. The key takeaway is not just that churches of different sizes usually have different cultures, but rather that they inescapably have different cultures. To refuse to let the culture change because of some personal size preference is to do damage to the church and to impede its healthy growth, like new grandparents insisting that Christmas must always look the same even though their grown children now have their own children plus another other set of in-laws that need to be honored.
This article is also full of specific wisdom to help leaders when their churches are passing from one size culture to another. Since many of the churches that are planted in Central Asia will exist in the house church to small church range, I am helped to be aware of how to proactively lead or help the local leaders anticipate what kind of shepherding is needed to make this transition.
If it opts to grow out of the house-church size into a small church, it needs to prepare its people to do this by acknowledging the losses of intimacy, spontaneity, and informality and agreeing to bear these as a cost of mission, of opening its ranks to new people. This has to be a consensus group decision, to honor the dynamics of the house church even as it opts to change those dynamics.