The Tune that Conquered the World

My wife and I were out for our anniversary date this past week at a very fancy and very quiet restaurant. All of the sudden, the sound system started blaring the local dance floor version of the “Happy Birthday” song. Yes, our local musicians have taken their line-dancing Central Asian techno-folk music and applied it to the traditional Western birthday medley. The result is a surprisingly catchy song that does indeed make you want to link pinkies and bounce your shoulders while wearing a birthday tiara. And if this doesn’t happen, there will at least be dozens of selfies around perfectly arranged birthday decor. Our locals take birthdays very seriously.

We commented that it was nice to have some music, although by now that particular line-dance rendition of “Happy Birthday To You” is getting a little old. I was reminded again of the surprising power of this Western tradition. This little song has truly conquered the world. And while locals in many cultures have made it their own, the basic message, structure, and melody of the original has remained recognizable.

A few years ago I was driving around south Louisville, KY, when I noticed a historical marker. History nerd that I am, I stopped to read it. It said that the wooded hill it was placed next to – Kenwood Hill – was the place where the “Happy Birthday” song was originally written by a pair of songwriter sisters in 1893. This quiet corner of Louisville, Kentucky, unassuming though it is, has musically infiltrated nearly every corner of the globe. Strange and fascinating. Take heart, music and kindergarten teachers everywhere. Mildred and Patty had a far greater influence than they could have ever dreamed.

I have often written about the deep differences in culture and worldview that still persist in spite of the reality of globalization. And yet there are many things that, like the “Happy Birthday” song, have begun in a small corner of one culture and have now become part of global culture. They are present almost everywhere you go. Blue jeans. Coffee of some sort. Smart phones. Wedding dresses. I find it interesting that these things are so globally ubiquitous and yet themselves still not quite unaffected by local cultures. Everything that has gone global has been inescapably localized – even if only in some small way. They are, like Alexander the Great, conquerors who have themselves willingly taken on somewhat the dress and customs of their new subjects.

This dynamic encourages me not to get too bent out shape when cultural applications of Western Christianity get exported overseas. These forms, if they take root in another culture, simply cannot remain completely the same. It’s impossible. The laws of crossing cultures forbid it. They will always be localized in some way. This is simply what humans do. The old missionary hymns sung in English still in Melanesia are in fact sung to a different tempo and pronunciation than they are in the homeland – they have been Melanesianized. In this sense they were not a complete failure of contextualization. Rather, they are an opportunity to observe both the transferability of forms from one culture to another and the resiliance of local culture in the face of foreign forms.

It is impossible to do missionary work in some kind of a cultural vacuum. Global forms have already begun infiltrating every corner of the world and they will continue to do so. The world has always been this way. Statues of Athena influenced the way Buddhist sculptors did their own craft. In this way ancient Greek culture affected the religious imagery of medieval Japan. Globalization is not a new phenomenon. Rather than living in some kind of delusion that we can and should keep out all foreign cultural forms in our missionary work, we would be wiser to recognize which ones are already here to stay – and which ones would be appropriate and strategic for local culture. Yes, while we also encourage the development of as many local forms as possible.

Our local believers love the translated version of the song, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.” Initially, I lamented this, carrying the cultural baggage that I do with that song from Bible camp altar calls that were dragged out for way too long. But the locals don’t have that baggage. And turns out it’s not even a Western song. It was written by an Indian believer. After that at some point it took over Western Christianity. In that sense, the song is actually indigenous to Asia. But it became so common in the West that someone like me had no idea of its Asian origin until I was enlightened by a colleague that grew up in South Asia. So there is a hefty dose of irony in my original disappointment that this “Western” song is so beloved here.

I am frankly impressed that the “Happy Birthday” tune has taken over the world. Who could have seen that coming? Now, which creations culture go viral will always be impossible to predict. And yet that is an encouragement to be creators of culture ourselves – songwriters, authors, craftsmen, inventors. If we create cultural forms that serve our local context, then that’s a win. But who knows? Like the little song written on Kenwood Hill, our creation just may go farther then we ever could have dreamed.

I Finally Got a Pretty Phone Number

I finally did it. I caved and purchased a pretty phone number for around $30.

As cross-cultural workers, there are some aspects of the culture that we are eager to put on. “Wow, the locals are so good at generous hospitality!”

There are other aspects that as Christians we will never put on, such as the shamefulness and suspicion attached to adoption among locals.

Then there are issues of preference in the culture that for one reason or another we just don’t care to put on. The fact that locals spend money to buy phone numbers that are deemed more beautiful? I just haven’t found that very important. Rather, in the age of smart phones it’s just felt kind of vain and goofy. Who cares about phone numbers anymore?

And yet every transition is another chance to reexamine our posture toward local culture and to take some additional steps so that we ourselves might seem less weird and goofy to the locals. This time around, my new platform manager joked that I should get a pretty phone number for my new business cards being made. We laughed about it, but the comment made me realize I was no longer absolutely closed to the idea, and it might be an experiment worth trying. After all, locals have been asking me about my ugly phone numbers for years. So I took the plunge and got a pretty phone number.

The first local friend I gave it to was *Frank, himself a very practical man more concerned with things working than with beauty. But sure enough, even Frank lit up. “Wow! Where did you get such a pretty mobile number?”

I just laughed to myself and then awkwardly told him how much I paid for it.

Locals can’t always put their finger on it, but they sense when cross-cultural workers are doing what they can to put on the local culture. It is meaningful because it is not absolutely necessary. “Why would you willingly change preferential things that you have grown up with in order to live more like we do?”

It’s not that a small step like this will make all the difference in becoming all things to all men. I remember being at an evangelism methods debate years ago where a white American brother proclaimed, “I do not need to learn how to shake hands like a black man in order to share the gospel with black men!” A Bolivian brother and I who were part of the discussion just kind of grimaced. Of course, this comment is correct on one level. We don’t need to learn culture as a precondition to sharing the gospel. The gospel itself qualifies us to share it across cultural lines. However, if step by step we also gradually reduce the cultural barriers that might be there, then we often find the cumulative effect to be a more attentive ear – and yes, a more skillful evangelist. The fact is, as an evangelist I have to drop some very hard truths on you regarding eternal damnation. So why not try to remove things that could tempt you to write off my message as for only my type of people?

We have learned that these kinds of shifts are just one more practical way to show love. This is true of any culture. But when foreign workers come from more dominant cultures and then willingly choose to identify with hidden or oppressed cultures, these small steps can mean even more. I can’t tell you how big the smiles get when we drop a few phrases in a minority tongue that no foreigner is supposed to know.

Yes, I am fully within my rights to continue living in the culture of my own heritage. It’s just as much a good culture as the local one, fully equal in its dignity and its brokenness. My parents’ culture is not inferior just because it is Western and has been very influential for a while. To act like it is is to fall into a different kind of error. However, when I willingly lay down my rights for the sake of love, when I take steps to identify just a little bit more with locals – just one more nod toward the honor and dignity embedded in their heritage that still endures even given all the fallenness and sin – this can open remarkable doors.

A pretty phone number will not be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and ushers in revival. But perhaps it will add to the stack! And thus it is an experiment worth attempting.

*Names changed for security

Photo by James Sutton on Unsplash

To Not Plateau, We Need a Map

“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?

I have been greatly helped by A. Scott Moreau’s categories for intercultural communication in his book, Effective Intercultural Communication.

Sarah Lanier has charted helpful categories between “warm climate” and “cold climate” cultures in her book, Foreign to Familiar. Lingenfelter covers similar ground in his book, Ministering Cross-Culturally.

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.

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Contracts and Covenants

“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.

Photo by Tetiana SHYSHKINA on Unsplash

The True Riches of the Church

“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).

Photo by Jouwen Wang on Unsplash

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, it’s a Line Dance and a Picnic

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.

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The Dreams of a People

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.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 126

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Please, Call Me Bob

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.

Photo by Mariah Solomon on Unsplash

*For more on high and low power distance cultures, see F. Scott Moreau’s Effective Intercultural Communication

Relativism, Silver Bullets, and How to Kill Vampires

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.”

For more on this topic, see Seven Pitfalls and Seven Questions Toward Healthier Methodology.

Photo by Jay Rembert on Unsplash

We Are Family Now

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.

Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash