But They Really Do Resemble Their Mother

“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.

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

Church Size Cultures

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.

Read the full article by Tim Keller here.

Photo by Tory Doughty on Unsplash

It’s Not Real If There’s No Certificate

Those who have spent time in this part of the world soon realize the importance of things appearing official. Seals, stamps, big desks with name plates, suits, important-looking dossiers… and certificates. One must not underestimate the importance of certificates in Central Asia.

One of the core questions of a worldview is this: What is real? In Central Asia, this coincides closely with what is respectable. In fact, if something is informal or unrecognized, if it doesn’t reach a certain threshold of respectability, then in a very real sense it’s not understood to be serious or real.

One of my close friends who grew up in this region told me a story from his youth. A respected teacher offered to give him private lessons without pay on a certain subject. My friend thought this was a kind offer and took him up on it. However, when his father found out about this he was not pleased at all, even though this situation was saving him money and giving his son a superior educational experience. “No,” said my friend’s father, “If you are not in the paid class, then you will not receive the certificate. And without the certificate, it’s not real.” My friend promptly withdrew from the free private tutoring and joined the paid group class. And in time he received his certificate.

Notice how the free private tutoring was not valued by my friend’s father because it would not have produced the all-important certificate. In this case and many others, Central Asians will often prioritize a certificate over the actual value of the content they are learning. This is not because they do not recognize quality of education. It’s simply that they believe that most education without the paper proof – sealed and signed and hung on the wall – is not really real at all.

The certificate is indicative of a broader trend that runs throughout the entire culture. Central Asians are loath to attach themselves to anything that has not sent the appropriate signals of seriousness and respectability.

Enter a global missions movement of post-institutional Westerners that focuses on planting organic, grass-roots, informal discipleship groups and house churches, and you have a situation ripe for misunderstanding – and ripe to be rejected as not really respectable or real. While many missions methods focus on the importance of reproducibility (not an unbiblical concept, depending on how it’s defined), few methods that I’m aware of are really asking hard cultural questions about respectability and reality. The Westerners make their pitch for house church and the locals wonder why they should be expected to risk their necks for something that seems so unplanned and so flimsy, so unreal. A crisis of trust emerges between the local believer and the missionary. Do these foreigners I have entrusted myself to actually have a plan?

However, the fact that most of Central Asia also contains some measure of government or societal persecution means that it’s often impossible or at least very tricky to start a church in a way that would be considered respectable – even if you could find a missionary willing to help start said respectable church (which might end up feeling very old-fashioned and unreproducible to them). So the Westerners end up with an aversion to the forms of church the locals are more naturally drawn toward, while the locals have a cultural aversion to the forms of church the Westerners are excited about. So much for contextualization.

The Westerners, in their own cultural stage of post-institutional ferment, can’t understand why Central Asians aren’t into house church, as their training had assured them they would be. The Central Asians, only recently emerging from a tribal past, recently urbanized, and seeing in their own society corrupt and phony institutions, are starving to experience healthy organizations and institutions. They can’t understand why the Westerners seem to be so against all the markers of respectable entities. But these things seldomly get spoken of openly.

In our previous city, a local believer with terrible English was an extremely loyal attendee at the international church. Knowing he was receiving very little spiritual edification by his attendance at this registered English service, his expat friends repeatedly urged him to join the local-language group they were trying to start. He stubbornly resisted, seemingly unwilling to commit, always talking about the need for a complex plan for that kind of a group to actually work. The verbal explanations about simply following the Bible that he was repeatedly given were not having their desired impact. One day while chewing on these things, I encouraged one of his mentors to try an experiment. I told him to write out their strategy, plan, and biblical principles for their local group and to present it to their friend as a thick portfolio. Feeling like anything was worth a shot at that point, they indulged me and did this very thing. The experiment worked. The thick stack of paper outlining their plans for this local church startup made something switch in our friend’s brain. It was real now. And as such, he was willing to risk for it. He started visiting their local group the next week.

Again, it will not be possible in much of Central Asia (or the Middle East) to plant officially-recognized, fully open local churches. But I am concerned that many of our favorite forms, because of where we are coming from culturally, are somewhat repellent to our Central Asian friends, because of where they are culturally. We dream of flat, bottom-up movements that never institutionalize (“forever young”) while they dream of hierarchical, top-down healthy institutions that are mature and serious. If house churches are popular among the hip middle-class residents of the Pacific Northwest, we should ask why that is, and we should not really be that surprised that they might not resonate with war-weary Central Asians. Somehow, we must find the areas of overlap between our cultural preferences and missions books, and what Central Asians consider real enough to risk for.

We may not choose to give out certificates, but if not, we should wrestle seriously with why our local friends are so upset if we do not. When it comes to what Central Asians think is real and respectable, how can we at least meet them half-way? When locals start new organizations, associations, or entities, what elements do they consider necessary in order to be viewed as legitimate?

We shouldn’t claim to be serious about contextualization if we do not wrestle with what our local friends believe is actually real. I might not care at all about a stamped piece of paper. But I am not planting churches based on my personal cultural preferences. Or am I?

Photo by Lewis Keegan – Skillscouter.com on Unsplash

Please Don’t Call It An Interview

For seven years we did outreach to Muslim refugees in our city in the US. At one stage, two of my Iranian friends were interested in pursuing membership at our church. One of them, *Saul, had come to faith in Iran and had even spent time in prison for being a house church leader-in-training. The other, *Reza, was a new believer, having come to faith after a couple years in the US. The process of pursuing church membership with them – in our diverse but still majority-American Baptist church – was a rocky one. Interview after interview was canceled by these Iranian brothers. Yes, there were theological questions that we needed to work through, and those discussions sometimes got pretty intense (I’m not angry, I’m just Iranian!), but there were also some hidden cultural roadblocks that also emerged. Turns out it was not just our doctrine that was causing concern, but some of our systems and forms.

“Hey brother, can you help me understand why Saul keeps canceling his membership interview?” I asked.

“Well, you know how we grew up in a police state, right?” My friend Reza responded.

“Yes…”

“This upbringing has affected us in some deep ways,” Reza continued.

“How so?”

“Well, we are (especially Saul) having a hard time with the idea of a membership interview. We don’t like interviews. They make us really anxious.”

I furrowed my brow, “Why exactly do interviews make you anxious?”

Reza looked at me like I should have known the answer to that question. “An interview is what the secret police does to you. They call you in to an interview. Then you get tortured. Then you go to jail. We have baggage with that term and with that kind of meeting. It happened to my dad a number of times. It happened to Saul. Does that make sense?”

I nodded, processing this new info. “So if we call it something else…”

Reza jumped in, “Call it anything else! Just for Iranians, don’t call it an interview (said with a shiver). Set it up in a different kind of way also… Do you think that would be possible?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “I’ll have to ask the elders, but I think we could find something else that could work. Would you guys be comfortable if we asked the same kinds of questions, but in the context of a meal in a home?”

“Yes!” said Reza, “That would be perfect. And there’s one other thing… Saul and I won’t sign our names on the membership covenant.”

“Really? Why?”

Again the look that implied I should be smart enough to figure this one out. “The secret police always make you sign a confession statement, even if you didn’t do what they accuse you of. We Iranians tend to be allergic to signing things. We’ve learned our signature can often be used against us.”

“But, brother, we’re not in Iran anymore. The government here doesn’t care if your signature is on a membership list. And what else could be done to seal your commitment other than signing? I’m not sure there’s an alternative. Membership requires that you promise to be committed in a serious way to this spiritual family.”

“We’ll more readily raise our right hand and swear orally. That feels safer to us. We really don’t like signing things. I know it might not make sense to you…”

“Well, OK, I can ask the elders about these tweaks to the process and let you know. Honestly, I never thought about these things being an issue or a roadblock in you guys becoming members.”

“I appreciate it, brother Workman.”

I took these unique questions about the membership process to the elders of the church. After discussing it, they indeed decided that these forms (a meal and orally swearing) could serve as acceptable substitutes for the normal interview and covenant signing. I was really encouraged by this outcome. While I wouldn’t have had these categories clear at that time, what the elders had done was to hold onto their biblical principles of church membership, while giving some wiggle room in the cultural expressions of that process. It might seem like a small thing, but a vibrant, growing church has to lean heavily on agreed upon and steady processes. Changing them can be costly, and can’t always fit with the practical needs of a busy church body. And yet sometimes tweaking things like church processes so that they’re less culturally difficult can make a big difference in practically loving believers from other cultures. It may not seem glamorous, but it can feel an awful lot like honor and kindness if you are on the receiving end.

Reza met us half-way. He surprised me by signing the covenant after we in turn had set up a membership meal. Saul never made it through the process. He wasn’t able to overcome his skepticism toward healthy church accountability nor the pride that he carried at having gone to prison for Jesus. Persecution, in his case, ended up planting poisonous self-righteousness in his heart. These things and the distractions of life in America gradually pulled him out of fellowship with us. But Reza shared his testimony publicly and joyfully went under the water, events which would lead to the salvation of one the pastors’ sons. “Reza tried all these religions like Islam, Communism, and Hinduism and found them all empty, eventually finding the truth in Jesus. So what am I waiting for?”

Reza’s baptism would also lead to his father cutting off his rent money. So once again, the church made a timely exception and allowed him to move into the intern house. He went on to lead others to faith, include a man who is now a deacon at that same church.

For churches who are reaching out cross-culturally to immigrants, refugees, or international students, don’t be surprised if your expressions of biblical principles cause some roadblocks, not to mention the offense caused by the gospel itself. But make sure you keep in mind the crucial difference between principles and expressions. We can’t change our principles – but expressions? There’s often more room for adjusting these than we might expect, accustomed as we are to the way things are done around here. Even when changing certain expressions is costly, it may be one very important way in which you can serve those coming to faith from other cultures.

And with the current crises facing the Western Church, any movement toward more skillfully serving and welcoming in those from other cultures is movement in the right direction.

*names changed for security

Photo by Daniel McCullough on Unsplash

The Complications of Semi-Literacy

I’ve written previously about the myriad ways in which non-verbal communication takes place among our adopted people group. Alongside of this, literacy and orality also represent a crucial spectrum for understanding communication in a culture. This spectrum is fertile ground on which to sit and ponder for those who want to understand our people group – and how their communication relates to gospel ministry.

Turns out that over over 90% of Christian workers present the gospel in highly literate forms – and most are not aware that they are doing so. Those who are highly literate (like me) simply tend to assume that the highly literate way of thinking and communicating is the norm. However, it is actually far from the norm for the locals we are seeking to reach in Central Asia. It’s also far from the norm for thousands of other groups around the world.

Our people group’s culture can be represented as confoundingly semi-literate, with both minorities that are illiterate and also minorities that are highly literate. Being semi-literate means that the majority of locals have attended more than 10 years of school and are able to read and write, but they continue to learn primarily by oral means. This is evidenced by the fact that most locals do not read for pleasure and many do not read books at all. It’s also evidenced by the ongoing power and use of proverbs in local culture – even in the most progressive cities. Locals generally prefer to get their news from radio, television, and increasingly, social media. Even for university graduates the ability to read a written text, understand it, and summarize it in their own words is a difficult exercise – yet this is the marker which distinguishes the highly literate. Songs are heavily relied upon in the early childhood education and rote memorization dominates the classroom as children progress through the school system. Some of my friends have memorized entire school textbooks in preparation for important exams. All of these are markers of a culture that largely prefers oral means of communication.

A highly literate minority does exist, however, complicating the picture. For our adopted people group in particular this highly literate group makes it difficult to get a clear sense of the true state of literacy. Publishing and print media in the local language have made great strides since the early nineties. Bookstores abound in the bazaars, poets and authors are celebrated and honored, and yet the general literacy rate remains woefully low. University graduates discuss translated copies of Nietzsche yet go home to mothers and aunts who are completely illiterate and learn their money’s value by the color of the bills, not by the numbers printed in the corners.

The causes of this situation are complex. It’s clear that the nearly constant warfare affecting the population over the last century has regularly undermined progress in literacy, as entire generations dropped out of regular schooling due to war, sanctions, and ethnic hostilities. Recent economic crises have also hit the local school system hard, with teachers’ salaries not being paid, public schools sometimes closed, hours reduced, or situations where teachers are present but not providing instruction. The future literacy of today’s school-age children is being once again undermined. Covid-19 lock-downs have only made this situation worse.

Given these realities, Christian workers among our people and similar groups must not rely solely on highly literate means of sharing the gospel and discipling, even though that is often our default. However, neither can purely oral methods be adopted due to the strong minority of literates. Rather, a middle road should be explored where highly literate means are used to engage the literate elite who stand in the ancient Central Asian tradition which values philosophy, poetry, and literature – while partially-oral means are simultaneously used for the majority. The highly literate are in need of solid intellectual content in areas like apologetics and theology. The vast amount of Islamic material and Western 20th century secularist or Marxist material available in print in the local language requires a corresponding body of Christian content. Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Orwell, Hemingway, and many others have been resonating strongly with highly literate locals for several decades without a Christian challenge – a concerning reality since the highly literates often influence the future trajectory of the population. Even in our most conservatively Islamic towns, it’s acceptable to be a Muslim or to be an atheistic communist, but not to be Christian. And yet as the intellectual elite go, so eventually goes the general populace.

However, for reaching and discipling the majority of locals, their semi-literate, illiterate, or pre-literate status needs to be acknowledged and somehow addressed. This is particularly important for reaching local women, who have much lower literacy rates than men. Narrative teaching, the creation of new proverbs and songs, the use of scripture memorization, and audio and video resources could be developed to serve and equip locals for learning and passing on spiritual truth. This at times may mean that the preferred group discussion format of Western workers, where locals are asked to engage the text critically on the spot, may need to be replaced or supplemented by the more traditional local religious lecture format, or by group discussion based on a narrative presented orally yet still clearly rooted in the written text of the Bible. Social media also presents a promising platform as a medium suited for visual and audio content and short bursts of written content. Over the past decade social media has been eagerly adopted and highly used by the typical local (They know way more about Snap Chat and Instagram than I ever will). While we develop strategies and tools to meet locals where they are on the orality-literacy spectrum, we also need those who will simply devote themselves to the life-changing work of literacy training – just like my mom used to do in Melanesian villages.

Our adopted people group are simply not uniform in the area of literacy and orality. This demands that multiple strategies be pursued at the same time. It’s a both/and. Oral means can supplement the church and its spread as it grows slowly toward greater literacy. This means we will need to get creative and include elements in our church gatherings that can edify both an illiterate grandmother as well as a Zorba-The-Greek-reading masters student. This is, frankly, quite complicated. And yet this is the reality of our people group. The future indigenous church here will need to reach the full spectrum – so we must also strive to do so.


Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Grandpa’s Tools

Last night we had dinner with a new single gal on our team. In the course of our conversation, her previous service in SE Asia came up. While we talked about the typical rhythms of ministry in our Central Asian context, we also encouraged her to think about her experiences in SE Asia. It may be that some of the ministry tools that she learned there might be surprisingly effective here also – even if our team would never have thought of them. Our people group is a hard nut to crack. Within the spectrum biblically-faithful methods we simply have a lot of experimenting to do in order to find out what kinds of ministry methods are actually effective here. We’ve been quite surprised in the past as efforts that felt very traditional or cliched turned out to really resonate with locals – while some popular and novel methods turned out to be duds. Book clubs turned out to be much better than we thought they would be. But our locals didn’t really resonate with oral Bible storying – even though they’re a largely oral culture. No one saw that one coming.

There are several ways to fall off the proverbial donkey of methodology. The traditional or colonial missionary largely reproduced the traditional Western methodology that he learned in his home country – hymns, pews, collared shirts, catechisms, etc. In other words, he was not very strong in effective contextualization. Yet even though this traditional figure has become the whipping boy of popular missiology, he’s essentially died out on the actual mission field. Far more common now is the opposite error – contemporary workers who are allergic to any methodology or tools that feel traditional or old-fashioned to them. Before even studying their local context to find out what good contextualization might be, we have prematurely decided that we must not import any methods that we ourselves benefited from in our own discipleship back home – not to mention the methods that feel hackneyed or overused. Don’t you dare bring your puppet ministry to the mission field! In reality, until someone has tried it we really have no idea if puppet ministry might be effective or not (Though I admit, I don’t really want to try it!). Such is the distance still between most missionaries and the ability to predict how the local culture will respond to new and different forms. And yet in our fixation with novelty and cutting-edge methodology, it would be just like the Lord to use a “foolish” method to bring about a spiritual awakening.

I remember sharing the gospel one more time with my friend Hama’s wife, Tara, back in the fall of 2008. She kept insisting that she indeed loved Jesus and that she had always believed in him. But it was clear to both Hama and I that she was still on the fence and had not yet trusted in him as her only savior. On a whim, I pulled out an old preacher’s illustration about true faith being like sitting in a chair.

“See that chair over there?” I pointed and Tara nodded. “You might say that it’s a good chair, it’s a nice chair, you respect it and you believe that it will hold your weight.”

Tara waited to hear where this was going. I got up, walked across the room and sat in the chair, cross-legged.

“Well, dear wife-of-my-brother, this is me actually trusting in this chair to hold me, actually having real faith in it. If it breaks, I will be injured. Your faith in Jesus right now is like you sitting across the room saying that you like this chair, but you need to get up and actually sit in it, risk falling down by putting all your weight on it. You need to actually have faith in Jesus like that – risking all, life and death, on him – and until then, it’s not yet true faith.”

Simple and cliched as the example was, that night was the turning point for Tara. A full decade later we visited their family in their new country where they’ve been resettled as refugees. And Tara brought up that chair illustration once again as what God had used to push her over the line of saving faith. Really? Of all the things that Hama and I shared with her, it was a simple and very traditional concrete example that proved to be the breakthrough.

I’m not saying we need to bring over all the silly gimmicks that have made their way into Western evangelicalism. For the love of everything sacred, no fog machines, WWE wrestlers, or Jesus action figures are needed among the unreached people groups of the world. Yet straightforward contextualization is needed, the kind where the most important questions are whether something is biblical and whether it is clear and effective in the local culture. These questions need to trump asking whether something feels old-fashioned or novel to us or not. There may be abandoned methods in church history that prove to be mightily relevant in foreign contexts. The key is to not prematurely rule them out for the wrong reasons. Consider that certain methods were so powerful because of where a certain culture found itself at a given time – things like open air preaching. Is it possible that your adopted culture is in a different “place” than your home culture is is? It’s more than possible. It’s extremely likely.

Practically, this will mean giving our teams room to experiment – and room to fail. It will mean moving beyond a reactionary missiology and toward one that is simply and faithfully trying to find the best tools for the job, even if that turns out to be grandpa’s tools. It may be that we design the tools that lead to awakening among our focus people groups. Or it may be that we dig them up in the most unlikely corners of church history. Why should it matter? Tools are tools. And as long as they remain explicitly governed by biblical principles and emphases, then we should feel tremendous freedom to utilize them.

Photo by Hunter Haley on Unsplash

He Identified with His Adopted People Completely

After first-generation Irish Christians are kidnapped and made slaves by a British warlord:

“In sadness and grief, shall I cry aloud. O most lovely and loving brethren and sons whom I have begotten in Christ (I cannot number them), what shall I do for you? I am not worthy to come to the aid of either God or men. The wickedness of the wicked has prevailed against us. We are become as it were strangers. Can it be that they do not believe that we have received one baptism or that we have one God and Father? Is it a shameful thing in their eyes that we have been born in Ireland?”

The British Christians did not recognize the Irish Christians either as full-fledged Christians or as human beings – because they were not Roman. Patrick, whose awkward foreignness on his return to Britain had been the cause of numerous rebuffs, knows in his bones the snobbery of the educated Roman, who by the mid-fifth century had every right to assume that Roman and Christian were interchangeable identities. Patrick, operating at the margins of European geography and of human consciousness, has traveled even further from his birthright than we might expect. He is no longer British or Roman, at all. When he cries out in his pain, “Is it a shameful thing … that we have been born in Ireland?” we know that he has left the old civilization behind forever and has identified himself completely with the Irish.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 112-113

Photo by Yan Ming on Unsplash

You Are a Good Teacher Because You Dress Like a Teacher

“You are a good teacher because you because you dress like a teacher.”

Multiple students communicated this sentiment to me in our previous city. It was a strange statement, the kind that makes you tilt your head and furrow your brow, like a German Shepherd not quite getting the meaning of their master’s command. Yet we foreign English teachers started noticing that local teachers did tend to dress very formally, and not just in the classroom – even when they were shopping in the bazaar. This contrasted strongly with our Western casual or even business casual dress. So, as an experiment I started wearing a blazer or jacket every time I taught, along with dress pants, shoes, and a collared shirt. I never went as far as a tie, but I was curious to see if there would be any kind of different response from my local students. As a new teacher who tends to look much younger than I actually am, I was hoping to also make up for some of my apparent lack of age and experience.

The responses were, if anything, more strongly positive than I would have expected. They actually viewed me as a better teacher because of the way I dressed. What was going on? I was wading into an area of important non-verbal communication in my host culture.

Non-verbal communication refers to aspects of communication apart from verbal speech. These parts of communication account for the majority of actual communication that takes place – some say as much as eighty five percent! Regardless of the culture, when a person’s verbal communication contradicts their non-verbal communication, those on the receiving end tend to believe the non-verbal, emphasizing the power of this kind of non-speaking speech. Think about it. If someone tells you they are fine, but their facial expression tells you otherwise, you believe the face every time.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of nonverbal communication in my adopted Central Asian culture. Bodily gestures and the use of the physical context are crucially important for communicating honor or shame (Others call this a high context culture). When greeting, it’s important to stand, shake hands, or to give repeated cheek kisses for close friends or relatives. Then you must not sit down until the guest has sat down first. For older relatives, male and female, respect and affection is communicated by shaking their hand with both hands, kissing their hand, or kissing their shoulder. A hand on the chest or raised in a slight salute is also very appropriate for greeting men while passing. In general, bodily gestures should be masculine for men and feminine for women – reserved, graceful, and dignified. Sitting straight up with the legs crossed and arms tucked in is viewed as more respectful than sitting slouched and sprawled out. Arms may be crossed, but hands in the pockets communicates disinterest and disrespect. The bottom of the foot is shameful and should not be pointed at any person (Westerners get in trouble with this one a lot!). Other gestures such as picking and blowing one’s nose, or the OK sign, can also be very offensive.

As for my students, they were expressing the fact that clothing also speaks loudly in local culture, communicating respect and propriety toward those one is interacting with. It also reflects one’s position. Professional men such as lawyers, teachers, and managers are expected to dress the part, often with a jacket and tie – with a particular skill for spotlessly shined shoes in spite of the ever-present dust (It’s really quite remarkable). Grooming is also expected to be immaculate and formal. I can’t quite yet bring myself to blow dry my hair like most local men my age do. But I definitely use more hair cream here than I do when I’m in the West. Scruffy is not really mainstream here yet. Think 1950’s.

Other areas of non-verbal communication include positions of seating and standing (like is mentioned in Mark 12:39). These communicate honor – the furthest seat from the door is the most honorable spot – while prominence in position in photos, vehicles, and even groups walking communicates non-verbally who the most respected guest is. Physical touch among good friends of the same gender is also very common, indicating a warm relationship. This can include an arm around the shoulder, hand-holding, an friend’s hand on your leg during conversation (takes a while to get used to), and shoulders brushing while walking side by side. Eye contact, colors of clothing, and silence can all be used with deadly affect to communicate honor or shame as well, along with many other non-verbal actions.

We have our own forms of non-verbal communication in the West, of course. Every culture does. Yet we tend not to think about them and to assume that everyone communicates similarly. Many of our Western middle-class non-verbal forms reflect our high valuing of equality, individualism, and informality. Before living in Central Asia, I never thought about how much American body language is attempting to communicate that each person believes the other views them as an equal. I want you to know by my body language that I don’t think that you think that you are better than me and vice versa. In contrast, much Central Asian non-verbal communication is to demonstrate and reinforce differences in honor and status. Very un-American, yes, but much more in line with the majority of human cultures throughout history.

Non-verbal communication is a minefield, but one that must be navigated if we are to communicate with love, honor, and respect in other cultures – and even in the subcultures of our home countries. Many of the one-another commands of the New Testament will be affected by how we communicate non-verbally. Yet without proactive questions and observations, we can go years unintentionally offending others. On the other hand, by learning the non-verbal communication of our particular host culture well, we can be removing barriers for the gospel message. The gospel will be offensive in one aspect or another. So it’s best that I do what I can to make sure my posture, clothing, and body language are not. Will we get it perfect? No. There’s grace and freedom for our cultural missteps! Yet let’s use that grace and freedom for the sake of love. Let’s learn how to communicate love effectively with our words – and with the other eighty five percent of our communication.

Photo by Heng Films on Unsplash

For more info on non-verbal communication, see Effective Intercultural Communication by Scott A. Moreau

Making Observations, Not Laws

“All Chinese restaurants here are fronts for prostitution.” This statement was communicated to us when we were brand new on the field. Over time we learned that it was a bit overstated. Yes, some of the Chinese restaurants were fronts for prostitution, but not all. From asking various locals we were able to learn about certain restaurants where we could enjoy some delicious Asian cuisine without indirectly supporting prostitution – and where we would also not be in danger of being perceived by locals as ourselves being customers of the wrong sort. Turns out that even in our corner of Central Asia there were Chinese small business owners who were just here to make a living by opening a restaurant (some of whom in other cities were rumored to be missionaries themselves, part of the Back to Jerusalem movement).

What had been a valid observation had become a law of cultural interpretation. “Chinese restaurants here tend to be fronts for prostitution” had become “All Chinese restaurants here are fronts, therefore never eat at one.” For us, this served as one example of a common trend among those doing cross-cultural ministry – the trend of making laws when we should instead be making theories and observations.

It’s understandable. When we enter a new context we are eager to learn the culture, the rules, the way things are, and the way we need to act. Important things are at stake, like our sanity and our testimony. We ourselves are adrift in a sea of uncertainty, navigating a foreign culture and context, desperate for something solid to hold onto, eager to make sense of this new world. So we get a piece of intel from our teammates or from a local and we absolutize it. From this day forward, I will honor the laws that all locals have lice, no locals can think abstractly, no locals are comfortable worshiping in a public church setting, etc., etc.

But there are several problems with this way of forming these kinds of laws and absolutes. The first is that every culture is diverse. Just because one local describes his people in a certain way does not mean that is an accurate representation of every demographic in the culture. My wife was once invited to play a role in a local TV commercial for a rice company. Most of our city friends said not to think twice about it, but to take it as a fun opportunity. But when we checked with one of our other believing friends from a more conservative Islamic and tribal background, he told us not to do it. “We would never ever let our women be filmed like that,” he said. “Too much opportunity for them to be objectified by others. It’s not honorable.” We decided to be cautious and to pass on the offer. We were glad after seeing the commercial as they portrayed the foreign women who later took the role as somewhat of a buffoon.

Another problem with making laws instead of interpretations has to do with our own limited understanding of our new context. Actually understanding what certain things really mean in a new culture is a marathon effort, not a sprint. We do not always have the lenses we need to see things clearly and without distortion. Once we have spent some years marinating in the values and worldview of our new culture, we will be in a better place to connect the dots. “Try not to make any judgments in your first year on the field” is a wise piece of advice I recall my mother saying. If we’re not careful, one generation of missionaries makes hasty judgments which get passed on as laws to the next generation of missionaries and then on to the next. While some things are blatantly obvious (drunkenness and wife-beating are wrong and to be immediately condemned), others are illuminated in a better light over time (he’s making sure not to touch your hand when he gives you the change, not because he thinks women are dirty, but because he wants to protect your chaste reputation in the community).

Finally, culture is not a static thing. It is living and moving, like a cloud formation that seems stable, only to have shifted a great deal the next time you glance back up at the sky. The valid “rules” a few years ago may have shifted by the time we arrive on the field – or when we come back again after a season away. They may continue to shift. The key is to have a firm grasp on our biblical principles and their range of expressions and then to have a curious and keen eye toward studying the culture. Living in a non-static human culture will bear on commands such as “outdo one another in showing honor,” “he must have a good reputation with outsiders,” “greet one another with a holy kiss,” and others (Rom 12:10, 1 Tim 3:7, 1 Thes 5:26). It is extremely important that I stand to my feet when a local man over forty enters a room. This is changing among the twenty and thirty-somethings, who are moving away from some of their elders’ formality. Rightly discerning our context is key – as is the right kind of stability and flexibility. I will always honor adoption, no matter if it is shameful in my adopted culture. I will not always kiss other men on the cheek without first discerning my context.

Entering a new culture (or reentering) is a wonderful time to make observations. Contrasts which will later fade are stark and vibrant. So let’s make abundant observations and theories. But let’s be cautious with making laws about the culture. They may prove to be valid trends. But turning a trend into a law ultimately results in decreasing our valid biblical options. And frankly, the work is hard enough that we should want all options on the table.

Photo by mostafa meraji on Unsplash

The Upside of Reverse Culture Shock

This past week I was fielding questions from a colleague about to reenter the US for the first time after spending a significant amount of time overseas. I found my answers echoing those of the doctors when my wife was pregnant and wondering about certain symptoms. “Don’t worry, it’s normal. It’s alllll normal.” Reentry can bring with it a surprising range and intensity of emotion and thinking. The proverbial weeping in the cereal aisle really does happen. A prepared person will expect the unexpected and therefore have a place to mentally put that unusual fatigue, skepticism, or anxiety.

Yet our conversation also brought to mind one of the very good fruits of reentry, a quiet upside to reverse culture shock. This upside is the ability to see your home culture with the eyes of an outsider for a limited window of time. When entering a new culture or a foreign country, we are immediately able to recognize differences and to pick up on contrasts. This makes the first few days or weeks in a new context important as we are able to feel the differences in a strong way. Unfortunately, this ability tends to fade quickly as our senses rapidly adapt to a new normal. Thankfully, these new lenses are not only present when moving into a foreign culture, but also return when reentering our native culture and land. It’s worth paying attention to what sticks out in this temporary period when we have slightly different eyes.

For those who have read the book Out of the Silent Planet, you might remember how Dr. Ransom gets to see humans for a brief moment as the alien residents of Malacandra do. His impression of them is quite humorous. He is fascinated by these ugly, stumpy creatures until he suddenly realizes that he is actually looking at members of his own species. It had just been a while.

It’s hard to predict what will stick out on a given trip back “home.” One trip I was struck by how simultaneously friendly and sloppy in dress Americans in airports were. So many approachable people in their pajamas! Another trip I remember marveling at the amount of money and quality control that goes into basic and boring infrastructure in the US – things like bathroom stall latches and highway guardrails. So much costly quality – these bathroom stalls will last for decades! This time around we’ve been struck by how abundantly green Kentucky is in the summer, more like a jungle full of massive oaks than we had remembered. So much wonderful green space for picnics! Why is no one picnicking?

I’ve come to think of this brief initial window as a potentially enjoyable time where making observations can really pay off. Any time that we have the opportunity to see around our own blind-spots we need to seize it. Whether that’s reading old books or authors who have the rare gift of seeing through a culture even while writing from within it (as C.S. Lewis did), or whether it is pursuing dinners with internationals in our churches to hear their take on things, we are helped by these opportunities. The typically unseen suddenly become visible.

Why is it so helpful to see our home culture through new eyes? For starters, it’s hard to think clearly about what you cannot see. Many aspects of our home culture are invisible to us because that is all we have ever known. We are the fish unaware of the water in our fishbowl. But once a given aspect of culture or context is seen it is able to be assessed and compared with other contexts – and more importantly, with biblical principles. Once I can actually see the lack of fresh, cheap fruits and vegetables in the US (particularly in businesses which serve the poor), I can begin to ask why that is. Once I can see that the willingness to help strangers in trouble can be a common virtue (as it is in the US) then I can ask why it is that my Central Asian neighbors don’t share this value. What is biblical modesty? What is biblical masculinity? Should I get a dog? Many kinds of questions are helped by an exposure to diverse cultures and reentry provides a fresh opportunity to wrestle with them.

Those of us who live navigating between various human cultures have the particularly unavoidable challenge and opportunity of carving out our own unique personal culture, which tends to borrow certain emphases from the diverse cultures we have lived in while intentionally rejecting others. Like all believers, we live in the tension of pursuing a more biblical culture while we ourselves are enculturated beings, deeply affected by the unique times and contexts of our upbringing – with all their blind-spots, brokenness, and lingering glory.

When we reflect on the diversity of godly believers and faithful churches throughout the centuries, we come to find a rich tapestry of biblical cultures which have emerged from the same eternal and biblical DNA. Many tribes as it were, distinct in some ways and yet bearing an uncanny blood-resemblance. For those we are called to reach and steward, God has asked us to find our particular place in that tapestry so that we might in the right ways become all things to all men (1 Cor 9:22). Therefore, we need to have eyes that clearly see culture – both foreign and our own.

Reverse culture shock certainly comes with challenges – Watch out for the cereal aisle. Yet it also provides a unique window, one in which we can find helpful or at least interesting clarity. But it is a short window. Let’s seize it while it’s open.

Photo by Nathália Rosa on Unsplash