Respect, Planning, and Presence

Today I was reminded of three common crises of trust that have occurred in our relationships with local Central Asian believers. These three big questions of trust tend to underlie some of the more serious conflict we have. Cross-cultural differences can aggravate these three concerns, but in and of themselves they are very valid questions to ask. And while we would answer with a “Yes, of course!” to all three questions, we also find them very understandable, given the very real challenges faced by those coming to faith in this context of persecution.

Crisis One: Do these foreigners actually respect us? Though most missionaries working among Central Asians possess a deep love and respect for the locals, this question is surprisingly common. Much of this is due to the fact that respect is expressed very differently in our respective cultures – sometimes even expressed in completely opposite ways. Locals feel deeply disrespected if not visited while sick. Westerners tend to respect a sick person by giving them space to recover. Locals use titles in a very serious fashion to express a respectful sense of hierarchy. Many Westerners prefer first name status over titles, as this communicates a respectful sense of equality. But this question and crisis of trust can also emerge from the timeline Westerners might choose when it comes to handing over authority and money to local believers. We choose to take a slower route in response to the culture’s penchant toward domineering leadership and power grabs. This can be misinterpreted as zero trust and respect when in fact it is an approach of incrementally building trust and respect over time.

Crisis Two: Do these foreigners actually have a plan? This question emerges out of the very different places Western and Central Asian cultures find themselves in regarding institutions, plans, and the Church. When it comes to Christianity, Western missions culture definitely has a post-institutional momentum. We tend to want things to be organic, authentic, and not very institutional. We tend to twitch at the term, “organized religion.” But Central Asian culture has a strongly pre-institutional posture. The desire is for robust and complex institutions and plans to be built – though there’s often not a clear understanding of just how this should be attempted. So institutions tend to be started, but then end up just like the rest of the culture – run by strong-man leadership, instead of by values, bylaws, and constitutions. When Western missionaries lead Bible studies or church meetings, we tend to run these times based on experience or on a loose plan we have in our heads. We may have a long-term vision and mission in which we plan to see churches planted and multiplied. But we often don’t share these plans with the locals in detail. We simply might not think of it, assuming that they are a more “organic” culture, or we might not talk about it due to security concerns. Either way, locals can feel like we are risking their lives without much of a plan – and this sense can seriously undermine trust and commitment. They know that Western culture has historically been good at institution building and planning. So it’s confusing to see their Western friends downplaying these things on a regular basis.

Crisis Three: Will these foreigners actually be there for me? We foreign missionaries are a transient lot. We travel for furloughs, medical issues, vacation, or visa issues. We tend to have a high rate of turnover due to things like burnout and struggling kids. We also live only partway inside the local culture, sometimes unwilling and sometimes unable to intervene when locals face persecution or hardship. At the back of many of our friends’ minds they believe that if things get too dangerous we’ll leverage our passports to get to safety – and they’ll be stuck on their own to face the threats. They are not completely wrong in these fears. If things get too unstable in terms of security, most of us will have to leave. But sometimes we make this concern worse by being unwilling to get into the weeds and find creative solutions to locals’ persecution or suffering. These are very messy situations, and they can compromise our presence locally. But if we always use our privilege to stay out of locals’ dangerous situations, we also risk failing to model sacrificial leadership – the kind where good shepherds lay their lives down for the sheep and don’t flee like hired hands.

Respect, planning, presence – these three questions can simmer in the mind and heart of a local believer, and explode in times of conflict or danger. As such, we need to regularly affirm our respect, describe our plans, and express our desire to be present in the hard times. This will help us to build trust with locals and to better weather conflict. We also need to learn how to show these in ways that will be received by the culture, so that our words will be received as genuine. Time will expose where our hearts are truly at. But our actions, even if they fail, communicate more than we know.

However, we should also qualify these affirmations. In the end, we don’t respect locals as consistently as we should, we don’t always have a good plan, and we will not always be present. We are sinners, we are finite, we will die. Yet the collective community of a healthy church can extend these things truly, if imperfectly, to a local believer. The local church in this age can make a God-honoring impact in terms of true respect, wise planning, and steady presence in the midst of suffering. And the missionary team can do its best to model these things to the church plant.

Whether we succeed or fail in these things, both are actually an opportunity to point locals yet again to Jesus, the only one who extends perfect respect, perfect plans, and soul-sustaining perfect presence in suffering. We can ultimately redirect local with these questions and crises to him. We trust him to hold onto our local friends, even as we also seek to carry them in our hearts in these three vital ways.

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The Deeper Beliefs Begin to Come Out

This past week we received some timely encouragement from veteran workers.

“Don’t be discouraged by the messiness of the situations you’re facing in local discipleship. That messiness is actually evidence of arriving at a place in language and culture where the deeper beliefs are starting to come out. It wasn’t until we had been in Africa for five years that we started to discover some of the deeper hidden and very problematic parts of believers’ worldviews.”

This was indeed a timely word. The messy revelations that have been occurring in the lives our local believers are quite discouraging. It can feel like the years of steady teaching and discipleship have failed to trickle down into the places of the soul where it really counts. Are the basic means of grace actually enough to transform these people? is a question I find myself wrestling with.

One fresh example from just a few hours ago. I went walking in the bazaar with a local believer caught up in a complex plot against him involving a broken engagement, stolen money, alleged death threats, accusers and police who are related to each other, and a judge who became livid and vindictive when our friend refused to swear on the Qur’an. Toward the end of our conversation, we sat down to have some melon juice together.

“You know how if you bury a body, but you will need to rebury it somewhere else, you can tell the ground that it’s Avowal, and the body won’t decompose for the length of time you set?” asked my friend.

“Wait… what? What’s that word, Avowal? I’ve never heard of this before,” I responded.

“Yes, like if you need to take a body back to America. You can bury it in the ground and instead of the flesh decomposing in a matter of weeks, it will remain until you come back to get it – as long as you tell the ground it is Avowal, it will respect this word.”

I was trying to piece together this brand new concept my believing friend was sharing with me.

“Hm, interesting. Is this something from your previous religion or your culture?” I asked.

“No, this is something that is. The ground respects that word.”

I realized that this was not something my friend – a college-educated believer of six years – was presenting as a mere tradition of his culture. He was presenting this to me as reality. Avowal (a rough translation, to be sure) is something that my friend is convinced has power in the real physical world.

He went on to clarify that he used this word in the context of his legal problems, initially giving money to someone else in the category of Avowal. He fully expected them to not misuse this money, but instead, to honor the weight of this word.

Apparently you can use Avowal to entrust someone else with anything precious that you need to be kept safe and protected at all costs – such as a child or gold. And the expectation is that they will honor this sacred word, just as the ground does for a corpse. If they don’t, they are counted as the most despicable of persons.

A couple other local believers came over to my house this afternoon. Curious, I ran this concept by them. The younger, more progressive one, readily spoke of Avowal being used as the strongest kind of promise regarding safekeeping. But he balked at the idea of it being used for burial and reburial. The other believer, ten years his senior, not only said that he had heard of Avowal being used for the dead, but he had seen it work with his own eyes, many years ago.

What, exactly, are we to do when we come across something like this? Much of today I’ve been thinking about this new discovery and trying to find a category for it. I think we’ve found one: white magic.

What else would you call a specific word that is used to keep the earth from decomposing a corpse as it is naturally meant to do? Sure, it’s for a good motive, preserving the body so that it can be honorably buried elsewhere. But it is more or less a verbal spell used to manipulate the created world and get it to do something different. It’s white magic. As such it is out of bounds for those who are now indwelt by the Holy Spirit and reconciled to the Lord of creation.

I have to think more about the uses of Avowal when it comes to entrusting offspring or treasure to others for safe keeping. Could there even be possible positive connections to the woefully underdeveloped local concept of covenant? It’s worth looking into for culture where jihad is the only real known covenant and everything else is just a contract – yes, that includes even salvation and marriage.

But at least when it comes to its usage regarding the dead, Avowal is a concept we’re going to have to revisit as part of a practical discipleship. Just as the believers in Ephesus burnt their books of magic, so we’ll need our local friends to in fact disavow their practice of graveside Avowal.

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Christians Do Not Abandon Their Dead

‘Our brothers from Parthia do not marry two wives; Jewish Christians are not circumcised, our sisters from Gilan and Kushan do not associate with foreigners; those from Persia do not marry their daughters; those from Media do not abandon their dead, nor do they give them to the dogs to eat, nor do they bury the dying while still alive, Christians from Edessa do not kill their wives or sisters who commit adultery, and those from Hatra do not stone thieves.’ This quote from Bardaisan’s ‘Book of the Laws of the Lands’ from the early third century is not merely instructive on account of the descriptions of the morals of the Asian peoples mentioned but also provides valuable evidence of how far Christianity had spread to the east by the end of the Parthian dynasty (224/226 CE). Parthia should be understood here as Mesopotamia, and Persia and Media as Iran. Gilan lies to the south of the Caspian Sea, the most westerly part of the great Kushan empire was Transoxania, and Hatra lies south of Mosul. At the start of the third century, Christian cells existed in all of these regions.

Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 19

What a difference the gospel made in these ancient cultures!

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Why True Faith Is and Is Not Like Sheikhood

We are teaching through the book of John at our small local church plant. This past week we were looking at chapter 8:31-38, a section often summarized as “The Truth Will Set You Free.” A couple of the local believing men came by earlier in the week to study through the passage with me and we spent an hour or so asking interpretive questions of the text and making observations. What a help it is as a teacher to meet with other men with their own eyes and their own insights into the text.

One of the final questions I like to ask in these study sessions is, “What connections does this passage have to your culture? Any proverbs, customs, or history that can serve to illustrate the truth that we see here?” This time around we couldn’t think of much that connected with the major themes of freedom, slavery, and truth. I decided to shelve the question and try to come back to it when I was crafting the sermon later. I was writing out my local language manuscript the next day when it came to me – sheikhood might work.

The local concept of sheikhood could serve as a negative illustration of true faith held out in this passage of John. In this passage, Jesus has proclaimed that true disciples are those who abide in his word, who know the truth, and who are set free by the truth (v. 31-32). In protest, the Jewish audience balks, responding that they are free, that they have never been slaves of anyone, because they are children of Abraham (v. 33). Jesus goes on to spell out their slavery to sin and their need to be set free from the temporary and dangerous situation of the slave, and into the eternal freedom of the son and his house (v. 34-36).

One of the main points of the sermon was that only the truth of Jesus can set us free – our physical lineage cannot. This is where sheikhood comes in. Locals believe that an Islamic holy man, a sheikh, passes on his title, his prestige, and to some extent his holiness automatically to his biological male descendants. This is regardless of the actual character or life of said male descendant. He might not pray, he might be a drinker, or he might even be an atheist, and many would still call him “Dear Sheikh So-And-So.” Locals freely acknowledge this, and see the inconsistency in it, but it continues to happen nonetheless. We even had a fun surprise during all this, discovering that one of our own believing members, *Darius, is technically a sheikh in this regard (Given the fun-loving nature of our church plant, we are sure to have a good time teasing Darius with this newfound knowledge).

My point in bringing up sheikhood was to compare it with the Jews’ misplaced faith in their physical descent from Abraham and to contrast it to the true faith that is experienced by the individual who is set free by the truth of Jesus alone. True faith is not like sheikhood. It is not passed automatically from father to son, merely downloaded through physical descent. This view of faith-by-blood is a real danger in this part of the world, one which can destroy gospel clarity in as little as one generation. Local believers begin with the assumption that their physical children are automatically born with the same faith as their father. However, instead of this we should not trust in our parents, our people, our supposed descent from holy men, or anything else. We should trust in Christ alone and continue abiding in his word.

It resonated. The believers knew what I was talking about when I made the connection in the sermon, and they seemed to grasp the contrast presented by the illustration from their own world.

Later on, a few of us were at lunch together, enjoying some good rice, lamb, soups, and flatbread. Our summer volunteer turned to Mr *Talent and asked him what he had learned from the sermon that day. Mr. Talent swallowed his mouthful of flatbread and rice, and furrowed his brow.

“Well, the point about sheikhood was a powerful one for me.”

I nodded, thinking I knew where he was going. Instead, he took it in a different direction.

“Just as sheikhood is given from father to son without the son doing anything, so God the father gives us the eternal freedom of Jesus apart from our good works, and we thus also become sons of God.”

I smiled to myself. How many times had I heard other teachers and preachers recount how some the most powerful takeaways from their messages were not actually connections they had made at all? And yet it was not an improper connection to make. The eternal freedom of the Son is indeed given to us freely, not entirely unlike how the honor of a practicing sheikh is given (imputed) also to his irreligious son. How interesting that Mr. Talent put the pieces together in this way.

So in the end, it seems that we could say that sheikhood is and sheikhood is not like true faith. We are not saved by being part of anyone’s physical line. But we are saved by being part of a certain spiritual line, that of Christ. And in this line we become so much more than mere sheikhs, with their false genetic titles and holiness. We become free indeed, eternal residents of the house of God himself.

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Wine’s Alcohol Content in the Ancient World

This week I came across this article by Dr. Charles L Quarles of SEBTS, titled Was New Testament Wine Alcoholic? It contained this interesting trivia: ancient writers and the water to wine dilution rates mentioned in their works.

The article goes on to argue that the most likely water to wine dilution rate of Jews in the New Testament period was 3:1, which was equivalent to a beverage that is only 3% alcoholic. In other words, equivalent to a modern low-alcohol beer. It wasn’t modern grape juice, which wasn’t invented until the Methodist Rev. Welch came along in the 1800s. But neither was it basically the same thing as a contemporary shiraz.

If this is true, then it’s a finding likely unsatisfactory to both sides of the Christians and alcohol debate. The wine consumed by Jesus was actually alcoholic, but in a pretty mild way. You’d have to drink a lot to get drunk. However, you could indeed get drunk from the common wine of the Jews if you wanted to. And there was certainly other wine around that was stronger, judging from the biblical passages addressing the dangers of drunkenness, as well as the testimony of the ancient writers in this Quarle’s article.

While I find the historical context interesting and helpful – these kinds of details really do matter for good interpretation – I’m not at all sure that it changes the biblical principle. Namely, drunkenness is a sin, and any alcohol consumption should be governed by a Christian accordingly (Eph 5:18). This principle seems sound and stable no matter the alcohol content of a given drink.

Just this past week, *Darius was sharing his testimony. It involved his amazement that during our first time hanging out together, I didn’t drink with him and his friends, breaking their expectations of what an American was supposed to be like. But I was then and am still under a no-alcohol covenant required by my organization. Darius wanted to know why I wasn’t partaking of the alcohol they had on hand and that’s what got us into a gospel conversation. That conversation led to more talks, until Darius came to faith.

I smiled as he recounted this story, because in previous years I had had the exact opposite happen. When I was here previously with a different organization, I had felt unexpectedly led to have a beer with my new Muslim friends. That act of partaking led to good gospel conversations, and *Hama ended up coming to faith.

So which is it? Have a beer for the sake of the gospel or abstain for the sake of the gospel? Both, it seems, according to the place where God sovereignly has you. Both can be done for the sake of love. And both postures can bridge to the heart of the matter – that we need new hearts.

There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” (Mark 7:15 ESV)

Wait, can biblical wisdom really leave the door open to both? Won’t that be harmful or confusing?

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” (Matt 11:18-19 ESV)

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*Names changed for security

Respecting Gas Station Attendants and The Importance of Toilet Shoes

I’ve been spending a lot of time this summer with *Darius, one of the faithful local men who is a part of our church plant. Darius has a wonderful gifting – that of a person who is becoming truly bicultural. People like him are able to function well in two or more very different cultural settings without rejecting either culture. They make great students if their teacher is, like me, from another culture. They also make wonderful teachers themselves, since they still deeply value their home culture and are willing to explain it. It’s no coincidence that 1st Corinthians 9, “becoming all things to all men” has been a passage Darius keeps coming back to lately. All this has made him a lifesaver when it comes to the holes in our cultural knowledge that we still have, even as we approach six years in this context. Here are some of the things we’ve recently learned from him.

Gas Station Attendants. In order to display respect to gas station attendants, it’s honorable for the driver to disembark from his vehicle while being served. Here it’s still the norm for gas station employees to pump the vehicle fuel, not the driver. But to remain seated in the cab is apparently to communicate a certain sense of one’s own superiority over the man pumping the gas. So, just as men should get up (or attempt a half-stand) when another man enters the room, so a driver should get down from his seat and stand on an equal level with the attendant. It’s a small thing, one that we would have likely never spotted had Darius not mentioned it to us. But now that we know we have one more area of daily conduct in which we can act respectfully.

Toilet Shoes. The grossest thing in the world to a local is a home bathroom that has no toilet shoes. These are rubbery slip-on sandals that are worn by locals when they visit the W.C. In order to be a good host, these slippers must always be available, conveniently lined up outside the toilet area. Do they ever get washed? Not that I’ve ever seen. But wearing these toilet slippers communicates cleanliness to locals, and to approach a bathroom while barefoot (outside shoes are never worn indoors) is to be faced with deep horror and dismay. We already had bathroom shoes available most of the time for our guests, but now we have become hyper-vigilant to make sure we always have them at the ready.

Shaving Armpits. And speaking of personal cleanliness, Darius and the other local believers were recently scandalized to learn that Western men don’t shave their armpits on the regular. We foreigners were somewhat shocked to hear that local men do shave their armpits, and that they find it to be a cornerstone of regular personal hygiene. “In our culture that’s really dirty!” our local friends said to us. “In our culture that’s kind of unmanly!” we said to them. Who knew? Apparently we had not gone swimming together quite enough to notice this crucial difference in approaches to body hair. Needless to say, neither side has acted yet on this newfound cross-cultural difference.

If you ever serve cross-culturally, pray for a friend like Darius. Little tips like these are immensely practical as we seek to avoid needless offense and to little-by-little put on the local culture and lifestyle. We won’t always choose to practice these kinds of things ourselves. Local men find it unmanly to wash the dishes, for example. But if we don’t know what the differences are, then we are not free to choose which behavior will best commend ourselves and our message to our local friends.

Sometimes we will not put on the local culture, so as to drive home an important contrast. I will most certainly wash the dishes for my wife, regardless of the locals who might snicker. But most often, we will put on the local culture (and yes, the toilet shoes). This is to be like Paul, so that by any means, we “might save some.”

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*Names changed for security

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.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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