Seven Dangers of Ministry Method Dogmatism

“Before we agree for you to meet with these ladies, we need to know what your ministry strategy is.” I could see my wife’s face cloud over as she read this text. During a difficult season of ministry where she was struggling to make meaningful connections with local ladies in our new city, she had heard of a community center run by other believing expats that was in need of someone who could do local language Bible study with a few local women. As one gifted to do this very thing, we were excited for her to be able to help these ladies understand God’s word, especially since there was no one else at this community center who could currently help them. But once again, the “S word” was being deployed as the primary filter for partnership. Not my wife’s testimony, not her doctrine, not questions regarding her character or competency, but the deal-breaker for simple Bible study with local women was going to be her position on strategy of all things. Her ministry methods would mean she would or would not be allowed to study the Bible with several open women from an unreached people group. If my wife didn’t espouse the right strategy, then these expats would effectively deny these local women the chance to study the Bible. During a season of attempting to bring healthy change in a city deeply divided by ministry methods and strategy, this text made us feel somewhat angry and somewhat sick.

Many Christians in ministry are prone to be dogmatic about their methods – even more dogmatic than they are about their actual dogma (their teaching/doctrine). Missionaries are particularly at risk of this, likely due to the specific needs and gifts required by the mission field context. There are a few methods that are commanded more explicitly by the scriptures, things like the Lord’s Supper and baptism, but most of our ministry methods are an effort in trying to apply biblical principles faithfully so as to come up with faithful expressions of those principles for our unique setting. Study what the New Testament has to say about musical worship and you’ll see what I mean here. Lots of principles about worship, almost nothing regarding the actual forms we should employ. Nevertheless, Christians in ministry become very dogmatic about our own preferred methods, even when the scriptures don’t speak to them specifically. Rather than treating a method’s importance as primary, secondary, or tertiary depending on how clear God’s word is about it, particular methods are elevated to be primary based on some other standard – a standard which is sometimes unexamined, and other times mere pragmatism. When this happens, we expose ourselves to at least seven profound dangers.

  1. Limiting our biblical options. When we zero in on one expression of a biblical principle as the way to do it, rather than understanding that it is a faithful way to do it, we limit our biblical options. As a former house-church-only advocate, this was an error that I fell into. House church is a great biblical option for some contexts. But if we are in place where church can happen in other settings outside the home, why would we automatically rule those options out as less faithful or less effective? Ministry is hard anywhere in the world. It is particularly hard when we are seeking to plant churches among the unreached. We need all our biblical options on the table.
  2. Failing to do good contextualization. We often become dogmatic about certain methods merely because of reasons that are personal and tied to our own cultural background. “We will not use a projector for songs because of the baggage I have with it from the church I grew up in.” But have we stopped to study our focus culture to understand what using a projector might mean to the actual locals? It really does not matter all that much what it means back home. Instead, is it a biblical option and how does it communicate in the local culture? Good contextualization is often prevented because those in ministry enter their new contexts with a prepackaged set of methods that they have gotten from their books, their trainers, their past experiences, or some study based on a movement in another part of the world. Thus, they fail to first stop and ask insightful questions of their actual target culture – and so they fail to do good contextualization.
  3. Encouraging unnecessary division. Paul says that division among Christians is necessary (1 Cor 11:19). But we must strive to keep these divisions appropriate to how central something is to the truth of the gospel and the central teachings of the Bible. As others have so helpfully written, we must know the right hills to die on. Some issues are worth dying for since they separate saving faith from false gospels. Others are worth dividing over and require us to be in separate churches, such as our ecclesiology. Then others are worth debating for within the same church, like our understanding of the end times. Then there are issues to personally decide for, such as whether we should drink alcohol or eat pork in a Muslim context. When we fail to do “triage” like this with our ministry methods, we end up treating tertiary things as if they are secondary or even primary. For example, if one missionary is fine with introducing one local believer to another when they are not naturally part of the same “household,” other workers might ostracize this missionary because they are violating their movement strategy. Sadly, these kinds of divisions will also not be limited to the community of ministry professionals, but will trickle down to those we disciple as well.
  4. Exposing others to false condemnation. Our preferred methods often have an uncanny correlation to our personal gifts and strengths. When we get dogmatic about these methods, we can cause other believers to feel as if they are a less valuable part of the body of Christ because they are not as strong of an evangelist, not as good at reproducing stories, not as expressive in corporate worship, etc. We must be aware of the accusations that our brothers and sisters will hear when we speak or believe too dogmatically about our ministry methods. We may be exposing them to struggle with false condemnation.
  5. Becoming a silver bullet salesman. This danger is particularly for those of us who experience seasons of success or breakthrough in ministry. After a year of very encouraging ministry in college, one mentor cautioned me to make sure I didn’t assume that my experience would be true for all others also. It was sound advice. Fresh off a year of seeing my Muslim friends miraculously come to faith, I was at risk of sharing the “gospel” of my methods with any who would listen, implicitly communicating that they would see the same results if they followed the same formula. The ministry and missions world is full of books and speakers who are effectively silver bullet salesmen. Praise God, they saw breakthrough in their particular ministry. But now they’ve written a book and reverse-engineered their experience so that if you follow these simple steps you too can be a part of this new thing that God is doing! Some will even imply that they have uniquely rediscovered the methods of the early church which have been lost over the centuries. This kind of talk is heady stuff, but is really spiritual naivete – self-deception at best and spiritual pride at worst.
  6. Leaving a more temporary impact. When we become dogmatic about our ministry methods, we zero in on things that may be proving to be effective in our own little slice of culture and history. But by focusing on these expressions rather than on the principles they come from, we end up leaving a more temporary – rather than lomg-term – impact. The next generation’s context may be drastically different from my own. If I try to pass on my methods, they may prove to be ineffective. If I pass on my principles, these have the flexibility to be applied in countless diverse contexts. This is what separates the Christian books that continue to be read century after century from those that are forgotten. This is also why Protestant principles such ad fontes (to the source) and semper reformanda (always reforming) have given Protestant Christianity such dynamism and flexibility in the last 500 years compared to the older churches that became so chained to their Latin, Greek, or Syriac ministry methods (i.e. traditions).
  7. Opening the door to doctrinal drifting. We have a limited capacity for dogmatism. I have often observed that missionaries who are dogmatic about methodology are less convictional when it comes to theology, and vice-versa. It seems we simply cannot live in the real world and be dogmatic about everything. We must fix ourselves to some particular area of importance which then becomes our ballast for navigating everything else. If our north star is “right” methodology, then that means right doctrine is not what we ultimately look to for guidance. This opens the door to doctrine and theology slowly feeling less and less important, as we convince ourselves that right practice is really the main thing in the end. Yet dogmatism in our methods has another path that leads to doctrinal drifting, or to what many are calling deconstruction – when our much-hyped methods let us down. If we have been fixated on the false promise that the “right” methods will be a guaranteed formula for success, then we are in for a gut punch when they inevitably fail. And the enemy uses that season of disorientation to convince us that it wasn’t just the methods, it was also the theology that we believed that led us here. This seems to be happening all around us as in the West as Christians grapple with abuse in the church, and proceed throw out both unhealthy leadership methods along with complementarian theology.

Ministry method dogmatism will lead us to some bad places if we let it shape our lives and ministries. We need to open our eyes to the dangers of this very common malady and put ministry methods and strategies where they belong – as the flexible servants of solid biblical principles and doctrine. While a few areas of methodology are commanded more specifically in the New Testament, most of our methods are not the kind of thing we need be dogmatic about. Should we be convinced of our methods? Sure, let’s have well-formed opinions and make intentional choices about what methods we employ. But let’s not hope in our methods, as if they are what will make or break our ministries. Our methodology – and the Christians around us – can’t handle that kind of pressure. Only the word of God can. Let’s keep the dogma in the dogmatic, keep the central things central, and hold the other stuff with lots of grace, a willingness to change, and a good dose of humility.

Photo by Bernd đŸ“· Dittrich on Unsplash

Where Bread is Life

“Oh, and never throw out your old bread.”

“Really? Why not?”

“Locals say it’s really shameful.”

“So… what do you do with it instead?”

“Put it in a bag and hang it on your gate or on a tree limb in the street. People who raise animals will come by and collect it to use as feed.”

“So they come by regularly?”

“Yes, you’ll see. You might never see it collected, but it will be gone before you know it.”

This conversation with teammates happened early on after we had moved to Central Asia. It was an important piece of cultural orientation, the kind of thing that, unknown, could have made for a lot of unintended cultural offense. Our teammates were right. We started hanging up our baggies of dry, moldy, or unusable bits of bread. And they disappeared remarkably quickly.

Bread plays a central role in the diets of our local friends. Every meal will be served with either a form of flatbread or with small, individual loaves that are round or the shape of an eye. In fact, locals feel that if bread is not served, it doesn’t really count as a meal. Their words for breakfast, lunch, and dinner are morning bread, noon bread, and evening bread, respectively. The word for bread even substitutes often for the word for food, so that it’s most common to ask if someone has eaten by asking them if they’ve eaten bread.

“Have you eaten bread today?”

“Yes, I had some kabab in the bazaar.”

Many local women make their bread themselves, but each neighborhood will also have a small bakery or two within walking distance. Here, a crew of men will work all day in scorching temperatures in a kind of dance. For a flatbread bakery, one man shapes the dough into the right size. A second picks it up and twirls it until it is flattened and then slaps it onto a cushion with a strap on the back. Using the cushion, he then smacks the dough onto the inside of a blazing tanoor oven with a circular opening. The third man waits with a pair of tongs, grabbing each piece of flatbread when it has baked and bubbled enough, throwing it frisbee-style onto the counter that faces the street.

At mealtime, a crowd waits at that counter, their place in line marked by the folded bills they have placed in a notched piece of wood on one side of the counter. The person whose turn it is will expertly survey each piece of bread tossed onto the counter, selecting them one at a time, spreading out their scalding chosen pieces with the tips of their fingers and often flipping them upside down to cool. When they have the amount they have paid for, they will place the warm flatbread in a stack, stick it in a bag, and with a “May your hands be blessed” be on their way. Current prices are eight pieces of flatbread for about 75 cents (US).

The style of baking the bread and the lack of preservatives means it’s best when it’s still warm and fresh – and that it tends to get hard and moldy much more quickly than our bread in the US. Hence why we so regularly had bread that needed to be thrown out. That, and the fact that every piece of flatbread has soft parts and hard parts, and most eaters tend to use bits the former to scoop their rice and leave the latter on the tablecloth uneaten. There are some kinds of very thin flatbread that are made to last longer that are stored mostly dry and then made pliable by spraying them with a spray bottle at meal time or sprinkling them with water from your fingers. This practice of sprinkling the bread has come to be an inside joke of sorts among local believers as they discuss the various modes of baptism. “Oh, that missionary? He practices sprinkling the bread.”

There is saying in some parts of Central Asia that “bread is life.” What we have come to learn is that bread is viewed as so fundamental to life itself that it has taken on a somewhat sacred status in a way that’s not true of other food. That’s why it’s never to be shamefully wasted, but always saved for animals if it’s no longer fit for human consumption. Whether hung in the street in bags for farmers or torn up and and thrown on to the roof for birds, bread is precious and therefore never to be simply thrown away. Throwing out your bread would ruin your name in the eyes of the community.

I was reminded of this Central Asian practice when I was recently reading in Leviticus. The reason the people of Israel were not to eat meat with the blood still in it, but rather to pour a beast’s blood out and cover it with earth? “For the life of every creature is its blood: Its blood is its life” (Lev 17:14). Blood was sacred and to be honored. Why? Because it was so fundamental to life itself. This close connection between life and blood changed how the people of Israel were to treat blood. Blood was also how atonement for sin was made (17:11), and this made it a substance even more to be honored. These commands also had serious communal consequences if ignored. “You shall not eat the blood of any creature. For the life of every creature is in its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off” (17:14). Not treating blood appropriately would make one cut off from the community.

There are echoes of how old covenant Israel treated blood in the way Central Asians treat bread. On a purely cultural level, both honor that which is crucial to life. There is a natural wisdom in this. In order to respect life, we must also respect those things that life is most dependent on. However, for the people of Israel, their relationship with blood was also divinely commanded because of God’s chosen old covenant system of atonement – itself a prophecy of how Christ would atone for all who believe with his own blood. I don’t know the origins of Central Asians’ honoring of bread. Perhaps it is only a wise tradition. On the other hand, perhaps it came from the traditions of the ancient Christian communities that used to be so common in Central Asia. Similar to blood, we are also saved by bread. We remember this every time we take communion. We are saved by the broken body of Christ, the bread of life torn and pierced for our salvation. In this way, bread is a sign of salvation accomplished in history, and available to any who would believe.

In Acts 15, the Jerusalem council asked Paul and Barnabas and the gentile churches to still abstain from blood, even though they affirmed that salvation was by the grace of Jesus, apart from works of the law like circumcision. I would not be surprised if Central Asian believers continue to also treat bread in their respectful way even as they seek to transform their culture with the gospel. Some parts of culture get rejected when they come into contact with gospel truth. Others are retained, and not only retained, but deepened. Bread is life, and for those who believe in Jesus, now more so than ever.

Understanding and Transforming Patronage

Patronage is one area of foreign cultures that is hardest for us Westerners to comprehend. Sometimes described as patron-client systems, this is a global and historical way to structure society when you can’t rely on impersonal institutions. If Westerners need to borrow money to buy a house or a car, they get a loan from the bank. If they need a job, they submit a resume to a company. Impersonal institutions help us acquire some of our most important resources for succeeding in life. A patronage system instead relies on important people to get these needs met.

In the West, we sometimes hear that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. What this means for us is that relationships are still important, as a sort of lubricant that makes the institutions run more smoothly. In a contest of two equal resumes (or CVs), the resume of the person who is already known will win, because relational experience has been thrown in as the tie breaker. In places like Central Asia, resumes are almost meaningless. Far superior candidates are passed over for the unqualified relative or loyal client whose uncle or patron heads up the company. In patronage systems, who you know really is everything.

The basic logic of a patronage system is that society is set up like a pyramid, with patrons on top and clients on the bottom. To get ahead, members of society look to secure patrons, individuals higher up in the pyramid than they are. The client will offer their loyalty, services, and public praise to the patron who will in turn secure the material goods or connections that the client is looking for.

If you’ve ever seen The Godfather, the character Don Carleone spells this out explicitly. After agreeing to order a hit on a man who has shamed his new client’s daughter, he clarifies that this relationship is one of mutual obligation. “Someday – and that day may never come – I’ll call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, accept this justice as gift on my daughter’s wedding day.” Don Carleone offers a favor of power and influence and the client is thereby indebted to offer any services which might be in his power to offer his patron in the future.

In the past in Central Asia, this could look like an important chief granting land, seed, a horse, and a rifle to a villager. The expectation would be that that villager would give the patron a portion of the crops, that he would fight for him when conflict arose with other tribes, and that he would in every way become his loyal man. Central Asian culture being what it is, this also would mean the client must regularly visit the patron in order to drink his tea and thereby honor him. The peasant was client to the chief, who was client to the regional governor, who was client the emir or king, who was himself client to the emperor or caliph. A current manifestation of Central Asian patronage might look like a politician giving cars or monthly salaries to individuals in order to ensure their votes and support come election time. Or a working class woman bringing food regularly to the family of a university professor to ensure that her son gets into university – while that same professor is indebted to a patron higher up for his job.

There are at least two types of patrons, the powerful individual and the one who connects you to the powerful individual. This latter person is sometimes called a broker. He may not be able to get you the job, but he’s got the ear of the guy who can. Individuals who are on an equivalent level in society with one another are either rivals or “friends,” equals who are in a positive relationship of helping one another out, perhaps sharing the same patron above them.

The mutual obligations of patron-client relationships are the sort of thing continually taught and modeled to kids by their parents and broader society as they grow up, in a sort of “how to invest and get ahead” informal mentoring. These obligations are then (unlike the quote from The Godfather) usually implied rather than spelled out. Patron-client realities are something everyone in society is just supposed to understand. This is what makes this aspect of culture such a minefield for Western missionaries, who arrive completely ignorant of how a patronage society works.

Westerners often look askance at a patron-client society as one in which unequal access to powerful individuals replaces a more just system of merit and equal opportunity. This critique is not always wrong. But remember that most of these societies do not have dependable impersonal institutions to rely on, such as insurance companies. So, your extended family serves as your insurance policy, and beyond that, your network of patrons and clients. Westerners often assume that everyone in their new society can depend on impersonal institutions as they can back home, not realizing that things like banks and government entities are often merely shells which actually contain an internal patronage system. Westerners come from a society which assumes that everyone should be equals, whether “friends,” rivals, or strangers. So a Central Asian may befriend a Westerner in hopes of finding a broker or a patron, only to have the Westerner treat him as an equal “friend” with no strong mutual obligations. Confusion and frustration results.

Patronage causes some big problems for missionaries and for the establishment of healthy churches in our region. For starters, the Western missionary is viewed as a potential patron with lots of wealth and connections. This brings a flood of relationships that are trying to get a leg up on the societal ladder, but which the missionary might mistake for purely friendship or spiritual interest. Missionaries hiring locals is another minefield. Far from the limited contractual relationship between employers and employees that we are used to, employers in Central Asia are patrons responsible for much more than the unsuspecting Westerner knows. Many warm relationships blow up when the Westerner ends the employment of a local. It’s even more dangerous for how locals might come to understand the local church, as a place where their loyalty and services are given in return for the patron-pastor’s providing them with their physical and spiritual goods. But viewing the pastor as patron or broker merely recasts the church in the image of a fallen patronage society.

After living these past seven years in a patronage society, I’m only now beginning to see the through the fog of it all a little bit. Since so much of this kind of a system is meant to be intuited rather than explicitly taught, I’ve had to find scholars who have studied these kind of systems in order to make sense of the patronage sea I’ve been swimming in. One of these helpful guides is a New Testament scholar who wasn’t writing with my context in mind at all, but instead doing historical context work on the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultural world of the first century. David A. DeSilva’s book, Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity, has proved to be a very helpful resource for better understanding how patronage still functions among our focus people group. Even my framing of patronage in this post relies heavily on language that that DeSilva uses to describe New Testament culture. Turns out much of the culture of the societies in the Bible has hung on in parts of our region – not entirely surprising given how the mountains tend to preserve things and Islam itself arose in and is compatible with a patronage culture.

The wonderful surprise I found, with DeSilva’s help, is that the New Testament authors model how to transform a patronage culture. I’d like to go into more detail of how this is done in future posts, so for now I’ll content myself with a preview. In short, the New Testament authors didn’t reject patronage, but they did radically redefine it. God is held up as our true patron, the generous patron of all humanity, yes, but the specific patron of believers to whom he freely gives gifts of salvation and new life. Jesus is presented as our true broker – or mediator, in first century language – who mediates creation, redemption, and continual access for us with God the Father. Believers are now all “friends” with one another, regardless of socioeconomic status, who share the same patron and are to work for one another’s good and honor, without rivalry. All of this results in a certain posture of gratitude and service toward God the Father and Jesus Christ which taps into the logic and motivations of a patronage system: what client could ever betray such a generous and trustworthy (faithful) patron? To do so would be unspeakably shameful. Instead, God is worthy of our eternal loyalty, public praise, and joyful service – for our patron has even more glorious gifts yet in store for us, namely resurrection.

This is how the New Testament authors transformed the patronage cultures of the early churches. To make sense out of patronage cultures, and to faithfully engage them ourselves, we need to follow their lead. Given that so many of the unreached people groups of the world are patronage cultures, how amazing that the New Testament authors can serve as such direct models of faithful engagement. My guides for understanding and engaging patronage were there all along, right under my nose.

Photo by Europeana on Unsplash


A Central Asian Church Covenant

This summer our church plant began a process of adopting a church covenant. This is a brand new concept for this culture, so we spent many weeks teaching about the characteristics of a healthy church, church membership, and how a covenant can help us do these things more faithfully. We tried to write one from scratch together, but quickly realized we’d do much better to take an existing Baptist church covenant from one of the international churches in our region and to seek to adapt it. We spent a good amount of time with the local believers tweaking it according to the local language and supplementing the good historical statements that were there with some key areas of need in this particular time and place.

What were the items that were added? Many of them corresponded to our top Central Asian church killers: domineering leadership, money issues, lack of interpersonal reconciliation, and persecution. A line on the reputation of the gospel and our church also made it in there – a key concern both biblically and also in an honor/shame culture like this one. We added a paragraph on a faithful posture towards our cultures, since intercultural issues are a regular occurrence, not just between us and the locals, but also between the locals themselves, given their diverse backgrounds. Our hope is that this article on culture will set them up well to redeem, reject, and redefine their local culture, creating in this church a local and context-specific biblical culture with clear lines to both the Word and to its own region.

Hopefully in the next few weeks we will be ready to officially covenant together and move from informal membership to formal. This will be the first time this has happened in a church that worships in our local language. Then we hope to read and pray for one article of this covenant every week as we gather, in hopes that this steady exposure will make it a spiritual tool that will truly shape who we are as a church and how we live together. May God grant that to be the case.

Here is the text, translated back into English.

Having been brought by God’s grace and glory to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, having been baptized and having agreed to the statement of faith, and by his Holy Spirit having given ourselves to Jesus Christ, we do now joyfully covenant with one another.

We will work and pray for the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Eph 4:3)

We will conduct ourselves together in the love of a spiritual family, exercising care and watchfulness over each other and faithfully encouraging and warning one another when necessary. We will be faithful and submissive in carrying out the process of confronting sin and making reconciliation. (John 13:34-35, Rom 12:10, Heb 3:12-13, 1 Thess 5:11, Lk 17:3, Col 3:16, Matt 18:15-20)

We will commit to appoint and support the leaders of our church according to the commands of the Holy Scriptures. Our leaders must meet the qualifications of the New Testament and like the good shepherd, seek to serve the church and not domineer over it. (1 Pet 5:1-4, Titus 1:6-9, 1 Tim 3:1-13, 2, Cor 1:24, 1 Thes 2:7-8)

We will prioritize our church’s gathering and not neglect to regularly gather together. (Heb 10:25)

We will not neglect to pray for ourselves and others. (Col 4:2, James 5:16)

Although we are sure that all power for salvation is in God’s hand, we will earnestly work to bring up any who may be under our care in the training and instruction of the Lord, and by a loving example and speaking the gospel, through the gospel seek the salvation of our family, friends and neighbors. (Titus 2:1-6; Deut 6:4-7, Mt 5:16, 1 Pet 3:15, Lk 5:19)

We will rejoice with those of us who rejoice and weep with those who weep, endeavoring with tenderness and sympathy to bear each other’s burdens and sorrows, even in times of suffering and persecution. (Rom 12:15,Gal 6:2; James 2:14-17, Hebrews 10:32-34)

For the reputation of the gospel and our church, we will seek God’s help to live carefully in the world, denying ungodliness and worldly passions, remembering that we bear the name of Christ and now have a special obligation to lead a new and holy life. (Eph 5:15-21; Titus 2:12; 1 Pet 2:11-12; 1 John 2:15-17)

We will work together to maintain a ministry in this church that is faithful to the word of God and the gospel, the preaching of God’s Word, the administration of baptism and the Lord’s supper, and the exercise of church discipline. (Phil 1:27; 2 Tim 4:2; Acts 2:38; 1 Cor 11:26; Matt 18:17; 1 Cor 5:13)

Although each person has a unique culture, the kingdom of heaven is universal. Therefore we commit to build a gospel culture with one another. In this way, the positive aspects of our cultures will be redeemed and the negative aspects will fade away. We will seek to live in our cultures with humility, peace, grace, respect, and courage. (John 4:9, 27; 2 Cor 5:17; 1 Cor 9:19-23; Revelation 7:9)

We will contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry, the expenses of the church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the gospel to all nations. We will resist the love of money and will use the church’s finances transparently. (Matt 28:19; Luke 12:33; 2 Cor 9:7, Hebrews 13:5(

If we leave this church, we will leave lovingly and faithfully, and as soon as possible unite with some other Biblical church. (Heb 10:25)

In order to be most faithful to this covenant, we will read it regularly together. (1 Tim 4:16)

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen. (2 Cor 13:14)

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

A Question Very Few Are Asking

Today a colleague asked me a very good question.

“Assuming that the worldview of the West is more youth and future-oriented, how do you think that influences missionaries?”

I responded that two effects come to mind right away. The first is the preference for new and novel methods over those that are old more traditional. These older methods, “Grandpa’s tools” as it were, are dismissed out of hand simply because they feel traditional or old-fashioned to us. Very few Westerners would even ask if these older methods are contextual (Since the assumption is that they were mindlessly imported and therefore are not). And even if they turned out to be, few would be without some kind of emotional resistance to employing them. Why is this? Because our future-oriented worldview biases us to the new, the exciting, and the ground-breaking. These novel approaches scratch a very powerful cultural itch that has to do with what we find to be convincing and compelling. Add to this Westerners’ ever-present underlying fear of being paternalistic or of even being perceived as colonial-lite, and we have one powerful combination. Out with the old, in with the new. And very few asking what is actually contextual for a specific foreign people group – meaning what method is the most effective for living and communicating clearly within the locals’ culture? That should be the rubric, not some emotional new-always-better-than-old bias I brought with me that grew from the soil of my passport country.

What of Western culture being youth-oriented? Here I believe there is a connection with our obsession with movements. If you think of the life cycle of a group of churches, the beginning is incremental, steady growth. This could be compared to birth and early childhood. Then comes the movement stage, when growth and multiplication take off at breakneck speed. You could compare this stage to adolescence and young adulthood. After this comes stabilization and institutionalization, which corresponds to mature adulthood. Finally comes decline and possible disappearance, which could correlate to old age and death. What part of the life cycle of a group of churches is missiology obsessed with? The movement phase. Adolescence and young adulthood – just as our culture is obsessed with this very same stage of our individual physical lives. Westerners dream (and sing) of being forever young. So does our missiology*.

I have sat through missions and church planting trainings where this life cycle of churches is graphed out and the goal of the session is to show how bad institutionalizing is and how good the movement phase is. The goal of said trainings is to keep churches forever in the movement stage, always multiplying and growing at remarkable speed. As if a 40-year-old should be expected to grow six inches and three shoe sizes in a year just like he were an adolescent. The implication is that one stage of church life is where the Spirit is really at work, and childhood and mature adulthood are well, just not really where it’s at. And God forbid we ever get old and start to decline. Young, sexy, and multiplying is evidence that we are truly doing ministry like the book of Acts, while stabilizing and forming healthy systems might even be evidence of compromise.

The problem with cultural blind-spots like these is just that – we often can’t see them. Missionaries are very good at seeing the blind-spots of the church back home, but we need help finding our own. I’m convinced that this future and youth-orientation seep into our methods and missiology often unexamined, priming us to leap at the novel, the exciting, and the informal, and to prematurely dismiss the traditional, the slow, and the formal. Thankfully, we do have some wonderful allies for exposing these blind-spots: the global church and church history. There is a reason I post excerpts from the stories of the ancient church in Ireland and Central Asia. They provide me a welcome and very different draught to the ever-present kool-aid of the present age. I don’t always agree with everything they did, but these long-dead saints have many things to teach us as they poke at our blind-spots from beyond the grave. Local believers can also be wonderful allies on this front, as they see through some of our cultural assumptions so well.

The key thing is to recognize that our Western worldview really does influence us, and to humbly and courageously admit this, without falling into any silly cultural self-deprecation that forgets that all Christians in every era and culture have to deal with their own version of this very same thing. Once we’ve owned this and developed a healthy curiosity for where this might be happening, then we’re in a good place to begin the difficult task of recognizing our biases. We may end up keeping them, but at least then they will be intentional biases, and not those that exist by mere cultural default.

Missionaries are very good at studying other cultures. May we become just as good at studying our own.

*for some good data on this, see the book “No Shortcut to Success” by Matt Rhodes

Photo by Nicholas Green on Unsplash

A Lifestyle To Reach the Most

The problem with every culture is that it is in fact a spectrum of subcultures. Sure, there are broad trends that group these countless subcultures under valid, larger headings. But city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood, family to family, culture varies. Not only does it vary, but it also changes over time. This leaves the missionary (or any Christian really) who hopes to do good contextualization in a difficult spot. How do we get an accurate picture of said culture and then how do we choose a missionary posture within it so that we can reach the most?

“Learn from the locals,” might be the given response to the question of how to get an accurate picture of a particular culture. But again, the problem is, which locals? Darius* is a young college-educated city kid from a tolerant middle class family. Harry* grew up in a village, worked as a shepherd boy, and now lives in a neighborhood full of his violent fellow tribesmen and Salafis. Mr. Talent’s* father is a powerful retired general. They live very well-off in a more liberal part of town. Ask these three local men separately what their culture says on a given topic and you are likely to get three very different answers. Does this mean we reject any data from them as invalid? Not at all. But neither do we treat it as carved-in-stone cultural law. Instead, we can take note of it and place it on the cultural spectrum. “Some locals do things this way.”

By carefully placing the some there, we save ourselves from being thrown later when another local contradicts our original cultural informant. We also in this way prepare our minds for the flexibility needed to engage an actual living culture, with its many shifts, variations, and complexities. Yes, we learn from the locals, but we do so by treating their cultural advice as one true part of the picture – a picture that will take a long time to fill out. Their feedback is valid and important, but not sufficient for getting a final picture of the broader culture. It’s worth noting here that locals are just like us and tend to project their own personal subculture as authoritative over the rest of their culture. We need to be aware of this, as often they are not, even as none of used to be aware of our own propensity to do this. In time, self-awareness and cross-cultural friendships will chip away at this.

Learn from the locals, yes, but make sure to learn from all the locals, including those that contradict each other. Together they represent a snapshot of this living, morphing societal system of values, customs, and behaviors that we call the culture.

So then, how should we choose to live within this spectrum of subcultures? Much here depends on one’s particular goal. But for missionaries like us who desire to see healthy churches planted that will reach their own people, we want to find a lifestyle that is accessible for as many locals as possible. This means we will avoid the poles, intentionally not living like the most traditional and not living like the most liberal. Even though in Islamic societies, the latter is usually more comfortable for us. And even though others might assume that going full conservative is the really radical and effective thing to do. Instead, we aim for somewhere in the middle, the kind of place where we can have friends from among the social-media-shaped youth as well as the Salafi-leaning Islamic families.

This means our wives might sometimes get teased by their single university friends for not showing more skin, but they will still be able to befriend the girl in the hijab, even though their hair is not covered, because their clothing still communicates the reputation of an honorable and modest woman. In a society where female appearance is extremely important, dressing for the respectable middle gives them access to almost the entire spectrum of local women.

This may also mean valid lifestyle differences among missionaries. My family eats pork – when we can get it smuggled in that is. Other families choose not to. Both of us have chosen to eat or not eat because we believe that will help us with gospel access to the greatest number of locals.

The key is to attempt to make these lifestyle choices intentionally, rather than an easy default to what we prefer or even a default to what one local friend says. The longer we live in a given culture, the more we will be able to make these contextualization choices in an informed way. Newer missionaries can get worried about their living situations being too Western or too local, but they should relax. If they are studying the language and culture and making local friends, they’ll be in a great spot to find their own posture a couple years in.

We want the gospel to be the stumbling block, not our lifestyle choices. That means we need to understand the culture in all its messy diversity. Embracing the idea of the culture as a spectrum can help with this. That understanding of the culture can then lead to clarity regarding any unnecessary stumbling blocks that need to be removed, and what kind of proactive lifestyle needs to be embraced for access to the most.

No one gets this perfect, but the beauty of a culture’s messy diversity means that even your cultural faux pas might be taken as a positive by at least some locals – even if they’re the rebels. And there is some measure of relief in that. God’s sovereignty often turns our blunders into our breakthroughs. Perhaps those cultural rebels will be exactly the ones you are supposed to reach.

*names changed for security

Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

Time to Bring Out the Fruit

Every culture, in spite of the fall, retains elements of the image of God. For those with eyes to see, these positive elements of a culture quietly point to the wisdom, beauty, and goodness of God, a remnant witness which can’t help but spill out even in cultures that have been cut off from the truth for centuries. Everyone who has ever lived honestly in a foreign culture will find things they simply do better in that foreign culture than in his native one. Sometimes these are noble, serious things. Other times, well, they fall much more in the realm of practical common sense.

Take, for example, what our adopted Central Asian culture does with fruit. This culture is extremely serious about hospitality. “If your enemy comes to your door, you must host him,” is a local saying I’ve recently learned. House architecture, family roles and rhythms, and much of the language itself have been crafted around this ideal of generous and honorable hospitality. It’s not uncommon for long evenings to be spent hosting friends, relatives, or patrons for dinner, progressing through an abundant sequence of snacks, drinks, food, and dessert offerings.

However, no matter how lofty the cultural ideal, practical life needs cannot be ignored. At some point, the guests need to leave, the hosts need to clean up, and the family needs to sleep. This might happen at midnight or later, especially during the summer nights, but somehow an indirect signal needs to be sent to the guests that while it’s been a great time, we need to be wrapping things up. This is where the fruit comes in.

When the women of the household start to sense that it’s time to draw the visit to a close, a final round of food will be brought out and set before the guests. This will usually consist of a platter full of fresh fruit and cucumbers, with a small plate and fruit knife handed to each guest. Right now, being summer, it’s often gorgeous slices of sweet watermelon. Locals don’t begin rushing out the door at this point, but everyone intuits what the fruit means. In the next 15-30 minutes, the kitchen is shutting down and it will be time for a barrage of highly verbal goodbye pleasantries to be exchanged all around.

Once we foreigners started noticing the importance of the serving of the fruit in the traditional culture, we started asking our language tutors and friends about it. Some denied that serving fruit played this role of wrapping up a visit. Others thought about it, then the realization dawned on them for the first time that yes, this was a very real correlation. Still others laughed and told us that our observations were spot on – that was exactly what was going on. Much like Americans getting their keys out of their pockets when they are feeling ready to leave, apparently the fruit serving functions among some locals somewhat subconsciously, while with others it is an explicit and recognized thing. More progressive families are of course mixing things up, serving fruit early on in a visit, which tends to alarm new missionaries here who have recently learned about the “fruit principle.” Alas, culture, like language, is never static, but a continuously morphing thing.

What we have come to appreciate about all of this is the existence in this culture of a simple, polite, indirect signal that serves to conclude a visit. Why don’t we have one of these in Western culture? I’ve heard of American families who, sensing this lack of a signal, have employed their own, such as disappearing and reappearing, having donned their pajamas – a signal only the most out of touch guest would ever miss. Others have allegedly feigned falling asleep. Of course there’s also the risky move of looking conspicuously at your watch or a clock, or exaggerated yawning. Some Christian hosts might ask, “How can we pray for you?” – not a bad way to bless someone and indirectly conclude the visit at the same time.

When we are back in our passport countries we find that that the absence of the fruit leaves a nagging hole of ambiguity as an evening visit gets later. We end up longing for this aspect of our adopted culture and the hospitable open secret that it represents. There are certainly things about my parents’ Western culture that I prefer over my adopted Central Asian one. Greater freedom to ignore texts and phone calls, for example. The tyranny of an immediate answer or reply in order to avoid offense is a frustrating thing. But when it comes to hospitably and clearly wrapping up a visit? I’ll take the fruit signal any day as the superior system.

The next time you are hosting or visiting and the evening is getting later, pay attention to what signals might be being sent. The need to understand a visit is concluding is of course universal, in spite of its cultural variations. Does fruit emerge? Pajamas? A conspicuous lull in the conversation?

My sense is that if Westerners could develop our own equivalent “fruit signal,” we just might be making hosting a little easier for everyone.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Please Pass the Meat

The sermon was a rough one. The visiting American pastor never had us turn to a specific text. Instead, his half hour encouragement was a creative string of allusions to bible stories, anecdotes, and illustrations. Everyone in the gathering who had gotten out their bibles eventually put them away.

I sighed and looked around the room. Once again, half a dozen locals were attending the international church service. It was bad enough that the expat community was being served the equivalent of spiritual yogurt water (in case you’re not familiar with yogurt water, it’s not very much by way of sustenance). But locals tend to view Western pastors with a kind of awe, and often accept any content or form of teaching as faithful and worthy of emulation – simply because of the category of person who is delivering it.

I grimaced, seeing that a couple of our church-plant’s English-speaking local guys were in attendance, Darius* and Alan*. They seemed to be focusing intently on the sermon.

My wife and I shifted in our seats uncomfortably and I reminded myself that the mission field is merely a reflection of the state of evangelicalism in the sending countries. It’s not realistic to believe that our corner of Central Asia will somehow be isolated from some of the West’s more unfortunate Christian-ish exports. Joyce Meyer has already been translated into the local language, anti-Trinitarian cults have made their appearance (and are allegedly financing one of our former leaders-in-training), and the satellite TV channels are full of Benny Hinn-styled preachers. At least this sermonette’s main point was to encourage us to not be discouraged in sharing the gospel. Not a bad aim at all. But alas, the method and modeling were definitely lamentable.

After the service was finished, Darius made his way over to me.

“So, what did you think of the sermon?” he asked.

I bit my lip and half-smiled/half-grimaced, not sure what I should say. Darius has not always been the strongest when it comes to discernment, and tends to be quite drawn to the novel and the exciting. But he leaned in.

“That guy didn’t even have a text!” Darius whispered loudly, gesturing wildly with both his arms in the expressive body language of our locals (I have often maintained that our people group’s intonation and hand gestures make them the Italians of Central Asia). “He just told a bunch of stories… and he even added some details that aren’t there!”

My eyebrows rose in welcome surprise. Darius was not taken in by the creative delivery. Instead, his new – but apparently growing – convictions of ministry alarm bells had been going off.

“Darius,” I told him, “I’m very encouraged that you were concerned about that sermon. You’re right. He didn’t have a text he was explaining. He never asked us to open our Bibles. He did mess up some of the details of the Bible stories he told. Take note, when we have an opportunity to feed the people of God, we should attempt to prepare a feast, not merely pass out some snacks.”

Darius smiled and threw up his hands again. “What can I do? I learned from you guys about preaching.” Then he made his way over to the table where the sunflower seeds and chai were set out.

This final comment was particularly encouraging and humbling. My teammate and I who serve as temporary elders of our church plant are not eloquent preachers in the local language. Perhaps we will be five or ten years down the road, but right now we make it our aim to simply be clear, and to model basic expositional preaching in a second language – that is, preaching that makes the main points of the text the main points of the sermon and which seeks to faithfully explain the intent of the author. I’m still too tied to my manuscript. My colleague has more freedom in this way, but faces his own unique challenges while preaching in the local tongue from an English outline to our small group of believers. We often make comical language mistakes.

“We are insane,” instead of “We are not complete yet,” and “What should you do if you have a heart attack when you want want to give an offering?” instead of “What if you have a divided heart…?” have been a couple of our more recent bloopers. May God bless the long-suffering ears of these local believers who sit under our teaching week after week.

We have deeply invested in the simple method of steady, weekly, regular proclamation and explanation of God’s word. No flash, no bling. We sit in a circle of chairs and the preacher sits with another chair in front of him to serve as his pulpit. We took a couple years to get through Matthew and are currently taking a couple years to get through John, interspersed now and then by pressing topics or a recent series on the characteristics of a healthy church.

At times we are tempted to feel as if this steady sowing of God’s word is not accomplishing much. Much contemporary missiology calls into question the act of preaching altogether, alleging that it is a Western form import from the Reformation and not as effective as things such as DBS – Discovery Bible Studies. We don’t really buy those arguments though. Most of them betray a woeful ignorance of global church history (historically, preachers always, always emerge when new peoples are reached or awakenings take place), not to mention an under-baked understanding of the centrality of proclamation throughout the Scriptures.

The hardest doubts to handle have to do simply with how slowly people grow and change. After five years of this kind of unpacking of God’s word, how is it that more has seemingly not sunk in? How is it that character is not maturing more quickly and knowledge taking deeper root? Are we doing something wrong?

In faith, we believe that an unrelenting teaching and preaching ministry will eventually result in faithfulness and fruitfulness. But it sure is encouraging when we get to see a glimmer of that future. Darius noticed some very important things during that English church service. That noticing was evidence of growth in spiritual discernment. And spiritual discernment – that comes from soaking in the Word of God.

Preachers and teachers, keep on preaching and teaching, in season and out. And if by chance you ever get to preach on the mission field, please, for our sake, preach the Word. Don’t dumb it down either for the missionaries or for the locals.

Pass on serving mere yogurt water. Instead, serve them up a feast of some good solid meat.

*names changed for security

Photo by DJ Johnson on Unsplash

Seven Factors for Missionary Homes

Whenever new personnel come to the field, we end up discussing the pros and cons of the housing that’s been chosen for them. Usually there’s some concern that it’s too nice compared to how locals live, but sometimes there are concerns that the place is not nice enough. I try to encourage them to settle in to the place they’ve been provided, and to keep their eyes open for the various ways in which locals and foreigners live here. “In a couple years,” I encourage them, “you’ll be in a great spot to find your own posture as far as housing and standard of living.” As we’ve given our colleagues here eventual freedom to choose to live in more modern or traditional places, they’ve felt better able to find their own personal fit regarding this very practical question.

A word of advice to team leaders or church planters out there: insisting on one rigid standard of living for your team doesn’t tend to work out that well. Rather, letting people wrestle with the following factors helps them to balance the different aspects involved, and make a decision with deeper buy-in. We don’t have to all live the same way on the mission field. A variety of housing lifestyles is healthy even for local believers to see. This is another area where we need to be careful not to create laws, even if we have personal convictions regarding what kind of housing is truly strategic.

  1. Access. The most important factor for missionary housing is access. Can workers who live in this house or apartment easily access the people group or the area they are called to focus on? We want to redeem the time and not live in a house that bogs us down in transit or isolation unnecessarily. We are also all creatures who struggle with motivation. When that culture shock is running you over, you want access to your people group to be there with as little resistance as possible. Living next door to (or on top of) your focus people group provides gospel opportunities, even when you might not want them. Easy access is not always possible, but when it is an option, it’s an extremely important factor.
  2. Hospitality. Does that potential home lend itself to gospel hospitality? Will locals feel comfortable visiting you when you invite them? Does your wife find the hosting space efficient or frustrating? Socioeconomic dynamics can have an effect here. If your house seems too fancy or too rough, locals may not feel free to visit you. In our context where apartment towers are a very new thing, many locals are afraid of high buildings, and might not be able to visit an apartment on the 20th floor.
  3. Relatability. Does your house or apartment and the way you live have much overlap with the way that locals live? Or is your house laid out in a foreign way, or lacking important items that locals believe should be in every home (like bathroom shoes)? It’s usually not wise for foreigners to try to live exactly as the locals do, but we should aim for healthy overlap. There should be ways in which our homes feel local, and ways in which they feel Western – especially for rest needs. Our first house in Central Asia was very nice, a surprising step up from where we had been living in refugee apartments in the US. Our second house ended up being a little too small and rough for our family and ministry needs. Our third house? Hoping for the right balance.
  4. Longevity. Is your home restful for you, your roommates, or your family? After spending yourself in local ministry, is your home a place where you’re actually able to recharge? If your house is the biggest cause of stress you have, you likely need to move. Some of our colleagues have moved into communities with 24-hour electricity and have experienced a major decrease in their stress levels now that they don’t have to juggle various fragile electricity systems. Many of us have also lived in homes without adequate natural light, and have learned to prioritize this as a practical way to fight discouragement. My family has moved into an old stone house, but one with green trees and lots of dirt and easy access to the bazaar. Why? Because green and dirt and walking the bazaar are life-giving for us. And it all adds up when it comes to longevity – the ability for workers to actually stay on the field.
  5. Team. Are you close enough to your teammates to be able to function as a healthy team, with regular rhythms of meeting, eating, and working together? One of the costs of our current house is that it is a 30 minute drive from our teammates. But for our first two years on the field, we were neighbors with one set of teammates and lived just up the hill from others. This easy access was crucial in those early days. Sometimes we can prioritize strategy over team and community, and only later realize the deficit that’s been building.
  6. Life Stage. Are you married with small children? Apartment living might not be the best choice, unless you can find a place on the ground floor. You probably don’t want to tell your kids to hush all the time. Are you living in a Muslim context but have teenage daughters? A house in a conservative neighborhood could end up severely limiting your girls’ freedom and end up leading to bitterness. Health problems can also mean needing to live somewhere newer with better utilities. Singles may also not be permitted to live in some neighborhoods because of honor/shame or safety issues. Access to schooling can also be one of the most important factors here.
  7. Beauty. This has been a growing category for me personally. In the past, beauty would not have registered as an important aspect of which house to live in. But we are creators by nature and even in this unstable age we are called to plant gardens in Babylon as it were. Once again, everything adds up when it comes to longevity. Access to beauty at home, or the potential to create beauty by moving into a fixer-upper – these things could actually make the difference in whether or not that internal stress cauldron boils over or not. My mom used to garden in Melanesia. For years I never understood what the point was. Now I am starting to get it. Our lives are supposed to be little previews of the new heavens and the new earth. Splashes of beauty in or around our physical domiciles contribute to that overall foretaste that we hope to give our local friends. In one sense, investing in the beauty of our homes on the mission field doesn’t feel like a very “pilgrim” thing to do. But we are not merely utilitarian beings, laser-focused on the spiritual while ignoring the physical creation around us. We were gardeners in the beginning. We will one day be part of an eternal garden city. Therefore, as “pilgrim gardeners” we are not foolish to hint at these realities in the here and now, even as we admit that these good previews might be here today and gone tomorrow.

We should be careful not to create laws about missionary housing that stem more from preference than sound principles. These seven factors, however, are worth considering as church planters, missionaries, or really any Christian wrestles with how to live on mission in this needy world. There is no perfectly balanced place to live this side of heaven. But by being intentional in where we choose to live, we can have a home that is an aid to our mission, rather than a hindrance.

Photo by Marko Beljan on Unsplash

Only Begotten Brother

At lunch yesterday with some colleagues and local believers, Mr. Talent used a unique phrase to call the waiter.

“Only begotten brother! We’d like some more fermented yogurt water!”

Since it was my first time to hear this particular title, I wasn’t sure if I had heard right. Sure enough, he continued to use it to hail our waiter.

The phrase seems to come from the local word for brother combined with a word that we don’t have in English, which means something like “only child” but can also be applied to an only son in a family of daughters, or vice versa. I can use it for my only daughter, but I can’t use it for my sons. Our King James phrase, “Only begotten” is not too far off, and indeed, this is the local word our language’s translation uses for God’s only Son in John 3:16.

This word also carries with it a sense of special honor and affection. Since it’s organized along male kinship lines, it’s not surprising that our Central Asian culture would bestow this kind of title onto an only son, but I’ve been encouraged to see that this unique honor and affection can also be extended to only daughters. These “only begottens” might even end up a little spoiled.

But I had never heard this kind of special familial term extended in this way to someone like a waiter in a restaurant. It was a perfect example of how honorable titles here are regularly proclaimed onto others in the course of daily business and interactions.

“My flower”

“My soul”

“My lion brother”

“My liver”

“My beautiful son”

“My eyes”

“My dear uncle on my mother’s side!”

I’m only scratching the surface here when it comes to the titles that men can use to refer to their neighbors, friends, and shopkeepers.

One of the hardest things for us to learn as Westerners is this constant art of blessing or honorable proclamation – even after we get up the courage to call a man our flower while kissing his cheeks. I still catch myself mumbling respectful phrases when I should be projecting them confidently. At least that seems to be what Central Asian fathers teach their sons, since they all grow up really good at the art of bold title bestowing.

I find myself a little unsure. “What if they don’t want to be called my lion brother?” But my local friends don’t seem plagued by this doubt. It doesn’t seem that the qualification for the title resides in the recipient, but rather in the will of the one bestowing it. Central Asian men are going to call you that honorable thing whether you feel like they should or not.

In this I see a small window into the nature of God, hidden away in our broken local culture. Does God not also proclaim honorable titles over his children, friends, and enemies dependent only on his divine pleasure? And does he not keep on proclaiming them whether we feel worthy of them or not, whether we want them or not on a given day?

“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” 1st John 3:1

“No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends…” John 15:15

I want to get better at proclaiming respectful titles over my friends and acquaintances here – and not just so that I can become a Central Asian for the sake of reaching Central Asians. I want to become more like God.

In this culture awash with honorable pleasantries, it is not the most skillful orator who will be noticed, but the one whose honorable blessings actually come from the heart. In this case there will be some who truly come to fulfill these titles, to surpass them even. How? As they hear the gospel and are transformed from one degree of glory to another, for all eternity.

Photo by juan pablo rodriguez on Unsplash