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

22 Questions That Reveal Character – Even Across Cultures

It’s hard to discern a potential leader’s character, even in our native cultures. Unlike physical features, the terrain of character is invisible, demonstrated over time through a person’s life. Veteran pastors in the West say it typically takes 2-3 years to really know if a man has character fit to lead the church. How much more difficult is it then to discern character across culture and language barriers?

When that cashier is careful to not touch your wife’s hand when taking money from her, is that because he believes women are inferior and dirty? Or is that because he is wanting to protect the honorable reputation of your wife in a culture where a bad reputation for women can be life-threatening? Which is it? We are faced with a thousand dilemmas like this when we begin doing character work across culture.

Here are 22 questions that can serve as practical lenses for discerning character no matter what culture you’re in. They’re not exhaustive, but I hope you will find them helpful. They are also not original to me, but represent the pooled wisdom of many conversations with pastors, authors, friends, and wise believers. Some of these questions have also practically emerged out of being burned and bitten by wolves.

Before we look at the questions, however, we do need to keep a couple realities in mind. First, biblical principles do not change throughout time and across cultures. They are universally true and unchanging. However, the expressions – the applications – of those principles do vary from one century to another and from one culture to another. This will also be true at times for how character is expressed.

How an American shows respect is night and day different from how Central Asians show respect. Same principle – respect – outdo one another in showing honor. But very different, even offensively different applications. The same goes for hospitality, what constitutes manliness, who should kiss who, how we think about time, etc.

To make it even more complicated, the scriptures sometimes tie a principle and an expression very tightly together – like baptism and the Lord’s supper. The expressions are commanded along with the principle. But other times we are given principles and a large degree of freedom in expression – as with musical worship in the church. Especially for those of us in cross-cultural ministry, this is an area for careful and nuanced study of the Word.

How narrow or broad is the spectrum of faithful expression for a given biblical principle? We should know that spectrum of faithful expression, and then choose a posture according to our unique context.

To illustrate what I mean, imagine a huge Kentucky oak, not a squat mountain scrub oak like ours in Central Asia, but a remarkably tall and straight tree, a couple hundred years old. This huge oak tree has roots fixed in the earth, steady, strong. It’s trunk is firm and unmoving, solid. However, once you get up into the branches, you see some sway when the wind blows. Even the strongest and healthiest tree has some sway.

Our biblical principles are like the roots and the trunk. Our faithful applications are like the branches. Solid biblical principles have some sway in their applications across time and cultures. Disregard the universality of biblical principles and you become a relativist. Disregard the existence of the sway and you fall into a classic error of fundamentalism, which is mistaking an expression for the principle itself.

So then, ask these questions for discerning character, and be aware of how character does and doe not express itself differently across cultures.

1. How does his local church feel about this brother? The local church is often the very best reference we can have on a man’s character. What do the elders see? What do the old ladies see? Do the members of the church commend him as one already leading, already shepherding even without a title?

2. How does he respond to gospel conversation? Do his eyes gloss over and does he insist he has that topic down? Or does his heart burn within him? Does he light up at the chance to revisit the beauty of the good news?

3. How does he handle the word? Does he exhibit a posture of humility and carefulness toward scripture?

4. Does he repent freely? This is a big one for Central Asian culture! You know your local brother’s character is changing when he doesn’t just give a general, “I’m sorry,” but he starts naming specifics – and in front of others!

5. How does he respond when someone sins against him? Or when he is publicly shamed? Does he know how to extend grace and forgive? Or does he keep bringing it up and holding a grudge?

6. Is he a good follower and team player? I never want myself or my friends to follow anyone who can’t be a good follower themselves. And neither should you. The healthiest leaders are those who also know how to be good followers.

7. How does he respond to those with power and position? Does he always gravitate toward the preaching pastor, the foreigners, those with power? Does he seem to be trying a little too hard to look good in their eyes?

8. How does he respond to the vulnerable? To women, children, the poor. Our response to the vulnerable always exposes our character. Is the instinct to protect them, to ignore them, or to take advantage of them?

9. How do his wife and children respond to him? Let’s not neglect to ask the people who live with this man what he’s really like at home. A pastor who used to be a cattle farmer told me they once fired a man for how the cattle acted around him. They never saw him abusing the cattle, but they could tell from how the cattle acted what was happening when he was alone. How do a man’s wife and children respond to him? And what can that show us?

10. Is he quick to deal out judgement? This often means he’s hiding sin or doesn’t understand the gospel. Most of the wolf-types we’ve encountered have been unpredictably judgemental on minor issues.

11. Can he be trusted with money? As one of our top church-killers, money issues are often what make or break the character of a Central Asian leader. He must be above reproach with money or he will not make it in this environment of foreign organizations excited to partner financially.

12. Is he self-aware of his own weaknesses and need for the body’s diverse gifts? Do not appoint a man to leadership who is still in the phase of thinking that everyone else needs to be gifted exactly like he is. Only appoint men who rejoice in others’ diverse giftings.

13. How does he respond when he doesn’t get his way? A man of good character knows how to defer, how to trust others even when they disagree. 

14. Does he welcome correction? This is a sign of wisdom. (Prov 9:8)

15. Is he gracious toward cross-cultural mistakes? This is a very practical filter for us. The only local partners that will last with us are those who have a robust category of grace for honest cultural mistakes that we can’t help but make. If they’re harsh with your cultural mistakes, they will be with others’ even from their own culture.

16. Does he always make it about himself? Somehow does the conversation always turns back to his accomplishments?

17. Does he host or serve in ways that don’t get recognition? As one Central Asian pastor has said, pay attention to the Central Asian man who cleans the bathroom or does the dishes. That means something!

18. How does he handle his liberties? Mature christian freedom is freedom for the sake of love, not freedom for the sake of freedom. Will he give good things up that cause others to stumble?

19. What is his reputation among the discerning? Do you have folks around you who are perceptive and discerning? Lean on these people and their gifts of character discernment. I am helped to hear what a certain teammate of mine sees in a person, and to hear how my wife feels about that same person. What they see and feel tends to be validated later as a person’s true character is exposed.

20. What comes out of him in a crisis? Some security police crashed a church meeting at a colleague’s house a couple years ago. A new believer who struggles with fear stood right up, went over to the police, greeted them, told them his name, welcomed them, and acted with great courage and respect. You can’t plan reactions like that. Crises expose what is deep down inside.

21. Does he keep his commitments? A righteous man swears to his own hurt (Ps 15:4). This is foundational for building trust.  

And lastly, 22. Does he run when the wolf comes? Or does he lay down his life for the sheep, as the good shepherd did? I was discipling some Iranian new believers in the US and they were bothered by the fact that staff pastors at our church were paid salaries. “How do we know they’re not just in this for the money, like the mullahs back home are?” they asked. “You’ll know,” I said, “when a wolf emerges, or anytime when caring for the sheep means the pastors must sacrifice and suffer. Then you’ll see their character emerge.”

Why is it important that we have some practical filters like this for discerning character? Because it’s hard to see character even in our native cultures, let alone in one where we are outsiders.

These filters give us some tools to have on hand, things to notice as you are walking with potential leaders – or any believer for that matter. How they do with these lenses applied will expose who they are, or who they are becoming.

It’s hard to see character, but a man’s heart is exposed by the fruit of his life (Matt 7:15-20). If we are careful to study the fruit, we can truly “see” the heart, and character will no longer be invisible.

Photo by Stephen Kraakmo on Unsplash

How to Sign Your Name Like a Central Asian Convict

This past week some colleagues were discussing certificate options with a local friend. As you might recall, certificates in this part of the world are taken very seriously. A training or class is often not considered respectable or even real if it comes with no certificate.

We were debating various formats for an upcoming certificate-giving ceremony and trying to fit spots for a couple of signatures, a seal, and a logo on the bottom portion of the paper. Initially, we only focused on the practicalities and aesthetics of the question when an old memory of signature placement and meaning suddenly came back to me.

Mr. Talent*, will it mean something bad in your culture if we go with this centered design and one signature line is placed above another signature line?”

Mr. Talent had to take a minute to understand what I was getting at.

“You know, your culture feels very strongly about the placement of signatures. One must not sign below their printed name, correct?”

Here I flashed back to my first landlord, a fiery older woman who scolded me when I signed below my printed name on our first rental contract, and indicated for her to do so also.

“Don’t put it there! That’s the way convicts sign things! We are most definitely not convicts!”

I remember being thoroughly confused. Was this true all across the culture or was this simply fiery old Aisha* who once told us she would absolutely go join the anti-government protesters – if only her legs were still strong enough to run when the bullets started flying.

Sure enough, as I asked around I found all my local friends somehow knew that to sign above the name meant you were a respectful person, and to sign below meant you were in prison. I have no idea where this came from, but contextualization means we make sure to remember to sign above that line.

Mr. Talent quickly understood what I was referring to. “Yes! Yes, that means you are a criminal!” he laughed deeply and gave me a kiss on the cheek.

“So then,” I continued, “If these signatures are stacked in the middle of the certificate, will that carry a similar negative meaning?”

Mr. Talent chewed on my question. He is most certainly a true local, but is in his early 30s and a member of what more traditional types call “the iPad generation.” He would be one to scoff at the concept of corpses being preserved through the local practice of avowal, for example.”

“No,” he then replied, “we should be good to stack them like this if we decide we like it.”

Mission accomplished. Having checked with a local about this particular interplay of form and meaning, we could now be sure that we wouldn’t be accidentally insulting our students in the very ceremony meant to honor them.

Living in a foreign culture is full of hidden landmines like this. You might be carrying on for years thinking you are being respectful only to realize you’ve been quietly insulting people the whole time. Having grown up in Melanesia, I found out the hard way that you’re only supposed to reply to polite letters written by single female peers if you have intentions of love and marriage. Back in the US, no one told me you’re supposed to tip your barber. I stumbled onto this after years of cheerfully waving goodbye to my barbers without leaving the expected cultural form of thank you. Here in Central Asia, it took five years for us to find out the proper way to not subtly insult gas station attendants.

This is what makes learning another culture so much fun – and so risky. Deep embarrassment is never far away, so it’s great for your humility – and for laughter. On the flip-side, when you learn or anticipate a new part of the cultural code, you get a very satisfying sense of a mystery now revealed.

So then, if you happen to be in our corner of Central Asia, don’t sign all over the place like some kind of careless celebrity. Keep your non-convict status and make sure to sign above that printed name.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Bermix Studio on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Aidan Bartos on Unsplash