Gospel & Culture blog
As a professor of missions, I often hear people say "you can be missionary right in your own neighborhood." As with any academic field, it's important to get the terms clear. While you can be an evangelist in your own neighborhood, "missionary" and "missions" should not be confused with "evangelism" or "discipleship."
Missions is cross-cultural discipleship, so some very important work that we do as the church is NOT missions. Drawing a boundary does mean excluding some work from the definition of missions (thought such work may be missional and strategic for the church). Consider the following true examples from my students:
Sharon, from the USA, teaches English in Thailand. She was not sent by her church, is not under a mission agency, and receives a salary from her university. While she is working cross-cultural, she does not see herself as a missionary because her presence in Thailand is not particularly about making disciples
Miguel, from the Philippines, is studying theology and missions in the USA, but plans to plant churches among his own ethnic group in the Philippines. He considers himself a church planter, but not a missionary.
Carmen, from the USA, is financially supported by members of her own church to do the bookkeeping for a mission organization in West Africa. She does not particularly “teach them to obey all Jesus has commanded,” but her mission organization does have an overall plan to make disciples. Carmen sees herself as a missionary because of her important role in an organization that is doing missions.
If a cross cultural worker digs wells but has no overall plan for “teaching them to obey all Jesus commanded,” then while it is obeying the first commandment to manage the earth for the flourishing of humankind, it is not part of the narrower aspect of the churches mission to make disciples across cultures. And in all fairness, I must add, if an organization plants churches and hands out tracks, but is not actually “teaching them to obey all Jesus has commanded,” then it, too, is not actually doing missions.
Of course, in our day-to-day experience, the set of activities which are involved in making disciples is fuzzy. Healthcare can be done in a way that teaches people to obey Jesus, or it can be done without touching on issues of discipleship. A Christian could work cross-culturally in such a way that she makes disciples in her secular workplace, or she could hide her light under a bushel. By defining missions narrowly as cross-cultural discipleship, I am not as much excluding certain activities as I am focusing on the setting (does it cross cultural boundaries) and strategy (does it make disciples) that drives those activities.
The activities (methods) and purpose seem to fall in three general categories. The most obvious is witness. Some “teach them to obey all Jesus commanded” by planting churches, teaching in international seminaries, exorcising demons, and preaching to crowds at college campuses. But in 2016 we reached the threshold where more than 50% of people who call themselves missionaries say their primary activity is not witness, but service, development, healthcare, or cultural production through the arts. A second category of missionary methods includes engagement in public life. And a third we may label as “cultural production.” The below shows how these categories fit together in the bigger picture of making disciples across cultures.
About the only thing people know Saint Patrick anymore is that he drove off all the snakes from the island. That was an easy feat for him, because there weren't any to begin with. I can relate to this, because I lived on another green island where there were no snakes-- it would be kind of hard for the snakes to make it across the channel from Europe. But Patrick's accomplishments were actually far more significant than that (and maybe even harder to believe).
Saint Patrick's life played out like an action film, and in fact, his life story was told in a major motion picture by Fox family films; and you can watch for free on youtube. Patrick was born around the year 389 in Britain. Patrick reports in his Confessions that as a teenager, he was capture by Celts and sold into slavery to an Irish farmer. Later, he was sent on a ship to France to take up work feeding dogs. He given his freedom there and returned to Britain. Back in Britain, Patrick had a call in his dreams to return to Ireland and proclaim the gospel, much like the Apostle Paul experienced the Macedonians calling him to come to their land (Acts 16:6-10).
Once in Ireland, Patrick began focusing on reaching tribal leaders first. This became a long-standing missiological strategy of focusing on elites (though other missionaries deliberately focused on the masses). Patrick's mission strategy was incarnational, attending to issues of justice. He freed numerous slaves. He planted around 200 churches, and baptized between 100,000 and 200,000 people. Many of these folks remained animistic after conversion. So in a twist of irony, the Celts who dragged Patrick to Ireland as a slave were actually forging the way for the conversion of the island. As Joseph later told his brothers, who sold him into slavery in Egypt, "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives" (Gen 50:20, NIV).
—Some of these Celts became monks (then separate from Roman Catholicism). These monks went out as missionaries over the next few centuries to Britain, whose churches had been destroyed by Saxons after the Roman Empire disintegrated. Eventually they turned the island of Iona into a missionary sending base. So Celtic Christianity became a hub of literacy, Christian thought, and education. Patrick's missiology was not a "mission station" mentality; it was a strategy of raising up leaders from the start, who would multiply church growth.
Did Patrick really use the three leaf shamrock to illustrate the Trinity? Does that sort of analogy lead to heresy? Or are shamrocks a "redemptive analogy" that God place specially in Ireland to reflect his Triune nature? I don't know- but the legend of Patrick's shamrock illustration does bring to light how missionaries have been contextualizing the gospel for centuries.
For the best scholarly treatment of St Patrick, I would direct you to Ed Smither's paper on Patrick: Bishop, Missionary, Monk, or All of the above?
When I type "how do i convert to..." in Google suggest, the first suggestion is .pdf. It appears more people are curious about converting their word documents to Acrobat Reader than those who want to know how to follow Jesus. Islam and Judaism come up in the Google Suggest; but Christianity doesn't even appear. Are more people wondering how to convert computer files than how to convert to Christianity? Are people more interested in converting to Judaism and Islam than to Christianity?
We know that Islam is the fastest growing religion, and will soon catch up to Christianity. Pew says that there will be 2.76 billion Muslims by 2050, and 2.92 billion Christians by the same time. Obviously, the growth in both cases is mainly biological (Christians have babies who become Christians, and Muslims do the same)- so this is not primarily conversion growth.
While "nones" (those who have no affiliation) are a growing demographic in Western nations, the number will barely rise globally. 79% of millennials say they are not affiliated with any religion, according to this study from Pew. That's compared to 54% of those born before 1946.
I suppose a main question that arises from the Google Suggest is whether one can learn how to convert through a google search. If you finish the search "how do i convert to Christianity" it sends you to a 10 step wikihow with reasonable advice: get a Bible, get into a church, accept Jesus.
Christians should speak differently than the world does, right? Our priorities are different; our beliefs and even our values are different. Christians were different from their Jewish and Greek peers in the first century, just as the Israelites were different from the nations around them in the OT days. Talking differently is a significant way to signal that we are set apart. Early Christians developed a highly specialized vocabulary to describe uniquely Christian ideas like regeneration, election, justification, and so on. Nowadays, Christianese has regional varieties (we "love on" people in the south more than we do on the West Coast) and nuances
Unfortunately, talking differently can also create a barrier. Most training in evangelism and missions says that we should identify with the people we're trying to reach, not let our differences be stumbling blocks (oops, another Christianese term). People will only understand us if we use a language they understand. I remember telling a pre-Christian friend that "God convicted me" about something, and he had no idea what I meant by "convicted." If people outside the church don't understand our "hedges of protection" and "fleeces before the Lord," can we even be certain that people in the church know what we're talking about when we throw around these terms?
The "Dictionary of Christianese" database contains about 200 entries like "check in your spirit" (pictured above, and in the title of this blog) and "missionary dating". Each entry has a definition as well as cleverly designed images and well-researched examples on the origin and historical use of these terms. The database gives an early example of "frozen chosen" in print:
There are undoubtedly many other examples of Christianese, and the dictionary's compiler, Tim Smith, would surely covet your prayers as he continues research on Christian jargon.
Perhaps you feel convicted (a word that hasn't been added to the dictionary yet) about your use of Christianese. Is it missional to talk in a way that seems strange to your ? WWJD?
Maybe this is a good thing to discuss the next time you have koinonia with your life group (still to be added to the dictionary). What is your experience with Christianese?
A common heuristic device for depicting the interdisciplinary nature of missiology is the metaphor of a stool that stands on three legs (or academic disciplines). However, missiologists have disagreed on exactly which disciplines comprise those legs. That theology is central is hardly contested; but there is less agreement about the role of the social sciences, history, education, mission strategy, and so forth. Here, I argue that we should move beyond the three-legged stool metaphor, as it fails to describe the true interdisciplinary nature of missiology: The academic influences on missiology are more numerous than the stool metaphor allows for; the borders between these disciplines are fuzzy and changing; and the influence of academic theories on mission strategy is not merely one-way. In quest of a more satisfactory metaphor, I will suggest a definition of missiology as the utilization of multiple academic disciplines to develop strategies for making disciples across cultures. Drawing on that definition, I develop the image of missiology as a river with countless tributaries (theoretical disciplines) that converge for this common goal. Since scholars of Christian mission cannot be experts in many fields, we must be intentional with the sort of interdisciplinarity that is most useful for designing effective mission strategies.
To read the rest of this article, follow this link.
The apostle Paul said “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12 ESV). Yet Open Doors and Voice of the Martyrs remind us that some are experiencing much greater levels of persecution than others. Open Doors' “World watch list” breaks down persecution of Christians into three “impulses” or pressures on Christians: tribalism (factions, in-fighting), secularism, and exploitation. Some persecution is acute (which Open Doors refers to as “the smash”) and some is more chronic (“the squeeze”). Religious intolerance, factionalism and tribalism are increasingly dangerous to believers. It was Justin Long who reported “During this century, we have documented cases in excess of 26 million martyrs. From AD 33 to 1900, we have documented 14 million martyrs.” The Vatican says that 75% of people who are killed for their faith are Christians.
Historically, theologians have been ambivalent the role of persecution in Christianity. Tertullian noted that “the blood of the martyrs is seed [of the church]" (Apologeticus, Chapter 50). This was more descriptive than prescriptive. That is, Tertullian wasn’t advocating for martyrdom as a church growth strategy; he was observing that rather than stamping out the church, martyrdom rallied the faithful. Why is this? Maybe because stories of persecution are inspiring. They help us think through our own priorities. We think, “If someone ordinary- not a super saint- had the courage to stick to their convictions, then maybe I can too.” Westminster Abbey's statue to ten 20th century martyrs from all six continents received wide attention because of the inspiring stories and adventuresome lives of Bonhoeffer, Dr MLK Jr, Archbishop Oscar Romero and others.
Why do governments and factions persecute Christians?
Some postcolonial theorists find the martyrdom narrative within Christianity to be disturbing, so they discount the degree to which the church has been, and still is, persecuted. Most notably, New Testament scholar and contributor to the National Geographic Channel Candida Moss has argued that the persecution complex gives license to Christians to vilify their opponents:
Instead, Moss says, early accounts of martyrdom were few and far between. Such accounts were highly stylized to suit the author’s purpose. Christians, Moss argues, were prosecuted, not persecuted, for a crime that made sense to the ancient world. In order to further distance Christianity from its historical claim of disproportionately high levels of persecution, Moss argues that the act of martyrdom was not original, but followed motifs in the life of Socrates and the Greek romance novel. Or perhaps, Moss fancies, early Christians “couldn’t help themselves” from rehearsing the passion narrative!
While persecution is one of the greatest threats to Christians, Patrick Fung (Director of OMF) tried to keep this perspective: “The greatest challenge to missions isn’t martyrdom, but a diluted gospel” (NA Mission Leaders’ conference, Chicago, Sep 21 2012). Interestingly, Glenn Penner, CEO of Voice of the Martyrs takes a similar radical stance: “I do not believe that persecution is the greatest threat to the continuing spread of the gospel. I am much more concerned about something that, at first glance, seems benign and even helpful but which I contend is far more insidious. I am referring to the dependency creating practices that ministries are increasingly promoting in the name of ‘partnership.’”
The issue of martyrdom raises a number of questions for Christians
If I told you a movie was about a linguist who tried to establish a trusting relationship with foreigners so she could learn their language, you probably wouldn't expect it to be an alien movie. The aliens (called heptapods, because of their seven legs, in the film) arrived on earth in twelve pods, but never deboarded their ships. They were unhurried in making their intentions known. Meanwhile, armies around the world desperately wanted to know if the aliens were friend or foe.
Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) had to learn enough of the Alien language to ask "Why are you here" -- and she needed to know enough vocabulary to understand their answer. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the answer was so ambiguous it could mean "Give weapons" "Give tools" or even "Show your weapons!"
I remember on Tanna Island how often people would ask me, "Why, exactly, did you come here?" Even though I learned enough of the vernacular in a couple months to say, "To translate God's word into your language," a number of people were still suspicious. What's your real intention? Are you going to steal our land? Are you going to make money off of us? I think it took several years, and numerous trips to the hospital, to demonstrate that our intentions were to be helpful.
In the film, it wasn't until Banks walked among the heptapods in their own environment on the ship that she became fluent in their language. Up to that point, she and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) were only boarding the alien ship for a few minutes every ten hours. This can be a stern exhortation for cross-cultural workers: If you spend most of your time with expats, or boarded up in your own home while overseas, you'll never learn the language or culture. You have to get out of the environment you're comfortable in, and immerse yourself with the people you're going to be working with.
These days, "locally sourced" and "organic" are seen as great selling points for a product. Actually, mission leaders have long recognized the value of local resources. Church growth should be locally sourced- in fact, the goal of missions is to strengthen the local church so that discipleship, leadership and education are all locally sourced, rather than dependent on the expatriates.
Church growth is also organic and natural. Programs and pre-determined "formulas" don't work. That's why Rolland Allen referred to the "spontaneous expansion of the church."
What other trends in the market also match with values within missionary work?
Free range? At one point in time, missions was not so free-range; the wisdom of the day was to move converts to a mission station where they learned a trade and how to read. But missiologists and practitioners in recent decades have seen that this artificial environment did not help new Christians learn how to live out their faith in their own villages or communities. Now evangelism, discipleship and education happen in people's natural cultural and geographic environment.
Cross-cultural workers in recent decades have begun to recognize that the communities and people where we work must benefit as much from the missions effort as the sending churches do- in that sense, there's a "fair trade" ring to missions work. If your church in the USA is getting all the kudos and joy from your short term missions projects, whereas the host community is left unheard, something's wrong.
I suppose you could even say church growth is gluten free in many parts of the world- the only bread is the Bread of Life in parts of the world where rice or taro are the food staple, not bread.
Linguist and anthropologist Eugene Nida argued that religious conversion is like learning a second language in adulthood: Just as languages have surface structures (vocabulary and grammar), they also have "deep structures" or underlying meanings. It's the same with religions: baptism is a surface structure, but its underlying meaning is about the sinful nature, regeneration, repentance. And, Nida continues the analogy, just as languages manifest in multiple dialects, so do religions-- there are different ways to do baptism, for instance, or different ways to pray to God. To complete the analogy, Nida said that just as we have accents when we learn a language as an adult, we carry this "accent" of our first religion into the religion that we learn later on in life.
That is, we learn our first religion- that of our parents and home culture- the same way we learn our native language. But if we convert, we have to learn the new religion like we learn a language in adulthood- we have to learn by immersion, of course, and also by analysis, by having things explained to us-- it's not as implicit and "organic" as the process of learning the religion of our youth.
This gets me thinking- can you ever forget your native language? And to extend the analogy, do you ever "forget" your religion of your youth, when you convert as an adult? To extend religion to all aspects of culture-- maybe this is why assimilation is so difficult for any of us. If all of culture is like Nida's analogy of language- then we carry these "accents" of our home culture into the host cultures where we sojourn. And we can never seem to learn the nuances of all these new cultural "dialects".
There are many ramifications of this notion of conversion as a sort of "second language acquisition." It means when we disciple or evangelize, we have to be aware of the "first religious language" of the people with whom we are sharing Jesus. In some ways, the structures and underlying meanings of their native religion help facilitate the learning of this new religious language of Christianity (ideas about morality, for instance, or obligation). But in some ways, learning Christianity is like a foreign language (when it comes to grace, for instance)
Nida, E. 1978. "Linguistic models for religious behavior." In Smaley, G (ed) Readings in Missionary Anthropology. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.
Every few years, a story comes out about the discovery of previously un-contacted tribes --- usually in the Amazonian jungle. A few days ago the Guardian reported that photographer Ricardo Stuckert's helicopter was diverted, and his flight took him over one such tribe. Stuckert posted his photos of the Indians (this is how they are referred to in the news story) looking up at the helicopter, bows and spears in hand. In 2014, the Guradian had a similar story about un-contacted Indians who fled their home and crossed into Peru to seek help.
I have become curious about why we are so fascinated by the notion of tribes that have little knowledge about the outside world. I have few hunches:
I think the issue warrants more of our attention than just a lookey-loo at people with brown skin, hand-fashioned weapons and loin cloths. Survival International says there are as many as 100 un-contacted tribes, whose land, way of life, and even existence are threatened. The push and pull factors of modernity and cultural preservation is a complicated issue: How do indigenous peoples balance their desires to protect the land, the need for modern medicine, their interest in modern conveniences, their need to have a political voice at the national and international level. Plus, the interests of the national government and international businesses (loggers, oil companies, etc.) are also at play.
Perhaps, without articulating all of these conflicting interests in a nano-second, it's the extremely complicated nature of all of this which catches our imagination and makes us stop to look at the stories about the discoveries of unknown tribes.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor