Gospel & Culture blog
By Kenneth Nehrbass
My work as a translation consultant brought me to a rural village in Vanuatu. The Anglican congregation meets under a structure of bamboo and thatch, with barbed wire strung along the posts to keep pigs and cows out. The priest wears a robe, stole and cross necklace. It is evident that his faith is sincere and that he’s connecting with God. As he lifts up the silver chalice and recites the liturgy, it occurs to me: This pacific island congregation is symbolically linked with Anglican congregations around the world by observing the mass the same way it is done all over the world; but are the people in this simple village church aware of the centuries of debate about the nature of the elements in the Eucharist? They identify with the name ‘Anglican’ but are they partakers of the long-standing tension between Roman Catholicism and the Protestantism? When they sing ‘And Can it Be’ in pidgin English, are they nostalgic about with massive pipe organs in places like Westminster Abbey; and what else do they know of Charles Wesley’s legacy? Is Christianity, for them, a legacy of two thousand years’ of pondering paradoxes like predestination and freewill, or salvation by works or faith? What is the value, for them, of Luther’s 95 theses? Of five point Calvinism? Or of the Wesleyan quadrilateral?
By Kenneth Nehrbass
The Melanesian Institute’s (MI) Point 33 is replete with thick ethnographic description and missiological applications. In addition to supplying particulars about how and why sorcery is variously practiced throughout Papua New Guinea (PNG), the contributors suggest how the church should respond to this phenomenon.
The government has long been aware of the troubles caused by sorcery (sanguma in Tok Pisin), and made it illegal under the 1971 Sorcery Act. However, proscribing the practice has not been effective enough in mitigating these problems. The solution, the authors suggest, is not merely to discourage the practice of sorcery; rather to dispel such “ignorant” (31), “barbarous” (33), “heathen beliefs” (157) in the first place. Accusations of sanguma cause people to live in fear of their neighbors and usually victimize those with less power, such as women and the elderly, as they inevitably take the blame for death and other misfortunes.
Therefore, the authors are not wondering about how to discourage sorcery, rather how to foster another Enlightenment like Europe experienced (46). They admit this is an ambitious project, since Melanesian cosmology involves ghosts, demons, angels and mechanistic powers. Additionally, Melanesians see some value in the sorcery system: It empowers women who are known to be witches; it explains misfortune; and the fear or retribution by a sorcerer is an important regulating force (337).
While cultivating such an Enlightenment is ambitious, these authors do not consider it impossible. If pastors would preach “against the belief and practice of sorcery” (154) people would be less likely to blame others when misfortune befalls them. But if they must maintain their cosmology, pastors should at least encourage people to attribute misfortune to “nature spirits, ancestral ghosts, evil spirits, Satan or even God” (298) rather than to their neighbors.
Because most of the authors do not reify sorcery as a spiritually energized phenomenon, their missiological application is limited when it comes to combating demonic powers behind sorcery, e.g., through “power-encounters.” Apparently they believe that spiritual warfare would be unnecessary if people would cease believing in demonic powers all together.
Aside from the Western bias of the authors, they achieved their goal of “linking faith questions with a phenomenological approach based on ethnographic enquiry” (58). The research methodology in this book is indicative of the high caliber of scholarship going on at the MI, and we can expect more studies from them of this value in the future.
This article first appeared in Nehrbass, Kenneth. (2011). [Review of the book Sanguma in Paradise: Sorcery, Witchcraft and Christianity in Papua New Guinea, Point No. 33]. Missiology, 39 (3). pp. 248-249.
“The biblical writers intended to be understood,” Steve Fortosis asserts in The Multilingual God. However, Fortosis’ numerous stories of translation reveal that it is exceptionally challenging to generate a comprehensible translation of scripture in tribal languages. Many minority languages lack abstract terms such as love, holy, hope, kingdom, or faith. So translators and mother tongue speakers must be resourceful in finding alternatives. In one example, Fortosis relates that the disciples on the road to Emmaus asked each other, “Did not our hearts cool within us?” (99). In another example, one translation rendered Luke 4:32, “The crowds were amazed at his teaching, for he taught as a heavy-mouthed one” (90). These “functional equivalents” aren’t meant to be avant-garde, (compare the Cotton Patch Bible); they are serious attempts of translators to be faithful in two languages: the source and the receptor language (133). Fortosis’ many examples of our Multilingual God convey what inspires Bible translators to participate in “the most complex intellectual activity in which any person can engage” (1). For many, the motivation is the joy of watching communities understand the text for the first time, and the thrill of beholding people put their trust in Jesus Christ.
Thirty years ago, Don Richardson’s Peace child and Neil Anderson’s In search of the source inspired many Westerners to get involved directly in Bible translation, and encouraged countless others to support the effort. Fortosis briefly recounts these stories, and more than a hundred other tales of translation, spanning from David Livingston to the present. And for those who want to discover more about any of those examples, he has painstakingly footnoted virtually every account in the book.
Inevitably, monolingual literalists will be disconcerted – rather than inspired- by the “free translations” in the book. Hopefully, such die-hards will attend to Fortosis’ epilogue, where he explains the process of modern Bible translation. Western translators aren’t renegades who expand metaphors or put in cultural substitutes at a whim; their creative and culturally-relevant solutions are the result of collaboration at the village level, and are refined by input from consultants, Bible scholars, stylists and copy editors from around the world.
Don’t read the book for theories of translation; it is not a textbook for translators, nor a “how to” manual for getting around problematic elements like rhetorical questions, key terms, or possessive constructs. Instead, enjoy the 182 pages of linguistic difficulties and innovative solutions, as Fortosis acquaints you with the nearly impossible (yet exceedingly rewarding) task of Bible translation.
This post was originally published as Nehrbass, Kenneth. (2013). [Review of the book Multilingual God]. Missiology, 41 (3). pp. 359-360.
By Kenneth Nehrbass
Jesus used various motifs to describe what He meant by “disciple.” He told some simply, “Follow me” (Matt. 4:19). The authors of the gospels never spell out criteria for who among the crowd following Jesus was a disciple and who wasn’t. It’s safe to say that there was no specific criteria for membership; disciples were those who came to Jesus for teaching (the core of the word “disciple” is one who adheres to the teachings of another). Davis (2015, pp. 29-32) suggests that perhaps the reason that practical theologians cannot agree on a definition of disciple is that it is, after all, a fuzzy (rather than bounded) set. Discipleship is not a program, or a twelve-step process. It is a lifelong process of transformation, and it is personalized- so it is a bit fuzzier to define.
Another motif for discipleship is based on Jesus’ teaching of the kingdom of God. Those who are under the rule of God, in whom the Kingdom is growing (Luke 17:21), are disciples.
Two main activities have characterized missiological understandings of making disciples: proclamation and obedience. Below I’ll explore both briefly.
Discipleship as persuasion
Church growth missiologists understood discipleship as primarily about proclamation. Wagner (1973) said the process of discipling involved helping “unbelievers to make a commitment to Christ. Wagner deliberately distinguished this activity from a separate stage, perfection, which involves “teaching them all things” (Rainer, 1993). Yet this narrow definition of discipleship is no longer in wide use. Scholar-practitioners now recognize that discipleship is more than bringing people to conversion.
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.
By Kenneth Nehrbass
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.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor