Gospel & Culture blog
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.
Why old "dyadic" cultural categories like "hot-cold" or "individualist-collectivist" may no longer be (as) relevant
The excerpt below comes from my book God's Image and Global Cultures
Cross-cultural theorists have come up with a number of ways of describing the differences between cultures. Usually these comparisons are based on dyadic (two-element) categories of value-orientations.
Early “value orientation” theories polarized certain values like competition vs. cooperation, shame vs. guilt; or short-term vs. long-term planning. The data seem to suggest that many dominant national cultures will lean heavily toward one end of the spectrum rather than maintain the polar opposites simultaneously. For instance, a culture will not be both hierarchal and egalitarian, or competitive and cooperative—though some cultures are far more polarized than others. For instance, the USA has the most individualistic culture on the planet; Australia has the most egalitarian national culture. Argentina is right in the center between individualism and power distance, and between egalitarianism and hierarchy (The Hofstede Center).
So these value-orientations are tendencies or generalizations; they are not descriptive of everyone in a given society. As Hofstede collected his data, he worked mostly with professionals in the host cultures. Subsequent theorists have noticed that there is a significant amount of variation within the societies that Hofstede studied. For example, a study of women, children, or ethnic minorities in some societies would return different results for variables like being/doing, or individualism/collectivism (see Tanno 2008). And we are seeing variation to a much greater degree in highly heterogeneous (“melting pot” or “salad bowl”) cultures in this era of globalization. Also, while the “culture difference” theory of Hofstede (and others) uses a model with polar opposites, no culture is entirely polarized. Cultures lean (sometimes heavily) one direction while maintaining some tendency toward the value on the other pole. For example, members of culture X may promote a strong “in group” mentality and may exhibit very hospitable behavior toward insiders, and yet be far less hospitable toward strangers. So it is difficult to plot Culture Xers on a continuum either as “spontaneous hospitality” or “planned hospitality” since the orientation changes depending on the context. Or they may be very expressive of emotions to insiders, and very stoic toward outsiders. So it is not that people of Culture X are incapable of hospitality and are always stoic; their orientation to both values depends on the social context.
Theorists such as Lingenfelter and Mayers employed a six-fold model of dyadic value orientations, including time vs. event orientation; task vs. person orientation; dichotomistic vs. holistic thinking, status vs. achievement, concealment or exposure of vulnerability, and crisis vs. non-crisis orientation. Still others have introduced the ideas of polychronic or monochronic time reckoning. Geert Hofstede’s dyadic categories included the idea of “masculine or feminine” cultures, which described the degree of aggression and competition in a culture. Other theorists have re-named this category “tough vs. tender”. Quite recently, Hofstede’s researchers introduced a pragmatism scale, rating some cultures as resistant toward change while others embrace it.
Even though the theoretical orientation of dividing ethnic or national cultures into dyadic categories is increasingly contested, it is important for World Changers to be aware of the canonical cultural variables that are discussed in the field of intercultural studies. And these variables allow us to think through God’s plan for cultures in light of their vast differences. Theorists have put so much effort into understanding these value orientations because, quite often, cross-cultural misunderstandings and conflicts are related to a clash of value orientations.
 Mead, Cooperation and Competition among Primitive Peoples.
 Piers and Singer. Shame and Guilt.
 Hofstede, Geert, et al., Cultures and Organizations.
 Hofstede, Culture's Consequence.
 Lingenfelter and Mayers. Ministering Cross–culturally.
 Hall and Hall. Understanding Cultural Differences.
 Hofstede, Culture's Consequences.
 Hoppe, “An Interview with Geert Hofstede.”
 Lingenfelter, Agents of transformation; Storti, The Art of Crossing Cultures.
Some pastors and even theologians preach that "ethne" in “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Matt 24:14; Rev 7:refers to "ethnic people groups" or nations . The excerpt below, from my book God's image and Global Cultures, addresses this issue:
This implies that there is ethno-cultural continuity between earthly cultures and eternity. The “nations” are apparently represented in heaven, in these verses. An interpretive problem immediately presents itself: Which nations? Does this mean only nation-states recognized by the United Nations? What about nations that have gone extinct, like the Ottoman Empire and Babylon, or nations that have reinvented themselves like Egypt and Greece? What about nations that are yet to be born? It is quite problematic to link ethne (translated as “nation” in the passage above) to the modern nation-states.
Unfortunately, rather than solving a problem, rendering "ethne" as nation or "people group" further reinforces an error in popular evangelical theology of culture. Think of the difficulties in interpreting ethne as ethnic groups: Is the child of an African-American father and Korean mother a member of a distinct ethne—yet another ethne that must be evangelized and will be included in the “all cultures in heaven” list? Would reaching a Korean-African American be considered as one new ethne or two or three ethne? What about people like Tiger Woods—“Cabalasians” who have numerous ethnicities in their background (as in fact, we all do)? Are they included as a distinct ethne? Are Caucasian Americans in the twenty-first century—with the innumerable combinations of Scandinavian, Mediterranean, Eastern European ancestry—to be understood as a single ethne? If we extend ethne to mean “however people identify themselves ethnically” or “all possible ethnic permutations” then we are left with so many possibilities that we may as well just say “all people.” In fact, that is exactly what many theologians conclude: We must interpret “every tribe and nation” as a metaphor for many people from all over the world.
This way of looking at ethne may seem like splitting hermeneutical hairs, but it has profound implications for an evangelical theology of culture in the twenty-first century. It should radically change the way we think about race and ethnicity. Ethnic boundaries are gradients and porous, not defined and static. Now, even if the Greek term ethne means “all people”; in practical terms, I would still maintain the conventional missiological wisdom that the best way to reach “many people from all over the world” is to focus on their self-identified ethnic groups! But those lines are always shifting and are contested.
 USCWM. "Who are the Unreached?"
 Some scholars have suggested that ethne in Matthew refers only to Gentiles. There are times when context does indicate this rendering. However, in these eschatological verses, the meaning seems to be extended to all people (see Meier “Nations or Gentiles”). Note that (ta) ethne is rendered 12 different ways, depending on context, in popular English translations: nation(s), people, country (or countries), province, Gentiles, heathens, pagans, peoples, world, foreigners, mankind, race (see Muthuraj “The Meaning of Ethnos and Ethne”) but never as “ethnicity.”
As Y2K approached (remember that?) Louis Bush popularized the idea of prioritizing missionary efforts in the 10-40 window: latitudes 10 to 40 North, where the world's majority of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists live. At that time missionary boards began focusing on Unreached People groups (as defined by David Barrett's Encyclopedia of World Christianity and popularized in the Joshua Project). The idea was that if fewer than 2% of a people group were evangelical Christians, there would be no indigenous church strong enough to evangelize its own people, so missionary efforts would be necessary. This push for missions among the least-reached in Asia (that's where the 10-40 window is) not only helped prioritize sending-country efforts, but it ensured that other parts of the world could become self-supporting, as expatriate leadership and resources were pulled out and redirected elsewhere.
However, the effect that this push toward the Unreached People Groups (UPGs) had some negative effects in churches and among missionaries. As pastors and mission leaders became passionate about the UPGs they began de-legitimating the very important missionary efforts of their very-skilled personnel who were working in Africa, South America, the Pacific, Europe, not to mention the USA, or anywhere else that wasn't considered "least reached." The push for "UPG-only" missions alienated the majority of missionaries these churches were sending out! I remember a supporting church called me to verify that our Bible translation project was indeed in an unreached people group, otherwise the church wouldn't support our work. I responded that the language group we worked in was least-reached, but not how the Joshua Project defined it.
It looks like mission boards and churches have moved away from the myopia of "UPG-only" missions. I think it's time to make missions global again. The reality is that in each of our sending churches (no matter what country) the people God raises up and whom we send out have too many varied callings and giftings to limit them to one region, or one particular type of work.
Of course, the real goal isn't to make Missions Global, but to make God's name Great Globally. #makeJesusGreatAgain
Below is an excerpt from my book God's Image and Global Cultures:God's Image and Global Cultures
When systematic theologians ask about the nature of human beings, they are exploring, “What does it mean to be in God’s image?” Questions about the nature of humanity belong to a specific branch of systematic theology that is referred to as theological anthropology. Anthropologians (theologians of anthropology) focus primarily on what it means that humankind was created perfect, because God cannot create an imperfect creation. Jesus, the perfect God-man is the model for this inquiry. Anthropologians also look at the essence of humankind: the relationship between the human body, soul, spirit and heart (or inner person). In a broader sense, they are concerned with the role of humans in respect to creation at large, as well as questions of race, free will, sexuality, and economics. An evangelical theological anthropology recognizes that humans are tempted, but are morally accountable, and because of the Fall, currently exist in an abnormal state.
There are substantive, relational and functional aspects of being in the image (or shadow or reflection) (Hebrew: tzelem) and likeness (Hebrew: demus) of God. Theologians have described three possible explanations for what it means that we are in God’s likeness: 1) we share characteristics, like rationality; 2) we are relational, and in relationship with God, or 3) we function in ways that God does. I cannot develop each of these ideas here, but I will point out that my argument that bearing God’s image means cultural behavior emphasizes the functional image. We function in ways that God does, as we rule, create, express and relate to others, and even rest. Of course, functioning in God’s image does not mean that we mirror his image. The cultural ramifications of the Fall are that we function in cultural systems (economics, social structures, expression, etc.) but are immensely creative in the way we corrupt each of these systems.
If we employ any number of definitions of culture, it would be accurate to say that culture is rooted in the very nature of God. Culture is fundamentally about communicating, creativity, society, and norms. And the Trinity is eternally engaged in these activities we call culture. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit communicate—though the Trinity is not confined to any particular language. God has tremendous (unlimited) creative potential. The Trinity has recently been described as a society of three, eternally existing in communion. Jürgen Moltmann, who focused especially on the social aspect of the Trinity, understood that this view of God would have political and social implications—that is, it would have to do with culture. And God has norms of behavior we see reflected in His Law (Ps 119).
T. F. Torrance has masterfully tied the act of creation/culture, as well as its purpose and design, to the Trinity. “The very plurality of God serves as the basis for the unified and creative agency of God”. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit fellowship in creative activity. Humans, as image-bearers, are mediators or stewards of the order of creation, and that is really what culture is about: “ ‘The creative re-ordering of existence’…This is by its very nature a socio-cultural activity”.
Granted, the eternally existing culture in the Trinity is not perfectly analogous to culture on earth. Our cultures seem to be inextricably linked to the environment in which we live, and it would require linguistic gymnastics to say that God exists in an environment.
 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 22.
 Geisler, Systematic Theology, 50–53.
 Cortez, Theological Anthropology.
 Leech, The Social God.
 Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God.
 Unfortunately, the metaphor of the Social Trinity can admittedly be hijacked by any social agenda. Specifically, socialists coopt the notion of a perfect heavenly society and mandate that the people of God, as representatives of the Trinity, must reconstruct this perfect society. See Chapman, “The Social Doctrine of the Trinity.”
 Flett, Persons, Powers and Pluralities, 18.
 Ibid., 114.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor