Sunday, March 24, 2019

Contextualization Versus Syncretism


In communicating the Gospel it is important to contextualize the message.  This would be true in every situation, whether one is speaking to an American audience or in Brazil.  Using theological verbiage like being “born-again” in Iowa might be understood by some, missed completely by a non-believer who comes to church for the first time. Certainly the phrase of being a born a second time would be confusing to a Hindu who believes in twelve thousand reincarnations.  Contextualization is an important element in presenting the message of Christ.

In Kenya, speaking to the Pokot cattle herders, I wouldn’t use Bible terms to describe Jesus as He is the Savior or that He died for their sins.  Those terms are church words, good words to be sure, but phrases they don’t get.  They don’t have a concept of sin, though they do have a concept of causing an offense to people in their community.  Instead of describing Jesus as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, I would describe Him as The Good Shepherd.   As cattle herders they understand that concept.  It’s putting the message into their frame of thinking…it is contextualizing the message.  

Syncretism, on the other hand, is when a person uses the symbols, including language, of the culture in an attempt to blend their cultural/religious beliefs alongside the Gospel, where it is indistinguishable.  An example of this was my recent trip to India.  A Hindu temple and a Catholic church are situated side-by-side.  I took a picture of the idols in the temple and then walked less than fifty-feet to a statute of Mary and Jesus.  Incense is burning at both sites, people are praying to both with clasped hands.  Both Hindus and Catholics stand before their icons asking for blessing.

To a Hindu, which may acknowledge Jesus as “a god,” along with the other three hundred million they worship, it is not surprising that they see little difference in the Christian faith.  

I am a strong proponent of contextualization of the Gospel and I am dismayed at how little attention is given to crafting our message to the average person who has little or no understanding of the Good News.  Good contextualization moves away from telling the story of Christ from our Christian culture and stretches to present the Gospel to a worldview that is not our own.  The challenge is not too fall off the precipice into syncretism.

Monday, June 04, 2018

Anthro. Insights

My two days in a village in Senegal allowed me time to learn, listen and observe.  You don’t have to have a PhD in anthropology do learn from culture, though a cursory understanding of cultural anthropology provides guidelines to what you are seeing and experiencing and, hopefully, give insights on how to present the Gospel within the context of the people.  Here are some of my takeaways in my recent trip.

Night time discussion

Folk Islam - If you ask the average Senegalese what their religion is, 97 out of 100 will answer they are Muslims.  In reality, however, they know very little of their religion.  I was in Senegal at the time of Ramadan, their thirty-day ritual of fasting.  Apart from abstaining from food or drink from sundown to sunup, many in the village didn’t follow the ritual of praying five times a day or go to the mosque.  The Senegal people are, for the most part, cultural Muslims. 

Most Muslims in West Africa are animist, believing in superstitions of spirits and unseen powers of evil and good.  Over the doorpost of our guest hung a fetish to protect their household from evil spirits.   They wear amulets around their arms and waist, also for protection.

I asked what was the difference between the work of an Imam and that of a marabout.  An Imam is a religious teacher of the Quran; the marabout is a spiritual leader who has power to discern evil spirits, provide cures and protection through rituals and even potions, including love potions.  In essence, they are witchdoctors.  While many Senegalese are not devout in their Islamic practices they are almost fanatical about their belief in their marabouts, which are many throughout the country.

Amulet for Protection

Social Control - Sitting late at night with our host there was quite a gathering of people in the compound.  The eldest uncle came in and said that if I had any questions he would be happy to answer them (I guess word got around that I was interested in their culture and asked a lot of questions).  I had my usual queries about marriage procedures, i.e. who within the clan they can or cannot marry (first cousin marriages are common); how are marriages arranged; issues of bridewealth and I even asked, “What’s more important, having five sons and no daughters or five daughters and no sons?” 

Musa, our host stated that his uncle, the brother to his late father (who was a marabout of unusual power), made all the decisions in the family.  Musa had written his uncle for permission to bring foreigners to the village and it was only when his uncle granted the request that Musa invited my son-in-law to his village.  What struck me was how difficult it would be for Musa to become a follower of our Lord because of the social control.  To be a follower of Isa would bring shame on his family.  This is a common problem for people all over the world who hear and maybe even believe in Christ and live in system where the community is strong.  Individual decisions are not supported, it’s the group that more important that the individual. It is the group that controls society.

Are you also a toubob?  Musa wanted us to see many people in the village.  We stopped to visit one family and a young lady; in her twenty’s asked this question to my son-in-law in French (the only person who spoke to us in French while we were in the village).  “Are you fasting?”

“No,” my son-in-law answered, “I am a follower of Isa and we don’t follow that custom.”

“Then you are Catholic?” she replied. 

Earnest, our Senegalese colleague who speaks the tribal language of Wolof and French tried to explain to this young lady that we were not Catholic, but were Protestants, strong followers of Jesus. 

Speaking to Ernest she asked, “So, are you also a toubob?” (The term they use to describe a European).  Stunning question as Ernest is clearly Senegalese but she identified him as a European because he was a Christian.

When Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism dominates a country they consider Christianity a Western religion.  That perception is used by those religions to discourage people from embracing faith in Christ.  To be Wolof is to be Muslim; to be Indian is to be Hindu and to embrace the faith of a Christian is to disown, not only their religion but also their cultural identity.  As I said, Musa has a steep climb in accepting Isa. 


These are just some anthropological insights from a two-day visit in a village in Senegal and how to understand culture as we find a bridge for the Good News of Christ.   

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Not A Program - A Relationship

My recent trip to West Africa was what I billed as a “working vacation.”  The vacation part was visiting my daughter and her family who have been working in the country for past eight years.  The working part was my time in observing the culture.  Here are some observations from my three-week working vacation.

RELATIONSHIPS ARE KEY - Both my son-in-law (referred to following as A, and my daughter are gifted in genuinely being  interested in people.  They live in a part of the city that is not fancy, surrounded by half-built houses and many people in the neighborhood don’t have the basics of life, i.e. decent shelter, running water, electricity, etc.  The streets are sand, littered with trash and the extreme heat makes for a challenging living environment.  (Full disclosure, my kids live in a nice house and their yard is full of trees and flowers, but that’s due to A’s gift and diligence in making the desert bloom). 

Twenty-feet outside their compound is a bunch of guys who drive horse carts for a living.  Several years ago Musa, a village guy, moved across the road with his horse and cart.  He speaks no French, only Wolof.  Because his father died when he was less than five years old, Musa grew up as a Talibe boy. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talibe). Because he was a Talibe kid, Musa doesn't know how to read or write, as the main reason for the school is to recite the Quran in Arabic, which no one really understands or uses outside of their religious rituals.

 Over the years A has built a real friendship with Musa.  A tells the stories of how over time more horse guys from Musa’s village moved across the road, how that often A would sit and visit them at night, drinking tea, laugh and joke with each other.  There was a time when one of the horses got sick and A and my daughter visited them and PRAYED FOR THE HORSE to get better!  The horse eventually died, but that’s beside the point.  My kids are interested in people and because they are genuinely interested and demonstrate their care for others the relationship between my kids and the horse guys (and now their wives and children that have immigrated across the street) grows.

Sometime back Musa asked A to visit his village which is 200 hundred kilometers away from the city.  I volunteered to go with A because, even though I don’t speak French or Wolof, as teacher and student of culture I at least could be a participant observer and learn some things.  It also gave me a chance to be around A and my grandson.  My son-in-law enlisted a guy he works with, Ernest, who speaks English,  to go with us so I wasn’t completely in the dark. 

After a four-hour drive, we arrived in the heat of the day (about 110 degrees).  Of course Musa’s mother, brother, sisters and extended family members were happy to see him.  I can’t recount everything that happened in the village, but probably the most significant moment in the whole trip was within an hour of our arriving in the village.  As they escorted us to a mud hut to rest, Msua asked me a question (again, in Wolof, translated by Ernest into English.”

“Why is A different” he asked?

“He and his family have been so kind to us.  Even his children are respectful, well behaved and always speak to us.  I have never met anyone like A.  Can you tell me why he is so different?  Is it because he is educated?  What makes him different?”

We were all quite stunned with Musa’s question.  I breathed a quick prayer and then answered,  “There are at least two reasons I believe A is different,” I replied.  First, A grew up in Africa, so he probably understands the people better than most toubab’s (Europeans or white people).  But the main thing that makes A different is that he is a follower of Isa (Jesus).  Because of the love of Isa in the heart of A he demonstrates that love and concern for other people.”

Musa nodded, no doubt not really understanding my answer, but that’s okay. 

Musa’s question to me was years in the making.  A has given all the horse guys a solar recording of the Gospel, which they listen to all the time.  Though Musa’s question came as a surprise to all of us, it was born out of the many days and nights of A and the whole family being good neighbors, caring for people and just being, what we call, salt and light, in the mundane workings of life.

I tell my students regularly that the key to bringing people to understanding the Gospel is not through big programs and using all types of methods or gimmicks for evangelism.  Most people become followers of Christ through having and building trust and relationships with others. 

Will Musa become a follower of Isa as his friend A?  Obviously no one knows, and quite honestly, that should not be our greatest concern, for you see, salvation belongs to the Lord.  What we do know is that Musa and his family doesn’t have a chance for salvation without someone being truly interested in them, talking with them as a good neighbor.  Musa is not as an object for evangelism for my son-in-law and daughter, they just love people and that sets them apart from others, and it shows and has an impact.  Simple things, like our Lord said, “Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me” (Matthew 25:35-40).

Humanly speaking, Musa has a steep climb from being a cultural Muslim to a follower of Isa.  The “prison of disobedience” (as my friend Shewood Lingenfelter refers to) is their family structure, which is major barrier for Musa in making that eternal decision.  However, down through the ages God has brought people to Himself in spite of the obstacles, so we have hope. 

Relationships, being truly interested in others, that’s what makes A and the family different from other toubab’s.  Coupled with the love of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit, people find their way to the true and living God, one person at a time.


Friday, March 23, 2018

Living With The Lost


“How can you live in a country where you know most of the people are going to   hell,” the PhD student in theology asked?

My friend, who has lived in south Asia for almost thirty years, in essence replied,
“One day at a time, as salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16) to those who do not yet believe in the living God or His Son, Christ Jesus.”

What troubled this American visitor was seeing idols and shrines throughout the city.  He was overwhelmed with the superstition and the rituals that Hindus perform just to get to the next level of existence, whatever and wherever that is.

Of course my friend could have also answered the young theologian this way…that every Christian, in every part of the world, lives every day with people who are going to hell.   And, though this a reality, why does it not bother us as much to live among the lost in our own country as with the lostness of those in other cultures? 

Two reasons.

First, the blindness to our own idols.   Idol worship is of course adoration to an object that we pray (sometimes literally, but not always), which will provide for us success, happiness, health and fulfillment.  To many people in West the idols of materialism have more tentacles than the arms of Lakshmi (goddess of wealth, fortune and prosperity).  The average U.S. household credit card is over $15,000.  On top of that there is mortgage and car loan debt.  Somehow falling down prostrate to a flat screen TV, a diamond ring or the latest Xbox game doesn’t have that same queasy feeling of depravity as burning candles before the statue of Buddha.

Of course there is also the idol of family, career, ideology, equality, political affiliation and seemingly the most important issue for happiness (if you believe the media) sexual orientation. 

Psalms 115 describes idols as gods made of silver and wood that have eyes but cannot see, mouths that cannot speak, ears that cannot hear, etc.  And while idols cannot see, most Americans have eyes that cannot see their many gods.

Secondly, the reason we can’t see the lostness of people in our own culture is because of our culture…the culture of Christianity, and it takes two forms.  (a) We have just gotten so use to the godless culture that it has become the norm.  Divorce, pre-marital sex, bad language in public and in movies and soft porn that is invited into our homes each night, is enough to make a Muslim blush, but we hardly notice.  I heard someone say recently that they don’t even hear the “F” words in the movies anymore, as it just seems to be just a part of the dialogue.  We writhe in righteous pain of heart at the sight of those who crawl around a Buddhist stupa, but we’ll pay $15 to let the culture norms of our day entertain us.   Eyes that no longer see, ears that no longer hear.

(b) Everyone is a Christian.  I think part of the problem of the young theologian is there weren’t enough people like him around and he was uncomfortable (perhaps that is why he is studying theology, so he can surround himself with the saints in a Christian university). 

In America, 84% of the population claim to be Christians (in Dallas it’s a bit higher).  It’s pretty easy not to see the idol worshippers when they are us.  However, 49% of professing Christians say they rarely attend church, the other 51% at least once a month.  12% give 10% of their income to Christians work  (the church or missions) and less 20% read their Bible daily.  Cultural Christians, like cultural Muslims and Hindus, just assume that if we give at least verbal assent to our faith that we’ll make it to heaven, paradise or wherever, by-and-by.

An even greater challenge to the PhD student might be, does he (or we) even know truly lost people?  It’s easy to rub shoulders with those on the road to perdition in Katmandu, but what about the damned in Kansas City?

The truth is, we should never get use to living with lost, whether it is in Mumbai or Memphis.   Like my friend in Asia, each day, one day at a time, be salt and light no matter what idol city we live in.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Dropping Eggs for Jesus

It’s Easter!  The Resurrection, a time to celebrate the EMPTY TOMB, to rejoice that our Lord Jesus is not dead, HE’S ALIVE.   Easter, a time to DROP EGGS from a helicopter!

What?

Yes, several of my pastor friends are dropping candy-filled eggs from the skies in about a week.  So far the largest amount of eggs I’ve heard that will be dropped is 20,000.  The purpose of the egg drop is so kids in the city/town will have a fun event and hear the resurrection story and be introduced to the church.

As I heard and read about this truly American Christian extravaganza my mind went back to my early years in Kenya as a church planter.  My ministry experience prior to serving in Africa was a pastor in Texas.  We had all kinds of gimmicks in the ‘70’s for outreach, from dunking the pastor in a water tank to enticing kids to get on our church bus and get a toy (sounds a bit creepy these days).  Of course, we’ve bribing teen-agers for yeas to come to church through the allure of pizza (and no, extra thick cheese crust and anchovies is not the equivalent of five loaves and two fishes).  I’m not knocking egg drops; it’s very creative and very American.

Forty years ago I took this gimmick mindset to Kenya and said to the pastors one day, “Let’s have a special Sunday and call it Friend Day.  Those who bring five or more friends will get a small Bible.  If they bring ten or more friends they will get a big Bible.”

The Kenyan brothers looked at me like I just greeted them with my left hand.

“Why would we give people a prize to bring someone to church,” they asked?

Honestly, I didn’t know how to answer them and, a bit embarrassed.  Hidden in their answer to me was, “Isn’t the reason we would bring our friends to church is so they can hear the Gospel and maybe receive Christ as their Savior?”

What that conversation taught me, and many more throughout the years, was first, someone working cross-culturally should study and understand the host culture before they do anything (that’s why I teach missionary anthropology, a class I didn’t have four decades ago).  Second, don’t be quick to use your home culture as a model for methods of outreach. (Those going on short-term trips, are you listening?)

Kenyans, like many people in the world, are more relational than task oriented.  People are the goal, not the event.  Africans will sit for hours just visiting.  They are not in a hurry to get to church and they sure aren’t in a hurry to go home after the final amen.  Attending services on Sunday is usually an all day affair.


This Easter I will be worshipping the risen, living Savior in West Pokot.  No candy-filled eggs will be dropped but it will be a great day to be with friends, lots of singing and dancing.  Not only will we celebrate His resurrection, but also we will experience the miraculous…of seeing people once dead in their sins come to life, eternal life, in Christ.  I promise you, it will be more spectacular than a helicopter egg drop!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Conflict and Resolution. Dealing With Gossip

“Pastor,” the woman on the phone said to me, “I just wanted you to know that there is a rumor going on in the church about you.” 

“Really. ” I replied. “And what are they saying?  Who is saying these things?”

“I’d rather not say,” she continued.  “I don’t believe what they are saying is true but thought you should know.”

My reaction to her, “If you don’t have the courage to tell me who is spreading gossip then you really shouldn’t call me.  It serves no purpose and I assume that perhaps you are part of that slander.”

That conversation took place over forty-five years ago when I was a pastor in the states and it comes to mind as I prepare to teach Conflict and Resolution in Kenya next month.  Gossip and slander is often the foundation of conflict in the church, in business and personal relationships. 

How should you confront gossip or slander?  My rule has always been if rumor or slander is circulating, first, find the source, pick up the phone or write a note and just ask the person, without accusation, the merit of the talk.  “Mr. So-in-so said you were involved in saying something negative about your boss (pastor or friend).  Is that true and if it is true, what is that you are saying so we can get clarity on the matter.”

Two things will take place when you confront slander head on.  (a) The truth will come out quickly and, (2) when it is known that all parties are named in gossip there will be fewer people in the future engaged in tongue wagging.

This actually happened to me about a year ago.  An individual, who slandered me in the past, told my brother-in-law that I was going to sue this guy.  My brother-in-law picked up the phone and asked me about it.  I laughed, not that it was that funny but a bit sad.  Pathological liars seemingly have no problem making things up. My reply to my brother-in-law was, “That’s news to me.  What day did he say I am suppose to be in court?”

In conflict the old adage is true, there are always two sides to a story.  If a person hears gossip and doesn’t try to get the other parties side of the story then they are as guilty of slander as the ones who promotes it. 

A few years back some terrible things were said about my wife and me.  For the most part I just ignored it, but it did deeply hurt some relationships.  The slanderer, which is most often the case, made accusations to justify him and gain sympathy for his position.  None of those who listened to his smears have contacted me to hear the other side of the story, which tells me a lot about them and their character.   As far back as the Old Testament the Scriptures admonishes,  “Do not spread false reports. Do not help a guilty person by being a malicious witness (Exodus 23:1).  (Note that if one listens to gossip and does not challenge or get the other side of the story, they are enablers of slander, as guilty as one who spreads false accusations).


Second, another advice to those who are accused, for the most part, just ignore them, if you can.  Those who would spread gossip about me I will either confront or I will ignore and, more times than not, its the latter.  Life is too short and I refuse to spend energy trying to defend myself to people whose opinion does not affect my relationships with those I really care about.  I will always deal with slander or gossip that touches my wife, kids and friends or impugns my work for Christ.  Those I am responsible to and those who pray for me I owe clarification and honesty at every level.  But, to those who don’t have the decency to ask me my side of the story and have no interest in my family or me on a regular personal level, I owe nothing.  In reality, to engage in defending myself for the approval of people who are co-slanderers would be a sinful pride issue on my part.