Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Witchdoctors and Preachers

In my lecture on the Anthropology of Religion, I make the case that, functionally, a witchdoctor and pastor are the same. Using the same formula I made a similar point on how witchdoctors and business consultants are functionally the same on my other blog site, Culturebiz.blogspot.com. The arguments are alike with one exception…pastors don’t make nearly as much money as witchdoctors and business consultants.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Groups and Symbols

Mankind is a symbol-displaying creature. Symbols are all around us. By symbols we communicate to others who we are, or maybe, who we would like to be. Jeans are jeans, but how one wears their jeans is a signal to others who we are or perhaps who we would like to identify with. If you’re young and slim you might get away with low-rise jeans. It’s a symbol that you’re young (or would like to be young) and that you are probably single. If you wear the elastic jeans, what my daughter’s call “mom jeans,” you’re symbol is much different from the low-rise (spoof on mom jeans can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3rA2jOGhGw ). If you’re from the inner city you might wear baggy jeans that look like they could fall down at any given moment. My class laughed at me one time when I showed up wearing pressed jeans. I couldn’t understand what the big deal was, in Texas well starched jeans is stylish (George Strait wouldn’t be caught dead without his pressed jeans). I think you get my point. Whether one is talking about clothes, hairstyles, colors, tattoos, cars we drive or religious symbols, people are walking signboards communicating something to the world.

Symbols also reveal how much we value group. If you have followed my blog for any length of time you are aware that I see the world in typographies classifying people and cultures in grid and group arrangement (individualistic, bureaucratic, hierarchal and egalitarian). Individualistic and bureaucratic environments are low group. Highly group oriented cultures are hierarchal or egalitarian. It is the latter two categories that are prone to wear symbols as an identification of what group they belong to. I used the Amish, Sikh, and Muslims as an example in my last post of groups that demonstrate their community and faith through the symbols they wear. These symbols do not just reveal their faith but who they are as a people. So strong are these symbols of group that it can be, and almost always is, an obstacle for people to make individual decisions. A Sikh man cutting his hair, beard and removing his turban is tantamount to denying his family and culture. (The great debate among missiologists is whether it’s even necessary for a person to put away his cultural symbols to be a follower of Christ?)

For Western Christians, who are for the most part individualistic and not group oriented, we have few symbols or our faith. True, as one reader responded, wearing a crucifix does not mean you are a follower of Christ, though under Soviet Russia it was a powerful symbol that that person was a believer. Having a symbol of a fish on the back of your car doesn’t make you a better Christian, or even a courteous driver. Wearing symbols does not make one holy or righteous. Jesus made reference to the hypocrisy of religious leaders of his day who loved to wear symbols and perform rituals but spiritually was as dead men’s bones. However, in some social context’s, symbols can make a statement to the society at large.

Whatever you wear today, it is communicating something. For individualistic societies symbols are neutral which reveals nothing much more than style and one’s socio-economic position. I agree, it’s not what we wear but how we behave that’s most important. Our verbal presentation becomes even more important because we certainly will not reveal much of our faith to others by our symbols.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Symbols of Meaning

A couple of weeks ago the pastor of a church we attended was speaking from 1 Corinthians 11 and the issue of proper male/female dress. I usually turn off on those messages because men spend way too much time talking about appropriate attire for females and say virtually nothing about proper apparel for males. As a teenager/young adult in the ‘60’s, I grew weary of all the messages on how men should look like men (not have long hair) and women looking like women (having a butch haircut). Then as a cross-cultural trainer in different countries it was tiresome to go to Russia and hear the Baptist and Pentecostals make women’s head-covering almost a salvation issue and in India the sign of a devotion to Christ was not wearing bangles, rings or makeup. The church spends so much time on non-salvation issues that it becomes a barrier in presenting the Gospel. I just react strongly to legalism.

But then the pastor made an interesting comment that peaked my thinking. He told the story about how that growing up his mother would never think about coming to church without a head covering and would never pray without pulling the long dupatta over her head. Though the congregation we were in that morning is urban and more Western in style, this young pastor seemed to lament that this symbol of humility, respect, has been lost. His final comment is what really grabbed my attention when he said, in effect, that the church lives in a cultural context where symbols of religion are common, and that only the Christian community live without symbols.

On the drive back to our home we passed the Sikh gurdwa and I observed women in their punjabi sawar dress, the men with their turbans; passing the Muslim mosque men wearing the kufi; the Hindu temple, women dressed in sarees and I thought how void the Christian community is of symbols.

I remember attending a Bakht Singh church many years ago and the feeling I had of worshipping Christ contextually. We removed our shoes at the door, sat on mats on the floor, women on one side, men on the other, the music sung in Hindi and English. With no overheads, no keyboards we clapped as we sang to the beat of a traditional drum.

The issue of contextualization is unpredictable. To the Western style church the symbols are indeed urbane with stylish cut hair, blue jeans and young men wearing chokers. But in the larger context of a country which share similar symbols, is it no wonder that our faith is seen a religion of foreigners? A follower of Jesus in this framework is not known by its symbols of community, but rather by its adoption of symbols of another kind. Perhaps we need to pay more attention to the outward signs -- icons which, like the Amish, make a statement of identification and maybe, in a positive way, if not separation perhaps community.

Friday, November 17, 2006


My brother, a business consultant, doesn’t like the word “trainer,” as he believes one can train dogs and horses but not people. He believes "educate" is a better term. Okay, I get his point, but don't totally agree. Training is behavior modification. Tiger Woods has a trainer who analyzes his swing and helps him modify his approach. We potty trained two little girls using all types of techniques for behavior modification (rewards, praise, yelling, etc.). My role of a trainer with cross-cultural workers is to get people to modify bad habits in ministry and steer them toward efficient and productive behavior.

Coaching is similar to training, but not synonymous. Tiger Woods’ trainer also coaches. Coaching is explaining what is wrong, how it needs to be changed and why. Coaching is philosophy -- training is physics. Woods has the natural ability to swing the clubs. If he didn’t have a trainer or coach, he could still play the game, but maybe not at his best.

Most people I work with already have some ability. They certainly have a zeal and love for the One they serve. If no one trained or coached them they would still do a work for the Lord, though maybe not be at their best. Not everyone on the field is Tiger Woods caliber. Some I meet are not even semi-pro’s but are more like weekend duffers. (And of course short-termer’s are mere weekend wannabe’s -- but don’t get me started.) That’s why I believe in focused pre-field education, post-field training and coaching.

I have consistently stated that I believe those in our profession, or if you prefer, calling, should be as serious about it as any profession in the world. Sadly we don’t’ spend nearly as much training, upgrading our skills, as does a doctor, software engineer or golfer. Having a love for the game doesn’t mean we can all play the game properly. Perhaps we need more trainers, more coaches to help us get to the top of our game.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Missions Coach

On my other blog culturebiz.blogspot.com I wrote about the new profession in business today, that of a personal or life coach. No need to repeat myself here as to the reason for such a coach, but I began thinking about coaching in the world of missions.

For about ten years I held a position in a sending organization as vice president of international training. Part of my responsibility was to travel and visit field personnel. My role was very much like a coach. In traveling overseas I would visit the projects people were involved in and would ask critical questions and give my evaluation. The two objectives I had in every setting was (1) Why are you doing work this way and, (2) Is there a better way of doing it? Much of the time the projects were going well, so my recommendations were a matter of tweaking the process and to get people to think of how to make a good program better. Sometimes the projects were not effective and I was able to help them move away from those projects and rework their strategy. Most of the time the people on the field received and appreciated my advice, a few did not.


First, the coach is an outsider. He/she has lens that is not tainted by organizational bias. Example: I know a couple whose work is focused only on evangelism using a specific evangelism method. Because it is a strong North American model and used widely by many evangelicals, the organization expects their people to produce the same results on the field. This particular couple is busy and conducts many seminars. However, in many ways they are culturally insensitive. They don’t have a strong team of nationals and, in my opinion, the method is a horrible evangelism tool for their context. As a coach from the outside I could recommend some modifications that the organization would never do.

Second, accountability is sometimes better achieved through outside influence. Most teams I have worked with have meetings, purpose statements, goals, etc. However, many of those good things are not realized because everyone lives on the same field, they are peers. The team leader has a nearly impossible job in holding others to the purpose because he is working with his friends. If he comes down too hard, they won’t be friends long.

Which leads to the third reason for a coach and that is he doesn’t have line authority. Even working with my former organization, I did not have line authority and, I didn’t want it. Why? When people perceive they are being told what to do from the top, they may acquiesce, but it doesn’t mean they value the change suggestions and they lose ownership in their work. If the recommendations work everyone is happy, but if it doesn’t then the finger pointing begins as either “the field people didn’t do what we told them to do,” or “those idiots in the home office have no idea what they are talking about.” As a coach with no line authority it is up to the team if they heed my advice. If they did and it succeeded, it was their success. If they tried and it failed it was merely something they tried which didn’t work out. Either way people on the field must have ownership in their work. A coach allows autonomy in the process.

Much more to talk about as it relates to mission coaching...next time.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Odometer Rollover

Sometime on Saturday there will be a rollover. The rollover will represent the completion of 1,892,160,000 seconds. The rollover is a milestone which one can be proud of; a mile-marker in social time. What is the significance of this rollover?

1. It represents that there are more miles behind than there are ahead.

2. It is social time whereas others will see you differently, even though you may still be in good running condition.

3. Younger models will be preferred as the older model moves closer to the social junkyard.

4. Accomplishments of the past (dependability, success, innovation) are honored, though perhaps not seen as relevant.

5. You understand even more, what you've always known, that on the racetrack of life, people view speed as the measure of performance, rather than finishing the race.

But no one cannot deny, it'’s been a great ride.

1. The roads traveled over these many miles, few others were willing to go. From Africa to India and forty-two other racetracks, this old jalopy seen a lot.

2. People you have carried, loved and supported are a legacy that will endure long after the rust sets in.

3. After all those miles, though the paint has faded, the ragtop has thinned and the tires are worn, you're still on the road.

4. Though the engine has had some overhauls, it still starts every morning.

5. Even with the all the nicks and abuse you've received, some from people you helped carry at one time, you can still deliver the goods.

Regrets, sure, like Frank Sinatra said, there are a few. The times when you could have been a bit more courteous on the road, yielding more than blasting your horn. The miles have taught you that taking shortcuts end up costing time and money. I think all those on the road, when they get a few miles on them, would say they wished they learned earlier that the trip is about the journey instead of rushing to the elusive winners circle. All in all, however, looking through the rearview mirror, it’s been an amazing ride.

If God gives you the promised three-score and ten, you have 315,360,000 ticks to go. Whether it is more or less, make the most of those miles. Cherish those who are still under your care; help those who still value your unique model. Sometimes an antique is worth more than those who are today'’s modern brand. Rejoice in your Maker. He'’s blessed you; He's never cast you aside. He loved you that first mile you came out of the factory, and He will continue to love you until He makes the final recall. Be grateful for the rollover. Celebrate the journey.

(P.S. Happy birthday to you as well, Bill)

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Transforming Theology?

This week I am grading papers. The assignment I gave to the MA students was to do a cultural analysis of a people group or company they are familiar with. The problem I have with reading research papers is that they challenge my thinking so much I get sidetracked in trying to solve problems. Case in point:

Senti presented a paper on a tribe who live in the northeast called the Khasi. For centuries these people were animistic, introduced to Christianity two hundred years ago by the Welch Baptists. What is unique about their social structure is that they are matrilineal. Like many matrilineal societies, the Khasi trace their lineage through the woman, not the man. Property is handed down to the daughters, names are through the woman’s lineage, the female makes decisions, and after marriage residence is matrilocal. In this social environment the uncle or brother has more influence than the father/husband.

Matrilineal societies have always been an interest to me and are prevalent in many Latin American countries as well as within African-American community. How do a people who have a strong female identity relate to a dominant male theology? In Senti’s paper he discusses the challenges in reaching the Khasi with the Gospel, one being that the church demands patriarchal authority. My question to Senti, and to those who wade through my blogs is, Can traditional Christianity be challenged in face of cultural practices that are the norm? How can Christian patrilineal values serve matrilineal societies?

My hypothesis has been that one of the reasons Catholics do well in Latin America is partly due to their emphasis on Mary rather than Jesus. It is Mary, the mother who makes decisions, who has access to power and who works on behalf of those who pray. Is there a natural affinity to a female head rather than to an absent or marginalized male?

I am not suggesting that we rewrite biblical principles, but what is the best way to communicate the Gospel when it runs headlong into traditional non-salvation issues? All societies are to be transformed, but in the process, does our theologies also become transformed? Should they? What suggestions would you give Senti in working with the Khasi?

Monday, November 06, 2006

Theology as Theory

Recently Chris, a friend and frequent reader of this blog, asked this question.

“I would be interested in reading your explanation of the following:

‘Theology, as I have argued before, is theory based on history and cultural context.’

To define theology without any reference whatsoever to the Scriptures strikes me as unusual. The definition above seems to leave out any opportunity for theology to be timeless or universal. Interested in reading more of your thinking on this.”

Great question, which does require further explanation. My “defense” would be that Scripture is implicit in all theology. My assumption, though perhaps not clear, is that of course theology is a combination of text, context and history. Sorry for the confusion.

Is theology timeless and universal? The answer is yes and no and this is where postmodernist get into trouble. There are truths in Scripture that are consistent and therefore enduring. What they are is a matter of one’s theological persuasion. For some the list is very long, for others foundational truth may not be as extensive but sacred nevertheless. What is “essential” or “negotiable” does depend on theological theory.

I am assuming there is no confusion to my argument that theology is theory based on history and context. Where one is born, his/her denominational leanings shape much of our understanding of Scripture. The marvelous thing about Scripture is that for most Christians, fundamentalist, evangelicals, progressives, the core of the Gospel is consistent. Theory plays havoc with truth as it tries to determine the nuances of certainty. One can speak of the salvific work of Christ, theology then attempts to define that work as liberation, atonement, inclusive or exclusive. The interpretation of Scripture is as varied as denominations gracing the face of the earth. Of course theology is theory, or we would all agree on one standard of interpretation.

Timeless? Certainly God is changeless, but trying to figure out the ageless Creator has eluded man for thousands (maybe 6,000 or 4,000 depending on your theology) of years. Luther and Calvin gave definition to Protestant theology, but of course there was theology before them and certainly theologians have been tinkering with their theories since. No one has a solved the mystery of prayer, but you can be certain there will be further books written about it until prayer is no longer a human issue.

Theology is important as we are admonished to study the Scripture in the process of working out our salvation. Some of it I will die for, some of it is trivial pursuit.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Just Because

In the 1980’s I was working in the Turkana district in the northwest of Kenya. Turkana is always on the fridge of catastrophe as the nomadic herdsmen roam the desert looking for pasture for their cattle, goats and camels. What little rain they receive in a year is barely enough to keep life and limb together -- two years of drought and they face severe famine.

It was just such a desperate time that I was working as a church planter alongside Turkana Christians. Along with giving the Bread of Life, we attempted to alleviate some of the physical hardships by taking a ton of corn meal down into the district twice a month as well as powdered milk provided by a NGO group from the U.S. Our efforts were a mere drop in the bucket to the ravages of famine and disease.

I still remember a crusty old guy from the U.K. working in Turkana who was very critical of churches. He worked for with a UN irrigation scheme in the area and made no bones about how that the church should be more concerned with the saving of lives rather than souls. “All of these churches, which stand empty throughout the week, should be turned into storage bins for the crops that are rotting in the fields,” he said with disdain. “What good are these churches when the people are suffering?”

Convicted by the Englishmen’s comments I asked a friend of mine, who was primarily involved in social action, if perhaps he wasn’t right? Maybe we should turn our attention the man’s physical needs rather than their spiritual needs. He advised against it saying, “There will always be more people wanting to feed the hungry than telling people about Christ,” he said. “Keep doing what you’re doing and let others take on the task of feeding the hungry.”

The tension on the churches role in meeting man’s physical needs is ever present and, as I said in my last post, the church doesn’t seem to know exactly how to meet both the physical as well as the spiritual needs of man. Part of the reason is our confusion of what is Kingdom work. Because the West sees the world in dichotomy, the spiritual and the physical are not related. Jesus saw his social work as a part of Kingdom work, the holistic approach. If evangelicals are involved in social work it is often tied to conversion, so a cup of cold water or a feeding center, must be tied to establishing a church. Why can’t Christians provide for the needs of others just because it’s the right thing to do?

As I mentioned in my last post, forty percent of the population in this country live in one room. Inadequate housing, water, sanitation should be enough motivation for the church to meet the needs of the oppressed, but often it is not. One could easily raise money for a church building, but how many people would give to a housing project just because?

As stated earlier, there needs to be balance, and one can get so involved in meeting physical needs that they ignore the spiritual. We need to pray for the wisdom of Solomon, better yet, the wisdom of Christ, to see best the fusion between the physical and the spiritual needs of mankind.