Thursday, June 28, 2007

Needed: Academic Practitioners

A former student is working through his doctoral thesis and has asked me to read and advise. This DMin. candidate is a pastor in New Delhi and his thesis is about a migrant people group called the Awadi and how to best develop a strategy for ministry to those coming from the rural areas into the city. There is a lot I could comment on in this thesis as it is well researched and I believe it’s a significant contribution to missiology. Consider these things:

* 665 people migrate into the city of New Delhi EVERY DAY.

* 74% of the Protestant churches in India are located in South India, which has 21.70% of India’s total population, whereas North India, that has 43.75% of India’s total population and 4.21% Christians and has only 8% churches.

From this thesis, here is a snapshot of some of the issues migrants face coming into a city of over 13 million people.

"To supplement the family income, the whole migrant family is involved in work. Having no one to look after their children, they have no other option but to take their children with them to their workplace. The poor and unhygienic living conditions, and exposure to dust at the work site, result in children suffering from various health problems. Moreover, these children have no opportunity to obtain education. The result is underfed, malnourished and illiterate children."

While there is much to learn from the study, in reading over it the past couple of days the thing that has dominated my thinking is the value of academic/practical research.

We live in a world of programs. Everywhere I go I hear about programs for church planting movements, youth outreach and mission agency growth. Nothing wrong with programs per se, but most people see programs as an end in themselves. In my opinion, many of these programs are shallow, not well thought-out and, is an attempt to take a shortcut in reaching ministry goals. As this student points out in his thesis, to reach the Awadi there are no shortcuts in working with migrants in an urban ministry and several issues need to be taken into consideration, such as childcare, living conditions, education and medical needs. For the average church planter, pastor or mission agency they are not thinking about these things. Instead, the emphasis seems to be programs for more evangelists or for raising money to build a church building. I fear that some nationals start orphanages, have medical clinics or start a school, not out of a well-defined research study, but merely a program that seems to be attractive and might be a good idea.

When I was working in Kenya I spent a great deal of time living with and doing research with the Pokot tribe in the bush. It was through concentrated and academic study that a strategy of church planting was created. It has been my belief that the most important thing a practitioner can do is become a student of culture, especially the culture of the people they are working with. While the buzz among the church and in mission circles is about having a “people group focus,” there are few who take the time to do in-depth study on specific ethnic groups. My hat is off to this DMin. candidate/pastor for his diligence in pursuing this academic study. We need more practitioners like him. We need more sending agencies that will equip missionaries with more in-depth study before launching them out into ministry. We need more national missionaries and pastors to understand that the only way they will truly reach the unreached is to know people well. Globally, e need more academic practitioners

Friday, June 22, 2007

Blessed Are The Simple

This past week I attended the funeral of my 92-year-old aunt. By all accounts, Aunt Maxine was a simple person. She became a mother during the years of the Depression, raised four kids through WWII. Throughout the final proceedings marking her life and death, the one word I kept thinking about was unpretentious.

I work in country where people are forever trying to project an image of their importance. Impression is so pervasive in India that one of the major themes in my training is the importance of status and role within society. Of course pretentiousness is a global malady that infects people in all walks of life, be they truck driver, padre, educator or stay-at-home moms. There is a tension in all of us, I would think, to try and project an aura that we really are quite successful, smart, beautiful or influential. As I listened to Aunt Maxine’s grandchildren, tell stories about the plain woman lying in the coffin, their words were like a refreshing shower washing off the veneer of every pretentious person in the room.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek (humble), for they will inherit the earth.” That’s a tough philosophy to follow in a market economy. Everyone’s a salesman and the rules of today’s game are, to him or her, who projects the best image goes the spoils. If you are not the squeaky and annoying wheel, you will not get the oil. Those out there in front are those who make the noise, dress for success and have the whitest teeth. Humility? Forget about it. Meekness is weakness and a sure sign that you have no self-confidence.

Humility is not and endorsement for being stupid, dirty or lazy. I have met idiots who were as proud of their lack of education as pompous PhD’s are of their degrees. I have been around a group of morons who duke-it-out on who could out dummy the other in word and deed. For a person to be proud of their lack of accomplishments in life is not humility, it’s pretentious ignorance.

The balancing act of striving for excellence, being the best one can be in their station in life without projecting the air of self-importance is not easily achieved. I suppose the best way to fight pretentiousness is to resist the urge to compete. But can I get to the front of the line without elbowing my way or standing on my box of accomplishments and shouting, “Look at me!”? The line between meekness and self-importance is indeed fine. Perhaps the answer is found in the ancient writing of Solomon who advised, “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; A stranger, and not your own lips.” In Aunt Maxine’s case, it was her family who rose up and called her blessed.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Jesus And His Church

One of the benefits of coming to the states for a few weeks is that I can get caught up on my reading. Living overseas it’s almost impossible to find good books on current thinking in missions or the church. It seems the theme of my readings lately has been on the emerging church.

If you are not familiar with the emerging church term it is primarily used by the emerging generation (people in their 20’s and 30’s) addressing the need to read and see the culture in which we live today. Christ, Christianity and the Church are not synonymous terms. In fact, as the new culture writers see it, Christianity and Church, sometimes, is often a barrier for non-believers in becoming followers of Christ.

The most recent of these books is Dan Kimball’s book, They Like Jesus But Not The Church. Though I have only read a third of the book thus far, it’s interesting enough for me to comment on. The underlying theme in Kimball’s work, and a common thread with all emerging church authors, is that to reach people with the Good News of Jesus we must emulate Him. This takes on two forms. First, Jesus was revolutionary in that His work was outside the established religion of His day. Though Jesus was a Jew and a student of theology (manifested in the Mosaic Law), His message was seldom to those within confines of the religious order. Not only was He not a part of the religious establishment, His harshest criticism was to those who had become captive of formal Judaism. Though the emerging church writers make an attempt to steer away from harsh criticisms of the Church, they freely point out the weakness of the establishment.

The second theme, common in these emerging church books, is the need for followers of Jesus to engage people of their culture outside the confines of the local church. Kimball’s list of “Six Common Perceptions of the Church” is:

1. The church is an organized religion with a political agenda.
2. The church is judgmental and negative.
3. The church is dominated by males and oppresses females.
4. The church is homophobic.
5. The church arrogantly claims all other religions are wrong.
6. The church is full of fundamentalists who take the whole Bible literally.

According to Kimball, most people he talks to like Jesus, they just don’t like the church. Jesus was a friend of sinners – ate with them, drank with them, worked with them and most importantly, talked with them. Many of the emerging church writers are trying to make the case that the task of the church is to be more like Jesus and less like the institutional religious industry that we have become.
It’s important to recognize that the emerging church proponents are dealing primarily with pre-conversion issues. There is always a tension between Christ meeting people where they are to where Christ wants them to be after they become His followers. You will read little to nothing about discipleship, spiritual growth or corporate responsibility in these books and that’s okay, as long as one understands there is a gap between helping the blind man see and then telling that blind man to go to the temple (or church) and perform religious rituals as an act of obedience in faith.

As a missiologist I can appreciate these current writings, as it is the same message I deal with in my teachings overseas. The established church, in many ways, is an impediment for the Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu. If I can engage others to talk about Jesus, rather than Christianity, I find that many of them respect Jesus…they just don’t like the church.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Missiologist - Critical But Not Negative

The other day a friend wrote and mildly rebuked me for one of my blog posts. He suggested that my writings would be more helpful if they were more positive. My reply to him was that, indeed, I recognize that sometimes my writing is often critical, but I am not sure that it is negative. One thing that many people don’t understand about my writing, speaking and teaching, is that my opinions and perspectives are that of a missiologist. I am not a pastor trying to shepherd a church. I am not a theologian trying to interpret doctrine. I am not a counselor making an attempt to solve personal issues. While it is true that as a missionary coach I sometimes take on elements of those roles, for the most part, my giftedness is trying to figure out how the work of missions and the church can be done better.

When I was serving in Kenya I did not plant any churches, though in the time we were in the country thirteen churches and a Bible institute was started. In the beginning I did everything that a traditional pioneer church planter is suppose to do. I preached, led singing, taught and created programs. Within our first two years we had three congregations meeting in different villages, but I wasn’t the pastor of any of them. I quickly learned that if the work was to multiply I had to give up doing things myself and let others take the lead in planting and growing the congregations. By the time I left Africa, fourteen years later, the only thing I was responsible for was what I am most gifted in doing…critically analyzing the context and giving guidance on how to do things differently and, hopefully, more effectively.

I am well aware that some people believe that the easiest thing to do is being a critic. However, when I speak of critical analysis it is not just finding fault, but rather finding weakness with suggestions on how to making programs stronger. As a missiologist, one who has been trained to analyze to view the church from the historical, theological and cultural context, my comments is borne out of unique set of lens that few people have experienced. My comments on everything from the role of national leadership to Western evangelical imperialism is not a part of an agenda, but is an honest evaluation based on on-going study and thirty years of living the mission experience.

Sometimes critical analysis bites. In an article entitled In Quest of Knowledge, Arnold Burron writes, “...among other impediments to critical thinking, [is the] unwillingness or fear to challenge socially acceptable ‘truth.’” When I write and say things like, training missionaries is a moral issue; short-term mission programs are primarily for the promotion of the American church; it’s okay for churches to die, etc., my comments are not meant to harm as much as it is for the church to think about why they do what they do and how can we do the job better.

As a missiologist I have been given an opportunity to view God’s work differently than most of my readers. That doesn’t make me smarter or more right, but it is a view that is not the norm. Critical doesn’t make it negative, it means the perception is from another angle that hopefully will add value to the task God has called us to do throughout the world.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Faith Like Jazz

When two or three of my friends tell me, “You need to read this book, Lewis, I think you will like it…it sounds like you,” I eventually get a copy. The most recent recommendation was Donald Millers book, Blue Like Jazz.

Miller acknowledges on his website that he wrote this book when his career was going nowhere. He had nothing to lose and so he penned honest thoughts just about anything that popped into his head about God. When you have nothing to lose you can do that. Most Christian authors and speakers have to worry about what the Church or evangelical community thinks. If your irreverent or live more like a hippie from the 60’s rather than a buggy riding Mennonite you can take such risks. Miller, like C.S. Lewis who was also not a part of the established ministry, gets away with being honest because he doesn’t have to cover his backside less he offends religious establishment and loses his means of support. What makes his book successful is that (a) he’s writing about what other people are thinking but won’t share with their friends, (b) he takes potshots at the norm of evangelicals, i.e., support of Republicans, intolerance of gays and, (c) has a postmodern approach to faith, including lifestyle and doctrine.

Christianity, according to Miller, is like jazz. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to write a score for jazz. Classical music is structured with proper beat, synchronized melody and timing. Classical music is predictable math. Today’s Christianity is like classical music, precise, ordered, and predictable. Knowing God is a formula and when one follows the pattern it looks, smells and tastes right. In typical postmodern style, Miller argues that knowing God is not math and that having a relationship with Christ is as random as jazz. Depending on your preference, of music and theology, you’ll either love this book or hate it.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Singing At The Gate

Sitting at my desk in New Delhi one early morning I head a man singing. He had a beautiful voice and, though I couldn't understand the words to the song, his voice was pleasant to the ear. I knew he wasn’t just a passerby as the song went on for serval minutes.

“Who in the heck is this guy,” I wonder as I got up from my chair and walked to the balcony overlooking the street below?

There, standing at the front gate across the road, was a man dressed in a red and orange robe. He was a Sadu, a Hindu religious man. As he continued to sing, he looked up to the second floor of the building, hoping that the residents would come down and give him some money for his spiritual song of blessing.

In every culture there are holy men (and a few holy women). For Muslims they are the Imam’s and Mullah’s. The Buddhist have their Monks, the Christians have their Clergy (preachers, pastors, reverends, etc.). Even the tribal people I worked with in Kenya had their animistic spiritual leaders called Mganga (witchdoctors). Functionally all holy men do the same thing. They interpret sacred writings, explain how God or the spirits want them to live and set boundaries for moral behavior. Most of the holy men depend on the financial gifts of the faithful. The Buddhist monks, like Sadu’s, walk the streets each day asking for offerings. Priest’s at the Sikh, Hindu or Jain temples are paid through the money received the daily ritual services.

As I got into my car yesterday to travel to another city to speak, I thought about the Sadu at the gate. I don’t wear religious clothes, smoke hashish for a spiritually high or get to let my hair grow long. I don’t go door-to-door blessing people with a song, don’t have a sacred cow I lead through the neighborhood and don’t evoke the name of Sai Baba for miraculous healing. But in a way, I’m not that much different, functionally.

Who set up this system of support for sacred messengers? Not really sure, but I know it’s been around for thousands of years. Jacob, in the Old Testament, had twelve sons and one son was named Levi. It was Levi’s clan that was in charge of the Jewish rituals and the other eleven sons of Jacob was commanded to support the “priestly” tribe with their tithes and offerings. The tribe of Levi was not looked down upon; their work was as valid as the work of Judah or Benjamin. I wonder if the sons of Judah ever said, “Those Levites don’t know what it’s like to live or work in the ‘real world’”?

After I speak this weekend the treasurer of the congregation will hand me an envelope, which will be an honorarium. It’s a gift -- I don’t charge people for what I do. I will use the money to offset the expense of travel, to provide for my family and hopefully have enough for further ministry projects. Though I believe in what I do, in Whom I serve and the services I provide for His Church, as I put the envelope in my coat pocket I will walk away feeling, right or wrong, as though I’d just finished singing at the gate.