Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Constant Change, Always The Same

This week I am in Ukraine teaching cross-cultural communication to pastors and church leaders with Craig Ludick and Christian Leadership Development International ( Since my initial visit to Riga, Latvia in 1991 I have visited several former Soviet Union countries including an eight-week field course I conducted in Moscow in 1994. In some ways it doesn’t seem possible that eighteen years have passed since I looked over the polluted beaches of the Baltic. In other ways, it seems like another lifetime ago.

No matter how much things change over time, it’s equally amazing to me to observe what hasn’t changed in this part of the world. Polyester tracksuits are still very popular for everyday wear for both men and women. Street vendors, selling everything from vegetables to DVD’s to Vodka, are still a common sight, though now outside major supermarkets. Young slender women in tight mini-skirts and high heels walking on the same streets as old fat babushka’s (grandmothers) wearing flats, long black skirts carrying shopping bags. The tall massive apartment complexes, where most people live, still speak of a bleak existence.

As I take my afternoon walks in Kiev, I’m surprised by the most common practices here; behavior that would be unheard of in my country of America and certainly in India, where I spend a great deal of time. Though I didn’t actually take a survey, it seems that three out every five men I passed on the street were carrying a bottle of beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Beer carrying women bottles was probably one out of five. Apparently drinking beer in Ukraine is a bit like drinking Coke in America - it’s for refreshment, a mere matter of preference and taste. One person told me that beer is not considered drinking alcohol. People who “drink” are those who consume vodka.

In a country where there is high unemployment, a spirit of fatalism, which is a hangover of Soviet Communism and the disillusionment of failed Western capitalism, leaves a culture with little hope. Premarital sex, abortion as a form of birth control and alcoholism is all a by-product of failed human systems. The church in Ukraine, like the church in many parts of the world, struggles for legitimacy in a culture of acedia. The church, for the most part, is irrelevant because their message is not pertinent to a population that is more interested in things they will never have (nice home, car, clothes) rather than the state of their soul existence today. The church compounds their irrelevance, in my opinion, through their own culture of restraint and legalism, which creates barriers for those outside the faith in having an opportunity to hear about the marvelous love of Christ. It is a constant tension among the church leadership…how to create a climate of holiness and spiritual growth, while at the same time be a body of believers that, like Jesus, are a friend of sinners?

Culture, the church, behavior, fatalism, hope, all is a part of the human experience. Dynamic in its present form, yet unchanging in its historical context. No matter how much things change it seems to remain the same.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Mission Trends: People Group Movements

A friend recently asked if I would be interested in teaching cross-cultural studies for their organization. He told me that they were going through a strategic shift in their outreach…moving away from “church planting” to “establishing people group movements.”

A few weeks later I heard of a missionary in Russia who has been very successful in doing Business As Mission (BAM) but now was being forced out by his sending agency as they wanted all of their people to focus on establishing people group movements (let’s call it PGM strategy). What is interesting is a few years earlier this organization was at the forefront of BAM strategy.

My reaction to PGM is twofold. First, is the inconsistency of mission strategy. Like the proverbial BB in a barrel, it seems that the mission community is forever bouncing around a new trend and declaring it THE strategy in reaching the world with the Gospel. For years the strategy of Storying (chronologically telling the “story” from Creation to the Cross) was presented as the best way to reach the world with message of Christ. Recently BAM made it’s way to the forefront of mission strategy as a way to enter into closed access countries. In between all these strategies there has been an emphasis on the 10/40 window, power-encounter methods, saturation church planting philosophy and adopting people groups. The latest trend is now Short-Cycle Church planting and PGM, but given the track record of trends one wonders how long these will last until something new and more promising comes to the forefront. Each of these trends has been helpful, in broad terms, within missiological thinking, but the question for me is are we chasing trends to meet a need or merely changing tactics in search of an effective strategy? I suggest, for many, we are merely chasing the wind.

Secondly, I have an adverse reaction to the notion that man can create a PGM. Some things are clearly a work of the Holy Spirit. To assume that through a strategy people will come to Christ in mass is a bit arrogant. (And now I revert to my same old anthropological song and dance). The way most people come to accept salvation through Christ is through building a relationship; the best way to build a relationship is knowing the culture of people and building a level of trust.

From an anthropological perspective, PGM usually happen in societies and cultures that are already group focused and generally, though not exclusively, through the network of family (caste or clan). Societies that are highly individualistic may get caught up in a movement but only as it meets the needs of that individual, not because of conformity to a group. Either way, PGM is a God thing and cannot be a strategy of mission, though understanding the dynamics of culture can at least help one understand how best to approach individuals as well as groups.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Annoying Airline Travelers

Some people get giddy when they begin travel…I get nauseous. Besides the long security lines, sitting in one seat for 14 hours plus the additional hours that must be endured for connecting flights, it’s those who are giddy ones that make me wonder why oh why I don’t get a job that requires nothing of me but a 10 minute drive to work, in the privacy of my own domain… my chariot, my own first class cabin.

On this last from Delhi to Newark, here are some of things that made me grab from the anti-acid tablets.

- "Do you have a pen I could borrow” the twenty-something Brit asked me as I filling out my immigration form? “Yes,” I replied, “but I’m using it right now.” How is that a person can afford to fly around the world but somehow doesn’t carry a 25 cent pen? To those who are flying internationally, you will have to fill out some forms so, for your sake and for the sake of those who are less charitable than me, invest in a Bic.

- “Now boarding people with small children and those who may need additional asstitance in boarding the plane.” That’s when there is a train of little old women all lined up in their wheel chairs. Poor things, too feeble to walk, UNTIL it’s time to disembark. It’s a miracle! Suddenly they jump up and squirm their way to the front. I think there should be roped off section for those who are too weak to walk. Give them their respect, but make sure they are as feeble getting off the plane as they are getting on.

- So we are getting off the plane and the guy in front of me stops on the jet-way to put his book in his bag. There’s not enough room to go around him, so I, and the herd behind me, must wait for him to do organize his suitcase. The definition of bad manners is stopping in front of people who can’t get around you. Some suggestions: (a) put the book in the bag before you get out of the plane, (b) wait until you are in the main hall, get OFF TO THE SIDE and then pack your bag.

- It’s true, you are hundreds of miles away from your friend, but yelling into the cell phone will not make them hear you any better. The technology is such that you can talk in a low voice and they should hear you. If they can’t it’s because you have a poor reception, yelling will not give you more bars! Get off the plane, away from the other 200 people who don’t give a fig about what an awesome time you had on your vacation; GET OFF TO THE SIDE, along with the guy who’s packing his bags, and yell all you want.

- Speaking of yelling, why is it that travelers in groups feel compelled to yell across the plane to their friends? This is not a frat party, it’s public transportation where each passenger is entitled to their own form or entertainment and privacy. You may the coolest dude on campus but on the plane you are just an annoying not-yet-an-adult who will never make much money on Comedy Central.

- God deliver me from the person sitting next to me who feels obligated to tell me their life story; their kids, their jobs, their recent surgery and all they saw in the 10 days they were in India. I lived there so I don’t need to be reminded of how good the food is, the poverty or about the cool elephant ride they had in Jaipur. After 14 hours I know more about these people than my own family members and what’s really amazing…they never even ask me MY name!

- Why is that everyone wants to be a comedian? What’s worse are Americans who joke with foreigners. The little Indian man smiles back and in his head he says, “I don’t understand what this white person is saying. He’s smiling, so I must smile back.” “Hey pal,” the happy Texan asks “What does a Hindu wish someone on their birthday? …. May you have many happy returns…get it!” Just for the record cowboy, they’re not smiling because they think you're funny but because they think you're weird.

- I know that being an airline stewardess is a tough job, but there is no excuse for grumpy airline personnel. Listen lady, I’m not the one who keeps ringing the call button. I am not responsible for the mess in the toilet. It wasn’t me who has the crying baby and I refuse to confess to farting in my seat. If you want to be the terrible witch (notice the “w” instead of the “b”) on flight CO 83, that’s your problem. For those who just want to get home, try to focus your bad attitude to those who made your day miserable and smile at the rest of us who have tried to make your job worth your check.

This is just a partial list of traveling annoyances. Do you have any to share?

Monday, May 04, 2009

Doctoral Student's Study "How Cultures Work."

How Cultures Work: A Roadmap for Intercultural Understanding in the Workplace, is the title of my article in the January issue of Evangelical Missionary Quarterly. Using the principles of that article I taught the DMin. students in Bangalore this past week.

Each student has an interesting story.

FRONT ROW, LEFT TO RIGHT – Yuni is a Baptist pastor in New Delhi. Mohan, is from Sri Lanka and married to a nurse from Singapore. Miss Khetoli works with the Nagaland Police Baptist Churches Assoc. Ebenzer belongs to an organization called Peace on Earth Ministries, which helps Muslim background believers reach other Muslims for Christ.

BACK ROW, LET TO RIGHT - Sunil is a Methodist pastor in Goa, reaching out to urban Hindu intellectuals. Rajan for the past 25 years has worked with the Friends Missionary Prayer Band of India, which is 50 years old, has 903 missionaries. Charles is a leader with E3Ministries, which is the creator of the “Evangel Cube.”

I count it a privilege to teach and influence others for the cross-cultural work. At the end of five weeks I am of course tired and ready to get back home. But it won’t be long after I am in the U.S. I will want to get on the road again. Such is the life of a non-resident missionary.