Saturday, September 26, 2009

Noah's Ark in South India

I am forever intrigued with visionaries. I have worked with a few down through the years and what fascinates me about them is how impractical they seem to be.  My bent is to critique everything ad nauseam and view things in terms of efficiency, cost effectiveness and practical application.  Most visionaries think about these things, but after the fact.  They have a propensity to operate on “Ready, fire, aim,” where I am inclined to “Ready, aim, aim, aim…” and never pull the trigger.

I am in the presence of a full-blown visionary this week.  I’ve written about Dr. Vijayam before, but let me briefly tell his story again.  Dr. V is in his ‘70’s.  He retired early as a geology professor from a university to establish TENT (Training in Evangelism Needs and Technology).  Fifteen years ago he purchased about 12 acres of land 22 miles outside the city of Hyderabad.  The property was virtually in the middle of nowhere…still is, but the city is moving his way.  His vision is to use every inch of Carmel Campus for the equipping of bi-vocational missionaries and church workers.  Committed to experiential farming in arid environments the campus is dotted with flora and small animal husbandry.  From pigeons to rabbits to chickens to vermiculture (earthworm  production) anything that can be of use for supporting national pastors in their ministry is tried and taught here.  In addition to plants and animals are classes on how to make candles, book covering and even welding.  The original missionary tentmaker, the Apostle Paul, would be impressed with the activities of TENT. 

A few years back the professor had a vision (not dream or revelation, but an idea) to build a replica the Tabernacle of the Old Testament.  Who would actually travel  to the outback of the country to visit such a reproduction?  Evidently a lot of people as nearly every Sunday and school holidays there are groups of people wanting a tour of the Tabernacle.  Christians and non-Christians alike find the Tabernacle a site worth seeing.

When I arrived on campus last week, for my annual teaching cultural anthropology to the students of JVI and IWILL (go to THIS LINK for description of these programs), Dr. Vijayam shared with me his latest venture…building Noah’s Ark.  “Our campus is not big enough for an exact replica,” he stated, “but it will be about a third the size of the original.”  (It will also be made of cement and steel).  You’re kidding me right?  NOAH’S ARK!

What is interesting about visionaries, like Uncle, is that they are driven by passion for what they endeavor to do.  They are not fool-hearty and they pay for their project as they go (at least some of them do) and they certainly pray about everything before they launch out.  Not driven by market analysis (Who is my customer? Is the site of this campus the best location for those seeking training?), the vision is the bottom line for them, not necessarily the process.

I have some projects of my own I want to launch.  Perhaps its taken the building of Noah’s Ark in the south of India for me to stop thinking about it and just get on with it…quit aimingpull the trigger.

Monday, September 21, 2009


A hand went up in the back of the room.

“Dr. Lewis, thank you for coming and telling us about India and things we should be aware of as we prepare for our [ten day] trip.  I found the things you shared with us about Hinduism and the Indian culture very interesting.  But….”

Ah, the dreaded ‘but.”  By the tone in her voice I could see this shoe fall the minute she started to speak. 

“…I was expecting you to help us with how we can share the gospel with the people.”

So, I said to myself, “What part of my lecture did she not understand?"  Each person in the room received an outline.  Part of that outline included these seven points:

  1. Do not criticize or condemn Hinduism.
  2. Avoid all that even hints at triumphalism and pride.
  3. Never allow a suggestion that separation from family and/or culture is necessary in becoming a disciple of Christ.
  4. Do not speak quickly on Hell, or on the fact that Jesus is the only way for salvation.
  5. Learn more about Hinduism and each individual Hindu.
  6. Share your testimony, describing your personal experience of lostness and God’s gracious forgiveness and peace.
  7. Center on Christ.

Expectations can be a messy thing.  Perhaps this dear lady expected me to give her the formula that is most successful in reaching people for Christ in Asia.  If there was such a formula (a) I would have been more than happy to share it and (b) the country would have a Christian population greater than 2% (c), the national church would be using it and therefore (d) less of a need for outsiders to come and evangelize.

The crux of this woman’s concern was in her statement that, “We are spending a lot of time and money for this trip and I want to make sure we are using these resources wisely.” 

I admire evangelists.  They are bold and sincere in their witness for Christ.  I must admit that I am convicted by my timidity and sometimes wonder if I am more like the faint hearted Peter who denied Jesus three times before a little teen-age girl than I am the bold and rash Peter who lopped off the ear of the man who came to arrest Jesus by night.  Is my timidity cowardice?  Is her boldness just another name for foolish religious zeal?

Expectations are often obstacles in learning.  Having an agenda is grounded in pride. Methods are easier to do than building relationships.  I felt badly that this person deemed I had wasted her Saturday morning, but there is only so much one can do in three hours.

To add to my outline I should state clearly,

  1. No one becomes a Christ follower except through the work of the Holy Spirit.
  2. Prayer precedes all conversions.
  3. Recognize that most people come to Christ, not always but more times than not, through a relationship that spans a long period of time.
  4. If being a witness and planting the seed of the Gospel is not enough, stay home.
Even with that addition I suspect there will still be a hand raised in the back of the classroom.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Missionaries and Politics

A few years back I attended a major conference designed to discuss ways to advance the Gospel in India. Over 600 Christians from all over the country and around the world attended to talk about how to present Christ through media, helping the poor, women’s fellowships, evangelism, arts, schools and many other topics (I was a part of the cultural anthropology discussion group). I was disappointed with the meeting because of the political overtones of the gathering. The host, and leading figure in India, is heavily invested in fighting for Dalit rights, (Dalits are the lower caste people of India, formerly known as "untouchables"). Though the cause is great and worthy, I didn’t think this was an appropriate venue for the overall theme of how to reach the whole nation with the whole Gospel of Christ.

Down through the years I have observed the church and the on-going battle between faith and political ideology. Whether it is corruption in Africa, oppression in former Soviet countries or ethnic tensions in Asia, the battle between rights, freedom, socialism, democracy is ever with us. The tension for missionaries is how much should we be engaged in such political activity? Should we actively oppose a system that is anti-God? Should we be a defender of the weak, the marginalized and those who are oppressed because of their gender, ethnicity or religious persuasion? The answer is a qualified yes. The greater question is how and how much?

As a missiologist my bent, prejudice or focus, is pretty narrow, though with broad universal implications. I don’t see the world in binary opposites (good/bad, democrat/republican, socialism/capitalism) as much as I see a mosaic of people and systems incarcerated by disobedience to our Creator. I work in an area of over 3 billion people where 87% do not personally know a Christian. Part of the reason for this lack of penetration of the Gospel is due to political obstacles. Should I seek to overthrow the evil human system or should I seek ways of presenting Christ as He gives me (and the church) opportunity? Should I buy the t-shirts that say, “Free The Dalits,” or should I concentrate on contextualizing the Gospel to the Dalits that crosses political and ethnic boundaries even if the nations do not?

As a theologian, I see no biblical precedence for being politically active. Our Lord lived in a country oppressed by a foreign government, He mixed with the poor on a daily basis, broke bread with corrupt officials and, though He helped and challenged in each situation, He was not an activist. Jesus remained focused on the purpose of His mission. In addition to the example of our Lord, the Apostle Paul stated in Romans 13:1-7 that a Christians responsibility was to submit to government authority (and remember he was writing to persecuted Christians living in Rome), to pray for those in authority and pay taxes as required. While I may not agree with the political landscape in the countries I work or reside, Paul reminds us that it is Sovereign One who establishes those in authority. To be salt and light is our daily task, to mandate morality or ideology is clearly not a part of the Great Commission.

Finding balance is key to everything. Missionaries can be informed and pray for the world systems around them, but if politics becomes an obsession where we spend more time trying to right the wrongs of this world than telling those who have never heard about Christ, then perhaps we have lost sight of the heart of our calling.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Discovering Worldview in Calcutta

A regular reader of this blog from Colorado commented recently that reading my stuff was “getting expensive.”  In the past month I have given a few book reviews and today, sorry Bill, I want to share another good read.  Not essential, but inspiring and challenging.

Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Meaningful Work And Service, is a book about self-discovery, but more, about an academic who discovered the faith of Christ through working with a humble woman working among the poor of India.  Mary Poplin’s (PhD professor of education) work has two primary themes.

The first, and primary theme is that of a woman who lived a selfless life and her commitment to Christ.  No matter what you think of Mother Teresa and her theology, she had a singular passion, Jesus.  Though a Nobel Prize Winner, Mother Teresa never sought glory, money or building a large organization, though through her order, Sisters of Charity, she received all of that.  What Poplin learned as a “volunteer” (note that volunteers were not called “missionaries – maybe a better phrase for STM’s) for three months in 1996, and what it meant to serve Christ, not just do social work.  Throughout the book there are vignettes on how Mother Teresa and her Sisters dealt with discouragement, attacks from critics, and their single-minded mission to help others.  It is not hard to find inspiration and even conviction in every chapter of this book.

Second, as an academician, Poplin bought into the worldview of higher education and philosophy prevalent in western universities.  What she discovered in Calcutta was that those philosophies of secular humanism, naturalism and pantheism have no answers for humanity outside of themselves.  Mother Teresa’s life and labor revealed a life that is neither rational or normal, as viewed by the world, but is nevertheless the way God intended for His creation.  Poplin writes, In the Christian worldview, a set of moral standards and ways of best being in the world stands outside us...It is not left to us to determine moral values but to obey the principles we have been given.” 

The author is candid about her own failings adhering to the secular humanistic and pantheistic worldview she followed for many years, which resulted in two abortions and declaring she was “spiritual” but not religious.  She exposes the fallacy of that worldview by stating, “One major distinctions in my being ‘spiritual but not religious’ as what I could not or would not deal with - evil, especially evil inside myself.... The rationalizing mind cannot distinguish its thoughts from reason.  I could rationalize having sexual relationships with a married man with any number of ‘human reasons’ -- his marriage was on the rocks, his wife did not really love him, it's not really hurting anyone...the list was endless.  I could use illegal drugs, because, after all, is only hurt me."

Poplin’s time in Mother Teresa’s Calcutta brought her to the real meaning of life.  In the process she found her own Calcutta, challenging the prevailing worldview in the universities and championing the Christian worldview where she works everyday.

Finding Calcutta is worth the time and money to read and be blessed.  

Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Power of Influence

Dear Dr. Lewis,

The cardinal aim of this mail is to express my appreciation to you for the positive and profound impact of your teaching- not just on me- but the entire Missions class that you taught last July at Africa Theological, Kitale, Kenya. I realize that the principles and concepts we learnt are applicable (relevant) not just in Mission work, but in all spheres of life. Personally, my life has been transformed greatly. Certainly, the combination of your experiences as a pastor and missionary, coupled with your education has made you such a fine professor. May God give you good health and open doors for you to minister to more people around the globe!

I have started a counseling-oriented ministry for which I need your prayers.

Your student...

I have always believed an in-depth study of culture is not something just for missionaries but equally important for pastors, business professionals, students and just about everyone who regularly cross cultural boundaries; which in reality is most people today who live in a culturally diverse world.  The student who sent the above note (emphasis his) is going into the field of counseling and, even in that field, there is a specific study for cross-cultural counselors and psychologists.  In every culture people have emotional and psychological needs, but how those needs arise and how to counsel those emotional needs are culturally driven.

I begin every new class with this statement. 

“I am here to help you understand culture and teach cultural anthropology.  But I want you to know I have an agenda and that is to influence you to take the Gospel to those who have never heard the message of Christ.  I want to influence you to think outside of your own culture and to think about those of other cultures.”

Another student, who is involved in the music ministry in one of the largest churches in Nairobi (built, bought and run by an American church in the U.S. - but that’s another story), confessed to me one day after class that, “I am now rethinking about my future ministry.  My church is exciting, but they have many people to do the ministry there.  I am now wondering about the many people in Africa who do not have a church.”

I do not expect every student I teach to be anthropologists or cross-cultural church planters, but in the process of teaching worldview, genealogies and cross-cultural communication, it is my goal to influence people to see the world as God does.