Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Romanians in India and MBI Report

Discipling cross-cultural missionaries in Patna, India, one of the participants was a Romanian woman who has lived in the country several years. She met her husband, a Korean missionary there and married. The common language in the home is Hindi as she doesn't speak Korean and he doesn't speak Romanian. She told me she wished she had this training before coming to the field. I will be in Romania teaching in July.

Read more of our monthly report by clicking HERE.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

CAMEL Method Debate: Another Case of Missing the Point

In a recent online article in Christianity Today they highlighted the debate between Jerry Rankin, president of the IMB and Ergun Caner of Liberty Theological Seminary on the “CAMEL Method” of evangelism among Muslims. Caner decries the method as conciliation and syncretistic. Rankin defends it as contextualization and sound missiology. Rankin cites the success of the method throughout the Muslim world; Caner, a Muslim background believer, is offended by the use of the Koran as a means of dialogue.

While I appreciate and encourage healthy debate, punches and counter-punches in some disputes end up missing the point. As with most discussions, be it religion, politics, economics or global warming, there is a line drawn in the sand and you are either for it or against it; you are right and they are wrong and, like all good fights, there is a winner and a loser.

So, call me a good post-modernist if you will, but I see the strengths and weaknesses of both arguments. Caner is right that some Muslim evangelism is dishonest, not only to Scriptural principles but also to Muslims. When a Christian, in an attempt to blend into the Muslim community so much that he/she hides their identity as a follower of Isa (Arabic for Jesus), then one reasonably can ask the question what’s the point of even working with Muslims? Rankin is correct that the extraction theory, i.e. that followers of Isa should renounce all that is Muslim and indentify with the new community of the church, is a non-starter in bringing Muslims to faith in Christ. Here is my problem with both Caner and Rankin’s position.

To Caner, dialogue is not compromise. If I am sitting in a village in North Africa that is predominately Muslim I would be foolish not to dialogue with my neighbors, using every contextual tool I can in the process of learning and teaching. This would include using the Koran, referring to God as Allah and agreeing that Isa was a prophet. All truth is God’s truth no matter what form it takes. My witness of Isa can and will be enhanced if I enter into discussion from the viewpoint of my hearers. Of course there is a point when every follower of Christ must make his or her faith definitive. When that takes place and what form it will take is not for me to dictate. If in the process of dialogue, which may take years, I am telling the story of biblical converts, then I am content to let new belivers come to their own conclusions as they are led by the Holy Spirit.

To Rankin, God’s work is not defined by methods or “best practices.” The IMB, and unfortunately most missionaries around the world, are enamored with programs. Chronological story telling, the Jesus Film, BAM (business as mission), EE (evangelism explosion), starting people movements and the CAMEL method are all great tools if they are recognized as such, a tool, not a silver bullet for evangelism. I used the chronological method among the tribal’s of Kenya before it came off the Broadman Press. How? By living with culture and understanding how they viewed their world. Building relationships in a community is not through starting a business. Contextualization is not manipulating dialogue. Good missiology is learning the questions before giving the methodological answer.

Caner and Rankin’s sparring is helpful, as long was we see it for what it is, good debate on how best to present the Gospel. They miss the point when they take the position that their answer to the problem is the best or only answer.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Davy Crockett and Missions

When I heard that Fess Parker died yesterday, my mind went back to a time that I vaguely remember, yet it some ways, a period that was maybe more real than today.

It was probably around 1955 when we got our first TV (yes, I am indeed that old) and I have vivid memories of watching Davy Crockett on the black and white screen in the den of our house in Gardena, California. Those were the days of frontier heroes like, John Wayne, Gunsmoke (James Arness), The Rifleman and Have Gun Will Travel. It was the transition time between the singing cowboys of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. It’s amazing that after 55 years I can still remember the opening lines of the ballad of Davy Crockett . It was a time when good and evil was clearly distinguished, justice didn’t have the ACLU, where hero’s earned their place in history and highest form of being an American was honesty and hard work.

As one of the early Baby-boomers I learned from Davy Crockett and my other pioneer TV heroes that the greatest quest in life was adventure. Risk was something that didn’t need to be analyzed or managed, it came with the territory of the great frontier. It was from those days that Ralph Winter calls “The Most Incredible Twenty-Five Years,” (1950 – 1975) in mission history. It was during that period more career North American missionaries were sent out to do pioneer ministry to the regions beyond. I was a part of that era, signing on to do bush work in the deserts of Kenya, for Christ to be sure, but also the sheer adventure of it that would have made Davy proud.

Well, no sense in pining away for the old days, but gee I miss those days when the goal was clear and the only obstacle was not measured in dollars but in one’s commitment to the task. Though it’s been over fifty years Crocketts advice still rings true - “Be sure you’re right – then go ahead.”

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Idolatry of Missions

I recently read in a Biola (my alma mater) magazine a confession of a missionary. His testimony was that he had made missions an idol. The idea of being a missionary was so all consuming that it affected his relationship with his wife. His spouse was not opposed to going to the mission field, but she saw their role as more of senders rather than goers. The conflict between them intensified until he came to grips with this one question: What is the core issue of life? Christ or being a missionary? It was at that point that he came to terms that missions had become, for him, an idol.

Sadly, there are people who really do believe that ministry, and missions in particular, is the highest calling of God and getting to the field is a passion that dominates everything else in their lives. In some ways I think this obsession is a “martyr for Jesus” complex. Some people, whether they are monks or nuns in a monastery or a desert rat on the backside of Yemen, actually feel like they have to “suffer” to really serve Christ. To deny themselves of family, a career outside of ministry, is in some ways is the truest test of holiness and dedication. The reality of the “martyr for Jesus” people is that suffering is, in some ways, a competition - a competition on who can deny themselves or suffer the most. The truth is there is always someone who suffers more and people feel guilty because they have somehow fallen short of real denial for Christ.

How do I know this? Because it happened to me. When I came off the field I was riddled with guilt. How could I possibly serve Christ to my fullest teaching missionaries in the U.S.? Sharing my frustration with Lloyd Kwast (former missionary to Cameroon and professor of missions at Biola) Lloyd asked me point blank, “Richard, do you really think God loves you more as a missionary in Kenya?” Like the guy who nearly tore up his family in pursuit of missions, I had made missions an idol.

Obviously I believe that being a career missionary is a noble profession. Having been one for 35 years I can testify that it has been a rewarding life; I have no regrets and wish more people would experience the sheer joy of living and working overseas for Christ. However, I have never believed that being a missionary is the highest calling a child of God can have. I maintain that the most important thing for any follower of Christ is to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul and mind. Fulfilling that, the greatest of all commands according to Jesus (Mark 12:28-30), is that thing which all Christians should desire whether they are a truck driver, farmer, secretary, housewife, businessman or missionary.

Like most things in life, it’s the motive behind our decisions that is most important, not just what we do. Just this last week I heard a police officer make this statement that, “There are two type of law enforcement officers. You have some people who put on a badge who seek justice; others are in it for the feeling of power.”

Being a witness for Christ is not a profession; it’s a natural outflow of faith to a person who lived 2,000 years ago. When the task becomes more important than the person then we have changed the dynamics of our discipleship, from being a missionary to a mercenary; from making a calling an idol.

Sunday, March 07, 2010


“The one thing visitors always comment about,” my friend in Delhi said to me recently, “ is how dirty India is.  I know there is a lot of trash and it’s not like America or Europe, but I’m amazed how that seems to be the only thing people from abroad talk about.”

A few days earlier in my class we discussed the issue of purity and profane from a cultural and biblical perspective.  In the Old Testament the book of Leviticus is a list of clean and unclean things, ranging from food, bodily fluids and even people.  In the New Testament Jesus rebuked the religious fundamentalist on their obsession with ritual purity.  While Jews, Muslims and Hindus abstain from pork as unclean, Americans believe a good ham on Thanksgiving or Christmas should be on every holiday table.  Americans wouldn’t think of eating a dog, but in the Orient it’s a delicacy.  Horse meat is still acceptable in France and, of course, the Chinese will eat just about anything.

Anthropologist Mary Douglas defines “unclean” as anything out of place.  Dirt in the yard is okay, but dirt in the house is considered unclean.  Hair, which we wash and shampoo to make it shiny, is a matter of personal beautification.  Hair found in food can be so repulsive that some people get physically ill at the thought.  Dirt is more about position than it is hygiene. 

While Americans believe that cleanliness is next to godliness, culture determines what is clean or unclean.  College kids visiting India may be horrified with the filth they see on the streets, but these same kids, with the grunge look, walk around in dirty clothes and unkept and mangy hair.

It’s true, in poor countries there is a lot of trash, open sewers and unsanitary habits, like urinating in public.  For most people, though they may wish they lived in a different environment, it’s a way of life.  Why?  Because dirt is placed where it should be, outside.  Inside their own dwellings it is well maintained and clean.

Jesus told His accusers that while they focused on outward dirt they were oblivious to the greater issue, uncleanliness of the heart.  I’m all for clean food, water and the environment, but rather being overwhelmed with the outward issue of dirt maybe we should deal with those unclean toxics of the heart and not so much on the things we see on the streets.



Monday, March 01, 2010

Perception of Good

One of the great challenges of hermeneutics is understanding context. This past two weeks I have been trying to bridge the gap between the traditional critical and historical approach to interpretation of scripture by using cultural anthropology as a model for contextual analysis. What does anthropology have to say about “honor and shame,” “purity and impurity,” “kinship and marriage,” and “limited good,” as it relates to understanding the first century church?

Missiologists have never advocated that the social sciences be THE model for interpretation of context. However, I am amazed how many theologians discount the role or even the validity in using cultural anthropology as a tool for scriptural understanding.

Anthropologist George Foster, in 1965, stated that in peasant societies (which one can clearly see in first century Palestine) there was an image of limited good. By that he means the access to goods, honor and resources was not abundant but indeed restricted. A person and/or family either had or did not have access to good based on kinship. Land owners, craftsman, tenant farmers for the most part were ascribed status within society. The only way good was achieved beyond cultural ascription was through deception and abuse of power. Vassar kings, like Herod, were despised by the common folk as his allegiance was to Rome and not the people he was given charge to rule. Matthew and Zacchaeus were despised “sinners” as their profession of tax collection was often a means to exploit others for their benefit. Limited good is a sum zero game. For someone to grow rich someone else must suffer loss. The rich get richer as the poor get poorer (a classic tension between capitalism and socialism as it plays out in today’s world).

Fast forward to the story of the landowner giving talents (investment capital) to three servants. Two servants make a handsome ROI (return on investment). The third steward is ridiculed and ostracized because he was not willing to be a Zacchaeus. You would think that the interpretation of this story is that the hero is not those who gain ROI in a limited good society, but the one who was willing to face the wrath of a harsh master rather than turn against his fellow countrymen. But that is not how the average evangelical theologian interprets this parable. Through the lens of unlimited good, capitalism and profit margins, the hero is the one who uses his talents to gain more talents. “Well done, good and faithful servant, you have been faithful (exploiting) with little to gain more. Enter into the joy of the Lord.” (Okay, I am going over the top in my interpretation, but I do so for effect and to make my case). The point being is that to be consistent in interpretation of scripture all tools or models can be helpful, including cultural anthropology. Especially as it relates to first century Palestine, today’s model of unlimited good does not fit, though we continually try to make the case through the lens of economic expansion.

Distorted hermeneutics comes into play when we try to make our interpretations fit into our culturally biased analysis. On this issue Lingenfelter writes,One of the distortions that we as human beings bring to social relationships is that of making our familiar structure the only structure that God can use to accomplish his purpose. We distort the diversity of God's creation and reduce the structures for human life to those that are familiar to us. By denying the validity of other structures, we force people to submit to our standards and structures of relationship in order to accomplish the work and purpose of God (LEADING Cross-Culturally: Covenant Relationship for Effective Christian Leadership. Baker Academic: 64)

The parable of Luke 19 is still up for debate. Was Jesus teaching his audience to be counter-cultural, ahead of his time in seeing the world with unlimited resources? Or, was he making a strong case against greed in a limited good society? For those who think anthropology has nothing valid to contribute to the study of scripture the third steward is an example of squandering God’s talents he has given us. That lazy servant should indeed be cast into outer darkness, alongside those who use social science as tool for interpretation of scripture.