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Saturday, March 25, 2006

For My Modern Brethren

I've been thinking about some comments posted by Jeff and Tim back on my post: I'd Like to Make a Toast. They expressed their concern as to my ability to adequately express myself in a coherent manner which would allow for meaningful discussion with modern thinkers. The following are my concerns about their suggestions:

I read many blogs. (Actually, my news aggregator reads many blogs, and delivers the new stuff to my home page.) One thing I come across time and again is how tied we as believers are to the modern debate technique known as "rhetoric;" which is a worldy and impersonal approach to communication that hinders Christian discussion. Many of us have worked to rid our vocabulary of meaningless Christian jargon, (and by meaningless, I mean "religious" words for which we have no common definition even amongst ourselves, and are completely unknown outside our subculture.) but we have yet to develop a better way to communicate. Our dependence on the rhetorical debate technique is preventing us from having meaningful discussion.

For example: On the alcohol post, Tim voiced his opinion that abstaining from alcohol was, in fact a biblical position. He gave support for his opinion in the form of quotes. He then challenged me to refute his sources. In the past, this would have been a great way to discuss the issue of missionaries drinking on the field. But the days of debate being the only recognized form of "thoughtful discourse" amogst believers are over (and if they weren't before I typed that last line, I hereby declare them to be over).

Any form of communication that necessitates pitting one against the other is a bad start. I don't see why we would advocate a system that refers to the person with whom we are speaking as an "opponent," or "critic," or "adversary." If we instead take part in a discussion between "friends," "brothers and sisters," and "fellow seekers," the conversation can be unifying, encouraging, and edifying. Sure it's ok to disagree. Sometimes, we must do it strongly even. You might think it's a question of semantics, but the moment we start to think of the person we're talking to as our rival, we've begun to play by the world's rules.

We label every person and every person's every thought. Without even really listening to someone, we assume we know what they're saying and why. "Oh, you're Amyraldian." "You're arguing infralapsarianism, and that's been proven wrong." How does this help a conversation? I'm not saying we should limit ourselves to rehashing past arguments. We should learn from the discussions that wiser men and women have had before us. But do we really need to boil everyone down to one of two camps on every issue? Liberal or Conservative? Calvinist or Arminian? Open communion, or closed? My answer, to all of these questions is yes. I'm sure there's a label for that, too.

And don't get me started on "hyperbole." Exaggerating the other guy's position just to make a point is, well, lying. But that's what happens in every debate. Someone shares their thoughts, and we make a charicature of their statements in order to easily show the flaws in their logic. But all the while we know that the guy on the other end of the discussion isn't really saying that homosexuality isn't sin or that Calvinists shouldn't participate in evangelism. We only argue with ourselves when we put words in people's mouths.

Along those same lines, posting a list of quotes from your research here is like bringing some upper-classmen to a playground disagreement. Sharing the sources that have convinced you is a good thing, but challenging me to refute them is the opposite of discussion. By citing outside support, you've stepped out of the conversation, and put dead historians and Greek scholars in your place. If you didn't want to talk (type) it out with me, you should've said so.

Sarcasm is ok, though. It allows us to say things that, while true, would make us look like total jerks if we weren't just being sarcastic. Besides, it's usually pretty funny.

Jesus convinced people by asking questions and quoting (and paraphrasing?) scripture, not by challenging anyone to refute anything. Paul even referred to pagan religions and quoted popular philosophers. I'd prefer to participate in a conversation by asking questions (my favorite lately has been: "How's that working out for you?") over trying to expose logical inconsistencies in someone's "argument." Besides, even the most rational of us hold on to beliefs that seem to be contradictions, don't we? Our faith requires it of us.

I guess I'm advocating a system of communication that doesn't have rules that rule anyone out. I think we shouldn't disqualify people from participation in the conversation because they don't argue well enough or have enough historical support of their position. I'm tired of people thinking that using Greek is a trump card that should end all questions. I love conversation. I think the free exchange of ideas is beautiful. I am not uncomfortable with unanswered questions or apparent contradictions. Why are you?

It's funny; as I type, I'm reminded of the classroom rules for group discussion set by my sixth-grade teacher, Ms. Ludlow. If I remember correctly, they went something like this:
1. There are no stupid questions.
2. Everyone is entitled to his/her opinion.
3. We can disagree, but we must do so politely.
4. Always tell the truth.
5. Don't betray confidences.
6. It's not what you say, it's how you say it.

I think there was another one about waiting to speak until you were called on. Anyway, I don't expect that any of us would stop using the rhetorical method any time soon. In fact, we're so modern, there may be some conversations we are incapable of having outside of a debate. I think it would be cool to explore those.

Friday, March 17, 2006

First Person Plural

Most of us change pretty dramatically after just a short time on the field. As we begin to identify with nationals, we are exposed to different perspectives (many of us for the first time) that we never really got from previous experiences or short-term trips. Right away, we start to see ourselves through other people's eyes, and we can't help but rethink some of what we've always believed about politics, social issues, and our faith. We are compelled to begin the process of determining what is truth and what is culture.

Even though we all go through this transition from our home culture to our host culture, it's a lonely time for us, because we must go through it alone. Sure we try to relate our experiences to our friends and families back home, but how can we express the disillusionment, frustration, and doubt we struggle with? After all, we're paid to be professionals. We ought to know our role, and we certainly should be beyond the basics. If we are open about these things, people get nervous; the Board of Trustees thinks we've gone liberal and makes a new policy to help straighten us out. If we seek the counsel of our stateside pastors, they inadvertently give us a distinctly American perspective. If we ask our Southern Baptist constituency, the people in the pews, we risk losing their confidence in us and therefore their support.

So the norm these days is to keep quiet. Don't tell the people back home that we've changed our minds about alcohol and the death penalty and spiritual gifts. Don't let them know we're against the war in Iraq and embarrassed by the overweight, ignorant volunteers that come and perpetuate the American stereotype. But as far as I can tell, saying nothing hurts accountability and unity. So I blog. And fortunately, I'm not alone. Coworkers from around the world are writing posts about some of the same things. I can't tell you how encouraging it is to me to read fellow IMB M's blogging about the issues they face, and knowing that the people who send us can read about our experiences first-hand.

But the comments that followed my last post reveal the difficulty of communication between the field and home. Here are some reasons for the breakdown:

Learning living languages brings a new perspective to our understanding of biblical languages. If it takes me years to learn the subtle nuances of the twelve different ways to say the same thing in my host language (a language I'm immersed in), maybe I'm going to be a little skeptical of the preacher back home who claims to know the one true meaning of the original Greek of a biblical text.

We are consistently exposed to the spiritual enemy in ways we normally wouldn't experience back home. On a daily basis, we come face to face with principalities and powers that have ruled these countries for generations. Even those strongholds that are familiar to us: bitterness, materialism, and idolatry, seem to have extra-sharp teeth out here. All we can do is hold tightly to the Holy Spirit. But if we talk about what we've seen, we're labeled charismatic.

We are seeing strong and healthy churches born all the time. We learn more about the body of Christ from this adventure of being the church than we ever did by going to church in the States. We don't miss one bit the politics, fund-raising, or programmed activities of the congregational churches we come from. These groups were started by the Holy Spirit and accountable to Him as they seek to obediently work out what it means to be believers in their own culture. But because these churches don't fit the SBC mold, seminary presidents and big-name pastors back home are questioning our ecclesiology.

I've often heard that missionaries should just preach the gospel, and not worry so much about the culture. My time on the field, however, has taught me that the gospel is impossible to share or even comprehend outside the context of a culture. So I will keep seeking cultural translation of life in Christ. And as long as I have something to say, I'll keep blogging about it.

Monday, March 13, 2006

I'd Like to Make a Toast...

I'm glad to see the controversy move from speculation to discussion. With the release of the "position papers," IMB Board of Trustees Chairman Tom Hatley breaks the silence and attempts to explain the reasons behind the Board's new policies on prayer languages and baptism. Another trustee who voted in favor of the policies, Jerry Corbaley, has really opened up to hearing from M's and stateside folks alike over at his new blog.

The Trustees are getting hit from three sides: on the one hand, there are the ultra-conservatives who were likely behind the policy change to begin with. They point to house church ecclesiology, the role of women, and the treatment of spiritual gifts as evidence that the IMB is becoming a bastion of liberalism. On the other side are those that oppose the policies. They see signs of Landmarkism, lack of accountability, and power plays and are voicing their concerns through blogs. Finally, there are the (mostly anonymous) M's on the field. They seem to be most concerned with policies, guidelines, and strategies dictated from Richmond with no regard to cultural context. Oh, and they're worried they'll get fired if they complain.

Since I fall into the third category, I've got to ask: what about alcohol?

It seems like the part of the discussion many find most troubling (besides how Wade Burleson was treated) is that the policies go beyond scripture, and beyond the BFM 2000 to disqualify many Southern Baptists from missionary service based on a narrow interpretation of baptism and tongues. Everyone is upset about extra-biblical requirements for IMB personnel, but the Board has always required M's to abstain from drinking. People are refusing to accept "because the majority of Southern Baptists believe this way" in place of scriptural support for the new policies, but alcohol is forbidden for this reason. Never mind what the Bible says, never mind the M's host culture; drinking is grounds for termination. Abiding by the rule has always been seen by our folks on the field as one of the concessions we have to make in order to receive support. Most of the people I know disagree with this policy.

For the sake of ministry, we have eaten some crazy things. We've hung out in smokey bars. We've stayed out all night with friends. Though we'll always be foreigners, we do all that we can to minimize the differences between us and the people to whom we minister. In my own experience, there have been times when that ministry has been hurt and opportunities have been missed because I (by kindly abstaining) made an issue of something that ought to be a non-issue.

Even though caffeine is a drug, we wouldn't make a new policy that prohibits M's from drinking tea when they go into a Chinese home. Sexual temptation is a reality, but we don't have a rule against greeting people of the opposite sex with a kiss, as they do in Spain. But because "most Southern Baptists don't approve" of alcohol consumption, our M's are required to abstain.

I'm not trying to rekindle the debate over drinking. For a great perspective on the subject, check out Steve McCoy's post: "Alcohol, Abstention, and Redemption." I just thought I'd point out what has been an IMB-imposed obstacle to ministry.

Here's to good discussion.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Postmodern, Predestined

In my experience, people who are less modern tend to be more fatalistic. We don't normally believe that what we do will make a difference in the world. Sure, I'll keep on recycling, but because it's the right thing to do, not because it's going to save the environment. I don't believe that buying a cheeseburger for the homeless guy on the street will end global hunger (I don't even believe it will end his hunger), but I do it anyway, because Jesus talked a lot about it. I vote, but hey, I'm registered in California. A lot of this is about doing what's right because it's right and not because it works, but that's another post.

Lately I've started to wonder if maybe this fatalistic attitude (which most Christians decry) is why the doctrine of predestination makes so much sense to me. Now I'm not talking about Calvinism, mostly because I don't want to be lumped in with that crowd, and because I won't pledge my allegiance to any guy who started a Christian Taliban in Switzerland. For me, I recognize that though I should do the right thing, and I want to do the right thing, I probably won't. Even if I were to do the right thing, it wouldn't really make any difference anyway. Thankfully, the eternal destiny of the world doesn't depend on me.

So, if it is God who chooses us, and not the other way around, by what criteria does He choose? That question is just so, well, modern. I really never stress about that. In fact, I find beauty in the mystery, and I'm humbled that He elected me. (Proof that being handsome, smart, or nice aren't among the criteria.) Predestination is fatalism with a face, and in case you haven't heard, Grace is the new Karma.

If I truly believe that people's salvation doesn't depend on me, why am I here on the field? (I figure that of my small audience, there's got to be at least one person wondering about that.) I'm not here to make an impact on "lostness," or to "finish the task," because I couldn't if I tried. Not even all of us, working together in Christian unity could do those things. No, I'm here because God called me to go. Perhaps you could say it was my destiny.

Friday, March 03, 2006


One of things I struggle with is our tendancy to separate the spiritual from the social. You know, the idea that we shouldn't get caught up in social issues because we're working to see people's soul's saved. I've heard this type of thing a lot. The other day I read a blog post that said:

"To feed the poor without telling them of Christ is all you're doing is sending them to hell with a full belly."
This blogger was saying that it is a distraction from the "main thing" (evangelism?) for us to concern ourselves with feeding the hungry, or advocating the oppressed. I've also heard people say, "I'm not here to make friends, I'm here to share the gospel." (I've written about that in previous posts.) To a certain extent, the current strategy of the IMB reflects this "one or the other" mentality. "New Directions" was all about a shift in focus to church planting, but in many places we pulled out of social ministries such as schools, medical clinics, refugee services, and orphanages. My concern is that by separating the spiritual from the social, we are changing the gospel. We say we are concerned about people, but practically, we're only concerned about, well, part of people.

The good news is not only spiritual in nature; it is social. New life in Christ is about community. Before Christ, we are out of fellowship with the Most High God. Jesus is the way to community with God. But this isn't all there is to it. The gospel is also about community with others. In Christ we are brought into fellowship with other believers. Also, life in Him provides us with Christ's perspective, through which we can begin to have a right relationship with the world around us.

Our focus on the "spiritual" might be why Christians struggle socially. We have a hard time relating to lost people. We are pretty ignorant about other cultures, and anything that doesn't directly affect us. Our divorce rate is high. Lots of us fear the world and hide from it inside the walls of the "safe" "Christian" subculture. We treat people who disagree with us pretty badly. Spiritually, we're great. Socially, it hardly looks like we're saved. Maybe we've only heard the spiritual half of the gospel.

For some reason, people are afraid that I might give "a cup of cool water" to someone in need without telling them that I'm doing it in Jesus name. To me, that's the same as sharing the "plan of salvation" and not addressing physical/social needs. It only presents a part of the gospel. Many of my missionary friends would probably say, "Yeah, but it's the most important part of the gospel." But I don't think we get to make that distinction, either.