Archive for the ‘Mission’ Category

The Greater Commission: God’s Revelation and Our Response

Thursday 4 February 2010

When I applied to Wycliffe Bible Translators 7 years ago I was asked to write several doctrinal statements outlining my beliefs about various biblical themes, one of which was God’s mission. I was expected to discuss the basis on which church was involved in mission in the 21st Century.

In answering this question I relied heavily on a single verse from Matthew 28, often known as the “Great Commission”, where Jesus tells his disciples to “Go and make disciples of all nations”. I reasoned that if this was true for the disciples 2,000 years ago,  it must also be true for us today. If Jesus has given us this command, how can we claim to be his followers and not carry it out?

7 years on I would answer the question very differently. It’s not that what I said at the time isn’t true – I still believe that Jesus has commanded his church to make disciples of all nations. If this was the only verse in the Bible where God called his people to tell others about himself, I would still take Jesus’ commandment completely seriously.

My mistake was not in believing something that wasn’t true, but rather in believing something that was true, but ultimately missing out on the whole truth. Rather than just being a command tacked on as a panicked afterthought as Jesus realised he was leaving his disciples, God’s mission – his revelation of himself to all nations – is something that God started with the creation of the world, and has been doing ever since in and through that creation. For thousands of years God has been revealing himself to his people through the law, through prophets, through angels, visions, dreams, a donkey… and ultimately through his son.

Why is it important that we understand the whole truth about God’s mission to the nations? If we have one command from Jesus, surely that’s enough? 7 years ago that was my logic – if Jesus said something, who am I to even think about the matter any further? I should just take him at his word without question.

Our western culture likes to frame concepts abstractly and to reduce things to their logical extreme. If we believe Jesus is God, and God is truth, then Jesus always speaks the truth. If Jesus tells us to make disciples of all nations, why look any further for our mandate?

But actually we see in the Bible that God’s communication is much more holistic than we might at first think. The Bible isn’t a list of commands for us to follow like robots, but rather a collection of diverse writings – history, poetry, law, proverbs, prophecy, letters – which don’t just tell us how to live, but reveal to us the nature of God.

When God does give a command in the Bible it is always in the context of relationship. God reveals part of himself to his people, and then gives them a command which is their appropriate response.

In the verse in Matthew 28 Jesus says “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations…” (Matthew 28:18-20) If we look back to the ten commandments God says “I am the Lord your God, who rescued you from the land of Egypt, the place of your slavery. You must not have any other god but me…” (Deuteronomy 5:6-7) And in the following chapter “Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:4) Repeatedly throughout the giving of the law, the commandments are framed as responses to the revelation of who God is.

My problem 7 years ago was that I understood and was willing to carry out God’s command, but I was generally ignorant of the revelation of God’s character that prompted the command. I knew that Jesus had commanded his church to make disciples of all nations, but I didn’t understand that the command was supposed to be my response to the revelation of the missional heart of God himself that we see throughout scripture. It was in fact an invitation to join in with what God had been doing since the beginning of the world.

What I believed was true, but it wasn’t the truth.

Understanding what God commands, but being ignorant of the revelation of God that prompts the command actually affects the way we carry out that command. If we hear Jesus’ call to make disciples of all nations, but don’t see the missional nature of God’s actions running through the Bible, we’ll be tempted to think that mission is our job – a task God has given us to complete alone. And so we’ll devise whatever strategies we can to accomplish that task as quickly and easily as possible. On the other hand if we understand that mission is at the heart of God’s character, and Jesus’ command is actually an invitation to be part of what God is doing, we’ll depend completely on him, in the knowledge that we are part of something so much bigger. We won’t be tempted to cut corners when we think God isn’t looking, or to achieve our goals in ways that are contrary to how God works.

Our culture values following instructions. As Christians we’re always tempted to reduce the Christian life to following rules, hoping that if we work hard enough at completing the tasks set before us, we’ll finally stand in front of God and hear him say “Well done good and faithful servant”. But I’m not sure that God defines obedience in this way.

The Bible teaches us that God cares deeply that we obey his commands, but that, despite what our reductionist culture teaches us, those commands can never be divorced from his relationship with us. We should obey God’s commands, but unless our obedience is a response to the revelation we see of him, and is a product of our relationship with him, we’re no better than the Pharisees in their hollow adherence to the rules.

Ultimately we need to have a whole-Bible understanding of God’s mission, not so that we can carry out the right commands and follow the right rules, but so that we can know the missional nature of our God, and through our relationship with him, respond by joining with him in sharing his nature with people from all nations.

Advertisements

The Mission of God: Christianity and Post-Modernism

Wednesday 3 February 2010

After meaning to for several months, I’ve finally started my way through Chris Wright’s mammoth book, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. As it’s 500 or so pages long there’s no way I’m going to remember all the good quotes when I get to the end, so I thought I might post a few as I go along, if nothing else to provide myself with a summary of what stood out to me in the book.

The first section is about the Bible and Mission. Wright says that he used to teach a course on the biblical basis of mission, but became increasingly convinced that the western evangelical method of listing out a few proof texts to prove what we’d already decided was true, just didn’t do justice to the missional nature of the whole Bible, including the Old Testament.

But before we can gain a fuller understanding of such a foundational theme we need to become aware of the cultural glasses* through which we view the Bible, and the world in general, and take a step back to see the bigger meta-narrative that runs through scripture. Wright suggests that reading the Bible together with people from all nations can give us a much broader and richer view of God, and shed light on the missional theme running through every page of scripture.

Even when we affirm (as I do) that the historical and salvation-historical context of biblical texts and their authors is of primary and objective importance in discerning their meaning and their significance, the plurality of perspectives from which readers read them is also a vital factor in the hermeneutical richness of the global church. What persons of one culture bring from that culture to their reading of a text may illuminate dimensions or implications of the text itself that persons of another culture may not have seen so clearly. (p39)

And on the previous page:

There is a great irony that the Western Protestant theological academy, which has its roots precisely in a hermeneutical revolution (the reformation), led by people who claimed the right to read scripture independently from the prevailing hegemony of medieval Catholic scholasticism, has been slow to give ear to those of other cultures who choose to read scriptures through their own eyes, though the situation is undoubtedly improving. (p38)

In many ways the acceptance that different cultures will read the same scriptures in different ways reflects the trend of post-modern thinking. But Wright says firstly that Christianity in effect got there a couple of millenia before post-modernism as we know it came into existence, and secondly that the church has something unique to contribute to the post-modern way of thinking:

What we [the church] have to offer, I contend, is a missional hermeneutic of the Bible. The Bible got there before postmodernity was dreamed of – the Bible which glories in diversity and celebrates multiple human cultures, the Bible which builds its most elevated theological claims on utterly particular and sometimes very local events, the Bible which seems everything in relational, not abstract, terms, and the Bible which does the bulk of its work through the medium of stories.

All these features of the Bible – cultural, local, relational, narrative – are welcome to the postmodern mind. Where the missional hermeneutic will part company with radical postmodernity, is in its insistence that through all the variety, locality, particularity and diversity, the Bible is nevertheless actually the story. This is the way it is. (p47)

If I can get my mind around it I’ll try to continue to post some thoughts from the rest of the book as Wright explores how God’s mission to his world is an/the overarching theme of the entire scripture narrative. It might take a few months however…!

*Someone once told me he was going to Kenya for a couple of weeks to give some Bible teaching to Pastors because “they always read the Bible through their own cultural glasses”. While agreeing with his statement, I don’t think he had appreciated the irony that he also had his own cultural glasses through which he read the Bible… it’s just that our glasses are a lot more obvious to those around us than they are to ourselves.

Avatar: A Clash of Cultures

Wednesday 20 January 2010

After commenting on a couple of blog reviews of the new movie Avatar, I thought it was time I wrote some thoughts myself. We saw the movie in 3-D a couple of weeks ago when we were in the US, and I have to say that although the combination of science fiction and crazy computer effects doesn’t normally make me very excited, I was moderately entertained by the 3-D-ness.

The plot was fairly predictable, but what I thought was interesting was the overall message of the film, which dealt with interaction between very different cultures. Without wanting to spoil the plot for people who haven’t seen the movie, it basically looks at how two cultures, which are very different with no previous contact, interact with each other. One culture is very dominant and aggressive, always fighting its surroundings to achieve its goals, and the other is more passive and at one with its environment, content to maintain the status quo.

Some Christians have expressed concern at the way paganistic rituals are glorified in the movie, but I think this criticism actually proves the point the movie is making. It’s very easy to sit and point out faults in a very alien culture to us, when we haven’t made the effort to understand people in it, and when we’re blissfully unaware of the problems of our own culture. How many of the people who were shocked at the pagan aspects of the minority culture also complained at the greed and consumerism in the majority culture?

I think the movie is an allegory, so I wouldn’t take the details of the pagan rituals of the minority group too seriously, just as I wouldn’t take the “science” part of the movie too seriously. Both the questionable science and the questionable paganism are parts of the story, and set the stage for the overall message of the movie. While I wouldn’t subscribe to the idea that holding on to a huge tree with your tail will solve all your problems, I thought the movie did very well in portraying the unseen relationships, values and wealth in so many minority societies around the world.

There are plenty of things to find fault with in the movie, but my concern is that those who criticise it are doing so for the wrong reasons. The movie doesn’t fit into a worldview of accumulating wealth, seizing opportunity and fighting against whatever or whoever stands in your way, but I don’t think that makes it a bad movie.

If you’re looking for something that reinforces this way of thinking, go and watch any other Hollywood movie. But if you’re open to thinking from a different perspective you might enjoy more than just the 3-D effects of Avatar.

Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Flickering Pixels by Shane Hipps is a fascinating look at communication media and the role these media play in shaping an entire culture. While Western culture emphasises the message and generally disregards the medium, Shane Hipps argues that media affect the way we think, and that until we recognise this fact we will be under their control.

Does that sound too deep? Let me give some examples…

Shane talks about how in oral cultures, where there is no written form of a language, people store information in their minds. When something is learned, it is passed on through the community, generally through telling and retelling stories. The culture therefore tends to be very community-oriented, and people derive their identity from the community.

When literacy is introduced to a culture, people have the luxury of thinking apart from the tribe, without worrying that their thoughts will disappear. The community is no longer needed to perpetuate ideas, and people will tend to become more individualistic.

“In pre-literate societies, a person’s identity is bound to the tribe; the notion of individual has little importance. However, the technology of writing, regardless of content, weakens and even destroys tribal bonds and profoundly amplifies the value of the individual.”

Another fascinating example that Shane gives is that of writing systems. He compares the Chinese pictographic alphabet, with the western phonetic alphabet. The western way of writing is a simple, linear, sequential list of symbols. The symbols in themselves have no meaning, but when put together they are very efficient at bringing meaning. As a result, western culture values abstract concepts, efficiency, and linear sequential thinking.

The Chinese writing system on the other hand involves symbols that actually represent a particular thing. In many ways this is a very inefficient way of writing – requiring a separate symbol for every single word – but the writing system is as Shane says “a visual art form”. Eastern culture similarly has developed to be nonlinear and holistic, valuing these things above efficiency and simplicity.

These media shape our culture, and even our understanding of Christianity. The Roman alphabet’s tendency towards efficiency and simplification has meant that western churches tend to emphasise the simplicity, rather than the mysticism of the Christian message. Our approach to the gospel is to present it as A + B + C = Go to Heaven, when other non-western cultures might take a more holistic and less simplified approach.

Shane goes on to look at other media since the printing press – particularly photographs (allowing for non-textual literate communication) and the telegraph (bringing instant communication over a distance). The telegraph, in many ways the forerunner of the internet, for example changed the culture by providing a mass of information. This mass had to be sorted through, and was assigned subjective value based on how the reader responded to it, paving the way for a move away from modernism, where the printed book with its sequential argument was king, to post-modernism, where a mass of information is weighed up by each person receiving it.

He then addresses social media (and what some might call our post-literate culture), which in many ways are a strange juxtaposition of previous media and their cultures. As a result they bring paradoxical ways of interacting with each other:

  • We are a tribe of individuals. Where pre-literate cultures value community, and literate cultures promote the individual, we long for the community of a tribe, but we define it on a strictly individualistic basis.
  • We feel empathy at a distance. Pre-literate cultures feel great empathy for others in the community, and literate cultures allow people to distance themselves from what is going on around them. As post-literates we paradoxically feel empathy at a distance – we empathise with celebrities and African Aids orphans, but we also feel detached from them and unable to relate to them.
  • We are anonymously intimate. Where pre-literate cultures are in many ways very intimate, and literacy brings the possibility of privacy and anonymity, as post-literates we are anonymously intimate. We share very personal and intimate parts of our lives with a large number of people, giving the illusion of intimacy as we present our façade to the world.

What does all this have to do with faith? Firstly Shane would say that it’s important for us to understand the culture that we live in, so that we are not trapped by it. Our culture likes to think that information is important, and the media of communication are simply serving us in our desire to pass on that information. But we need to be aware of how the media we use are actually influencing our entire view of the world, and of God himself.

But secondly Shane finishes the book by looking at the media God uses to communicate his message, and the fact that his ultimate means of communication with his people was through Jesus – a messenger who was himself the message. As Christians God has also chosen us to be his messengers, but like any medium of communication, we are part of the message itself.

“Why would God choose such a frail, failing, and inconsistent medium to embody his abiding message? Is it possible that God chose a collection of bent and bruised hearts to bear the message of redemption and reconciliation because that is a message in itself? Maybe God chose a medium of weakness to reveal his stunning power to reach through human failure, sin and sadness to grow new life.”

Flickering Pixels

I don’t feel I’ve done the book justice in this post – you’ll just have to read it for yourself. You may also be interested in listening to a sermon I gave in the US a couple of weeks ago about Peter telling Cornelius about Jesus in Acts 10, which was actually influenced by some of the ideas of how God communicates that originated from the final section of this book.

Changing our Perspective

Monday 24 August 2009

In my job I have the privilege of listening to many people talk about their work around the world with minority language communities (as well as reading from quite a few others online). Recently I’ve realised that increasingly these presentations fall into two categories – those that really excite me, and those that really frustrate me.

I’ve been realising that the difference has nothing to do with what the person presents about, the work they’re doing or the way they go about the work. It doesn’t have anything to do with how successful the work has been, or the impact that has been made.

In fact the difference is much more subtle – so much so that I’m only just starting to put my finger on it. It’s all about the perspective of the person when they talk about the work they’re doing and the community that they’re working with.

The first type of person realises that, in explaining his work with a language community, he is a bridge between you (the audience) and the community. But he doesn’t feel any connection with the community – instead he tries to help you to relate to him. He tells you of the large cultural divide, but he does so in order that you can understand him and the difficulties that he has in his work. He puts you in his shoes.

The second type of person also realises that he is a bridge between you (the listeners) and the community. But unlike the first person he helps you to understand and relate to the community. He tells you of the immense cultural differences, but he does in order to help you to understand and identify with people. He puts you in their shoes.

But I think it goes deeper than just the things we say. The way we talk about people ultimately shows what our perspective is – how we perceive them, and what we believe about them.

The problem for the first person is that he sees things from an ethnocentric perspective. He doesn’t seem to respect the local people, or feel that they are his equals. He has come to help them, not to understand them. He sees many differences, and naturally is impacted most by the frustrations and difficulties. He doesn’t seem to notice however, that his cultural mistakes and blindspots are equally frustrating to his hosts.

He works productively, but always judges the success of his work, not by how the local people perceive him, but by what his friends “back home” think. He sees his value in the work that he can do and the tasks that he can accomplish before he returns home.

The second person views himself from the perspective of the people he is serving amongst. He doesn’t see them as different, but rather sees himself as different. He respects the local people, and is more aware of the cultural offense he may cause to them than the frustrations he feels. He sees cultural differences not as an obstacle to overcome, but as an opportunity to learn, albeit often very difficult lessons, from people who have a vast amount of wisdom.

He works hard, but realises that the real impact that he will make will be in and through the relationships that he forms within the community, not in the tasks that he completes. He sees himself just as one small part of a bigger picture – a picture that has been developing for hundreds of years, and will continue long after he leaves.

In my experience, almost without exception every westerner starts off in the first category. Maybe it’s the way our culture conditions us, or maybe it’s just human nature. But some will gradually have their whole world turned upside-down, to see things from a totally different perspective. For many this takes years, decades or even a lifetime.

Looking back to my 3 years in Tanzania, I can see in myself just about all the characteristics of the first person. I am embarrassed to think back over some of the me-centred things that I have thought and said when talking to people in the UK about “my work”.

Over the last couple of years I’ve had the privilege of listening to a number of people who have humbly come alongside minority language communities as equals, wanting to build genuine relationships and open to learning as much as teaching. I just hope some of their wisdom rubs off on me, and I can take a step back to see the true picture.

Bible, Mission and Metaphor

Monday 23 March 2009

Tim Davy at Redcliffe College in Gloucester has written an interesting post entitled Bible, Mission and Metaphor. He explains how the metaphors that we use to describe everyday activities actually tell a lot about the way we think about these activities.

As well as giving us a fascinating insight into other cultures, looking at metaphors used can also tell us a lot about ourselves and our own attitudes that we may not have realised.

How do we conceptualise mission? Do we take our imagery from Joshua (’mission is a battle’)? Or from the parables (mission is sowing seeds)? What other metaphors might we use? What would ’success’ or ‘failure’ look like according to each metaphor? How might it affect our relationships with those we are seeking to ‘reach’ (another metaphor!)? read more

Although the article looks at biblical metaphors, it started me thinking how in fact we often use metaphors that aren’t biblical at all, and reflect a worldly way of viewing mission that doesn’t line up with God’s heart. I was left wondering to what extent the language we use reflects the way God sees mission, and to what extent it exposes attitudes that are contrary to God’s heart for the nations.

When talking about Bible translation, do we talk about completing a task or sowing seeds? Talking about completing a task may reflect a focus on ourselves and our work, when in fact God invites us to join in with what he is already doing around the world.

Are we advancing towards our goals or working with others to help them achieve theirs? Just as God invites us to join in with what he is doing, he also expects us to be united with other believers around the world. This doesn’t just mean allowing them to be part of what we’re doing, but truly respecting and serving them as they play their part in God’s mission.

Is our aim increased efficiency in reaching people or better relationships in serving people? Western culture may value efficiency, but at the end of the day God’s mission is about him transforming hearts and lives, not us achieving tasks. In our desire to see the most lives changed as quickly as possible, we cannot afford to focus on simply accelerating a process at the expense of real relationships with people.

As Eddie reminded us a couple of days ago

The genius of Vision 2025 was its call to realign ourselves with what God was doing in and through his people worldwide. We need to be constantly working to renew our alignment with God’s mission on an individual and corporate level. read more

Over the last year I have really been challenged as to whether what I’m doing fits in with God’s mission, or if I’m trying to fit God’s mission in with what I’m doing. I still have a long way to go, but I pray that my attitude towards Bible translation is becoming more God-centred and people-centred, and less about completing a task.

Same Kind of Different as Me

Tuesday 27 January 2009

Same Kind of Different as Me is actually the best book I’ve read in a long time. OK that’s not saying much because I don’t read many books, but it was good.

It’s the story of two men in America – one a rich white art dealer who calls himself a Christian, and the other a black man who starts off life in virtual slavery and has a very tough existence on the streets.

The book is written by the two men, in roughly alternating short chapters, and is a fascinating spiritual journey for both of them. I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but it is amazing to see God working in and through both of them, through suffering, joy and heartbreak.

I think one of the reasons the book really resonated with me was because of the parallels with what I have experienced in cross-cultural mission. The rich man starts off by thinking he is doing God and the homeless people a favour by giving a few hours a week to help out at a shelter. He has many struggles about the material difference between himself and the homeless people, while they have a hard time trusting someone who doesn’t know what it’s like to live on the streets.

But gradually a friendship is formed, and as it continues the rich man realises that in fact those he is ministering to, and his friend in particular, have spiritual insights that leave him feeling like he’s really the one who is poor.

I have to say the story did make me cry (happy and sad crying in roughly equal amounts), which doesn’t happen very often! And it made me realise once again that God involves us in mission to people who are very different from ourselves not just to bless them, but even more than that to teach us more about who he is.

Communication, Communication…

Thursday 8 January 2009

Ernest Goodman at Missions Misunderstood has written a post to help missionaries know how best to communicate with their supporters in the 21st Century, and has some good pointers.

Be creative in your communication. Post photos. Upload videos. Record a podcast. Publish a comic book. Produce a weekly online radio show. Make an iTunes music mix, print t-shirts, put together a desktop widget. Do something to insure that your relationship to the people who support you is interesting, relevant, informative, and encouraging.

Speak prophetically into what’s happening Stateside [MW: or in the UK, Kingdomside?]. There is a broad conversation among churches and church leaders about being missional. (Missional, in case you’re not familiar with the term, refers to an intentional Christian lifestyle that incarnates the gospel into one’s cultural context. It’s the opposite of “attractional” ministry and “forrays into the world” mission trips.) Of all the voices in the missional conversation, few (if any) belong to missionaries. If you’re not participating in the conversation, you’re missing a huge opportunity to speak into a massive and influential Christian movement. And the movement desperately needs the influence of those who are planting churches cross-culturally. read more

Posting regularly on the Wycliffe UK blog has made me realise how powerful it is when missionaries overseas post text, photos, videos etc of what God is doing in different parts of the world. For us here in the UK it often feels like we don’t have much exciting to communicate to people, but we can still be giving people a global perspective on the worldwide mission of the church.

If Laura and I become involved in a Bible translation project in Tanzania in the future I think that communicating what God is doing to partners worldwide needs to be a very high priority in our work, and social networking (internet permitting) has a huge role to play.

Now all we need is a video camera…