Tag Archives: cross-cultural missions

On being an ‘aleluya’

I’ve been in Mexico six years, and I’m only just beginning to grasp the stigma in the minds of locals associated with being an evangelical protestant. Catholics and other non-evangelicals in our area often use the term ‘aleluya’ to refer to an evangelical. For them this is a somewhat derogatory term, whose origin is in the fact that local evangelicals are prone to frequently saying, “Hallelujah!”

Three weeks ago when the new church group had its first Sunday meeting, I asked those present what their vision for the group is. Several people, especially those who have less experience in evangelical churches, referred to the stigma as a reason that many people here don’t want to ever attend an evangelical church service. Our local friends want to create a group that doesn’t have the kind of baggage associated with it that keeps Catholics from participating. That this point was emphasized so clearly during the discussion made an impression on me.

Then came the meeting this past Wednesday. Among those in attendance was “Grant”, an auto mechanic invited by Henry and Nancy. Grant is interested in the things of God, though he’s not exactly a believer yet. This is what he said: “Nancy invited me yesterday, and I said I would come. When she called me today to follow up, I realized I couldn’t get out of it, so I came. I wasn’t really sure I wanted to come, because I thought, ‘I don’t want people to call me an aleluya!’ I’ve asked myself before whether I would be more ashamed to be passed out drunk on the street or to be seen as an aleluya…[pause]…and I’m not sure.” Five minutes later he repeated that last sentence.

Certainly some of the ideas locals have of evangelicals are unfair and unwarranted. But the stigma is very real nonetheless, and is carries lots of implications for our work. What to do when people want to know God, but don’t want to have anything to do with a traditional church? My current sense of things is that more people around us possibly feel this way than I’ve ever imagined. It has us asking ourselves tough questions about what is and isn’t absolutely essential when it comes to following Jesus and being the Church. How can we leave as much unneeded baggage by the wayside as possible, in order to bring as many people as we can along on a journey of knowing and being transformed by Christ?

What would you do if you were in our shoes? What is and isn’t necessary when it comes to being Jesus’ Church and His disciples? Do we have to attend a “worship service” each week? Is it necessary to call ourselves ‘Christians’ or ‘evangelicals’ or some similar term? Other thoughts?

Serving in a cross-cultural context has opened our eyes to many challenging issues we may not have grasped otherwise. The interesting thing for those of you living in the USA is that we’ve created such a distinct Christian subculture there that you too have to do cross-cultural mission work if you want to reach the lost. So jump in and join the conversation as we discuss the issues!

Vincent Donovan on what the job of a missionary is and isn’t

Last year, on the recommendation of a friend, I read Vincent Donovan’s excellent book Christianity Rediscovered. It is one of the very best books I have read concerning cross-cultural mission work. I am now re-reading it, and will probably be sharing a few excerpts from it in the coming weeks.

Donovan was a missionary to the Masai people of Tanzania, east Africa. In the following excerpt from pages 23 and 24, he discusses the convictions he came to regarding what should and should not be the work of a missionary. I have been challenged a lot by the ideas he shares. I, too, have a growing conviction that we missionaries are messengers. Our responsibility is to deliver the message, not dictate the response to that message. Here’s what Donovan has to say:


Going back to the New Testament, to that original mandate which sent missionaries all over the world, we find the command of Christ to preach the gospel to all the nations of the world, to disciple, make disciples of, to evangelize all the nations. The words used in the Greek Testament for “all the nations” are panta ta ethne. In fact, every time it is mentioned the word “nations” is translated by the Greek word ethne. I do not believe that the bible knew of nations in the modern political sense of the word, like the nations of America and Canada and Tanzania.Ethne would refer more to ethnic, cultural groups, the natural building blocks of the human race. While the political nation of the United States might have very little to do with salvation as such, the Masai culture or a Hindu culture or the cultures that make up America might have very much to do with salvation…

…The gospel must be brought to the nations in which already resides the possibility of salvation. As I began to ponder the evangelization of the Masai, I had to realize that God enables a people, any people, to reach salvation through their culture and tribal, racial customs and traditions. In this realization would have to rest my whole approach to the evangelization of the Masai.

I had no right to disrupt this body of customs, of traditions. It was the way of Salvation for these people, their way to God. It was one of the nations to whom we had to bring the gospel–bring the gospel to it as it was. In those customs lay their possibility of salvation.

Christ himself said, “I did not come to do away with the law (the Jewish culture and religion) but to fulfill it” (Mt 5:17).

Everything concerning a nation (an ethnic cultural group) has to do with salvation. It is the job of the people of that nation, it is their affair to respond to their own call of salvation. It is not the sphere of the evangelist, of the missionary. If we would be consistent, I think we would see that the field of culture is theirs. Ours is the gospel.

An evangelist, a missionary must respect the culture of a people, not destroy it. The incarnation of the gospel, the flesh and blood which must grow in the gospel is up to the people of a culture.

The way people might celebrate the central truths of Christianity; the way they would distribute the goods of the earth and live out their daily lives; their spiritual, ascetical expression of Christianity if they should accept it; their way of working out the Christian responsibility of the social implications of the gospel–all these things, that is, liturgy, morality, dogmatic theology, spirituality, and social action would be a cultural response to a central, unchanging, supracultural, uninterpreted gospel.

The gospel is, after all, not a philosophy or set of doctrines or laws. That is what a culture is. The gospel is essentially a history, at whose center is the God-man born in Bethlehem, risen near Golgotha.

Points to Ponder #4 – In God’s Image

(Click to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this 5-part series.)

Continuing to share the Points to Ponder we are presenting to our mission trip teams this summer:

In whose image does the Bible say we are created? God’s, right? So whose idea was it to have so many different languages and cultures in this world? It was God’s idea, wasn’t it? God created every single different people group, with its distinct language and culture, in His own image. Together, all people and cultures on this earth display the image of God.

This places a great premium on honoring and preserving other cultures at the same time we are looking to see them transformed (or fulfilled, perhaps) by the truth of the gospel. Over the past couple of centuries, Western missionaries have not always been strong on this point of honoring and preserving cultures. The same type of imperialism that led Europe to trample tribes, civilizations, and entire continents in the colonial era has crept into our mission work. We have tended to require people to change their culture, becoming more like Westerners, in order to follow Christ. Instead of delivering the gospel message and allowing people to apply it in their own context, we assume that their application of gospel truth should look the same as our application of it.

Think about what happens when we do that. If a group has to lose part of its culture in order to follow Christ, they are losing the unique way in which they could have responded to God. If God created all people with their distinct cultures and customs in His image, the world is losing a unique representation of God we could have seen in that people group. We never get to see, for example, how a particular tribe would have worshipped God or passed on biblical truth to younger generations. We miss out on how one group may have observed communion in a unique way that would have emphasized some characteristic of God we tend to overlook. God doesn’t get prayed to in languages that may have hardly ever been used to say one respectful word to Him.

Our job as cross-cultural missionaries is to be ambassadors. We have a message to deliver on behalf of Jesus Christ. It is not our job to tell people what their obedience to that message should look like. That is the Holy Spirit’s job. If we can help people respond to God in a way fitting to their context, the world will gain an ever-growing display of God and his glory as more and more nations come to worship Him. This will finally culminate in that unimaginable worship service foretold in Revelation 7:9,10, when all nations are before the throne, worshipping the Lamb of God.

Contextualization: Can a Muslim or a Hindu be a Christian?

Contextualization was the word of the week during our time in Chandigarh. We spent 3 days with a good Hindu-background brother who is doing contextualized church planting, which got us thinking and talking a lot. The idea behind contextualization is that people’s response to the gospel and the life of the Body will never look exactly the same in different cultures. The less the Church contextualizes, the more it will look exactly the same in any culture in the world. The more it contextualizes, the more it can take many different forms.

The challenge for us Westerners in understanding contextualization is that we tend to divorce religion from culture. In our minds, Hinduism and Islam are religions people must leave in order to follow Christ, and we often presume they can do so without leaving their culture. The problem is that, for many people in the non-Western world, religion and culture cannot be separated. When people say they are Hindus or Muslims (or Catholics in Mexico, perhaps), they are not just stating their adherence to a particular religion, they are telling who they are. For non-Westerners, the physical and spiritual worlds are not separate; everything in life has a spiritual aspect to it. Westerners separate the two, and can therefore make a distinction between culture and religion, but for most non-Westerners, the two are inseparable.

If we understand this, is the only option for a person in India to cease being a Hindu or a Muslim (Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, etc.) and become a Christian? Or can a person be a Hindu or a Muslim who follows Christ and serves the one true God alone? Before jumping to any conclusions, let’s consider the matter.

Our host in Chandigarh, who oversees several house fellowships, is contextualizing his work in the local Hindu and Sikh cultures. In other words, elements of Hinduism or Sikhism find expression in the lives of these churches. In saying this, I do NOT mean the people worship false gods–the elements of culture present among them are part of their commitment to Christ, rather than compromising it. This leader is sometimes criticized by ministers from more traditional churches, who would like to see him completely break away from anything having an appearance of Hinduism or Sikhism.

An example of this contextualization is the name by which the believers call their fellowship. They call their community a satsang, which is a Hindu word for a gathering seeking truth. Some say it is wrong to use this Hindu term, arguing that it is a pagan concept. The brothers and sisters we met, though, believe the use of the word helps those of a Hindu background draw near to God. Another example is the use of a coconut for the Lord’s Supper. Coconuts are often incorporated into Hindu worship; therefore, Hindu-background believers break them open and take the flesh and the milk to represent the body and blood of Christ. Something really neat we learned is that, for Hindus, a coconut means fullness of life. So Christ’s body was broken, and through him comes fullness of life.

It can be easy to criticize such contextualization of the gospel in other cultures, and those practicing contextualization have faced their share of attacks. I’m not sure it’s right to criticize, though, until we have had the opportunity to live for an extended period of time in the culture in question, gaining a good understand of the practices and worldview of the people. How else can we understand whether a cultural expression is pagan or not? In our short time with our brothers and sisters in Chandigarh, as far as we could tell we found them to be full of the love of God and committed to Christ and the work of the kingdom.

Ministry in a Muslim context provides some significant contextualization questions that other cross-cultural church planters have had to deal with. Here are a few of these questions:

  • By what name do you call God? Do you tell people that Allah is not God and then try and introduce them to the one true God, giving him some other name? Or do you say that Allah is the one true God and then try and help lead people to a clearer understanding of his true nature?
  • Can a believer worship God in a mosque? Or should s/he never go to a mosque again after beginning to follow Christ?
  • Muslims customarily kneel and pray five times a day. Is this an okay practice for a follower of Christ to continue, or should a Muslim-background believer be encouraged to avoid it?

For the conscientious cross-cultural church planter, questions of contextualization are difficult. If one decides to contextualize, then the question arises of which cultural elements should be practiced as part of obedience to Christ. A good guiding question here can be, “Does this practice help people access God, or does it restrict access to God?” Many traditional churches here in India are quite contextualized in a way. People meet in big “temples” where they come to hear the teachings of a spiritual “guru” who everyone recognizes as being on a higher spiritual level than the common people. But you can make the argument that this model promotes a temple-and-priest Christianity that is closer to the Old Testament than the New, and it restricts access to God. Flowers, candles, incense, and coconuts, though, may all be elements of Hindu culture that can help people draw near to the one true God and worship him. They can especially be powerful when Hindus realize these elements can be part of accessing God personally, rather than having spiritual gurus as mediators between the gods and man.

So what thoughts do you have about contextualization? Can you think of ways the gospel has been contextualized in our Western culture?

Points 2 Ponder #2 – Scaffolding vs. Building

This is Part 2 in a series of Points 2 Ponder that we are presenting to our mission trip participants this month.

Read the first post in the series here.

Our church planting coach, Rob, explains that as cross-cultural missionaries, we are the scaffolding, not the building. The function of scaffolding is support. Scaffolding is temporary, and once the building is done, the scaffolding is moved elsewhere to work on another building. The scaffolding goes; the building stays behind. For a building to stand, therefore, the scaffolding cannot be a part of it. If bricks or support columns or parts of the foundation are built on top of the scaffolding, then when the scaffolding is removed, the building will crumble.

This analogy holds important truths for the cross-cultural minister. New churches must be self-sufficient. They must be built upon the foundation of Christ, not the foreign missionaries. Cross-cultural church planters should plan on serving among a people group for a finite amount of time and should have a clear exit strategy. It can make us feel good to be in control and have positions of leadership and authority, but doing this puts the churches we plant at risk of crumbling when we leave.

This belief is having a lot of practical implications these days for GFM and the way we minister. For example, in the short-term, it might be helpful for us to provide salaries for local pastors. What happens when we leave, though? Or can we ever leave if we have an arrangement like that? At some point, church leaders we raise up will have to be financially self-sufficient, rather than dependent on foreign funds. It seems a whole lot easier to help them be self-sufficient from Day One, perhaps by working with them to develop new businesses, than to get them dependent on us and then try and cut those ties later on.

Also, when a new church begins to meet, we have the new believers run all aspects of the meeting almost immediately. We disciple them outside of the meetings, but in the meetings we generally won’t do or lead something after about the third time the group gets together. This includes teaching. As long as we are properly discipling the converts, they should have something to teach right away. And after all, to teach something, you don’t have to know everything, right? You just have to know one thing.

By understanding our role as scaffolding, we are able to encourage, support, and disciple, without being the primary pastors or leaders. This allows new churches to quickly mature and become self-sufficient, rather than being weak and dependent on outsiders for years or even decades.

Points 2 Ponder #1 – Jesus and acculturation

During our mission trips this year, we’re sharing thoughts to chew on with trip participants during a segment of our program called Points 2 Ponder. These are things we’ve been learning/wrestling with/thinking about over the past year or so. Normally, you would have to pay US$450 for a 10-day mission trip to get to hear these sound bites. Now, though, just for being a reader of my blog, you get them in written form completely free! What a deal, huh?

Here’s the first installment of Points 2 Ponder:

One of the most important jobs of any cross-cultural missionary is to be a learner. Consider this: Jesus was on the earth for about 33 years, but his public ministry only took place in the last three years of his life. That means he spent 30 years, or over 9/10 of his life, not in public ministry. To quote Alan Hirsch in a recent post, we should find that “profoundly disturbing”. For 30 years of his life, no one really noticed Jesus. He didn’t stick out. He didn’t do anything spectacular. He was part of his culture, working a normal job, doing normal things. Only when the time was right did he begin his public ministry.

In a talk at the 2006 National Short-Term Mission Conference, Paul Borthwick pointed out that, while Jesus waited 30 years to engage in his public ministry, when we get into cross-cultural mission settings, we often can hardly wait 30 minutes to get going. After all, we’ve raised a lot of money, people back home are expecting to hear great reports, and “we’re on a mission from God”.

When we think about the humility and servanthood exhibited by Christ during his life on earth (Phil. 2:1-11)–his cross-cultural ministry, you could say–how does that impact our ministries? What if to be Christ-like ministers we have to get past having all the answers for everyone from Day One and simply become learners? Tom and Betty Sue Brewster, in one of their excellent books, drive home the point that “language learning is communication is ministry”. In other words, even when we’re not saying anything, we’re already communicating. Working hard to learn the language of the new culture communicates something–the kind of humble love that characterized Jesus’ ministry. Being ready to teach and having all the answers from the get-go also communicates something. Unfortunately, the drift people catch from that strategy is usually the air of arrogant superiority the rest of the world sees in the Western world. Like it or not, that’s how people perceive us when we don’t first establish ourselves as learners.

Will there be a time for public ministry and for providing answers to problems? No doubt. But that time may not be during the first week or month or year. The wait didn’t seem to bother Jesus too much or hinder his ministry. We cross-cultural ministers in the name of Jesus would do well to take note.