10 things I enjoy about international travel

Tony and I have had the privilege of visiting many different countries (30+), many of them in a ministry/teaching context. Here’s what I love about international travel:

  1. Hearing incredible stories of how God is at work in different nations. Many of them cannot be publicly spoken of, but they help to raise my faith level and challenge me to believe that yes, God can do it here, too, as well as elsewhere around the world.
  2. Meeting indigenous people and learning about their lifestyles–including spending time in some of their homes.
  3. Having to depend on the Lord for many different things that I take for granted here–like is the water safe or should I brush my teeth with bottled water? (If in doubt, use bottled water!)
  4. Understanding a little more of the culture, politics, economics, etc of different nations.
  5. The sense of adventure–especially when some risk is involved. I guess the Lord created me this way– I don’t mind the insecurity of international travel. And I often find that God teaches me more during those times than when I’m comfortable at home.
  6. Learning how some believers live with persecution–they are among the most joy-filled people I’ve ever met.
  7. Eating what is set before me–sometimes delicious, other times, a little harder to cope with. I remember being taken out to breakfast where my choice was between pig’s intestine, pig’s trotter or chicken feet. (I chose the chicken feet–lots of flavor but kind of chewy!)
  8. Seeing the hunger to learn more that many believers in these nations have. They willingly sit through many hours of teaching per day. And we have to speak in a way that translates across cultures.
  9. Being challenged by the extreme poverty of developing nations.  We have so much wealth in our Western nations. What can we do to help our brothers and sisters in these nations? (The answer may not lie in giving money!)
  10. It’s a huge privilege to see something of the countryside as well as the cities as we travel by car or taxi. Many countries (and their people) are breathtakingly beautiful. Is the country flat or mountainous? How do the people make a living? What can we learn from them? What obvious problems do they face? I love the the opportunity to visit the occasional tourist attraction too, like the Eiffel Tower and Champs Elysee in Paris, or some of the temples in India.

Tony and me outside a Buddhist temple, Taiwan

Tony and me outside a Buddhist temple in Taiwan

Hierarchy and discipleship

Some of our deepest theological conversations occur in our hot tub.

This past weekend was no exception. Some close missionary friends of ours who work in Asia came to stay. We always have fun  debates with them, Here’s the gist of one of our conversations that took place late at night in our jacuzzi:

Missionary: In Asia, our culture is very hierarchical. This hierarchy spills over into the church and it’s an asset to discipleship because the new believer is looking to learn from someone more experienced.

Me: God loves us enough that in his mercy he uses whatever culture we give him. But Jesus spoke against hierarchy. He said, “You know how the rulers of this world function (hierarchy). But it must not be so amongst you.”

Missionary: In the West, we are so individualistic and egalitarian. But that is not Scriptural either. In Asia, we are more communally and society minded. Because in English, it’s impossible to tell the difference between you singular and you plural, we miss the fact that much of the New Testament is addressed to groups.

Me: Neither hierarchy nor egalitarianism are Scriptural. Jesus spoke about and modeled something different–closer to an upside down hierarchy, Servanthood. We lay down our lives for others that they might grow.

What is your opinion on this? How do we best disciple others–using a teacher/pupil (hierarchical) model, as peers (egalitarian), or as servants? Does it depend on the culture we live in?

Two ways past culture affects women today

In my last post I shared a very funny video–but with an underlying message that affects women in the church today.

For the past few centuries, women have been perceived as having one of two roles (and yes, I know that this isn’t true for those brought up in poverty). But here is what secular culture generally dictated:

  1. Like the video suggests, women are to be mere reflections of their husbands, uninterested in “important” things such as finance, politics or religion. They enhance their husband’s reputations by looking pretty and acting according to convention. They spend their time in fripperies and trivia (I like little kittens). Their opinions are considered uninformed and unimportant.
  2. A woman’s place is in the home. She runs a good household, brings up her children well, engages (if there is time) in wholesome social/church activities. Her concerns are entirely wrapped up in the running of her household. Her opinion on “important” issues outside the home is irrelevant.

These secular views still impact the role of women in the church today. I remember well one of the first women’s conferences I attended in this country. One evening, we painted each other’s nails! Yuk! I hope I’m not treading on anyone’s toes here (pun intended) but to me it seemed a parody, a caricature of women’s ministry, a waste of God-given talent and time.

Many still believe that a woman has no role of relevance outside the home. A woman working outside the home is a necessary evil. A woman should not hold a position of strategic authority in the church (for a treatment of the Scriptures that seem to imply this, check out a series of posts beginning here.)

The Proverbs 31 woman not only ran her household well–she ran a thriving business. Deborah led a nation. Esther saved a nation.

Society today has thankfully changed. But some of these old cultural conventions still linger on.

Let’s get rid of our cultural handicaps.

Photo Credit: Sirsnapsalot via Compfight cc

What does humor have to do with mission?

Photo credit: Gary Wilmore (Creative Commons)

There is a saying that the British and Americans are two nations separated by a common language.

That proved very true when we moved from the UK to the States in 1987.  We naively anticipated that with a common language, the transition would be an easy one. How wrong we were! After about a  year, we realized that, even though we were holding what we thought were reasonably intelligent conversations with people, we were actually miscommunicating. The reason? People were filtering what they heard through the background of their own culture. It might even have been easier if there was a language difference because at least we'd expect a culture shock.

Take a phrase like "body ministry" in the church context. Within the British house church tradition I came from, this meant that the whole body was supposed to minister. If someone had a need, anyone could pray with them or minister to that need in some way. When we moved here to participate in a more traditional church, that same phrase meant that anyone who had been specifically chosen and trained could come up after the pastor's sermon to minister to someone who had come to the front in response. When we held a conversation on that topic, we were misunderstood.

Even today, 24 years later, I sometimes pronounce or spell words the British way. I use British vocabulary and idioms. I still occasionally miss the nuances of, for example, American humor. American humor is much more physical than verbal and often alludes to things I'm totally unfamiliar with like old TV shows. We never saw those shows and so have nothing to peg the humor on. The same would apply in the other direction. British humor is more verbal and subtle. I remember visiting England after we moved here and listening to a speaker that had all of us in fits of laughter. I turned to Tony and said, "Our American friends wouldn't find this funny at all!"

Even with a common language, culture has to be taken into account.

What does this have to do with mission? 

The best person to reach a group of people who don't yet know the Lord is someone from within that culture. The best person to reach a group of skateboarders is another skateboarder–or maybe someone from a very similar subculture like a rollerblader.

The best person to reach someone from an unreached people group is someone who is culturally very close to them.

My parents-in-law were wonderful missionaries who made quite an impact in Taiwan where they ministered for many years. They moved to a foreign nation in obedience to the Lord's call on their lives and had to spend years in language study before they could communicate with the local people. This is old-style missions; it obviously still has its place.

With the advent of easy communications and travel, I believe a new type of missions is potentially more effective. We can train local believers in the principles of discipleship and mission and they then reach their own people.

What do you think?

Missions: the bad!

Stained glass
Photo credit: Felix Krohn (Creative Commons)

Tony and I were in Nepal training church planters:

"What should simple/organic church should look like?" someone asked me.

My answer surprised them: "It should look Nepalese!"

I have a photo in my possession that epitomizes the problem with much of what is seen on the mission field today. The picture, taken in a culture hostile to the gospel, is of a secret church meeting taking place where the authorities cannot find them. A group of new disciples,dressed in rags, squats on a riverbank. A man, clad in a suit and tie and holding a large black book, stands in front of them, obviously teaching them. He looks totally out of place. What have we done?

Western missionaries have exported their culture as well as Christ!

In Hindu culture, the sign of marriage is a red dot on the forehead. It has the same significance as our wedding ring. Missionaries asked their new converts to remove the dot because it is a Hindu symbol. Naturally, women do not wish to appear unmarried, so this is a big hindrance to the spread of the Gospel. The missionaries simply didn't understand the local culture. There are countless examples of this kind of cultural insensitivity.

We have exported a rulebook based on our culture, not Christ!

In the early 90s, there were 6 known Christians in Mongolia. Now there are around 100,000. Praise God for an amazing work of his Spirit. But there are also denominations, organizations, church hierarchies, and all the trappings of Western (and Asian) Christianity. We missed an opportunity to see the body of Christ grow without all the divisions we take for granted.

Christians exported denominationalism, as well as Jesus!

In many nations we have been to, the church resembles any traditional church in the West. The buildings look the same, the people dress in Western clothes for services; they sing translations of Western hymns or songs. Pictures of Jesus portray him as Anglo. The people love God with all their hearts, but Christianity is known as a foreign religion by those outside the church because it looks so different–so Western.

The history of missions shows much insensitivity to local culture. Missionaries, with the best of intentions, confused Christianity and Western culture. They are not one and the same.

The Good News of Jesus transcends culture; it can be contextualized within any culture. 

Please, in simple/organic missions, let's not make the same mistakes. Let's introduce people to a Jesus who is relevant to the local culture. I'm not talking about compomise or syncretism, but, like Paul did in Athens, demonstrating a Christ who is culturally relevant.