My professional life has two parts to it; the first part is as a software developer, and the second part is as a missionary. Sometimes I get to combine the two things and write open source software that powers the work of mission; but other times I’m literally getting out there spending time with people who are interested in Jesus.
In other words, I’m an evangelist, and that’s a term that has a lot of meaning in the tech community as well. Bruce Perens and Eric Raymond were amongst the first to be called “open source evangelists”, and these days all the big companies and projects in both open and closed source technologies employ brand and product evangelists.
An evangelist is literally someone who spreads good news. I honestly don’t know how much reflection that tech evangelists regularly do about their own praxis, but I do know that the question of how to best spread good news amongst different groups of people has exercised Christian missionaries for many of the past centuries. When I was training to become a missionary, I spent a lot of time studying missiology, which is the academic discipline of reflection on mission. For instance, David Bosch’s comprehensive history, Transforming Mission, evaluates the motivations for, reflections on, and approaches to evangelism from day one up until the present, and you know what—you don’t have to subscribe to the tenets of Christian mission to benefit from them.
When I moved from full-time programming into full-time mission, I was surprised by how many of the concepts that the open source movement has pioneered can be directly applicable to mission. (For instance, the idea that worse is better is being played out in the house church movement at the moment.) And while, sure, missionaries are not doing as well as we could be right now at spread the good news that we have, I’m sure that there are plenty of things which apply the other way around too. This is the first article of a series of three which will look at areas where I think the technology sphere might have something to learn from the developments in missiology over the past two thousand years.
In particular, I want to look at a change in the understanding of evangelism which has happened in the missiology world in the past fifty years or so. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the traditional mode of evangelism was propositional and objective: the missionary’s religion was presented as a matter of absolute universal truth, something to be presented through logical coherent arguments (the discipline of apologetics) and then the listener was challenged for a response. One popular approach was even called the “Four Spiritual Laws”—the underlying mindset being that these propositions that, let’s face it, some evangelist came up with and turned into an evangelistic package, were as universal and incontrovertible as the law of gravity.
This worked well for—or at least, whether or not it worked well, it was an inevitable product of the kind of modernist worldview prevalent in the Western countries sending missionaries at the time.
And, switching disciplines, it’s been a very common way for people to talk about their software products. We roll out benchmarks, feature lists, and the like, to show that our preferred software project is better than the competition, from which it logically follows that you must adopt our technology because it is the superior product. Computers are the most objective things there are, and the people who work with them tend to appreciate that objectivity.
But recently there’s been a trend within mission practice away from that objective style of evangelism towards a newer, more subjective understanding; partly this has been due to the cultural shift from modernity to postmodernity, but more to the point, it’s because the older method had some serious flaws.
For one thing, there’s now more of a realisation that evangelism needs to be highly contextual. Let’s take my context, of Japan. Japanese people don’t really have a cultural concept of “sin”. But the Four Spiritual Laws and other strategies are framed in terms of sin. In order to make that work in Japan you have to essentially first convert people to your mindset in order to convince them that they have a problem they didn’t previously realise that they had. I mentioned that evangelism literally meant spreading good news, but this method relies on telling people bad news—they have a problem. You will occasionally hear evangelists in Japan saying that you have to persuade people of the bad news before you can tell them the good news.
The newer approach starts with a deeper understanding of the culture and the people, in order to discover the “felt needs”—the problems that they’re already aware of. Vince Donovan, in his wonderful Christianity Rediscovered, writes about a Masai man who had committed a sin against his community and had been ostracised. He did not need a lecture about sin; he knew about sin. What he needed was forgiveness and reconciliation with his community. Donovan began to share the stories of reconciliation through faith with this man and his community.
In this new approach, the story—the testimony—is paramount. It is no longer about logical propositions, but about the experiences of the individual, shared problems which have been overcome. The testimony essentially has three parts: this was the problem; then I did this; now the problem is solved. With an emphasis on story, there is a need for evangelists to have a collection of good stories to tell—points of contact between their life and the lives of their listeners. As they build a witness of stories, so they have the ability to share those stories with others.
How does this apply to open source? I’ve mentioned that when sharing the merits of an open source project, there’s often an emphasis on objective facts, rather than stories. But felt needs evangelism starts with the question “Why does this do that my target audience needs? What problem do they have that I have already overcome?”
To pick a random example, I just had a look at the MongoDB web site. I don’t mean to pick on MongoDB—they’re better than many others—but I have to pick on someone to illustrate this. Before the fold on the MongoDB web site, I’m assaulted with figures about the size of the community, the number of downloads, commits, and so on. Further down the page, I’m told that MongoDB “makes it easy for you to store data of any structure and dynamically modify the schema”, that it is scalable, has robust tools, and so on. Down at the bottom of the page there are some case studies, which is a great start, but even they are pretty vague—“we couldn’t do what we wanted”, more or less; “MongoDB let us do what we were doing faster and more flexibly.”
Nowhere, really, does it answer the question “What is this thing and why should I care about it?”
Here’s a story.
I took over maintaining a legacy application. It had five hundred database tables in MySQL, and really, it was only dealing with four core concepts. A couple of external consultancy firms had looked at the application with a view to redeveloping it and, I kid you not, they both refused to take it on. It was just too scary. Each table had its own model in the web framework, and it was a nightmare to understand how the application worked, let alone develop new features for it.
It took my team weeks to work out what all these tables meant, and even whether or not they were still actually in use. Eventually we realised that most of the tables in the database were there to work around the fact that those four core concepts were actually documents, with all kinds of different properties optionally attached to them. What we really needed was a way to store, retrieve and index these documents as documents, not as hundreds of different relations. That’s exactly what a NoSQL database gives you.
After we moved the application to MongoDB, we had four concepts, four database tables, and four framework models. We could throw out so much code, it was easier to start the application layer again from scratch because a huge amount of the old code was just joining associations together. What’s left is actual business logic, rather than database scaffolding. Now we have an application that our developers can actually develop with confidence, rather than fear and dread. Oh, and it’s also much faster too.
Problem, solution, result. Hopefully it’s a problem that other people can relate to as well—I think we all know the many-headed hydra Database From Hell. And notice that explaining the problem and the solution means that you don’t actually have to separately explain what MongoDB is and why it’s relevant, because that’s already taken care of. Not only that, it puts that explanation into an example and a context that makes it easier to grasp.
Now here’s an interesting thing. There’s currently a reaction against felt-needs evangelism going on in the faith community. Some of the reasons for this are not appropriate for Open Source, but certainly one is: there is a recognition that sometimes the solution is costly, and the evangelist who focuses purely on the felt needs but does not express the challenge and costly nature of the solution does not present their good news fairly. In the case of open source, it may be that migrating to a new project will provide the user with a speed increase, but the cost of migration may outweigh the benefits. In my example, tearing down the project and starting again with a clean implementation was obviously the right thing to do, but that’s not always the case. In another case, I realised that many of the queries we wanted to do with our database, but couldn’t easily do, would be much easier with a graph database; but the effort involved in transitioning from an RDBMS to a graph database would be much more than the gain provided by having those queries available.
One more thing: I remember one of my teachers telling me that, to be a good evangelist, you need to be a good atheist. Often the people you send out to evangelise your faith (or your project) are the people who are right at the center of things, but these kinds of people aren’t necessarily used to thinking about things from the perspective of, as it were, non-users; they’re not the best at understanding the needs and the problems. The best stories come from from your new converts—people who used to think about a problem in one way, and now think about it differently.
What’s the takeaway from all this for technology evangelists?
Next I’ll be writing about what it means to develop community, both in mission and in open source projects.Subject tags: theologytechnologyevangelismopen source
There’s been a lot of talk recently about the state of the church, UK and internationally. Eddie recently noted that “the decline in church numbers will place many Christian institutions at risk”; linked from that article is another one about how the church is growing. David Robertson says that the UK church is suicidal, but everything would all be fixed if we were only just a great deal more fundamentalist. (Despite all the evidence that the UK is less and less willing to listen to illiberal voices.)
But is the church actually declining and does it matter? When I see these surveys quoted, I assume that the methodology is suspect, not because I know anything in particular about the methodology but because pretty much any methodology you could possibly use to answer the quest is suspect. Certainly church attendance and self-identified Christian numbers are going down, and they’re the only numbers we can really count: the number of bums on pews on a Sunday morning, and the number of those who call themselves Christians either on the census or on some survey. I don’t see any problem collecting and interpreting statistics—I do it myself—but I wonder if we need to be a bit more cautious about the conclusions that we draw.
Church attendance is a theologically suspect category to begin with. We don’t attend church. We are the Church. I know, this is kind of a lost cause, but it’s important. Because Sunday morning attendance—typically measured by reports from the larger, traditional denominations—only gives you part of the picture. One of the things I have spent the past four or so years trying to convince my colleagues of is that you can be a Christian without turning up 10:30 on a Sunday to a building with a cross on the top; and no, this doesn’t mean, as the traditional false dichotomy goes, that you’re trying to live out your faith in isolation from the Church and have hence missed the point of the whole thing. No, there is another option, and it’s pretty common.
Alan Jamieson did a lot of research on those leaving Evangelical, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches and found that significant numbers of them have maintained their faith—and in many cases are growing in their faith—despite having left their denominational structure, and still continue to meet and worship with each other but in more organic, simple communities outside the established “churches”. George Barna has similarly been using his research and polling to investigate house churches, and found growth and vitality in those movements too.
In other words, a fall in the number of Sunday worshippers—a decrease in the size of the “church”—does not necessarily correlate with a decrease in the size of the Church. It can tell you other useful information about the state of particular denominations and their cultural appropriateness; but given that there is a trend in many areas of Western society away from large, traditional monolithic power structures towards smaller, independent networks, it may not actually tell you anything that (hopefully) you did not already know.
And as usual, the reasons why people come to church may have less to do with their relationship with Jesus and more to do with the nature of the church. Tim Suttle, who wrote the book Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church Growth Culture put it like this:
If pressed about my church’s growth strategy, I usually say it is to get smaller and die, to continually decrease the amount of time, resources, and energy we spend trying to have the ultimate church experience, and to spend more time actually being faithful. Nowadays, faithfulness — not success — is our only metric.
How do you count the people who are coming for the faithfulness, not for the experience–should you count attendees, or disciples?
But equally, the number of those who self-identify as Christian is also less clear than it might appear. Sure, gone are the days when “Oh, I don’t know, just put down CofE” was the standard answer to a religion question on a survey form, but does that mean there are fewer Christians? Actually, I rather welcome a fall in self-identification numbers because it gets us closer to truer picture. If people no longer feel the cultural, historical tendency to call themselves a Christian, then perhaps the remainder who do are actually those who believe it. And I imagine that that proportion has been fairly steady all along.
And that bring us the biggest problem of all: you can’t actually measure what people believe, or how it affects them. Jesus said that the world would know his disciples not by their church attendance or what they say about themselves, but by how they love each other. As far as I’m aware, there hasn’t ever been a head-count of Christians based on the criteria that Jesus actually set for us.
The Bible abounds with reminders that what you claim about yourself is not enough: “not all those who are descended from Israel are truly Israel”; “the Lord knows those who are his”; “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven”. It ought to be clear, then, that this is not a question with an easy answer.
I don’t think these statistics are totally meaningless, and I do think Christianity in the UK probably is in decline. And yet I think Tim Suttle gets it right. How do we respond to a decline? Does it make us want to pray more, teach more, disciple more, evangelise more, send more? Hopefully it does. And yet, with or without statistics, isn’t that what a faithful Church was supposed to be doing all along?Subject tags: theologyevangelicalism
The other day I was having a coffee and a chat with a local pastor friend. He’s recently taken over a congregation which has told him—in so many words—that they don’t agree with the idea of Christian growth. They don’t see the point of discipleship. It’s not something that they want. They come to church on Sunday; they pay their tithe; they’re doing their duty, and what more should the church expect of them? Should he not be focusing more on his duty of pastoral care and preparing sermons, rather than trying to get us interested in all this mission and personal discipleship stuff?
I was pretty shocked at the time to hear of these attitudes, but later I realised that it’s only shocking because it’s so baldly expressed. You’ll find precisely the same attitude in most Christians, although they’re more careful about how they express it.
Over the past fifty years or so, there’s been a lot of important work done in the area of how our culture shapes our Christianity. Theologians have come into contact with Christians from other parts of the world and have discovered that they don’t all think the same way. And that being the case, it raises interesting questions about what factors have shaped the inherited Christianity of the West. Whereas in the past, we saw our theology as normative and the theologies of Africa, Asia, South America and so on as novel and exotic, there’s now more of an understanding that all theology is contextual and that all expressions of Christianity are modulated by culture, even those of the West. When we talk about, for example, Jesus’s death as taking the punishment for sin, we now realise that we are talking out of a background of specific Western models of forensic legal process that may not relate to justice systems in other cultures. So this is progress.
But I think we’re missing a trick. We now understand very well that our cultural background is an integral part of our expression of faith, but I don’t see that anyone has pointed out how much our ideological background shapes our expression of Christianity.
What I mean is that you can take a politically liberal person and make him a Christian, and he will naturally gravitate towards the ways that the early church had all things in common, that the prophets spoke to structural and corporate injustices, and so on, and you will produce a politically liberal Christian. If you take a politically conservative person and make him a Christian, he will naturally gravitate to those passages in the Bible which condemn particular actions and speak about the moral responsibility and obligations of the individual, and you will produce a politically conservative Christian.
Each person has found theological justification for what they believed all along, and in neither of these examples has an encounter with the Bible fundamentally challenged the way that they see the world. For just as when we look at the Bible we see those parts which naturally resonate with our own cultural background, we also see those parts which resonate with our a priori ideologies.
To take the obvious examples of the day, if you already thought that that women and men were equal in status and gifting, then egalitarian theology would naturally be your cup of tea; and if you already thought women and men were different, then it would be utterly unsurprising if you were to be drawn to complementarian theology. It’s quite possible to be wholly sexist and wholly Christian, because you can always find ways of interpreting the Bible which provide a normalizing narrative for that sexism—just as it’s possible to find ways of interpreting the Bible which state that homosexuals do not deserve to be treated the same as heterosexuals.
I believe that an encounter with the Bible should change us. If it doesn’t, we’re just reading it in order to reinforce and find succour for our own prejudices, and I’m not sure that’s what the Bible is for. But for it to change us, we need to be both open and aware of the depth of our own preconceptions, and to honestly and earnestly desire the Bible to speak into the established patterns of our thinking.
And yet, based on the experiences of my friend above, I do wonder how much we really are ready for that to happen. Are we not all, to some degree, happier to find a justification for what we believed all along, rather than to think about the radical message of Jesus could actually interfere with our own core beliefs about how the world works?Subject tags: theologyevangelicalism
In both the UK and the US at the moment, there is something of a public debate about how Christianity should be defined and interpreted.
In the UK, this started with some ill-advised remarks from our Prime Minister to an Evangelical radio station; in particular, that “Easter is all about remembering the importance of change, responsibility, and doing the right thing for the good of our children,” which is a strange way of seeing a festival that celebrates the resurrection of one man from the dead.
The backlash—for instance, the Guardian’s editorial—often made the same mistake, replacing one set of trite value statements with another: liberal Easter is about “the extraordinary idea that people have worth in themselves, regardless of their usefulness to others, regardless even of their moral qualities.” Even Michael Gove’s Spectator article, amazingly fortuitously timed to remove some of the heat from the PM, fails to mention Jesus, his resurrection or even any of his teaching even once, preferring to see Christianity primarily in terms of the mission of the beati possidentes to their benevolence upon the poor have-nots, and the “unique and valuable nature of every individual.”
The tone in the US is quite different; the usual Evangelical hysteria about marginalisation and persecution has led to Indiana’s government passing a law essentially allowing you to discriminate against people if you feel your religion requires you to. “What Would Jesus Do?” becomes “Who Would Jesus Turn Away?” (This despite the fact that Jesus gave clear and unequivocal instructions about how to protest people whose behaviour disagree with.)
In both countries, there’s an election imminent, and it would be foolish to think that had nothing to do with it all. But I was particularly struck by one particular reaction in the US:
Coulter then launched into rant criticizing Christians for not pushing back against “bullies” on “the left.”
“The fact that these Christians would rather get praise from The New York Times and Nicholas Kristof by changing bedpans of Ebola patients in Nigeria, rather than stand up to The New York Times and fight against abortion and fight against these bullies…
O’Reilly then lamented that “there are no clerics in America — zero — who put themselves out to defend the Christian faith.”
Because you know, nothing says “love your enemy” and “turn the other cheek” quite like standing up and fighting for your privilege. And yes, sure, it’s Fox News, and it’s some of the blowhardiest blowhards on Fox News. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the doctrine of many American Christians is far more influenced by opinionists on Fox News than by their pastors.
More to the point, I think the Christianity portrayed by O’Reilly and Coulter—and to a certain degree, of Cameron, Gove and the Guardian—is indicative of a particularly dangerous syncretism: a worldly Christianity, which shuns weakness and seeks to cling on to power so that this power can be wielded over others—even for what we regard to be the public good. Cameron believes in “the power of faith to forge a better society”, while Gove is keen to ensure that those who do their acts of righteousness should be seen and honoured by others.
It’s the most seductive point of attack for Christianity, precisely because the idea of rejecting worldly power, acclaim, and authority, and instead pursuing quiet victory through weakness and meekness is so utterly counter-cultural. It’s so out of our daily experience and our understanding of the entire social order that it’s very easy to conclude, even subconsciously, that Christ can’t possibly have meant that. I’ve read Matthew 5:39 (“But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”) with people, and had them immediately say “But of course, Jesus wasn’t saying that we can’t defend ourselves.” It’s too far out of the box, and so it’s the first thing to go.
And yet it is precisely glorification through weakness which we celebrate at Easter—“Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”; it is Christ’s victory through weakness rather than strength which gives rise to idea that we can “delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Perhaps the closest commentary to the mark came from Giles Fraser, who said that
Christianity, properly understood, is a religion of losers – the worst of playground insults. For not only do we not want to be a loser, we don’t want to associate with them either. We pointedly shun losers, as if some of their loser-ness might rub off on us. Or rather, more honestly, we shun them because others might recognise us as among their number. And because we secretly fear that this might actually be true, we shun them all the more viciously, thus to distance ourselves all the more emphatically.
In a world where we semaphore our successes to each other at every possible opportunity, churches cannot be blamed for failing to live up to this austere and wonderful message. The worst of them judge their success in entirely worldly terms, by counting their followers. Their websites show images of happy, uncomplicated people doing good improving stuff in the big community. But if I am right about the meaning of Christ’s passion, then a church is at its best when it fails, when it gives up on all the ecclesiastical glitter, when the weeds start to break through the floor, and when it shows others that failure is absolutely nothing of the sort.
A Christianity that fights for its faith, demands its rights, and wants to stand up and be counted is easy to swallow; but it has completely missed the point of how Jesus interacted with the world. And so I do not think it is unreasonable to say that a Christianity without weakness is no Christianity at all.Subject tags: theologyevangelicalism
The place where we stayed this week had both a lot of international guests and a couple of spidermonkeys. So I managed to overhear these two conversations, which managed to neatly sum up a lot of cultural differences in parenting:
Western baby: “Dog!”
Western parent: “That’s not a dog, it’s a monkey!”
Japanese baby: “Dog!”
Japanese parent: “Yes, it is a little bit like a dog, isn’t it?” (「そうだ、ちょっと犬見たいよね。」)
There’s so much in this. For one, you never contradict people directly in Japan; you find a compromise that protects the relationship.
Second, there was a good article in Japan Harvest recently about Japanese attitudes to truth. It quoted a mother saying, “If my son says his toy car is a snake, then it is a snake to him.”Subject tags: japanculture
If you have children, or have been near any children during the past year, you have probably heard the theme from Frozen, “Let It Go”. We hear it nearly incessantly, both in English and Japanese, and even our one-year-old storms around the house singing “a-a-no! a-a-no!”
Disney are (quite rightly) very proud of the internationalisation of Frozen, and I’ve come to see the Japanese version as a particularly excellent example of the art of translation. The fact that it scans and the lyrics fit musically in the same way as the original is pretty excellent, but in a sense I take that as a given for translation. That has to be there. What’s really interesting for me is the way that the translation adapts the message of the original to fit the recipient (Japanese) cultural context.
In other words, this is not a straight translation, by any means. Let’s compare the English chorus with the Japanese. English:
Let it go, let it go, can’t hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go, turn away and slam the door!
I don’t care what they’re going to say
Let the storm rage on.
The cold never bothered me anyway!
I’m going to reveal who I truly am,
I’m going to become who I truly am.
I’m not afraid of anything.
I’m not cold in the slightest.
Here are some more sections from the English song:
Don’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know
Well, now they know!
It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me I’m free!
Let it go, let it go
And I’ll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone!
These ideas simply do not appear in the Japanese translation at all. Instead, the final Japanese chorus reads like this:
This is OK, I’ve come to like myself
This is OK, I believe in myself
Let me step out bathing in the light.
I’m not cold in the slightest.
Now maybe I’m reading too much into this, but the English version focuses on a rejection of external judgement, whereas the Japanese version is an affirmation of internal judgement. And that’s a huge difference. But why?
I wonder if one reason might be that the evaluation of others is such an integral part of one’s identity in Japan that singing about rejecting that evaluation would be crossing a line of plausibility.1 Rugged individualism in the face of adversity is a Western value, but not a Japanese one.
I think another part of the reason why 「ありのままで」 can be heard echoing at high volume from every karaoke booth in Japan is that it speaks directly to the insecurities of young Japanese girls. Liking and believing in oneself, living out one’s true identity, is just counter-cultural enough to be attainable and desirable; it’s one of those tempting ideals that everyone wants to reach but few have the confidence to attain. Which incidentally is precisely the sort of thing the missionary should be attuned to. On the other hand, translating “I don’t care what they’re going to say” into Japanese would have produced concepts which are so alien that they would not achieve the same level of emotional engagement.
It’s a good reminder that translation is only secondarily about the words you use. It’s primarily about how those words operate in the recipient culture and the meanings and emotions that they convey. It takes an intimate knowledge of the recipient society and culture, its dreams, insecurities, values and ambitions. I don’t know whether someone at Disney Japan sat down and worked out what kind of cultural resonances they wanted to achieve with this translation; it’s more likely that someone working out of their native intuition naturally reformed the ideas of the song into terms that would work well in this culture. But I’m really impressed that Disney gave them the freedom to make quite major and sweeping changes to the meaning in order to hit the right cultural notes—and it certainly worked.
Earlier this week, Eddie posted this quote:
It is more glamorous to do social activism because building a local church is hard.
The quote rankled me at the time, but held my tongue. Best to read it in context, I thought; he’s probably saying something else. Here it is in context:
For many today, it is far easier to be committed to social justice in South Africa, to the restoration of communities on the Gulf Shore following Katrina, to cleaning up from the devastating tornadoes of the Plains, or to fighting sexual trafficking in any country than it is to be committed to building community and establishing fellowship in one’s local church. I hate to put it this way, but I must: it is easier to do the former because it feels good, it resolves some social shame for all that we have, it creates a bonded experience, it is a momentary and at times condescending invasion of resources and energy, and it is all ramped up into ultimate legitimation by calling it kingdom work. Not only that, it is good and right and noble and loving and compassionate and just. It is more glamorous to do social activism because building a local church is hard. It involves people who struggle with one another, it involves persuading others of the desires of your heart to help the homeless, it means caring for people where they are and not where you want them to be, it involves daily routines, and it only rare leads to the highs of “short-term mission” experiences. But local church is what Jesus came to build, so the local church’s mission shapes kingdom mission.
In context, it’s still not very good, although it looks like he is specifically referring to short-term experiences rather than a long term lifestyle. But there are many classic false dichotomies here: does social action never involve “people who struggle with one another”? Does helping the homeless never mean “caring for people where they are”? Of course not. And does everything which happens within the local church come under the category of “kingdom work”?
And that “more glamorous”, eh? Within the Christian culture, which role is more glamorous: the social justice activist, or the megachurch pastor? See, the wonderful thing about theological opinions is that anyone can have them, especially since they don’t need to be substantiated. One could just as easily say that it’s easier to hide inside the comfort of the local church, surrounded by like-minded Christians, rather than venturing out of one’s religious comfort zone and getting one’s hands dirty with the real challenges of life. And if we wanted to throw Jesus into the discussion as our trump card the way McKnight does, we could say that this is exactly what Jesus came from heaven to do, getting pushback from the existing religious community every step of the way. “Local church is what Jesus came to build”? The politest thing I can say about that is “citation needed”. Paul came to build local church, and left several growing communities scattered around the Roman empire; Jesus went from thousands to twelve to three to one, who denied that he even knew him. Worst. Church Planter. Ever.
And of course he falls into the biggest false dichotomy of all, the classic Evangelical belief that Christians cannot both walk and chew gum at the same time—that one has to make a choice between the two poles of “social activism” and “building a local church”, and that doing one necessarily precludes the other. Well, even if it turns out that Christians are so incompetent and unbalanced in practice, I would hope that at least in theory we would be daring to pretend that we were better than that.
And I know that we can be. Let me pick up two opposing examples from recent experience.
I have recently been trying to get some local churches involved in tackling some of the problems surrounding child poverty in the area. Local community groups, universities and so on are getting together to start new initiatives support single parents and families. For me, it’s a no-brainer that this is something that the church should be at the centre of. Or at the very least, want to be. I mean, if you don’t care for the most needy of the people around you, you should just shut up shop right now, yes? And even if you don’t care, you could at least pretend to in order to position yourself at the centre of society and gain influence that way.
But here, the Evangelical Church exists to meet the spiritual needs of the people, and that alone. There isn’t an opportunity to demonstrate love for people in a tangible, practical way that the Japanese Church has not passed up. They are of the world, but not in the world.
Instead, the churches show love for people by offering them Jesus, which is the most valuable thing we have. And despite myself, I have a small amount of sympathy for that idea: you don’t get much time with people and they’re not going to get spiritual input from anywhere else. If you don’t talk to them about Jesus, nobody else will. It makes sense to focus on your specialism. It makes sense; the only problem is, it doesn’t work.
And so my invitations to take part in local community development, for churches to be seen as caring for the needs of this neighbourhood, have been met with polite indifference. The mainstream churches instead continue to preach a message of other-worldly spirituality to their ever-dwindling faithful, as they wait patiently for local non-Christians to realise how much the Church really, really does love them after all.
Yeah, building a local church is hard, especially if you make it hard.
And yet, at the same time, sometimes building a local church can take no effort at all.
In the north-east of Japan, there are Christians working with local councils and communities to redevelop the area after the 2011 tsunami. (Yes, there’s still a lot of reconstruction work to be done.) While they are there doing very “social” things, God is giving them amazing opportunities to share their faith with elderly people in temporary housing, community leaders, and mayors. Churches have formed spontaneously as the “skinny jeans” Christians have found themselves bumping into people that God has already been speaking to.
The problem is not that social action and church planting are polar opposites and we need to make a wise choice as to which we believe God is calling us as a Church to. The truth is that that these two areas of Christian ministry are fractally intertwined; sure, it’s possible to operate at the extreme ends, but that’s an extreme way to operate. At any point in the middle, church planting will involve loving the people around you, and faithful service in the way of Christ will lead people into communities around him.Subject tags: theologyevangelicalismmissiology
Last night I chaired a meeting for the local community on the subject of child poverty; a nearby university and various community leaders have been working together to provide services for children in need, and I invited the founder of Child Poverty Action Osaka to come and provide a bit of inspiration. And I was certainly inspired. Two quotes, very loosely translated, which have application to mission as well:
If you make your activities too respectable, only respectable people will come to them. You need to keep things really lax to attract the people who need to come.
(Which is basically what I have been saying with the idea of worse-is-better mission)
The people who come to your events are not the people you should be worrying about. They’re the ones who don’t really need help. The people you should be worrying about are the people who don’t come to you.Subject tags: theologymissiologyquotes
There are, famously, two types of people in the world: those who can extrapolate from incomplete information. I think another division between people is between those who are (predominantly) question people, and those who are answer people. I don’t mean that some people ask more questions and some people answer them; what I mean is that some people are more naturally skilled at defining the boundaries of a problem than they are at finding a solution to that problem.
And this is, as it were, a problem. Because our approach to education in the West is primarily deconstructionist; you win points, academically, by critiquing arguments, attacking positions, pointing out flaws, and so on. This is the environment in which young Westerners grow up and hone their critical skills. You need to get pretty far into academia before constructionism becomes a virtue. And yet, in our society it’s the person who crosses the line with the solution who gets the applause.
I’m definitely a question person. That doesn’t mean that I never come up with answers; just that for me the first stage in coming up with answers is sitting down and finding the right questions to ask. It takes me a long time to come up with answers, because I tend to believe that there’s actually no point coming up with an answer if you didn’t actually take the time to sit down and fully understand the question.
And yet I have so often been dismissed or denigrated: “But all you’ve done is point out the problems; you haven’t come up with any solutions.” A while back I sat down and did some serious thinking about the state of our organisation and came up with a list of fifty things we were doing that were… shall we say, suboptimal. Have I come up with any ways forward? Well, yes, give me time and I will. But you know what? I don’t actually have to.
There seems to be a common belief that there is a moral imperative upon the person who analyses and understands the problem to also be the one who provides the answers; if they don’t, they’re just grumbling and not adding any value at all. But I don’t buy into this belief at all! It doesn’t make any sense. After all, it does not take a genius to realise that deconstruction and construction are different skills, and one thing I’m realising more and more is that it’s far, far better to spend your time and effort using your skills rather than trying to get things done out of areas which are not your specialism. Right now, I’m applying the 80-20 principle to pretty much everything I do; if I’m not exercising my skills in an task, it’s probably not the best use of my time and I should be doing a different task instead.
Is it more valuable to answer the question than to ask it? Again, I think the answer is “Sure, so long as you don’t care about getting the right answer.” Question people may depend on answer people to turn their analysis into workable ideas, but actually answer people depend on question people to do the analytical groundwork which makes sure they’re solving the right problem in the right way.
I don’t actually have a conclusion here, because I’m a question person, not an answer person. But I guess we question people have to be content to be seen as complainers and criticisers, when what we’re actually doing is quietly laying the groundwork for the answer people to get the solutions. If we can work in a team where others can take our analysis and run with it, things can work really well. But if we work in a team where only solutions count, then we need to work hard to ensure that our analysis is taken seriously.Language Undefined
After listening to a particularly, uh, interesting sermon a while back I thought it might be a fun idea to put together a site like yourlogicalfallacyis.com, but specialised for preachers. Of course, most of those logical fallacies apply more generally, but handling the Bible comes with its own special set of fallacies. Here are twenty to be getting on with, but I am sure you can think of more.The ethnocentric fallacy
Oh, I hear this all the time: my culture does this, and therefore it must be what the Bible means.
In any Christian book about relationships you will find the quoted verse:
Gen 2:24: That is why a man leaves his father and mother and unites with his wife, and they become a new family.
In my culture, both the man and the woman leave their father and mother; this verse shows that the Biblical pattern is for nuclear families.The anthropocentric fallacy
This is just the ethnocentric fallacy writ large: my species does this, and that must be what the Bible means.
Gen. 1:27: God created humankind in his own image; in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.
I have heard this taken to mean that God created humankind uniquely to be in his own image. (This is an example of an argument from silence fallacy.) I wonder if it also means that he created humankind uniquely to be male and female.Confirmation bias
My theology does this, and that must be what the Bible means. If you’re a cessationist and you think that spiritual gifts ceased with the closing of the Biblical canon, then you could advance this verse as proof:
1Cor. 13:8 Love never ends. But if there are prophecies, they will be set aside; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be set aside.
Even though, of course, that verse is in a passage about love, not about spiritual gifts; the long-lasting effects of love will continue long after people have stopped talking.Explaining away
The counterpart: my theology doesn’t do this, and so it can’t be what the Bible means. Especially dangerous because it means that the Bible is no longer able to teach the Church anything new. Here’s one easy example:
Mark 6:5 He was not able (οὐκ ἐδύνατο) to do a miracle there,
One of the IVP commentaries, which can always be relied upon to tell you that the Bible doesn’t actually mean what it seems to be saying, states:
That Jesus is “unable” to do works because of their unbelief presumes a limitation not of his power but of his mission.
No evidence is advanced in support of this sentiment. But none is needed; Jesus is omnipotent, so the Bible must mean something other than “not able”.
There are many wonderful examples of explaining away; I think it is the most common exegetical fallacy. Anyone who tells you that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” is actually about very narrow gates that are difficult but not actually impossible to get through are indulging in the explaining-away fallacy; really, Jesus is saying it’s impossible, and if it wasn’t obvious before, two verses later he says so in as many words.Argument from Silence
We have no record of Jesus ever laughing in the Bible, but that doesn’t mean that Jesus never laughed. Any time a preacher says “Nowhere in the Bible does it say that…”, the correct response should be “Nowhere in the Bible does it say that a preacher should wear clothes.”
Sometimes things aren’t said because they’re wrong; but sometimes things aren’t said because they’re dead obvious.Missing the joke
And speaking of laughing, the Bible contains many rhetorical devices, including humour, exaggeration, sarcasm, satire, and so on. Preachers are normally fairly serious about the Bible and expect the Bible to be serious in return, even when it isn’t.
Luke 22:38: The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That is enough,” he replied.
Jesus isn’t actually advocating armed self-defence here. Two swords against the Roman guard? Great, folks, that’ll do us just fine.The translation fallacy
Exegesis that relies on what the word means in your language isn’t really exegesis.
Matt. 25:14-15 “For it is like a man going on a journey, who summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them.
To one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey.”
Talents in the New Testament time were large—improbably large—sums of money. There is nothing in this parable about giftings or abilities. That’s just want “talent” means in English today. This isn’t a parable about gifting, it’s a parable about financial instruments and speculating on the property market.
Similarly, “son” in English means “biological offspring”. I’ll just leave that there.Implied subject
When the subject of the sentence, or the referent of a metaphor, is implied, it is often a good idea not to guess. Here are some examples where preachers often take the Sunday School Approach (“I don’t understand the question but the answer is probably ‘Jesus’ ”):
James 3:1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we will be judged more strictly.
Matt. 7:1 Do not judge so that you will not be judged.
Be judged by whom?The conventional wisdom fallacy
More generally, if you haven’t actually done the exegesis because everybody knows what it means, you’re guessing.
Zaccheus wanted to see Jesus but he couldn’t see Jesus above the crowd because he was short. (Did you notice the implied subject there?) Then Jesus comes to his house. Then what happens?
Luke 19:7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
Luke 19:8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Ah, a classic conversion story.
Except Zaccheus doesn’t say that at all. “Here and now” has been added in translation and “I will pay back” has been made future when it’s actually present. Here’s a more literal translation:
Luke 19:7 Seeing this, everyone grumbled, saying, “He has gone in to stay with a sinful man.”
Luke 19:8 But standing up, Zacchaeus said to the Lord, “Hey, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody, I pay back fourfold.”
Is he repenting or justifying himself?
The traditional understanding is that “salvation has come to this household” because Zaccheus changed his behaviour. The traditional understanding has a depressingly transactional understanding of salvation; the truth is that Jesus had come to his household.
Another example of “conventional wisdom” is the meaning of the phrase “the Word of God”; it’s not the Bible (see “Anachronism” below), but it’s usually either the Gospel or Jesus himself.A little learning is a dangerous thing
Many preachers who have just learnt Hebrew will discover that the word אֱלֹהִ֑ים used for “God” is plural. Invariably they will then go on to demonstrate how Genesis 1:1 proves the Trinity, despite the fact that more-than-one-god does not necessarily imply a triune god, and despite the fact that there exists such a thing as the pluralis maiestatis.
Knowledge of the language is a good thing, but only in as much as it leads you to knowledge of how the language is used to express thought.Disproved elsewhere
If your interpretation of a Bible verse can be made to look silly by reference to another verse elsewhere, it’s a good idea to at least recognise the existence of that verse.
1Tim. 2:14: And Adam was not deceived, but the woman, because she was fully deceived, fell into transgression.
1Tim. 2:15: But she will be delivered through childbearing, if continues in faith and love and holiness with self-control.
Verse 15 is one of those verses where it’s probably best to say “I have no idea what Paul is going on about here.” But preachers don’t like doing that as it breaks the aura of infallibility, so they guess. Any guess really needs to include a reference to 1 Co 7:8.Forced harmony
The opposite fallacy is to take two verses which say radically different things and find a tortuous way to show that they’re really saying the same thing. The Bible was written by tens of people in many different cultures over the span of thousands of years. Enjoy the differences. Understand the differences, because maybe the differences are there to teach us something, rather than to be glossed over.
What did Jesus actually say over the bread and wine at the Last Supper? Let’s ask Paul:
1Cor. 11:24 and after he had given thanks he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
1Cor. 11:25 In the same way, he also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
Matt. 26:26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after giving thanks he broke it, gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take, eat, this is my body.”
Matt. 26:27 And after taking the cup and giving thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you,
Matt. 26:28 for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, that is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Mark 14:22 While they were eating, he took bread, and after giving thanks he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take it. This is my body.”
Mark 14:23 And after taking the cup and giving thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it.
Mark 14:24 He said to them, “This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, that is poured out for many.
Luke 22:19 Then he took bread, and after giving thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
Luke 22:20 And in the same way he took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
(I’d ask John, but he’s not particularly interested.)
They can’t all be right. Which is another way of saying that one of them must be wrong.One and one makes two
I’ve heard this one used.
Prov. 18:22: He who finds a wife finds what is good
Psa. 34:10b: Those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.
Therefore nothing, because that’s not what the Bible is. Beyond the obvious ripping of verses from their context, the Bible is a collection of stories about God and His people, letters and exhortations from particular people to particular people at particular times; it is not a set of logical principles, which one can combine in deductive syllogisms to form other principles.Allegorizing
Song of Solomon is a book about sex.Paul is not God
This is a bit of a controversial one, but Paul was actually a human being with opinions, emotions, frustrations, anger, and biases. The apostle that we so often treat as the authoritative, inspired, infallible voice of God, forgets precisely who he has baptised (1 Co 1:16), angrily mistreats junior missionaries (Acts 15:38-39) and wishes castration upon his theological adversaries. (Gal 5:12). Sometimes he separates when he is speaking for himself and when he is speaking for Jesus (1 Co 7:10-12) but sometimes he does not. So when he writes giving advice to a younger apostle in his particular context
1Tim. 2:12 But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man.
It would be extremely strange to read that as “God does not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man”. And yet…Equivocation
Equivocation is using one word to mean one thing and then insisting that the same word means something different. A classic example is this lovely verse:
1Cor. 15:22 For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.
Of course, the first “all” refers to everyone, and the second “all” only refers to that subset of everyone who confess Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour.Anachronism
I often hear church members talk about what “Christians” in the Old Testament thought or did or whatever, and I used to think that this was a result of lack of understanding the big picture of the Bible. Then I heard Japanese pastors preach, and I wondered whether it was clear to them:
Psa. 33:1 You godly ones, shout for joy because of the LORD!
“Godly ones here refers to those who have been sanctified by Christ…” Wait, hang on. No matter how hard we back-project Jesus onto the Old Testament, I am not sure that this is what the psalmist had in mind, not least because he explains later in the psalm:
Psa. 33:18 Look, the LORD takes notice of his loyal followers,
those who wait for him to demonstrate his faithfulness
Similarly, when the Bible talks about “Scriptures”, it refers to the Old Testament, as it is not particularly possible for it to be referring to a collection of books determined several centuries in the future.Posterior Knowledge
Talking of back-projecting stuff onto the Bible, we can back-project things that we know now but which wasn’t known at the time. A good principle of interpretation is “It can’t mean now what it didn’t mean then”, but that of course assumes that the Bible was written to those it appears to be written to, rather than you personally.
Almost all sermons on Revelation or Daniel commit this fallacy, because they interpret the signs or the great empires or whatever based on their current position in history rather than that of the original listeners, who had no idea about Stalin or Hitler or George Bush.
Similarly, if you want to tell me that πάντων τῶν ἐθνῶν means “all ethnolinguistic people groups”, then you may need to demonstrate how the Evangelist Matthew was aware of the theories of Franz Boas.post hoc ergo propter hoc
This is a common fallacy which means “assuming that because A is after B, that means that A caused B.”
The cock crowed and then the day broke; therefore, the crowing of the cock causes the day to break.
Matt. 24:14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
Preaching the gospel of the Kingdom in the whole world causes the end to come. (Yes, there are actually people who believe this.)Normative narrative
The great thing about the Bible is that, unlike Sunday school material, it doesn’t editorialise. It very rarely tells you when something was a Good Thing or a Bad King.
I’ve mentioned John Mark already, but was Paul correct to leave him behind? Answer: We don’t know, because the Bible doesn’t tell us what should have happened, only what did happen.
I don’t preach very much these days, and one reason is that it’s too dangerous. You sit in isolation preparing a message, and there’s frankly a multitude of ways of getting it wrong. I had one congregation where I did a question-and-answer session after the sermon, and they were sharp. I had to really second-guess myself while preparing because if I made a sloppy assumption they would call me on it and make me explain it. But that’s a pretty rare experience. Most of the time the preacher gets to be the voice of the church, interpreting the Scriptures without any critical oversight from the congregation at all. Sure, one or two might disagree or spot the errors, but it’s still the preacher who has the pulpit and not them.
Being a preacher is like being Spiderman: With great power comes great responsibility. Use it wisely.Subject tags: theologybible
I’m going to do something dangerous and novel on this blog and actually try and give useful practical information; at least useful and practical if you’re a missionary in Japan. A lot of missionaries run events in their churches for various reasons, but not many missionaries go to events outside of the church, run by ordinary Japanese people. We’re the opposite—we hardly ever run our own events but spend a lot of time going to other people’s (it’s a great way to meet people!), and we’ve noticed that there are a few cultural differences between how events are done in the Church and how they’re done outside. When we do do events, we try to remember these differences so we can do things in a way that’s more familiar and comfortable for non-church people.
I’m not an expert on Japanese culture, and I’m sure there are things that I’ve misread or generalisations I’m making from too small a sample. Feel free to correct me.Start and End Together
Perhaps the most important thing we’ve noticed is that Japanese events have a well-defined start, a well-defined end, and people get through the programme together.
Almost all events will start with some kind of an announcement, even if it’s only the rather uninspiring “定刻になりましたので…” (“Well, it’s time, so…”), and people really want to have an official closing. With our family church, we used to go from a closing prayer in the main room to snack time in a separate room, and people would mill about and chat over snacks, which was excellent; but after a while there would be confusion—when does snack time end and when is it OK for us to leave? So now we keep the chat time over snacks, but after a while one of us will say something like “We’ll finish Oyako Church for today, but you’re welcome to keep on chatting in here.” That allows people to stay, but it also gives people permission to leave when they want to without feeling they’re skipping out before the end.
It’s a maxim in Japanese society1 that one of the main ways that leadership is expressed in Japan is by keeping the group together. Recall our experience leaving a group early and how the leader handled that competently, in a Japanese way. Making sure that nobody is left out or separated by the experience is of paramount importance to the event.Be a Circle or a Triangle
This is related to the idea of how Japanese lead groups. The crux of my research into Japanese leadership turned on the idea that there are two types of group in Japanese society: compulsory groups, such as your family, village, workplace, etc. that you have to belong to because of your social identity, and free-association groups such as PTAs, interest groups and so on which reflect your individual identity.
The second type of group is often called a circle (サークル), and its leadership is, in a way, circle shaped, at least in contrast to the hierarchical, triangular shape of compulsory groups. For instance, a mothers’ circle may rotate its leadership, make use of volunteers from within the circle, generally expecting everyone to pitch in more; but a club provided by a local children’s centre (児童館), a public institution provided by the city, will have fixed leadership and a well-defined distinction between staff and users.
The problem we have is that Japanese churches don’t fit. They’re free-association groups which reflect individual identity, and which (depending on your ecclesiology) we would love to see everyone pitching in to help, but we have structured them as triangular compulsory-style groups.
Anyway, decide which you want your church to be, and structure your events accordingly; if you want full participation, you have to give up the staff-user distinction.Don’t Be Afraid to Charge
When missionaries and churches run events, their aim is—of course—to get people to come. They’re aware that people who haven’t come to a church building before find it difficult to come. We say that 敷居が高い, the barrier to entry is high. And so they try to lower the barrier to entry as much as possible. Because missionaries and pastors don’t have much money they often think that cost might be a barrier to entry, so they make programmes and events free of charge.
This is a mistake. By making an event free you can actually create another barrier to entry, by sending the signal that it isn’t worth paying for. People don’t mind paying for quality; just make sure that what you’re doing is quality. In fact, people can be wary of accepting hospitality (snacks, drinks, etc.) if they’re not paying for anything. Reserve (遠慮) is a barrier to entry in itself.
Another good reason to charge for your events, especially regular events, is that if you’re deciding to be circle-shaped, then actually having a “membership fee” (会費) can increase the sense of ownership and participation if it’s handled well.
For events that you take money for, Japanese event organisers will often take names when people pay, and offer to give receipts.Send Out Photos
What should you do with the names you take?
At many of the small group events we’ve been to, we’ve often been presented afterwards with copies of a few photographs taken at the event. This has happened at circles, nurseries, and local community events—in other words, both circular and triangular groups. As well as being a great way to cement the memory of the event in people’s lives, from a missionary perspective, this is an excellent opportunity for follow-up and to establish more contact with the people who have been to your events. Make sure you include photo printing in your event’s budget, and make the effort to follow up with people and give them photos.Keep a Count
In Japan, continuity means success. “If something continues it is felt to be prosperous”, as I recently quoted from Kosuke Koyama. And so we’ve found that Japanese events, circles and so on will prominently how many times the event has happened before: the 28th annual shogi tournament, the 50th meeting of the parent-toddler playgroup, or whatever.
When you start something that you’re likely to repeat, make sure you keep a count of the number of repetitions. Even if you don’t feature this every time, it’s good to celebrate special anniversaries—the 10th, 25th, 50th and so on—which is a good way to build your community anyway.Information Overload
Finally, a word about flyers and posters.
The usual missionary thinking has it that the purpose of a flyer is to be attractive; we spend a long time thinking about the design of the flyer to make it appeal to people. In Western aesthetics, a modern design can often mean simplicity, cleanness, nothing-left-to-take-away minimalism.
Japanese information design sense is quite different. The primary purpose is not design but information. You can see this in the information density of Japanese web sites: compare Sony mobile’s Japanese site with its English site. The Japanese site has 168 links on it; the English equivalent, less than half of that.
If your flier looks great but doesn’t contain enough information to allow people to come to your event and feel fully informed about what is going to happen, what to expect, and what will be expected of them, then it’s not fulfilling its purpose. An appealing design has to be secondary to conveying all the necessary information.
Well, those are the things that we’ve learnt, and hopefully observing the way that others do events has helped us to be more culturally appropriate when we produce our own. What else would you add to the list?