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Dog or monkey?

Wed, 03/18/2015 - 08:34
Language Undefined

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

Let It Go As I Am: Disney, Translation and Contextualization

Tue, 03/03/2015 - 11:08
Language Undefined

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!

And Japanese:

ありのままの 姿見せるのよ
ありのままの 自分になるの

I’m going to reveal who I truly am,
I’m going to become who I truly am.

I’m not afraid of anything.
Blow, wind!
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:

これでいいの 自分を好きになって
これでいいの 自分信じて
光あびながら 歩きだそう

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.

  • 1. Yes, we’re talking about the plausibility of a cartoon girl who shoots ice from her hands, I know.
Subject tags: theologytranslation

More on walking and chewing gum

Fri, 02/06/2015 - 22:23
Language Undefined

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

Wise words

Fri, 01/16/2015 - 10:16
Language Undefined

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

Question people and answer people

Tue, 01/13/2015 - 12:04

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

Know Your Exegetical Fallacies

Sat, 01/10/2015 - 10:56
Language English

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, 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.”

And Matthew:

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.

And Mark:

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.

And Luke:

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.


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 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.


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

Six Things We Learnt About How Japanese People Run Events

Mon, 01/05/2015 - 08:35
Language Undefined

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?

  • 1. Yes, I’m aware there’s some debate over this
Subject tags: missiologytheologyjapansociology

How to cheat at church planting

Mon, 12/29/2014 - 04:18
Language Undefined

Recently I’ve been thinking of what it means to be successful as a church planter. To be honest I still don’t know what it should mean yet, or even if the concept of success is something that you can meaningfully apply to church planting, but within missionary culture I’ve seen two main criteria for success in operation: church growth, and continuity. These criteria are normally unspoken, but they’re certainly assumed. You are successful as a church planter if your church grows; and/or you are successful as a church planter if you can hand something over—be that a congregation, or a building, or in ideal circumstances, both—to a successor, foreign or national.

Let’s look first at church growth. And that of course means numbers. No, really, it’s the number of people in your congregation; nothing else. Even the people who will swear until they’re blue in the face that they care about character, discipleship and faithfulness will still be quietly counting the number of people who are coming to their activities, will still be encouraged if that number rises and discouraged if it falls. Yes, you do hear people talking about finding their confidence in God; but let’s be honest, that’s normally the consolation prize. You don’t hear that said about people who have planted big churches. The rest of us, meanwhile, have newsletters to write and supporting churches to relate to and funding to justify. So let’s take it as read that church planters want to plant big churches.

Now, an interlude. When I was in programming, I used to work on a piece of software called Request Tracker. It’s a ticketing tool—you know the thing, someone emails a support line and they get an automated ticket number back, and from then on, the helpdesk people use that ticket number to track the progress of their support query. One of the things I did for RT was to write a statistics package: you can find out how many tickets have been opened or closed in a certain time period, who was responsible for closing the most tickets, which tickets have been open for the longest, and so on.

It was interesting, but I was always in two minds about whether to release it or not. It’s a business maxim that you can’t manage what you don’t measure, but it’s also true that there’s a strong temptation to always manage what you do measure. So someone who closes lots of tickets in a day is obviously a better worker than someone who closes a few tickets a day. This of course creates perverse incentives (what’s called in the literature “distortion effects”) to up your closed ticket rate: closing tickets without necessarily properly answering the user’s question, palming off difficult queries onto other team members, and so on. I’m sure you’ve had that experience when you have contacted a technical support line.

My contention is that there’s a similar temptation to game the metrics in church planting too. Remember, even the patron saint of church growth, Donald Mcgavran, said1 “the student of church growth … cares little whether a Church is credible; he asks how much it has grown.” Little else matters other than the headline figure.

There are many theories of church growth that you’ll find in missiological manuals, but I’ve really only seen two real driving ideas in practice, and they both play into these distortion effects: first, that success breeds success, and second, that it’s easier to get people interested in church than it is to get them interested in Jesus.

The way that “success breeds success” plays out is the idea that people are more likely to want to join something that’s already growing and vibrant. So the way to game this metric is to gather a lot of people together out of nowhere, and the easiest way to do this is if they’re already Christian, because then you can avoid that difficult and time-consuming process of evangelising people. Stealing people from other churches works pretty well, and I’ve seen that used (not in Japan, but in the UK) as a way to bootstrap a denomination’s new church plant. Or if you can borrow people from another congregation within your denomination, you can set up a big church in pretty quick time. Setting up an international congregation is a great way to grow your church with no effort, because again you have Christians who are looking for somewhere to worship. Focus on church planting in areas of high population, where you’re more likely to be able to pull a crowd than in a more remote setting. Stay away from the “resistant” people so you can concentrate on the “winnable”. (Mcgavaran again.)

I don’t mean to suggest that all church planters are cheating and gaming the metrics all of the time. No. The vast majority are doing a hard job under hard circumstances and have enough integrity to try to do it right. But I am saying that the temptation is there, and it does bring results; and I know there are those who have used metric-gaming as a strategy for planting successful churches. And I’m not even saying that to point the finger because of course I’ve done all of these things myself too; not necessarily to start congregations, but to bulk up numbers for events and the like. An event with more numbers is obviously more successful than one with fewer, and if that’s the metric then heck, I’m going to game it along with everyone else. It gives a nice needed confidence boost when things otherwise don’t look like they’re going well.

It all works, but I can’t help thinking that none of it is mission.

And the second point is linked. If numbers of bums on seats is the metric, then it’s far more important to get people through the doors of the church than it is to get them converted, transformed and living for Christ. So we do absolutely anything that gets people through the doors of the church.

Some people in missiology talk about the “funnel” strategy, drawing people into churches via church events, choirs, lessons, programmes and so on, and hoping that through those things, people get interested in Jesus. Which sometimes they do, but it’s actually very rare. And even if they don’t get interested in Jesus, we’re hardly going to kick them out of church, because they might one day and anyway they’re adding to our numbers, which is great. Except we now have to maintain the programmes which keep them there, and those programmes have nothing to do with Jesus.

See, the thing about church planters is that they love the church and they really want to build the church and so they really focus on the church, and when they evangelise, the way they evangelise is to bring people into relationship with the church, when actually the point is to bring people into relationship with Jesus. So similarly I can’t see very much of this as mission either.

But the problem is that evangelising about the church instead of Jesus can actually be a pretty effective strategy. It’s less offensive, of course. You can certainly get bums on seats with a great English programme, with counselling, and yes, even with a warm, welcoming fellowship. You can build up a good sized congregation that way. But there’s no requirement for any member of that congregation ever to have experienced Christ. They could, for all you know, all be there for the ride. As Bosch puts it astutely, “reasons why people join the church may vary greatly and may often have little to do with commitment to what the church is supposed to stand for”. Having people join “the Church” is the aim of church planting but completely orthogonal to the aim of discipleship; or to put it more cynically, the funnel strategy is a great way of getting people into churches and not discipling them.

Is that success? Does a big congregation equal success? If not, what does?

Well, the other metric of success that I’ve come across is the ability to turn your congregation over to a successor. How can you be a success without a successor?

Think about it. A church planter must plant a church. So logically you can convert a thousand people, disciple them for twenty years, and if they all go off to join different churches and you leave the country with no congregation, then you’ve failed. I am being extreme, but only a little bit; I know I am guilty of measuring people’s ministry in exactly that way. (Yes, I’m open to the possibility that this entire post is an expression of my personal prejudices rather than anything substantive about church planting itself. But I am fairly sure I’m not the only one.) I’ve known missionaries who’ve done amazing things, but at the end of their time in the country had nothing to show for it and because of that they went home to concentrate on more fruitful endeavours instead. If planting a church is the metric and you don’t have a church to hand over at the end of your ministry, then how can you possibly consider your ministry a success?

But for one thing, handing over a church still doesn’t guarantee any kind of successful ministry. I remember one Japanese pastor telling me about a missionary who planted twenty or so churches in a neighbouring province. As soon as one was handed over to local leadership he moved to another area and started another church. This is absolutely perfect, textbook church-planter behaviour. And as he was moving on all the time, he never looked back to see the carnage that he’d left in his wake; none of those churches remain today. Because he never looked back, he counted his career establishing twenty-odd church plants as a success.

Is that success?

A the same time, I don’t think “establishing a church which remains today” necessarily contains as success either. Because trying to establish something that is permanent fails to appreciate that nothing is permanent. In the long run, we’re all dead. I’ve said this before, but aiming for a permanent ministry achievement betrays a lack of trust in God as the author and agent of mission. There’s a strong temptation to want to be able to look back and point to something and say “I did that!”, to have something tangible to show for our work; and as church planters a continuing congregation is the ultimate tangible expression.

In Japan, at least, there’s a massive fixation on the idea of continuity. This is partly why I try to never run an event twice; if you run it twice, you have to run it in perpetuity. Kosuke Koyama explains the Japanese philosophy like this:

The fundamental life philosophy of the Japanese people is ‘continuity’. If something continues it is felt to be prosperous. The line of imperial succession is continuous. Everything possible will be done to ensure that the family name will be continued. Production and sales must be continued. When continuity is disrupted disintegration sets in. The ‘next-next’ eternally continuing line is the prosperous line. There is no beginning and no end. Only ‘next-next’ is.

And so for a ministry to be successful in Japan it must continue. If your church folds, your ministry was worth nothing and you go home a failure. So when we’ve tried to explain what we’re doing in terms of house church planting, the most common question we’ve had from Japanese people is “Is that sustainable long term?” (by which, of course, they mean “permanently.”)

Normally when I answer that question, I tactfully don’t mention the fact that the existing model of church is utterly unsustainable long term. Instead, I talk about how we equip the groups to look after themselves, how they have the Bible and the Holy Spirit and that’s enough for anyone, and so on.

But here’s the answer that I don’t give, but probably should: Actually, I don’t give a damn if this model of church is sustainable long term or not, because I take no responsibility for the long-term wellbeing of the congregations I establish. None whatsoever. That’s not my responsibility to take. Those people belong to God, who loved them before I arrived and who will love them long after I am gone. Their eternal wellbeing is His concern, not mine. He knows their needs far better than I do, and He can lead them to other disciplers in precisely the same way that He led them to me in the first place. My job is not to set them up for life; my job is just to disciple them as best I can for the time that He has given me with them, and after I am gone, I trust Him to provide them with what they need.

That’s probably not a very church-plantery attitude to have.

Probably I should just hunker down, start up a small congregation, hand it over to the rest of my team and clear off. There, I established something. Now my church planting ministry is successful, right?

I don’t know.

I don’t think any of the ways that we can evaluate ourselves are satisfactory. And that’s a hard thing to live with. We all want to know if we’re being a success or a failure, if we’re doing the right thing or not, and yet all the metrics we have to measure success in church planting are either too easily gameable, too meaningless, or too downright idolatrous.

Maybe that business about finding one’s confidence in God is the answer after all. Maybe I’m just showing my worldliness here.

At the same time, I’m still guilty of comparing myself against others, and I still feel jealous of those who’ve managed to game the metrics and have something great to write home about, or who’ve started something, passed it on, and made it someone else’s problem now. “It all works, but I can’t help thinking that none of it is mission”, I said. Another way to say that is: I can’t help thinking that none of it is mission but, you know what? It all works.

  • 1. In “Understanding Church Growth”, p.159
Subject tags: theologymissiology

Post-Christian Christmas, non-Christian Christmas

Sat, 12/20/2014 - 22:57

Yesterday I went to my daughter’s first nativity play. (Man, I’m getting old.) The local nursery has a Christian foundation, and they take the opportunity to remind people of the origins of Christmas.

But this is highly unusual. Japanese culture has a voracious appetite, and is well known for importing foreign forms, modifying them to fit Japanese society, throwing away the forms which don’t fit, and not really caring all that much about their content. Japanese curry often has pork cutlets or noodles in it. Japanese Buddhism was imported from Chinese but mixed with the indigenous Shinto to form a confusing blend. Japan is a highly syncretic culture. (And yeah, Japanese Christianity is not immune.)

And Christmas is the same. The version of Christmas that has taken root in Japanese society goes like this: Christmas is the time when Santa comes with a reindeer pulling a sleigh to give presents. People don’t give presents to each other (because we’ve got enough festivals already for that) but it’s traditionally a time for taking your boyfriend or girlfriend out to KFC for fried chicken.

And so I’m writing from a culture where Christmas is not, and never was a Christian festival, and frankly people like it that way. It’s a fun, enjoyable winter tradition.

I’ve seen a lot of Christians this year—more than normal, I feel—grousing about the state of Christmas in their societies. “Keep Christ in Christmas!” has appeared all over my social media feeds. Others, however, have thoughtfully seen the state of Christmas in their society as a reflection that those societies are now post-Christian; they see “Keep Christ in Christmas” as an attempt to claw back a cultural expression of Christianity that may have little to do with actual faith.

There’s a lot of noise out there already, so I’m not confident I’m going to add all that much signal, but it seems that the same process that happened when Japan imported Christmas—separating out the elements which fit in with society’s values (fun, consumerism) and throwing out the elements which don’t (Jesus)—is now happening in other non-Christian countries as well. And I don’t find that surprising in the least. That’s what cultures do. You can try to call them back to the content of Christmas if you like, but they’ll gleefully raid the forms.

What I do find surprising is the reaction of Christians. In facing up to a post-Christian society they’re going through a strange mix of denial, anger and bargaining all at once. “Keep Christ in Christmas”, aimed at other Christians, sounds very much like a call to be faithful to a tradition. And sure, why not. There are lots of ways Christians can be faithful to the Christmas tradition.

But “Keep Christ in Christmas”, aimed at non-Christians, is bizarre. “Keep Christ in Christmas”? He’s not there. The values of Jesus do not fit in with non-Christian society, and so they have thrown him out.

The only version of Christ who could possibly fit into a non-Christian Christmas is a watered-down, syncretistic Christ. I don’t want that to happen. That would be even worse.

“Put Christ back into Christmas” may be better perhaps, but even that sounds much more like an attempt to both regain a lost past, (and we can argue about whether or not that past was actually real rather than imagined) and chastise non-believers for appropriating our festival in ways that we do not approve of—forgetting, of course, that Christmas itself was a cultural appropriation in the first place. The thing is, I’m not sure it really reflects Christian values to impose our preferences on those who don’t believe.

If you want to keep Christ in Christmas, that’s great! Here’s two ways you can do that: Do not be irritable or resentful; do not insist on your own way.

Language Undefined

What Would Jesus Do?

Tue, 12/16/2014 - 02:46
Language Undefined

I know a lot of Christians are fond of the phrase “WWJD” - What Would Jesus Do? It seems like a simple and natural rule for life. I love the phrase too, but for a very different reason.

The reason I love the phrase is that it reminds me that, at any given time, I have absolutely no idea what Jesus would do. Because most of the time, Jesus would do something that nobody expected. Nobody at all.

He’d stop and invite a Pharisee to climb down from a tree and have lunch. He’d stop in the middle of a crowd of people and complain that someone had touched him. He’d show up at a party with six hundred litres of wine. He’d preach a sermon about the Messiah and then say “that’s me”; then he’d strip off and start washing people’s feet. He’d ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, effectively declaring himself king; he’d willingly go to the cross and die. When he heard that someone was close to death, he’d go and heal them; or sometimes he wouldn’t. When he needed to cross the lake, he’d borrow a boat; or sometimes he’d just walk across the top. When someone wanted to follow him, he’d let them; or sometimes he’d tell them to go away. When someone asked him a question, he’d answer with a good clear answer, or with a parable, or with another question, or with complete silence.

If you want a simple and natural rule of life, Jesus already gave one—love God, love your neighbour. But What Would Jesus Do? I have no idea what Jesus would do, and that’s great. It reminds me that Jesus was brilliant, unexpected—only obvious in retrospect. But most of all it reminds me that “for just as the sky is higher than the earth, so my deeds are superior to your deeds and my plans superior to your plans, says the Lord.”

Subject tags: theology