God is gracious for cross-cultural missionaries

I recently ran a short preparation course for people about to go out as cross-cultural missionaries. We looked at some standard material on culture and contextualization. But half the course was based on a conversation with a missionary we have sent to the Middle-East. As we talked about what people need to know as they approach cross-cultural ministry it became clear that it added up to the ‘four Gs’ in You Can Change [available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk]. Here is the material I put together. First, God is gracious.

God is gracious

What gives you a sense of achievement?

All the normal things from which we gain a sense of worth, success, achievement, competence are stripped away when you move to another culture.

  • You will be unable to communicate because of your lack of language ability
  • You will be unable to relate because of your lack of cultural understanding.
  • You will be unable to do ministry or contribute to church life.
  • You will not achieve much because your work life is on hold for language learning.
  • You will feel incompetent to manage ordinary life. (Where do you buy glue? What do you say at a road block? How do you get your washing machine mended?)
  • Your self-justification framework is taken away. Your behaviour will be weird and your productivity will be low.

It is not wrong to feel a sense of achievement in these areas as long as your ultimate identity in found in Christ. The test of that is when the sense of achievement is taken away. What remains? Where does your sense of worth reside? You’re about to face that test.

Your true self will be revealed and exposed:

  • by the exhaustion of your routine
  • by the worry of ‘dramas’ in your life
  • by the pressure of ‘crises’ in church life and ministry
  • by the exhaustion of continually relating cross-culturally
  • Your marriage may come under pressure because you will have to cope with a different version of your partner and your self. The pressures of cross-cultural life will reveal new attitudes and behaviours.

Look at Luke 10:17-20. We are not to rejoice in success or in ministry. Nor need we be downcast by the lack of success and our inabilities in ministry. We rejoice that our names are written in heaven.

Look at Luke 10:21-24. We rejoice in God’s grace. We rejoice that we are God’s children.

Look at Luke 10:25-37. Why does Jesus tell this story? See verse 29. The lawyer wanted to justify himself. He wanted a checklist that he could tick off so he knew he had proved himself. But we cannot justify ourselves for the task is without limit.

Look at Luke 10:38-42. Martha wants to justify herself through her service. But the necessary thing is to sit at the feet of Jesus and to listen to his teaching – to hear his word of grace.

Expect less productivity. Expect cultural mistakes. Expect your sinful heart to be exposed. But when this happens find refuge in God.

The Russian tennis player Vera Zvonareva was a finalist at Wimbledon in 2010. She had previously had a reputation for cracking on court. She would often be in tears and her game would disintegrate. One of the techniques she used to turn her career around was to put a towel over her head during games. She would block out the world around her and focus on what mattered.

I want to suggest you do the gospel equivalent. When you feel the pressure, block out the world. Stop listening to its voice. Block out your own heart. Stop listening to its doubts and desires. Instead listen to the word of Jesus. Think of God’s word as a towel you can put over your head for a few moments. Keep telling your heart that God is gracious. This is the truth that will set your free and get you through. Say to yourself:

  • ‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’  (Romans 8:1)
  • ‘How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!’ (1 John 3:1)
  • ‘The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.’ (Zephaniah 3:17)

What behaviour and emotions might follow from not embracing the truth that God is gracious?

What do you want other people to see in you? When you’re struggling, when you’re having marriage difficulties, when you make mistakes, when you mess up – will you want to hide this from people – from your team, from your unbelieving neighbours?

What do you want other people to see in you? That you are a great person or that you have a great Saviour?

Rewrite Psalm 103, either as a version adapted to your context or as a negative Psalm which says the opposite of the original.

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Understanding your neighbourhood #2

As I stated in a previous post, recognising our missional context means we can no longer assume the church understands the culture. Here are set of questions that may help you think through the stories, values, worldview and culture of the people in your neighbourhood.


Where are the missional spaces (places and activities where you meet people)?
Where do they experience community?
Are their existing social networks with which we can engage or do we need to find ways of creating community within a neighbourhood?
Where should you be to have missional opportunities?


When are the missional moments?
What are the rhythms of your neighbourhood?
How do people organise their time?
What cultural experiences and celebration do people value? How might these be used as bridges to the gospel?
When should you be available to have missional opportunities? Continue reading

Understanding your neighbourhood #1

Recognising our missional context means we can no longer assume the church understands the culture. We need to  get to know our neighbourhood, its people, their stories, values, worldview and culture. Sometimes communities are defined by geography, but they may also be defined in other ways (ethnicity, leisure interest, time of life). In an urban context most people are part of several communities.

Here are three sets of questions culled from various sources. In a future post I’ll give my own set of suggested questions.

Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things To Come (213)

Observe the organic social rhythms of the host or target community.
Watch for the social patterning.
Ask where the social centres in your community are. Or as Brian Ollman at the Millennia Co-op in Los Angeles says, ‘Where are the ant trails? And where are they leading?’
Ask ‘What is church for this group of people?’ and ‘What will a Jesus-centred faith community look like among this people with their particular culture?’ Do not import an alien or artificial model of church. Try to help develop one that is truly indigenous to that culture or subculture.
Keep asking ‘What is good news for this community?’ Continue reading

Partners in mission #2: Partnership instead of independence

In a previous post we looked at the importance of partnership between churches not dependence. We saw how in Galatians 1-2 Paul resisted any claims that the Gentile churches were unequal partners with the church in Jerusalem or under its authority.

But what about 2:2? ‘I went there [to Jerusalem] because God revealed to me that I should go. While I was there I met privately with those considered to be leaders of the church and shared with them the message I had been preaching to the Gentiles. I wanted to make sure that we were in agreement, for fear that all my efforts had been wasted and I was running the race for nothing.

At first sight, this looks like Paul does want the approval of the church in Jerusalem.

To understand what’s happening we need to remember Paul’s special calling. Four times in Ephesians 3 Paul says he was called by God to take the gospel to the Gentiles (Ephesians 3:2, 7, 8, 9). Why? Paul says: ‘This is God’s plan: Both Gentiles and Jews who believe the Good News … are part of the same body.’ (3:6) Paul’s great purpose in life is to preach the gospel to the Gentiles to create one united church. Jews and Gentiles together, as a testimony of God’s grace and God’s victory (3:10).

But what happens if Jews won’t accept Gentile believers? Then you get two churches. And Paul’s great life purpose is wrecked. As he puts in Galatians 2:2, he has wasted his effort; he has run his race for nothing. That’s the issue when he takes Titus to Jerusalem (see Galatians 2:1-3). The issue is not will they approve of Paul’s message, but will they accept Paul’s converts. He doesn’t need their approval of his message – he knows his message is right because it’s from God (1:11-12, 15-16). What he wants is their acceptance of his converts. He wants one united church as a testimony of God’s victory.

So Paul doesn’t want the Gentile churches to be dependent on Jerusalem. But neither does he want them to be independent. He wants unity, relationship, partnership: partnership instead of dependence and partnership instead of independence.

That’s why he organises the collection of money from the Gentiles for the poor Christians in Jerusalem (see 2:10) – as an expression of that unity.

It explains why Paul seems concerned that the Jerusalem church will accept this gift and so why he urges the church in Rome to pray that it will be well received (Romans 15:30-31). Why pray for destitute people to accept help? Because there really is a possibility that Jewish Christians might not accept this gift from uncircumcised Gentiles. Paul prays that the collection will be accepted because he intends it to be a sign of the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile in one church.

Equal partners. Partnering in mission.

Highlights and Quotes from The Monkey and the Fish

Following my recent review of  Dave Gibbons, The Monkey and the Fish: Liquid Leadership for a Third-Culture Church, Zondervan, 2009 purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US, here are some Highlights and quotes …

“The pain principle grows out of two axioms: (1) For leaders, pain in life has a way of deconstructing us to our most genuine, humble, authentic selves. It’s part of the leader’s job description. (2) For most people, regardless of culture, it’s easier to connect with a leader’s pain and short-comings and mistakes than her successes and triumphs.” (43)

“One time, after a weekend message, a leader came up to see me … In my message that day I had talked about how my friends in real estate had to buy their Mercedes or their BMW to project an image of success to their clients. He told me, ‘Dave, when you said that, you were talking right to me, because on my desk I have a picture of a BMW I want to buy. It was my motivation to work harder’ … When he talked about the picture of the BMW n his desk, something inside me took root. I asked myself, ‘What is my BMW? What picture have I placed on my desk? What really motivates me to do the things that I do?’ … My BMW in part was a large church, a megachurch with some high-tech goodies and hip people making a difference. Despite my good intentions, that was an important measure of my success.” (58-60)

One of the shifts that Gibbons argues mark third-culture churches is “from consumerism to cause-ism” (93). “More than ever, our churches and ministries need to stand for something bigger than the prospects of our organizations and focus on summoning our people to live for something beyond themselves.” (98)

Gibbons suggests three question to help review our ministries (109-123):

1. Where is Nazareth?

“‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ This question was asked about Jesus. Can anyone worthwhile come from that place in the other side of the railroad tracks? Where is the other side of tracks in your city or region? In other words, who are the marginalized or the outsiders near you, people whom you feel pain for?” (114)

2. What is my pain?

“I’m discovering that most people can’t relate to our achievements or success. However, most people can relate to our pain and our losses, our disappointments and our suffering.” (116)

3. What is in my hand?

“In ministry, I’ve seen how easy it is for us to focus on what we lack: money, the right staff, encouraging supporters, mentors, education, buildings, healthy family history, the right experience, communication skills, knowledge. The list could go on ad infinitum. I’ve learned that our focus too often drifts toward what we don’t have, and we overlook what is already in our hand.” (121-122)

“Experience the street. We go on what we call vision trips, on which our main focus is to see what God is doing, to see the city or community through his eyes. We do prayer walks and then at night share what we felt and saw and what God might be saying to us. We pray the prayer that Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision, prayed: ‘Break my heart with the things that break your heart.'” (191)

Gibbons identifies the following “key third-culture principles“:

1. Listen more than we speak. Americans, in particular, are known for our loudness and inability to listen respectfully and well.

2. Believe that the locals know more than we do and be eager to learn from them. They live there. We’re visitors.

3. Understand that Jesus is already there. We’re not bringing Jesus to them.

4. Be open to redeeming or giving new meaning to cultural practices or customs that we may not understand or even be comfortable with.

5. Respect the forms and practices of a given culture. Just as we are sensitive to learn the language of a foreign culture, so we must learn the non-verbal language of the culture.

6. Recognize that what is offensive to much of the world is Christianity, especially cultural Christianity, and not Jesus himself. Jesus is pretty irresistible to most people around the world and, I almost every case, is intriguing in the most positive way. (197-198)

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Review: The Monkey and the Fish: Liquid Leadership for a Third-Culture Church

Dave Gibbons, The Monkey and the Fish: Liquid Leadership for a Third-Culture Church,  Zondervan, 2009 purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US

I know, it’s such a pretentious title and and even more pretentious subtitle! The title is taken from a story of a monkey who sees a fish struggling upstream so decides to liberate it from the stream onto the bank. This, suggests Gibbons, is an apt metaphor for a church doing the wrong things with good intentions. The preface over, that’s the last we hear of the monkey and the fish. We do get a lot about third-culture church. The term comes from the experiences of immigrant or ex-pat children (including missionary kids): they do not quite belong in their host culture, nor in their parents’ culture. They belong to a third-culture, but are therefore able to operate effectively in any culture.  The third-culture church is set up by Gibbons as an alternative to homogenous church. Gibbons does not appear to be ‘against’ seeker-oriented churches or the homogenous unit principle (though he finds a contrasting model in the parable of the good Samaritan – the neighbour whom I’m to love is not someone like me, but someone from a different culture). Rather he calls us to recognise that many urban dwellers are themselves to some extent third-culture people – second generation immigrants (like Gibbons himself) or simply used to operating in a multi-cultural context (globalism).

This observation is interesting enough, but not quite enough to sustain a book. The ‘liquid’ bit of the subtitle means we have to adapt to our context and not impose solutions from elsewhere. Quoting Bruce Lee (sic), Gibbons says: ‘You put water into a cup, it becomes a cup. You put water into the bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it into a teapot and it becomes a teapot …’ (92-93) Gibbons comments, ‘Our water – our message – remains what it always has been: the love of Jesus. Our forms, our containers, can change. Must change. Furthermore, our conflicts shouldn’t be about forms. It’s a waste of energy … Being third culture is about being water to a world that is deeply thirsty when it comes to spirituality and meaning, and is in need of adaptive and contextualized language and forms when talking about God and Christianity.’ (93)

Again, I agree, but it’s hardly a startling insight and nor is it enough to justify a whole book. The Monkey and the Fish contains a number of helpful ideas. But I’m not really sure what it’s about. I can’t readily summarise it’s message – other than that some churches (whether it should be all churches is not clear) should be third-culture churches (whatever that might mean in practice). As I say, there are some really helpful ideas and some points of genuine challenge, but no coherent line of argument.

I suspect what is going on is that Gibbons is a natural leader. He founded a large church on a seeker sensitive model. Then ten years in he had some sort of crisis, spent a year in Thailand and came back to reform the church as ‘Newsong’ – a ‘third-culture church’ structured around groups of 30-100 people. I suspect Gibbons is the sort of leader who does what he does through a high degree of intuition, but who does not – and perhaps does not need to – work things out in a theoretical way. (There are one or two points at which Gibbons insightfully contrasts Western and Eastern approaches and it may be that I want to be unnecessarily Western in my approach, but these sections are not worked through beyond a brief or vague statement so I can’t be sure!)

But, enough of my frustrations with the book, tomorrow I’ll post some highlights and quotes.

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How our understanding of character has shifted

I had a conversation last week in which I realised how much the way we understand ‘character’ has shifted in our culture and how at odds it now is with a biblical understanding.

In a biblical worldview character is the habit of acting and reacting in a godly way. It is the product of walking with God over a period of time and repeatedly responding in godly ways. It is often the product of suffering.’We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.’ (Romans 5:3-4)

In our culture, by contrast, character has come to be virtually synonymous with personality. My character is the combination of idiosyncrasies that mark me out as different from other people. We used to say ‘He is a man of good character’ meaning he is a man of integrity and generosity. Now we say ‘He is a character’ meaning he is an eccentric, a bit different.

The contrast becomes even more stark when we realize that modern character is achieved through self-expression and expressed in self-fulfilment while biblical character is achieved through self-denial and expressed in self-sacrifice.

Marilynne Robinson, God and Calvin

I loved Gilead purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US, the novel by Marilynne Robinson. Robinson wrote her first novel, Housekeeping
purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US, in 1980. It became a huge hit and was made into a film by Bill Forsyth. Yet it was 24 years before she published a second novel, Gilead. It won the Pulitzer Prize. Four years on and her third novel, Home purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US, has just won the Orange Prize. Not a bad record!

Andrew Brown of The Guardian has a very interesting post on an interview with Robinson in which she talks about how the thought of Calvin has shaped her writing. Here’s a quote:

“One of the things that has really struck me, reading Calvin,” she said then, “is what a strong sense he has that the aesthetic is the signature of the divine. If someone in some sense lives a life that we can perceive as beautiful in its own way, that is something that suggests grace, even if by a strict moral standard … they might seem to fail.”

Now this is just about the opposite of the kind of rule-bound and wholly unforgiving religion which most people associate with Calvinism, but in her mind it was linked with predestination, in a most unexpected way. Because predestination implies God’s untramelled freedom, he can choose to save those whom the world and its rules – even the church with its rules – might condemn. The prodigal in these two books, Jack Boughton, has done some very terrible things, and all through the book goes on hurting everyone who loves him. Yet it is almost impossible not to suffer with him.

Here’s the interview with Marilynne Robinson in last Saturday’s Guardian and click here for an interview  Claire Armitstead interview Marilynne Robinson about Home …

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Cultural power and powerlessness

In this post Jonny Woodrow, who has guest blogged a review of Culture Making by Andy Crouch , responds to comments on the link between cultural power and powerlessness. Here are his previous posts on the topic:

1. Christians shaping culture

2. Shaping culture by creating culture

3. Cultural power and culture making

Andy Crouch says that cultural power is the ability to successfully propose a new cultural good. This might mean simply knowing a language and being able to represent someone else’s interests in a context that renders them culturally powerless.

In this sense Moses has more cultural power than the Israelites. He has a relationship with Pharaoh that the Israelites don’t have. He doesn’t appear before Pharaoh as a Hebrew slave, but as an advocate. The story indeed shows us that it is God who pulls off the exodus but he takes the cultural power that Moses has and uses it for redemptive purposes.

In his book, Crouch sees a pattern of God redirecting the power of the relatively powerful in the service of the powerless, to bring people into His cultural renewal program called the new creation.

Jesus is the meeting place of powerlessness and cultural power in his death and resurrection. He becomes powerless, submitting to the cultural power of Rome, in his death, in order to initiate the ultimate cultural renewal program. So he is the perfect combination of powerlessness meeting cultural power in order to create something new.

The powerless can now take part in his new creation plan and the powerful can submit their power to him. Our own use of cultural power must be shaped by the cross. We submit ourselves to Jesus as the agent of cultural renewal, stepping back from attempts to become our own saviours, and we spend our power on the powerless with kingdom agenda in the power of the resurrection.

I think we need a concept of cultural power for two reasons. The first is because it is a fact of creation. We are all culture makers and cultivators (see previous post). We all have some ability to propose new ways of relating to the world and each other in our various social contexts.

The second reason is because we need to redeem the concept of power from the modern and post modern reduction of it to a simple competition between individual, arbitrary wills or influence. In his book the one the three and the many, Colin Gunton Shows how this modernist understanding of power comes from the churches failure to be thoroughly Trinitarian in our understanding of the way God relates to creation.

God uses his power to redeem and perfect his creation (including our use of cultural power) through His Son and His Spirit. Gunton argues that we have defaulted to arguing for the oneness of God over the threeness of God. The result has been that we understand God primarily as creator and forget that his will and power, in and over creation, are mediated through the Son and Spirit. Instead, power and creation are separated from the doctrine of redemption.  God’s power is conceived as an arbitrary will and creation is left with no intrinsic purpose. Creation and mans cultural power have no eternal significance.

In a non Trinitarian view, God’s power, is disconnected from his plan for the creation through the Son and Spirit. It is ultimately a non relational power. We are left with an understanding of God’s power as an individualistic will, disconnected from creation and emptied of purpose. Power is reduced to strength of influence..

As God’s image bearer, Adam is given cultural power to propose new forms of culture. But with a non Trinitarian view of power and purpose, the idea of image bearing, becomes a dangerous concept. It becomes a call to grab arbitrary, individual power and ultimately to over come God’s will. Power is conceptualised as a battle of individual wills. A powerful God is rejected as a power hungry, self centred, non relational, arbitrary force, who has no purpose for creation. God’s power and, power itself are not good news to anyone. Christians either get embarrassed about having power or they get intoxicated by it in the name of establishing the kingdom on earth.

A Trinitarian view of creation brings the concept of power into a redemptive and relational framework. It over comes the purposeless and individualistic understanding of power. God’s power is directed through the Son and Spirit to the perfection of creation. His power is relational and purposeful at its foundation, emanating from, and controlled by, what Gunton calls a community of love. As a result creation (including the cultural power of humans) has an eternal purpose. Gunton says:

The will of God is realized through a kind of community of love, so that the centrality of the Trinitarian mediators of creation ensure the purposeful nature of the creation, its non-arbitrary character. The creation has a purpose: the world is made to achieve perfection through time and to return completed to its creator. (The One, the Three and the Many, 120)

God’s power is something he spends on us in order to redeem our own use of cultural power, as part of the creation.

Crouch’s idea that power is the ability to propose a new cultural artefact is a useful concept. It is a deeply creational view of power. It is a relational view of power and it is a redeemable view of power because power can be turned back to God’s new creation agenda. The central question is how do we steward power rather than throw it off as a bad thing or make a grab for it.

I think we need to explore the concept of culture power, especially in the context of missional churches who want to take culture creation seriously. In our attempts to impact culture I wonder if the ‘battle of wills’ idea has shaped our understanding of power and influence. The church either wants to withdraw from culture, setting up its own sphere of influence or it wants to take over the secular establishments. In social action programs we can become condescending to those in need. The concept of cultural power and stewardship forces us to think about partnerships with the needy in finding solutions with other agencies in our cities.

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