I am More Than the Sum of My Genes

Sam and Bec Registration

Well, that’s it. Both of my sons are married off; my genes have made it to the next generation and look pretty much on course for the one after that. I suppose I might have a role in helping to nurture the succeeding generation (“looking after the grand-kids”, is the technical term), but I no longer have much of a biological purpose on this planet.

So that’s me done, then!

Except, there is a lot more to life than this. There are still mountains to climb, dogs to stroke, music to listen to, books to read and hours to while away in the company of my best friend. I am more than just the sum of my genes and as long as there is breath in my body, I will have a purpose; to enjoy creation and the friendship of those I love and to grow in love and appreciation of my creator.

Don’t try and tell me I’m nothing more than a vehicle for passing on genes.

Notes From a Fallen World

It’s going to be a great day; Sam and Bec are getting married. There will be a worship service, food, wine and a ceilidh. Best of all, a great young couple get to start out on one of life’s great adventures. I’m not a great one for ceremonies and such, but marriage is great and it points to something better.

Meanwhile, not too far away, just over the Irish Sea, my brother is having surgery to remove a cancerous kidney. By all accounts, the prognosis is good and there is nothing to worry about, but I’m worried all the same.

As world created to be good, but ruined by the fall is full of these sorts of contrasts. But one day, through the victory won on the cross, it will be restored. Till then our wine and dancing are mixed with tears.

The Cross and Mission Financing

At one level, the question of financing world mission seems dead simple. People in the rich world give money and those in the developing world benefit from it. No problem.

If only it were that simple.

I’ve dipped into this question numerous times over the years, but I recently had an epiphany that helped me rethink some of the issues. Firstly, what are some of the issues that make this question so thorny?

  • The first problem is that a continual drip-feed of finance from the rich world can breed an unhealthy dependency, by discouraging local generosity and initiative.
  • It can make the recipients feel as if they have nothing to contribute to the work they are doing.
  • The other side of the coin is that it can develop an unhealthy sense of power among the donors. It is depressing to see how many Christian fund raising videos and such highlight the way in which Westerners have changed the destiny of a village or people group through their gifts.
  • When funds come from outside, they are often used to meet the goals of the donors and agencies, which may or may not line up with the goals of the local community.

I could go on. In an unequal world, problems like these are part and parcel of the world of mission and development; we all struggle with them. That being said, this doesn’t obviate the Christian responsibility of rich people to be generous to those who are not so well off.

The only way to work through these issues is through open and honest dialogue. However, my experience has been that these dialogues are often pragmatic – what should we do. Recently, I found myself wondering whether we shouldn’t take a step back and begin our dialogue at the Cross; where he who was ‘rich beyond all splendour, all for loves sake, became poor’. Would reflection on the cross and the call for all of us to lay down our lives change the way we reflect on these questions?

I’d love to see it happen.

World Vision Turnaround

Today, I’m going to do something that no charity CEO should do, I’m going to discuss a decision made by another organisation. In case you hadn’t heard, three days ago, World Vision USA (not any other part of World Vision) decided that they would employ staff who were married to a partner of the same sex. This decision was overturned two days later.

I don’t plan to look at the underlying questions about sexuality and employment in any depth, there are other blogs which do that sort of stuff far better than we could. All I want to do is make a few remarks from the point of view of cross-cultural mission.

  • I think the initial decision by World Vision USA was wrong. This is partly because I hold to a traditional view of marriage but also because the decision was bound to be divisive.
  • That being said, if they believed that the decision was the right one to take, they should have stuck with it. The fact that they could overturn such a major policy in just two days implies that they hadn’t really thought it through in depth.
  • Christian Charities should make decisions based on Biblical values, not pragmatism and certainly not on the basis of what will bring in the most money. From the outside, it looks as though WV are bending one way and then the other in order to please their donors.
  • Some of the reaction of Christians to this whole thing has not been pretty. When the initial decision was made, I saw some very nasty and ungracious things written about WV by conservative Christians. Then when it was reversed, some liberal and progressive Christians were just as vocal and just as unpleasant. I don’t care where you are on the theological spectrum, but if you can’t argue with grace and charity; stay away from social media.
  • We’ve taken our eye off the ball. The purpose of World Vision is not to provide employment for Americans, be they gay or straight. They exist to serve the poor people of the world; who have been somewhat overlooked in this whole process.
  • More importantly, yet again the Christian world is talking about sexuality and not about Christ. I know that issues of inclusion are important, I appreciate that charities have to make difficult decisions (tell me about it!), but there is a needy world out there that needs to hear the saving message of Christ crucified and a large part of the Christian world is consumed by an internal debate. This isn’t what we were sent to do.

I mentioned at the top that I hold to a traditional view of marriage. I know that some readers of Kouya Chronicle will disagree with me. Please can we just agree to disagree; I really don’t want the world mission focus of this post to be lost in the comments. 

It’s Not All Black and White

Why do Christians easily fall into an ‘either/or’ mentality, rather than a ‘both/and’ one?

I don’t have any solutions, but I just thought I’d air a little frustration. For reasons I can’t fathom, many Christians act as though things are mutually incompatible, when they are actually two sides of the same (often multi-sided) coin. In the area of mission we see false dichotomies created between proclamation of the Gospel and works of service as if Jesus didn’t tell us to do both. You get competition between mission at home and cross-cultural mission to the wider world and so the list goes on.

Another expression of the same theme is the way in which when someone suggests a new way of doing things, others will immediately take this as a rejection of everything that has gone before. A new approach doesn’t mean that the former ways were bad, just that things have moved on and we need to take a fresh look at what we are doing!

I don’t have any solutions, just the mild bemusement that people who live in hope of a eschatological Kingdom, find it so hard to reconcile different ideas in the here and now.

Breathtaking Something

You know, I’ve always been impressed with the way that the Bible is organised. The big structure of the books from Genesis and Exodus through to Revelation provides a connected narrative that frames the individual stories. Not only that, but within the individual books, the chapters and verses all seem to be well organised. Chapter one verse one is followed by chapter one verse two and on into chapter two and so on. It all seems to make sense to me and hangs together rather well.

However, it seems that the traditional ordering of the verses in the Bible isn’t quite useful enough and the Top Verses website has come up with an improvement.

You will like TopVerses because we sorted every Bible verse by popularity. Now search the Bible and find verses in a useful order.

Ah, just what we need; a useful order for Bible verses because the old way of ordering things in order to get a message across wasn’t useful enough! What we need is the verses ordered by their popularity on the Internet. What?!

The lack of Biblical understanding behind this statement is quite breathtaking.

If you treat the Bible as a source of isolated sayings which can be picked at random according to their popularity, then you have missed the point entirely.

I wrote about this site a few years ago and my comments still stand:

It makes no more sense to chop the Bible up into different bits and to separate them than it would to reorder the sentences of Lord of the Rings. I love Lord of the Rings, it’s a great book and sometimes I’ll sit down and read a favourite chapter, but those chapters only make sense because I know the whole book. It is the same with the Bible. It uses many literary genres: history, poetry, proverbs and prophecy, but it tells one story. To pick out one verse as a top verse makes no sense – each verse only makes sense as part of the broader narrative.

According to Top Verses the number one verse is John 3:16 (no surprises there):

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

This is of course a rightly famous part of the Bible. But look at it closely; the whole story of God loving the world and having to give his Son only makes sense when you understand the narrative of creation and fall in Genesis. After all, if the fall hadn’t happened, God’s love would be demonstrated in very different ways. And the notion of how and why God gave his Son isn’t actually filled out until the death and resurrection of Jesus. In other words, you can’t understand John 3:16 without understanding what went before it and what comes after it. Reading the Bible in context doesn’t just mean reading the paragraph that a verse occurs in, it means understanding where the verse fits in God’s big story.


Let The LAMP Die: Missionary Language Learning

Back in the mid 1980s, when Sue and I first started our training for Bible translation work, we were introduced to a book called LAMP (Language Acquisition Made Practical). Full of cartoons, wise sayings and practical ideas it was the latest word in self-directed language learning techniques. Though, even then, the ideas behind it were ten or more years out of date.

Seven or eight years later, after significant practical experience, a lot of reading and having helped numerous other language learners, I wrote a paper critical of LAMP called, Speech Led Versus Comprehension Led Language Learning. This was subsequently developed into a paper for the British Association of Applied Linguistics annual conference.

I won’t go into a detailed description of the issues here; I want to keep the few readers that I have. But the problem with the LAMP method is that it places a heavy stress on the language learner memorising phrases and repeating them essentially parrot fashion. This can give an impression of fluency very quickly, but the learner may not have a clue what is being said back to them. Lyman Campbell catches this dilemma in David Sinclair’s excellent guide to cross-cultural church planting (appendix 2).

A worker in India once told me, “When a stranger first starts talking to me in Urdu, I often have difficulty understanding him. Once I catch on to the theme, I do a lot better.” It interested me that this man had probably been using Urdu for twenty or thirty years, and was effective in
relationships and in his work. I encounter similar stories among people who have been working in a language group for five or ten years: “I can understand people who know me, when they are conversing with me, but when they begin conversing with one another, I can easily get lost.”

That worker in India illustrated that even with many more years, the situation may not change greatly. I believe that this profile—limited, though effective, language ability—often results from what Eddie Arthur calls “speech-led language learning.”

Some language learners tell me, “I only learn things that I feel I will have a definite need to say.” One such person, attempting to narrate an action cartoon for me in her field language, was unable to express the idea that “a drop of water fell and put out the cigarette.” She later commented

that she would never want to say that, in any case. This demonstrates a philosophy of language learning that focuses on “things I want to be able to say.” The problem is that five minutes from now someone might want to tell me a story in which a drop of water fell and put out a cigarette, or any of trillions of other possible, ordinary life events that might  have taken place—events which I might never have thought I would need to know how to communicate about.

Something that Campbell also highlights is the fact that the LAMP style learner must continually turn in on themselves to find information for language learning; whereas for the person who focuses on comprehension, every encounter with a native speaker is a learning opportunity.

In comprehension-led learning, by contrast, we aim for our own speech to be largely based on our growing familiarity with host peoples’ speech. Our vision is to move steadily and deliberately toward full comprehension of all we hear and, as a result of that, to keep growing indefinitely.

Don’t get me wrong; LAMP isn’t all bad. In its time it was revolutionary. It provided a daily structure and a wealth of ideas for the learner and these are extremely valuable. When I wrote my article criticising LAMP back in the 1990s, I wasn’t able to offer any better alternatives. However things have moved on in the last 20 years and self-directed language learners have far better options than LAMP available to them. Perhaps the best option is the Growing Participator Approach which you can read about here (there are lots of good links and resources to follow there).

So why am I rabbiting on about a twenty year old argument? Well, the thing is, despite having been superseded by more effective and more theoretically valid models, LAMP is still the language learning method of choice for many missions and mission training agencies. This worries me; if we can’t update our peripheral methodologies, will we be able to make the radical paradigm shifts needed for mission agencies to survive into the future?

By the way, if you are likely to have to learn a language or if you are responsible for training others in language learning techniques and you haven’t taken this course, then you should.

Missing Home

I’ve got another trip coming up. I’m heading off to Asia and the Pacific for a couple of weeks. I’m really looking forward to seeing new places and meeting colleagues on the ground. Then again, I know that I’ll miss Sue while I’m on the road and I’ll be very glad to get home. But it’s only a couple of weeks.

Things were different when we lived in Africa and went overseas for years at a time. I recall thinking that I wouldn’t see a daffodil for four years. It seems a silly thing, perhaps, but I like daffodils and love the way they signal a change in seasons. No daffodils meant no winter and no spring. African sunshine is wonderful, but I missed my home in many different ways. But it was only for a few years at a time.

I’ve never left my home knowing that I would never return’ I’ve never had to flee with my family from a government that wanted to imprison or even kill me and I’ve never been so impoverished that I had to move to a foreign land with the hope of finding a better life for myself and my family.

I can’t imagine what it must feel like to know that you are unlikely ever to go home. What are your emotions when the television shows a passing shot of a place you know well, but will never revisit, when you hear a few snatched phrases in your own language or when you meet someone who knows your friends and family ‘back there’?

We talk glibly about ‘asylum seekers’ and refugees, but how often do we reflect on the price people pay for being unable to return to their homes?

These thoughts were inspired by the weekend that Sue and I just spent with Exilio. Judy wrote some thoughts about it here.

I spent the weekend in company of a refugee family, a single parent whose ex partner is controlling and manipulative, another young woman who has left her husband because of his addictive behaviours, families who are struggling to make ends meet, people who are facing tragic ill health…

And I have to ask, “Is Jesus really enough for them?”

Is Jesus really enough for me?

My friend Eddie was helping us to understand what Paul wrote to the followers of Jesus in Colossae. He helped us wrestle with the great truth – “At one time you all had your backs turned to God, thinking rebellious thoughts of him, giving him trouble every chance you got. But now, by giving himself completely at the Cross, actually dying for you, Christ brought you over to God’s side and put your lives together, whole and holy in his presence. You don’t walk away from a gift like that!” (Colossians 1:21-23)

Jesus is enough because he has been there. He has entered into human suffering, has shared it, has transformed it and “put our lives together”.  But following Jesus is tough! Paul knows that (he’s in prison as he writes this letter). Following Jesus is not something for the weekend. It’s a “for all time”, “with all I am” deal.” Perhaps it’s only in taking faltering steps with him that we find out whether he really is enough.

I’ve put together a few additional reflections and prayer ideas. I hope you find them helpful in your stepping out in faith.

Almost But Not Quite

Albert Mohler, who is President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has just published an article entitled Christian Mission in the Twenty-first Century. It is an interesting piece and well worth a read. However, the most significant things about the article are not what it says, but what it doesn’t say.

Mohler makes some interesting remarks about a move towards focussing on people groups rather than on nation-states, which is good, but hardly new:

The new vision for world missions is directed toward the reaching of people groups rather than nations. Missiological focus upon the nation-state is a remnant of the nineteenth century, when nations were conceived as singular units and national identity was paramount. This paradigm was long out of date by the end of the twentieth century. Christians now recognize that there are thousands of distinct people groups, each identifiable by culture, language, and social structure–and they are not always divided neatly by political boundaries. Each of these people groups represents a distinct missiological challenge, and each must be considered in its own right.

There are some interesting comments about generational changes in the US (though I’m not entirely convinced that these are accurate):

This generation demonstrates a readiness to take on new challenges and to go where no previous generation has yet taken the gospel. They have been born into a culturally diverse world, and they are gifted with skills in intercultural communication. They are impatient with the cultural isolationism of previous generations. They see no political boundaries to the Gospel. They are ready to cross political borders and see no limitations on the Great Commission. Where previous generations wanted to support missions, this generation is determined to do missions. Incubated in an experience-driven culture, these young Christians are not interested in missions by proxy.

And there is something about grass roots changes in American Churches:

This new vision for world missions is also remarkable in the fact that much, if not most, of the energy is coming from grassroots Christians rather than from institutional structures. Perhaps the greatest missionary advance among American churches is seen in the widespread participation of Christian laypersons in missionary trips and short-term mission projects. Churches that encourage and support this hands-on approach to missions will bear testimony to the powerful impact it has upon the participants and upon the missionary commitment of the entire congregation.

However, what you won’t find is is any mention of the growth in the world church and the role of majority world believers in the spread of Christianity beyond a couple of tangential references:

Reviewing the history of the missionary movement, it is clear that great gains were made for the gospel.

One missionary leader has defined this mobilization as “all of God’s people reaching all the peoples of the earth.” That motto sets the issue clearly.

Admittedly he does mention ‘all of God’s people’ but he rarely seems to imply that this means anyone outside of the USA.

Albert Mohler is an excellent theologian and a great writer; I very much appreciate his writings, especially on the subject of Bible translation. However, in this piece he is setting out a vision of the future of Christian mission that owes far more to the past than it does to the future. Welcome to the twentieth century.

A vision for the future of mission that does not take into account the explosive growth of the Church worldwide and the way in which majority world Christians are spreading the Gospel – often without reference to traditional missionary models – is grossly inadequate. Even if the article is aimed simply at an American audience (as this one seems to be, though it doesn’t say as such), it does a disservice to its audience by not pointing to the context in which American missionaries will need to work and live in the future.

Mohler quite rightly points out some of the failings of a previous generation of missionaries:

At the same time, every generation has left its own imprint on the missionary task, and each generation is blind to some of the cultural baggage it takes along with the gospel. At the height of the missions movement in the Victorian era, it often seemed that missionaries were just as intent on Westernizing native peoples as in evangelizing them.

However, in painting a future of a world mission movement that is essentially American and which ignores the shift in the centre of gravity of the Church, he is, sadly, committing the same mistake that these forefathers made. There is some good and interesting stuff in this article, but unfortunately its major flaw outweighs the good.

Where Do Missionaries Go?

This is another of my posts inspired by talks at the recent Global Connection’s Conference. During one of his talks, Daniel Bourdanné of IFES came out with a phrase that was very dear to my heart and which I immediately tweeted.

N’oubliez pas l’Afrique francophone @Bourdanne #GCC2014 >> OUI!!!!

“Don’t forget Francophone Africa!” To which I added my own YES!!

Daniel was referring to the fact that a huge proportion of missionaries go to places where there are already lots of Christians, or as he also put it:

#GCC2014 When you look at the number of missionary agencies who base themselves in Nairobi you wonder if it’s mission or tourism @Bourdanne

This ties up with my experience of Nairobi, where I’ve often thought that you couldn’t throw stones for fear of hitting an evangelical missionary. Interestingly, when I tweeted this a number of people agreed with it, while others suggested that Chiang Mai in Thailand suffers in the same way. Someone else suggested that there are more missionaries in Nairobi than in the whole of Francophone Africa.

I realise there is a need for regional offices and stable, foreigner friendly cities are very attractive for them, but it is surprising how many missionaries you can find in tourist hubs!

However, leaving the issues of the big cities aside, I believe that Daniel has highlighted a significant issue. Missionaries are distributed in a very uneven way and the majority of them go to places where there is an established church and often many other missionaries. As Hannah put it in a post on the Wycliffe blog:

or every 20,000 Christians like you – Bible believing and living out their faith – only one will go to tell the gospel to an unreached people group.

Or as Martin Lee put it in his excellent talk to introduce the conference:

There are still vast numbers of people who have never heard of Christ and many countries still where Christians are few and far between. Indeed some countries have seen Christian fleeing elsewhere due to war and conflict and persecution such as Iraq and Syria.

Despite this according to the Atlas of Global Christianity, 85% of all Christian mission is aimed at other “Christians”. Much mission deployment is still trying to sustain the growth of the churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Often when I am talking to church leaders, they will tell me that their church has a link with a church in Africa. Almost invariably this means in one of the Anglophone Countries in East Africa. This is understandable, it is easier to reach people who speak our language, and the relatively easy climate makes travel easier (not to mention the game parks). But these countries are also the ones that have the most Christians. I have never heard of a church in the UK which has a direct link to a Church in the Central African Republic, Gabon or Togo. These areas tend to be left for the mission agencies!

As we look at world mission, we can’t afford to forget Francophone Africa, or those other parts of the world that receive the fewest missionaries.

Mission Planning and Tactics

Over the next few days, I’m going to carry on commenting on the recent Global Connections conference. However, at a week’s distance, it is hard to remember all of the details, so I’m going to pick up on a few of the tweets I sent during the two days. Here is a starter:

The British church must avoid the trap of techniques and tactics. Mission is firstly listening to God and following him @Bourdanne #GCC2014

This was more or less a direct quote from Daniel Bourdanné of IFES and it highlights an issue which we’ve returned to on a number of occasions on Kouyanet. It is important to note that this is not about a binary division; listening to God or techniques and tactics, it is about where we place our emphasis. My experience, is that, all too often, we get that balance wrong and other writers have highlighted this too; let me give a few examples.

In an earlier post on this subject I quoted Alan Roxborough:

Leaders who want to cultivate missional communities in transition must set aside goal-setting and strategic planning as their primary model.

Don Carson, also has some interesting thoughts on the subject, which I highlighted here:

We depend on plans, programs, vision statements–but somewhere along the way we have succumbed to the temptation to displace the foolishness of the cross with the wisdom of strategic planning.

I believe that there are many reasons why we have prioritised planning techniques over listening to God and it is well worth reading the section in David Smith’s excellent book Against the stream on this subject. But I’ll just make a couple of observations.

  • Missionaries and mission agencies are by nature activists. We do things. We react badly to the time it takes to reflect on our situation and to listen to God’s voice.
  • I think it is easy to be seduced by the promises of secular planning techniques; especially when they promise success, which is easier than all of that tedious suffering and sacrifice.
  • We are just too darn busy. In my summing up at the Global Connections conference, I challenged the group to consider what current activities they would abandon in order to make a priority to listening to God. It’s easy to say that we want to take time to hear God’s voice, but there are reports to be filed, deadlines to be met and meetings to be scheduled.

I believe that Daniel’s seemingly innocuous statement, was actually a call to radically reorder the way we run our agencies and churches.

If you want to listen to the talks from the GC conference yourself, you can do so here. If you don’t have time to do so (shame on you), then John Stevens has provided a good summary of what Daniel said on his blog.

No Edwins in the Bible!

When Cassius Clay converted to Islam, he changed his name to Muhammed Ali. When Steven Demetre Georgiou became a Muslim, he stopped calling himself Cat Stevens and became Yusuf Islam. 

This isn’t news, we are used to the fact that converts adopt Islamic names, dress or hair style.

So, why don’t I have an Aramaic name and why don’t I dress in first century Jewish garb?

One of the central facts about Christianity is that it is a ‘translatable religion’. This doesn’t just mean that we can translate the Bible, it also means that Christianity can be genuinely expressed in every language and culture on the planet. In other words, you can be an authentic Christian without adopting the language and culture of Jesus.

It is God, in Christ, who crosses into our world.

A Christian can even stick with an old English name like Edwin, which certainly isn’t found in the Bible.