Eddie and Sue Arthur

Books I Have Read: Dominion

The bottom line is that I may read a better book this year, but with only three months left, it seems highly unlikely unless something really good crosses my desk. Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind is readable, interesting, highly informative and it is important; whoever you are, you should read it. You might want to wait till the paperback comes out if you are on a limited budget, but you should read it.

This is not a small book, it’s a medium format hardback of over six hundred pages. It is a scholarly work, there are enough notes and references to keep the most assiduous researcher happy. However, you shouldn’t let this put you off, there are also pictures (not a lot, but some) but the main thing is that Tom Holland’s writing style is very accessible. You might not believe that a history of Western thought could be a gripping read, but in Holland’s hands, it is. He is a historian of note and no mean philosopher or religion, but above everything, he is a gripping storyteller.

The sub-title of the book gives you an indication of what the book is about, but more specifically, it is about how Christianity shaped the Western mind. By taking us on a historical tour, Holland demonstrates that concepts such as universal human rights and even the notion of the division between sacred and secular developed out of Christian thinking and history (sprinkled with a fine seasoning of Greek philosophy).

Just as the Bishop of Oxford refused to consider that he might be descended from an ape, so now are many in the West reluctant to contemplate that their values, and even their very lack of belief, might be traceable back to Christian origins.

It is beyond the scope of this blog (and my abilities) to give an overview of the arguments that run through Dominion, but they are persuasive. There are a few things to note; Tom Holland is not writing from the standpoint of a Christian believer, much less as an Evangelical. Some Kouyanet readers might find some of the things that he says difficult or challenging, but if that is the case, you need to get out more. Equally, this is a book about the history of Western thought, not a church history. You will look in vain for references to the Synod of Dort or Carey’s Enquiry, but you will find a lot about Bartolomeo de Las Casas (and if you’ve not heard of him, you should have). It is also a book about the West, there are some references to the church in Asia, but if you are looking for a complete history of Christianity, this isn’t the place to look. You will also find more about Aristotle, Spinoza and Darwin than you would in your average church history book.

The book ends on a personal note as Holland reflects on the life of his Godmother, a devout Christian lady who he clearly loved and admired. We are reminded that the great themes and movements which form the basis of this book find their origins in the lives of individuals who seek to follow an obscure craftsman from first century Palestine. This is, perhaps, the most surprising fact in all historical study.

A recurring theme of this blog is the way in which missionaries from the West encounter the growing global church. One of the important things in this encounter is for Westerners to disentangle the historical, political, philosophic and power structures which are bound up with the way that their faith is perceived by others. Dominion helpfully, but somewhat frustratingly demonstrates that Christianity and a Western worldview are far more entangled than we might otherwise have thought. Training for cross-cultural mission tends to focus on understanding the new cultures that missionaries encounter, but an essential (and difficult) pre-requisite to this is understanding our own culture and the things which shape our thinking. This book is an excellent resource to help Western Christians develop an understanding of their own background. It would also be remarkably useful to anyone seeking to defend and promote Christianity in the increasingly secular West.

So, who should read this book? That’s easy; I think anyone involved in Christian leadership should read it (probably more than once) and I would argue that anyone (Christian or not) who wants to consider themselves well-read should read this. It’s that good.

As always, a few quotes to give you a feel for the book:

To identify the laws that governed the universe was to honour the Lord God who had formulated them.

That all men had been created equal, and endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, were not remotely self-evident truths. That most Americans believed they were owed less to philosophy than to the Bible:

Even though Lennon had first met McCartney at a church fête, all four had long since abandoned their childhood Christianity. It was, in the words of McCartney, a ‘goody-goody thing’ fine, perhaps, for a lonely woman wearing a face that she kept in a jar by the door, but not for a band that had conquered the world.

The rate of growth, far from going into decline with the end of colonial rule, had exploded. Nothing quite like it had been seen since the expansion of Christendom in the early Middle Ages. As then, so now, the worship of Christ had spectacularly slipped the bonds of a vanished imperial order. Even in the early years of the twentieth century, when the European empires had seemed invincible, Africans had found in the Bible the promise of redemption from foreign rule. Just as Irish hermits and Anglo-Saxon missionaries had once claimed an authority that, deriving as it did from heaven, instilled in them the courage to upbraid kings, so in Africa, native preachers had repeatedly confronted colonial officials.

Repeatedly, like a great earthquake, Christianity has sent reverberations across the world. First there was the primal revolution: the revolution preached by Saint Paul. Then there came the aftershocks: the revolution in the eleventh century that set Latin Christendom upon its momentous course; the revolution commemorated as the Reformation; the revolution that killed God. All bore an identical stamp: the aspiration to enfold within their embrace every other possible way of seeing the world; the claim to a universalism that was culturally highly specific.

Communist dictators may have been no less murderous than fascist ones; but they – because communism was the expression of a concern for the oppressed masses – rarely seem as diabolical to people today. The measure of how Christian we as a society remain is that mass murder precipitated by racism tends to be seen as vastly more abhorrent than mass murder precipitated by an ambition to usher in a classless paradise.

Questions

Today’s blog post, aimed at church leaders, is short and sweet – based on my experience of helping missionaries plan their work by asking them questions. 

  1. If someone from abroad asked you to suggest the best strategies for reaching the British population with the gospel, how would you answer them?
  2. Are you following your own advice?
  3. If not, what would it take for you and your church to get to the point where you are following that advice?

The Problem With Christians

I believe that Christianity is good for individuals and good for society; wherever those individuals and societies are found in the world. It’s not the outward forms and rituals of the religion; the buildings, services and such like that are the key (though they are important) but the message of reconciliation with God and each other in Christ and the power of the Spirit to make effective changes. I’d actually argue that life in Europe demonstrates that the outward forms of Christianity lose their power and relevance when the message of reconciliation through the cross of Christ is lost.

However, though I thoroughly believe that Christianity is a good thing, there is one big problem when trying to make that case in the public square: Christians.

It is relatively easy to find cases of Christians doing good stuff for society. As far back as Roman times, they were famous for helping others during the plague, Wilberforce’s role in the abolition of slavery is rightly feted and today a large percentage of food banks and toddlers clubs in the UK are run by churches. However, the other side of the leger stacks up too: the Crusades, centuries of using the Bible to justify slavery, church support for Apartheid and the way in which some “Evangelicals” support white nationalism in the US today.

The problem is, that for most people in the street, the negative side of the balance outweighs the positive. Religion in general, including Christianity, is increasingly being seen as a negative influence on the world. In many ways, it is futile to try and convince people that Christianity is positive. The narrative of negativity is so strong that it is hard to gainsay. Equally trying to say that some people are not really Christians, or (at least) not Christians like us doesn’t help much either. Most people don’t have the time or the interest to distinguish between the various groups who call themselves churches; as far as they are concerned, they are all the same.

So, what can we do? I think there are two responses that are appropriate.

Firstly, we have to own the negative side of Christianity, admit that it happened and, if necessary apologise. In our current climate of spin and self-promotion actually owning up to the fact that things have gone wrong is a real value. At the heart of our message is the fact that we are forgiven sinners, so admitting to the church’s failings should not be too difficult.

Secondly, we have to demonstrate that we – as individuals and fellowships – are good for society. People are perfectly happy to live with a level of cognitive dissonance; Christianity, in general, is bad, but your church does some amazing work. We can’t make up for all of the perceived failings of the church through time and across the globe, but we can try to demonstrate that a group of Christians can make a positive contribution to their local society.

We can't make up the perceived failings of the church through time and across the globe, but we can demonstrate that a group of Christians can make a positive contribution to their local society. Click To Tweet

This doesn’t mean that we have to adopt all of our society’s views and concerns; we are called to be counter-cultural. Authentic Christianity will always be spikey and uncomfortable because it should confront the wrong things in society – even those that people are comfortable with. However, it does mean that the message that Christianity is good for people and societies that we preach from our pulpits should be demonstrated in our lives as individuals and congregations. This almost certainly means that we will need to get out of our buildings and get involved in the life of our communities in some way, rather than just inviting people in to hear what we have to say.

Would your local community suffer in a concrete way if your church shut up shop? Would they even notice?

Would your local community suffer in a concrete way if your church shut up shop? Would they even notice? Click To Tweet

It is possible that some might be offended by the picture at the top of this post. To be honest, I find it pretty offensive, myself. However, this is the sort of image that comes to mind when many people think about conservative Christianity and we need to face up to that. We have to demonstrate a better story if we are to get a hearing. 

Churches and Mission Agencies (Again)

This is the first in what may turn out to be a short series on a subject that I have looked at on various occassions over the years. Then again, it may be a one off. 

My conviction is that the responsibility for mission – be it local or global – lies with the local church. However, I think that it is valid to have specialist organisations in place which can support churches in their mission in a variety of ways. Organisations can help churches work together in an area where an individual church may not have the resources (Street Pastors would be one example), they can provide expertese in areas where churches are lacking (Wycliffe Bible Translators, for example) or they can provide logistics support in the way that most overseas mission agencies do. The growth of specialist organisations has allowed churches to multiply their effectiveness at home and to reach parts of the world that they would never have been able to touch without agency support. Pragmatically and theologically, I have no trouble defending this system, with one caveat, the agency must not usurp the primary role of the local church.

My own field of interest is overseas mission agencies and overall, I believe that they have been a good thing for the church in the UK. They are not without their problems and they are not the only way for the church to operate world-wide, but I believe that they are a good thing. However, I think that there are some unfortunate consequences of the growth of agencies that leave a difficult legacy. I don’t think that this is the fault of agencies or churches, it is just a natural development of the way in which things have evolved.

We have a situation where, broadly speaking, if you want to be involved in world mission; Church planting in Japan, medical work in Congo or Bible translation in the Pacific, you will almost certainly have to work with a mission agency. You will go through the approrpriate recruitment process, with church references, interviews and the works. If you are accepted, you will then go through a period of training – and this is where the problem lies. Cross-cultural missionaries need some specialist training that your average church pastor in the UK doesn’t require; whether this is an in-depth study of African Traditiona Religion, or an understanding of what different colours of diahorrea mean (yes, we did study this). This difference in training means that, over the years, different training institutions have developed for church leaders and missionaries. Yes, there are exceptions, but if you are training as a missionary, you are likely to go to one or other of the specialist training institutions and you are unlikely to bump into many people training for the pastorate in the UK.

I think that there are a number of unfortunate consequences of this dichotomy.

Church leaders don’t study enough about mission. The existence of specialist mission training colleges means that mission, both at a theological level and a practical level has, to some extent, slipped out of the curriculum for church leaders. In a situation where most churches now live in a cross-cultural environment, this is far from ideal.

Missionaries don’t study enough theology. Specialist mission institutions tend to focus on mission stuff and give less attention to other issues. This is increasingly true as initial mission training courses have been reduced to a few months or weeks. Pastors working in church planting in the UK are likely to have spent a three years at college studying theology, biblical languages and the like. On the other hand, it is quite possibly that a missionary church planter, who has to do the same things as their UK based colleague but in a different language, will have just done a few months missionary orientation.

Mission has been sidelined in the life of the UK church. We make the right noises about needing to reach our nation and the world for Jesus, but because of an inadequate theology of mission and a lack of concrete thinking about it, we don’t live as a missionary people.

Mission has been sidelined in the life of the UK church. We make the right noises about needing to reach our nation and the world for Jesus, but because of an inadequate theology of mission and a lack of concrete thinking about it, we don't… Click To Tweet

There is not enough cross-fertilisation between those in mission agencies and churches. We have things to learn from each other, but we have different peer and social groups, attend different conferences and, I would argue, we don’t respect one another’s expertise, contribution and concerns enough.

There is not enough cross-fertilisation between those in mission agencies and churches. We have things to learn from each other, but we have different peer and social groups, attend different conferences and we don't respect one another's… Click To Tweet

I realise that I have generalised, there are honourable exceptions to what I have written, but across the board I think my point is a fair one. I don’t have an easy solution – but more talking and more cups of coffee have to be a large part of it. I also realise that you can’t ever train people in everything that they might conceivably need as a missionary or a church leader – just prolonging courses won’t solve the problem.

 

Unity in Diversity

The doctrine of the Trinity shows us that while there is unity; God is one, there is also diversity, Father, Son and Spirit are distinct persons each with their own role in the divine economy. This notion of unity in diversity which is important why the one Bible can be translated into multiple languages. The book of Acts marks a transition in the life of the church from a small group of Jewish disciples who were united, but not diverse, to a large, very diverse, but still united group. This transition wasn’t easy and at times it was resisted by believers from a Jewish background (Acts 15:1, Galatians 2: 11-14). However, the growth in diversity was given clear divine sanction through the Holy Spirit speaking to the church (Acts 15:28), through Peter’s vision in Acts 10 and above all through the miracle on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2).

When the Spirit descended on the disciples in the upper room, they immediately dashed outside and began to tell the people about what God was doing. The crowd, gathered from across the Jewish diaspora, all understood what the disciples were saying in their own language. There was one message, but it was understood in a variety of languages; the first miracle of the church age was one of unity in diversity. God made a clear statement that his message could be transmitted in any language and was not restricted to the Aramaic that Jesus had used.

The impact of the Pentecost miracle increases when one considers that in one sense it was not even necessary. The people who heard the disciples’ message were all Jews who were in the city for the feast of Pentecost. Some of them would probably have been there since Passover, six weeks earlier. They had taken part in temple ceremonies and were able to function in a Jewish milieu without too many problems. In all probability, the majority of them would have understood the disciples’ speeches without any divine translation. That God chose to work this particular miracle at this point in church history underlines the importance of diversity to the Christianity. From the very outset, at God’s initiative, it has been normal for the Christian message to be conveyed in a variety of languages.

Given the parallelism which exists between the Pentecost narrative in Acts and the Babel story in Genesis, it should be noted that the existence of multiple languages in the first place is due to God’s intervention. According to the Genesis account, God multiplied human languages so as to prevent humanity gathering together to rebel against him. However, while it is clear that the proliferation of different languages has restricted human communication, it is also clear that the diversity of language and culture brings a number of benefits. Linguistic and cultural variety brings different styles of poetry and music, regional cuisine and many other advantages of a multicultural world. However, from a theological perspective, the most important aspect of linguistic variety is that each language brings its own understanding and expression of the divine nature. The diversity which was initiated at Babel was sanctified at Pentecost.

The unity in diversity which typifies Christianity contrasts dramatically with the essential uniformity which is a feature of Islam. Allah is One, without the inherent variety of the Triune God of the Bible. As a result, Islam is transmitted in one language – Arabic – and converts have to adopt some aspects of Arabic culture in order to be faithful Muslims. Though it is true that there have been situations where Christians have imposed a national or regional culture on others in a similar way to Islam, this is not inherent to the nature of Christianity.

The New Testament paints a picture of different nations and cultures being grafted into the Christian faith, not by imposing Jewish traditions on them (Acts 15), but by breaking down the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles and creating a new, multicultural, united people in Jesus (Eph. 2:14). The culmination of this process is depicted in Revelation 7 where people from every tribe, tongue and nation gather together to worship the Lamb.

Variety is intrinsic to the Christian religion because it is intrinsic to the Christian God. Bible translation is one aspect of this variety.

I’m aware that I’ve posted things along these lines before, but this is what I’m working on at the moment and it is rather dominating my thoughts.

Training for Mission

When we trained to work as Bible translators we had to get to grips with a wide range of subjects from basic field medical care to how to recognise a chiasmus in the Greek text of the New Testament. We also spent a lot of time looking at how to work cross-cuturally, much of which could be boiled down into one simple phrase: “when you come across something new, or different to what you are used to, don’t simply condemn it, try and understand why it is done that way and how the gospel speaks into it”.

We knew that when we crossed cultures we would encounter ways of thinking and acting that were very different to our own and we were well prepared for those encounters (not that this stopped us making mistakes). We knew that we had to listen, ask questions and seek to understand why things were the way they were before we could help people to see how the Bible’s teachings applied to their context. The last thing we needed to do was to take our own “Christian” culture and plonk it into the West African rainforest.

It is interesting to see the way in which the British church has gone on a similar journey to the one we took, without getting on an aeroplane and without the benefit of pre-field training. British society has changed dramatically over the last fifty years (and is still changing), we know longer live in the same culture as the 1980s, much less the 1950s or earlier. On the surface, we see this reflected in hot-button issues such as sexuality and equality, but these are underpinned by deeper issues about where authority lies, who has the right to make decisions and our individual relationship to wider society. You rarely hear people talk about a post-modern suspicion of meta-narratives, but you will hear them say that you can’t trust politicians, journalists, clergymen and so on, because they are all in it for themselves. Our society is being shaped by deep currents thought and attitudes.

You rarely hear people talk about a post-modern suspicion of meta-narratives, but you will hear them say that you can't trust politicians, journalists, clergymen and so on, because they are all in it for themselves. Click To Tweet

The thing is, the church finds itself in this new world, without actually having moved. We’ve stayed where we are, while the world around us has changed – the reverse of my experience in mission. The problem is that this often means that we have a confused attitude to the changes around us. Let me illustrate this with a story that I heard a well-known preacher tell on more than one occassion. He was speaking to a group of students and seeking to demonstrate the objective truth of the Christian message, but was aghast when the students told him they didn’t care if it was true or not, they wanted to know if it was relevant to them. The preacher used this as an illustration to show that modern (post-modern?) attitudes were wrong because they didn’t accept objective truth. The thing is, the preacher was doing exactly what stereotypical missionaries are accused of doing – dealing with people from a different culture according to his cultural rules. Basically, he was saying, that when the students learned to ask the right questions, he had the answers for them. What he should have done was listen to their concerns about relevance and show how Christ answers those concerns.

If we are to speak the Gospel into British culture we need to understand that culture. Like Paul in Acts 17, we need to observe what is going on around us and we need to speak into the issues that pre-occupy people. This isn’t dumbing down the gospel, it is actually far harder work than repeating the same message that we’ve always used.

I’m a bloke in my sixties, I’m far from an expert in British popular culture (though I know a lot about 1970s rock). However, I can make a few observations; we are obsessed by stories. Whether it is TV box sets, soap operas or seeing someone go on a “journey” in Strictly Come Dancing, our society is fascinated by story telling and the relationships between people in those stories. Equally, we don’t like rules and external authority – “you are not the boss of me”. Just thinking about these two factors, how could they shape our evangelism? I’d suggest that we probably shouldn’t start by telling people they are sinners and that they need to change, it will just get their backs up and they won’t listen anymore. Yes, they need to be brought to that point, but it is a process. However, we do have an amazing story to tell, from a book which gives an incredible narrative that runs through the whole of history – much more comprehensive than any box set. Perhaps we need to start with telling God’s stories, the way in which he relates to frail human beings and meets their needs for relationships both in himself and in the people of God.

As I say, I’m not an expert on British popular culture, so my suggestions may miss the point. However, I am convinced that we need a missionary mindset in the UK. Most churches now find themselves in a cross-cultural situation and both the leaders and the members in the pew need to take this on board if we are to impact the UK for Christ.

The last thing we need to do is take our own “Christian” culture and plonk it in the towns and cities of the UK.

Most churches now find themselves in a cross-cultural situation and both the leaders and the members in the pew need to take this on board if we are to impact the UK for Christ. Click To Tweet

Two “Biblical” Approaches to Mission

I’m short on inspiration this morning and don’t have a lot of time, so rather than post something new, I thought that I’d recycle a post from seven years ago.

People are forever making claims about doing mission in a biblical way. The problem is that the Bible offers us lots of different examples of how to do mission and some of them are not altogether positive. There is a case to be made that says that Jonah is the first cross-cultural missionary in the Bible, but I don’t think many people would recommend his methods or his attitudes. In this post, I’m going to compare a couple of examples from the early Church to see what we can learn for our current context.

For the first thirty or more years of the Christian era, Jerusalem was the centre of the life of the church. It was there that Jesus had taught, died and risen again. The apostles were, for the most part, based there and it was to Jerusalem that the growing church looked for advice and guidance on issues of belief and practice. The Jerusalem church was the mother church, the mature church, the place to go for sound theology and good church practice. Away from Jerusalem in Asia Minor, North Africa and Europe the church was expanding rapidly and as it expanded, people started trying new things and breaking with the established traditions.

For example, in Acts 11:20 Christians in Antioch start to preach to Gentiles, not just to Jews. Up until this point, Christianity had essentially been a Jewish faith. The only Gentiles who had come to Christ were special cases such as the Ethiopian eunuch or Cornelius. It just wasn’t done to preach willy-nilly to any old Gentiles – but that’s what the Christians in Antioch did. So, the mother church sent out a missionary to check out what was going on:

 News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.  He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. (Acts 11:22-24)

Barnabas went out to Antioch, he saw the way in which people were breaking with tradition, realised that God was with them and got stuck in! He didn’t come over all heavy-handed and explain to them how things were done in Jerusalem, he didn’t insist that people do things in the time-honoured fashion and he didn’t claim any sort of authority over the local believers. He worked alongside them and God blessed them all. Within a short while, the Church in Antioch even took up a collection to help the believers in Jerusalem.

Barnabas went out to Antioch, he saw the way in which people were breaking with tradition, realised that God was with them and got stuck in! He didn’t come over all heavy-handed and explain to them how things were done in Jerusalem Click To Tweet

Compare Barnabas’ attitude with that of the men who came from James (in Jerusalem) that we read about in Galatians 2:

When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.  For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

These guys came from Jerusalem, found that Gentile Christians in the Galatian church were not being circumcised in the traditional way, and immediately started to throw their weight about. They came from Jerusalem, they knew how things ought to be done and all Christian males had to be circumcised. They didn’t ask about the local situation, they didn’t seek to understand Paul’s point of view, they just insisted that their way was the right way and that everyone should follow them. They were so insistent that even Peter and Barnabas were swayed by their arguments, but they were wrong!

Today, the Church in Europe and North America has a long history, we have a strong sense of who we are, we have a brilliant theological and doctrinal heritage and we send out missionaries to the rest of the world. But, it is in the majority world that the Church is growing the quickest. How do we go about doing mission in this context? Do we in the Western church use our heritage, our sense of authority or our financial muscle to impose our views and programmes on the rest of the world? Or do we, like Barnabas, see God at work and humbly join in alongside our more creative and adventurous brothers and sisters?

Books I Have Read: Asian Christian Theology

I’ve recently finished Asian Christian Theology: Evangelical Perspectives and I have somewhat ambivalent feelings towards it.

I read the book in the Kindle edition (more of this later), but if you get the paperback, it is a medium format book of 372 pages. The overall level is fairly academic; it is a book to be studied rather than read. It consists of 16 chapters (distributed into two sections) each of which is written by a different author. As is usual with multi-author books the style and quality of the chapters are variable.

The first section consists of eight essays which look at traditional topics of Christian theology, including revelation and the Trinity. The second section focuses on issues which will be of particular interest to Asian Christians. Not surprisingly, I found the first section more engaging than the second.

To be honest, it is rather difficult to review a book as varied as this one, so I’m going to restrict myself to some general comments.

Firstly, the authors go out of their way to place their theology in the broader stream of Christian theology. So, although the authors are Asians, writing for Asians in an Asian context, their work is not isolated from the wider Christian world. This means that it is relevant to others outside of their context.

The size of Asia means that the book is very varied, with writers from places as varied as the Middle East, China and Indonesia. However, there are some linking themes; religious pluralism, poverty and injustice which link the contexts and provide a running theme in the book.

Despite its obvious qualities, the book does suffer from some problems. I would suggest that it needed some serious editing. Virtually every essay starts off by going into detail about the religious, political and economic situation in Asia which forms the background against which the theology is developed – to be honest, I’d got this by the second chapter and I just found it irritating when later chapters repeated much the same detail.

The Kindle edition was unhelpfully subdivided so that sections withing chapters showed up as distinct chapters. In a paper book, you can quickly look at how many pages a chapter contains and estimate how long it will take to read it. In a Kindle, you can do this by having the estimated time that it will take to read the chapter show up at the foot of the page. However, this only works if the chapters are correctly set up. It is very frustrating to be told that you only have a few minutes left in a chapter when in reality it is going to take you an hour or two to finish it. It’s only a little thing, but I found it made setting aside time to read the book more complex than it should have been.

Someone writing a chapter on Trinitarian theology should know that the word perichoresis is not related to the word “dance”. When things like this slip into a book, it gives me concerns about other sections which touch on areas that I am less familiar with.

These reservations aside, I do think that this is a good and important book. Who should read it? It’s hard to imagine anyone whose interest will cover all of the chapters in this book. However, any student of mission or theology should be familiar with the contents pages as it is likely to be a reference volume for years to come.

Ignoring the Unreached

There are lots of different views and convictions illustrated on my social media feeds. Some people are virulently anti-Brexit, while others think it is the best thing since sliced bread. I follow Calvinists, Pentecostals, Baptists and atheists – I get quite a spread of religious opinions. In this piece, I’d like to home in on one of the more obscure distinctions in my feed. I follow a lot of people involved in world mission, many of whom regularly talk about the needs of the unreached around the world and I follow a lot of other Christians – mainly British church leaders – who hardly ever (if ever) mention the needs of global unreached people groups.

I realise that a statement like this is likely to be construed as offensive, so let me quickly add a few comments. Firstly, this is a generalisation, there are exceptions to the rule. Secondly, a lot of British church leaders talk about the needs of the unreached people in their neighbourhoods. Thirdly, although I’ve not done a statistical analysis of my twitter feed, it’s an observation that I stand by, so even if it is offensive, that is because I believe it is true.

In passing, I have noticed that US church leaders seem much more likely to be concerned about unreached peoples around the world than their British counterparts – perhaps there is a blog post in there for the future.

So, what might lie behind this apparent (to me, at least) lack of interest in unreached people groups in the UK? I suspect that there are two issues; ignorance and indifference; let’s take them in turn.

Ignorance: in my experience, many British church leaders are simply unaware of the scale of the remaining task (horrible term). Of course, church leaders have a massive job and many calls on their time and it is impossible for them to be up to date with everything that is happening in their own locality, much less across the globe. However, I think that there are three factors which feed into this which make it harder for leaders to get hold of the big picture.

  • In the UK we tend to be somewhat sceptical about some of the statistical side of mission work (I share that scepticism), this means that we are less well-positioned to benefit from the good work of people like the Joshua Project who document the needs of the worldwide unreached.
  • Secondly, I believe that stories of the growth of the church around the world have caused us to take our eyes off the work that is still to be done. We are aware of amazing things happening and this drowns out the needs of those who are not reached.
  • Thirdly, only a minority of relatively smaller mission agencies focus on unreached people groups. The press releases which appear in Christian magazines and newspapers and the brochures which are mailed out to ministers and churches tend to focus on other aspects of mission. If you want to know about the unreached, you have to go out of your way to find out about them and who has the time to do that?

Indifference: there are all sorts of factors that pile in here;  post-colonial guilt, a reluctance to push our views on others, the desire to concentrate on the needs on our doorstep… These are complex issues and each one could be unpacked in detail. However, in a short blog post like this one, I’d just suggest that what they add up to is that reaching groups around the world who don’t know Jesus is not a priority for many of us (for a variety of reasons, of varying legitimacy).

I don’t agree with those who see reaching the unreached as being the only valid form of Christian mission; it is much broader and richer than this. However, taking the Gospel to places where people do not know about Jesus is an indispensable part of mission – it is not something we can ignore. Equally, I don’t believe that every church should send missionaries to the unreached; the size of most British churches mitigates against this – we can’t all do everything. I’d take a step further and say that reaching the unreached doesn’t always involve travel; working with immigrant communities or overseas students is a perfectly legitimate approach.

However, I would argue that every church should have some sort of regular focus on the unreached. This can be achieved through contact with a mission partner, as part of a regular prayer focus, children’s talks or any one of a hundred different approaches.

I realise that it is easy for me as someone who works in the mission world to raise issues like this. I don’t face the daily stresses and strains of a church leader and the last thing I would want to do is to add to the burdens of already busy people. So how can we spur one another on to share a concern for the billions who, as things stand, have no opportunity to hear about Jesus?

35 Years as Nomads for the Kingdom

It’s the first working day of September 2019. On the equivalent day 35 years ago, in September 1984, we were starting our first month without any visible means of financial support. Since before our wedding in early 1983, we had been convinced that God was calling us to some sort of mission work in the Francophone world; though exactly what and where eluded us.

Over the early years of our marriage, we met with friends to pray and discuss our future and spent a lot of time talking to the leadership of our church, Above Bar in Southampton and eventually decided that we should apply to be Bible translators with Wycliffe.

By our flat in Granges les Valances during French Study.

So, at the end of August in 1984, my contract as a university researcher drew to a close and Sue left her job as a bilingual assistant with an engineering company and we set off for Moorlands College for a studying the Bible and mission. This was followed by another year getting to grips with field linguistics and translation studies with Wycliffe near to High Wycombe before we headed off to France for seven months to bring my French up to standard. Dave was born in the short hiatus between our linguistics study and us moving to France.

After a few months back home in Southampton, during which time we were formally commissioned as missionaries at Above Bar Church, we headed off to Cameroon for a three-month course orientating us to life in Africa. We then moved on to Ivory Coast, which was to be our home for the rest of the millenium.

From 1988 to 1994, we lived in the Kouya village of Gouabafla, where we were part of the team translating the New Testament into the Kouya language. For the most part, I took the lead in the Kouya translation, while Sue took care of the boys (Sam was born during this time). The first four years in Africa were particularly tough, all of us suffered with malaria to an extent, but Sue had repeated attacks and was ill for a significant amount of time.

In 1994, we moved to Abidjan, where I moved into mission leadership and Sue stepped into the translation project on a more or less full-time basis. Working with translators in the village and Didier, a Kouya friend who was living in Abidjan, Sue was able to push ahead and together with our co-workers, Philip and Heather was able to more or less complete the New Testament before we left Africa in 2000 for the kids’ education.

We came back to the UK, fully expecting to return to Africa once Dave and Sam had left home, but that never happened. We settled back in Southampton, where I took on a role leading a team redeveloping the training which Wycliffe provides for Bible translators and linguists in Europe. Meanwhile, Sue and the team worked on putting the finishing touches to the Kouya New Testament. At some point shortly after our return, Sue was asked if she would like to help with a project in Madagascar – little did we know that almost two decades later that would be the main focus of her work.

In 2008, I took over as UK Director for Wycliffe Bible Translators. In one sense this was a massive privilege and I’m very grateful for the team that I got to work with and the exposure it gave me to the wider UK mission scene. I built some very important contacts and friendships during that time. However, it was a job that I never really wanted to do and which I certainly didn’t enjoy. Looking back, it is clear to see that I was the right person for the job however, I was able to guide Wycliffe through some changes which were not popular, but which were very neccesary. We had always expected to stay based in Southampton, but it proved impossible for me to do the director role from there, so we moved up to High Wycombe.

Sue carried on working in Madagascar, making two or three trips a year to work with teams. Her role is to check the translation that the teams have worked on in her absence and to ensure that it is faithful to the original. Her aim is always to help the teams improve their work and to grow in their understanting of what translation entails. It’s more the role of a friend and mentor than an examiner or teacher.

Having stepped down from my role as director in 2014, I spent a couple of years working for Global Connections during which time I also started a PhD. Then in 2017, we moved up to Yorkshire so that I could concentrate on my studies – as long as there is a good internet connection and an airport, Sue can do her work.

Thirty-five years ago, Sue wanted to be a professional translator, while I was quite happy doing research in plant biology. Today, we have returned to our roots. Sue is actively involved in translating the Bible, while I am on the fringes of Christian academia researching, writing and teaching about mission.

This brief sketch hasn’t mentioned all of the house moves that we did; there are a lot of them. Somehow, in the midst of it all, we brought up two boys who have grown into well-rounded men. We’ve even got two grandsons – how did we get that old?

So what are the lessons of thirty-five years? Well, I’m vaguely hoping that by the time I retire, I’ll have worked out what it is that I want to do when I grow up. On a serious note:

  • We are immensely grateful to God for the privilege of doing what it is we do. We’ve been incredibly privileged to be exposed to different people and cultures in many parts of the world. Our lives have been enriched by making friends from across the globe and seeing the way that God is at work in different situations.
  • We are also immensely grateful to the friends who have prayed for us and supported us financially over the years. We moved to France in 1986 with less than 100 pounds a month income – which was less than our rent, but we survived and even thrived. A special word for Above Bar Church, who have been and continue to be incredibly supportive.

 

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