110. Response to Stiles’ Critique of DMMs

Response to Mack Stiles’ article “What Could Be Wrong with ‘Church Planting’? Six Dangers in a Missions Strategy

I appreciate Stiles’ irenic tone in which he seeks to point out “weaknesses” and give “cautions” for “Church Planting Movements” (CPMs) or “Disciple Making Movements” (DMMs).  Such push back is important in missions since we all have blind spots and can get excited over new developments without noticing potential problems.  The need for careful examination is especially true for us in Fellowship International since we are promoting and investing in a DMM strategy.  Where the weaknesses or cautions are invalid, we need to have a good argument for why we see things differently.  Where they are valid, we need to be alert and avoid the danger as much as we can even as we move ahead.

For ease of reference, the following 9 responses are provided in the order they appear in Stiles’ article.

  1. Critique: Local rather than Biblical Culture (under Critique 1. Sloppy Definitions of Church)

Because CPM advocates say that they “don’t want Western church,” Stiles assumes (correctly) that CPM advocates want a church that is contextualized within the local culture.  He opposes the idea of producing “a church that imitates local culture,” claiming that the goal is a “biblical culture.”  He goes on to explain that ethnic and cultural identities should not be erased, but should be “secondary to our new identity as the people of God.”

Summary answer: God intends churches to be culturally appropriate expressions of the body of Christ.

Detail: Stiles’ concern is that any expression of church should not compromise God’s intention for the body and bride of Christ with the “blindnesses and brokenness” of any culture. This is important and should be affirmed. Where he errs is by stating that a church should not “imitate” culture, which implies that it should not be a part of, or an expression of culture. In fact, missiologically speaking, the opposite is true: each congregation should “own” both gospel and church as an essential part of their culture, rather than as a foreign import.

Stiles’ error is partly categorical and partly theological. “Biblical culture” in the sense Stiles is using the term is a different category than is intended by referring to human “cultures.” Anthropologically speaking, “culture” is the way a self-defined group of people create meaning in their interaction with their environment. It is the “total process of human activity” which comprises “language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organization, inherited artifacts, technical processes, and values” (Niebuhr, 1951. Christ and Culture. p. 32) within any given community. It is therefore impossible for a church to exist without worshiping and serving through cultural expressions. Similarly, it is necessary for an individual to maintain their cultural identity on one level while claiming a new identity as a child of God.  These two aspects are not contradictory, but complementary.

By using “biblical culture,” Stiles is likely referring to biblical values and principles that believers are to live by within their culture – a necessary and appropriate goal. But he has used “biblical culture” in a way that wrongly implies a contrast with the local culture. Because “biblical culture” cannot replace a local culture nor fit within the definition of culture as described above, it belongs to a different category. Using “biblical culture” as if it is a substitute for local culture ignores the reality that the changes the gospel brings occur in and through culture, rather than supplanting it. A simple example that demonstrates this misuse of the term “biblical culture” is language. Language is an integral part of any culture. If one culture was supplanted by another, the first culture would lose its language, among other things, because the dominant culture’s language would replace it. However, it is not the goal of any missionary to replace a local language with a “biblical language,” any more than a local culture should be replaced with a “biblical culture.” In fact, when one culture assumes the use of its language in worship, it can be an indication of the dominant culture imposing itself upon another people group rather than respecting the depth of identity and significance found in each culture. Lamin Sanneh (1989) powerfully argues for the “translatability” of the gospel (with parallel implications for the church) in Christian mission in Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture. This approach to culturally shaped expressions of church and gospel is in contrast to the Islamic orientation towards its mission: “[C]ultural diversity belongs with Christian affirmation in a way that it does not with Islam” (p. 212). 

Theologically, Stiles’ mistake is a lack of recognition that both gospel and church are intended by God to have unique cultural expressions, rather than importing or imposing gospel and church expressions from one culture to another. Of course, Stiles’ argument is not that a foreign culture should dominate; his concern is that a church should conform to biblical teaching, rather than to culture. However, this is a false dichotomy; there is no church or gospel without culture. “Biblical teaching” is analogous to content while culture is analogous to language. Culture is the “language” through which the “content” of human thought or action finds expression. Thus the incarnation of Jesus is God’s expression of salvation within human life and culture; God’s salvation did not occur in a cultural vacuum. Culture is the locus of gospel and church, and they cannot exist separate from it. Culture is to be redeemed; it cannot be avoided.

In Acts 2 the disciples begin proclaiming the gospel in other languages, a theologically profound message from God of how he accepts all cultures as the media within which  church and gospel find expression. The rest of the book of Acts and the Epistles are lessons of how contextualization of the gospel message and church takes place in different cultural settings. The consideration of circumcision in Acts 15 is a prime example, as well as the rejection of clean and unclean food distinctions (Mt 15, 1 Cor 10). Part of the apostle Paul’s amazement in discovering the “mystery” of God’s plan was how God’s intention was to include other cultures in “God’s household” (Eph. 1-2) – a unity that embraces cultural diversity. Contextualization within a local culture is the methodology that all missionaries should aspire to, as expressed by the CPM missionaries quoted by Stiles: they did not want their own cultural preferences to override local expressions of church.

  • Critique: Speed (under Critique 1. Sloppy Definitions of Church)

Stiles suggests that churches should be established on biblical principles and “here’s the rub: it takes time.” At the end of the article he repeats the idea with “Speed is not the call.” The implication is that CPMs and DMMs are focusing on getting the work done quickly.

Summary answer: the concern in CPMs and DMMs is not speed, but multiplication.

Detail: The danger of prioritizing efficiency and speed in church planting is a valid concern because as humans we look for shortcuts and want results now. A harvest requires patient waiting for the plants to germinate, grow and mature. God usually does things slowly and missions is a slow and methodical process because it focuses on building relationships.  Nonetheless, the implication that DMMs are trying to bypass the more appropriate, but slower, path of God’s church planting methodology, is unfair and misses the point.  The goal of DMMs is not speed, but multiplication. The vision and hope is one of planting the Gospel in “good soil” resulting in an exponential response with a vast “harvest.” Because this is a biblical vision given to us by Jesus, it is a possibility and something God wants to bless.

Stiles focuses his criticisms on the word “church” in “Church Planting Movements,” but the key to this phrase is the last word: “movements.”  The vision of DMMs is that the Gospel can be spread through a multiplication process whereby those who are learning to obey Jesus through studying the Bible can pass that “virus” of disciple making on to others.  The power in the DMM dynamic is the move away from leadership-heavy organizations towards disciple making movements in which all believers are encouraged to (1) use the Bible as the primary authority and to obey what it says, and (2) spread that methodology through their relationships with others.

Is it valid to encourage believers early in their walk with Christ to lead a Bible study with unbelievers or other new believers?  Or should the process be slowed down with a greater reliance on the teaching of trained leaders within traditional church structures and processes, as Stiles prefers?  Church history suggests that there may be a pendulum effect between the passion of movements spreading the gospel quickly, and the establishment of organizations. As churches form and communities are organized with pastoral leaders, the fire of multiplication stimulated by apostolic leaders dies down and a “new normal” in the community is established.  Perhaps, because of global communication, we are able to observe something like this pendulum happening today – the complete life-cycle of the rise, establishment, stagnation, and demise of faith can be seen in real time around the world.  These expressions have their parallel in the NT as seen in the celebration of thousands coming to Christ in one day in the book of Acts, the establishment of Christ-centered believers in a particular locality throughout the Epistles, and the threat of at least one church having their “lampstand” removed in Revelation.

Stiles cites with approval the suggestion of a friend that Paul’s extended time in Ephesus (3 years) indicates that he “delayed total indigenous leadership.” Perhaps this was not “delay” but a time to raise up leaders so that Paul could move on.  If leaders were prepared so that Paul could leave, then it is likely they were serving as leaders very early on, maybe even leading studies of the Scriptures, so that Paul could feel comfortable leaving.  This latter scenario fits well with the DMM call to raise people up quickly into a disciple making ministry. This is not incompatible with training and appointing leaders; effective DMMs demonstrate good strategies for developing leaders.

In his conclusion, Stiles suggests that people “dial it back.”  This is an unfortunate choice of words.  When there is a movement of God’s Spirit toward revival, or even people working and praying for revival where results are few, I don’t think the advice should be to “dial it back,” but to “bring it on.” I would not criticize his methodology of church planting that he describes near the end of the article. It is one way to go about the task. But I would suggest that perhaps even his church’s approach to “grow and teach and model and correct” may find benefit through adopting and adapting some of the CPM practices that he is criticizing. It may also be true that established churches that are taking it slowly could benefit from the fire of a passionate pursuit to obey Jesus that is seen in DMM movements.

  • Critique: Calling gatherings “Church”(under Critique 1. Sloppy Definitions of Church)

Stiles’ experience is that DMM practitioners demonstrate an “inability to define a church” and are promoting gatherings that are not biblical churches because they are not grounded in “basic foundational principles.”

Summary answer: A focus on making disciples is the way to a healthy and indigenous expression of church.

Detail: The key strength of DMMs is found in Stiles’ third “tweetable” sentence: “The overarching mission of the church is the Great Commission: to disciple all nations, teaching them to obey everything Christ has commanded.”  This is where DMM begins, with the goal of seeing expressions of church emerge from gatherings that are shaped by their obedience to Scripture.  The goal is for culturally appropriate expressions that include all the elements of a Christ-centered community.  The DNA of the church is actually instilled from the beginning in the DBS process:

  • Worship and praise
  • Prayer and requests
  • Engaging God’s word
  • Conformity to God’s nature as revealed in Jesus
  • Obedience to God’s will
  • Evangelism
  • Accountability

The DMM approach is not what Stiles is familiar with, or even comfortable with, but as long as the leaders of a movement remain biblically grounded and obedient, the establishment of commonly held truths (doctrine) should not be a problem. As Newbigin states (1989. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. p. 222), “The congregation [is the] hermeneutic of the Gospel.” The goal of DMMs is for people to live out this principle as a congregation, centered on Jesus, within their context.

  • Critique 2: Vulnerable to Error and Heresy

Stile’s states that “CPM calls for an extreme commitment to indigenous leadership, they often leave these young believers open to destruction”

Summary answer: This danger is not unique to DMMs and safety measures are built in.

Detail: When multiplication occurs, it is “messy.”  In stable traditional church structures, hierarchal control keeps things in order under the guidance of recognized leaders. In DMMs, however, rather than maintaining a repository of truth in the hands of a few leaders, there is greater freedom and responsibility for average believers (disciples) to determine what God has revealed. This is done with group encouragement, input and correction in Discovery Bible Studies (DBS).  There is potential for error and heresy.  However, it is also possible for error and heresy to be entrenched within an ecclesial organization and perpetuated through the leaders. So this danger is not unique to CPMs and DMMs, but is a warning for all believers and church structures.

It could also be argued that DMMs principles hold the key for preventing and correcting error even more so than traditional church structures in which control of accepted truth is held by a few.  In the DBS process, the Word, rather than a human authority, is the teacher.  The focus is to discover what the Bible says, and people’s ideas are constantly challenged by the question, “where is that found in the passage?”

Furthermore, it could be argued that, historically, heresies have not arisen from the rapid spread of people engaging God’s word, but from those who proclaim themselves as teachers with special or authoritative insight into God’s Word. Again, in such a scenario, it is the ones steeped in God’s Word with a habit of seeking the truth (like the Bereans of Acts 17:11) who are less likely to be vulnerable to being led astray.

A word should be said about the “extreme commitment to indigenous leadership.” I suggest that the adjective “extreme” is a better descriptor of autocratic leadership found in hierarchical structures. DMM leaders are taught not to have confidence in their own experience and education, but to consistently lead people back to the Bible in a discovery process, making young believers less “open to destruction.”

Another concern raised is that “mature teachers and preachers are sidelined in the CPM model in the name of indigeneity.” Although I am not aware of an example of leaders being “sidelined” in CPM, it is true that CPM has a strong focus on empowering local believers to become competent leaders rather than relying on cultural outsiders.  This does not mean that outsiders do not have a role to play, but the priority is on training insiders to become leaders as a way of encouraging multiplication. This can be appropriately described as a “commitment to indigenous leadership,” but it can scarcely be called “extreme.”

  • Critique 3: Temptations to Pragmatism

Stiles’ fear is that people “jettison scriptural principles about the church” out of a desire for results.

Summary Answer: The solution is to continue testing all methodologies to ensure that they are consistent with Jesus’ mission and vision for the church as revealed in the Bible. Such a practice of testing the spirits in the light of Scripture is consistent with CPMs and DMMs.

  • Critique: Missionary fad? (under Critique 3: Temptations to Pragmatism)

Stiles notes that “missionary strategies come and go” and suggests that CPMs fall under that category. He emphasizes this by saying that it is new (circa 2001) in the overall history of missions and yet old in the world of modern missionary methods.  Since CPMs have morphed into DMMs as “a kind of next-generation CPM with a focus on obedience-based discipleship and discovery Bible studies,” this is more of a “missionary fad” rather than a “clear proclamation of gospel truth in the context of healthy biblical churches will last until Jesus returns.”

Summary answer: Identifying what God is doing in the world is responsible and appropriate.

Detail: The idea of “fad” is pejorative and quite unfair to and dismissive of this current movement in missions.  It is much better to recognize that missionaries and missiologists have always looked for ways to describe what they see God doing and to share with each other those activities that have been fruitful. In this day of global communication, it is a positive and not a negative development that we can quickly discover and analyze where there is a movement of the Spirit so that we can seek to pattern our ministry after fruitful practices. Looking for healthy patterns is not new, it is a matter of respect for what God has done and is doing through his people. Two historical examples are the prayer meetings that preceded revivals in various parts of the world, and the three “self-“ principles (self-governance, self-support, self-propagation) promoted by Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson as a basis for the establishment of indigenous churches for the American and British Protestant mission in the 19th century.

It is also important to realize that any new methodology is constantly being tested and evaluated for biblical support and appropriateness to the task of seeing the message of the Gospel proclaimed and people being discipled and gathered into Christ-centered communities.  Those who have become seriously involved in DMMs have critiqued the concepts and recognize that this approach is not a “magic bullet” or a “fad” but a process of engaging a culture using proven fruitful practices so that multiplication is encouraged and people are saved.  It is not a “one size fits all” shortcut but an approach that takes both Bible and context seriously so that adaptation of the methodology occurs in each setting in such a way that integrity to the Word is maintained.

  • Critique 4: Lack of Clarity

Stiles thinks that CPM is often “fuzzy” about biblical conversion and what constitutes the gospel.

Summary Answer: I do not know what Stiles is referring to.  Since a major fruitful practice found in DMMs is to study and obey the Bible, people encounter Jesus as Lord and Savior in the Word. (I have a suspicion that Stiles may have a particular theory and formulation of the gospel and salvation that is used as a lens to interpret Scripture. See below on “Over-Contextualization”).

  • Critique 5: Ethnically Homogenous Congregations

Stiles claims that “All churches should desire to be international churches.”

Summary answer: The “person of peace” principle looks for natural networks.

Detail: The concept of culturally homogenous churches actually has a strong and healthy history with respected missiologist Donald McGavran (1954) bringing the reality of family and kinship ties to prominence in his book The Bridges of God.  He recognized that people have distinct ethnic identities and the gospel needs to cross cultural boundaries and become part of the worldview of a people group in order for them to be transformed by the gospel.  God must “speak a person’s language” both literally and metaphorically. That is, the gospel must be seen as relevant for them to accept the message for themselves.  Respecting other cultures prevents an outside culture from acting in a colonizing manner by forcing them into a mold.

An assumption of the DMM strategy is that in order for the gospel to penetrate and transform a people group, it must first be seen as speaking to them within their context.  Their identity must not be compromised or overruled by those with a different cultural identity.  Thus the principle of “person of peace” (POP) has been promoted.  These POPs are the gatekeepers of a network who metaphorically open the door for others to engage God’s word.

Culturally distinct expressions of the gospel and the church are valued and not disparaged with DMMs. These varied expressions are considered to be like facets of a diamond – each providing insights that further the church’s appreciation for and worship of God.  This picture is ultimately fulfilled in Rev 7 where a multitude of nations are before the throne, each praising in their own tongue and manner, reflecting their love for and submission to God.

While it is not wrong to be an “international church,” as Stiles insists, it is only one local expression of the universal church.  It, too, has its limitations and difficulties that are not found in distinct ethnic expressions of church. A more inclusive and (I believe) appropriate approach is to encourage local churches to have an international agenda with respect to other churches and believers in a manner that maintains each congregation’s cultural and ethnic integrity.  That is, they desire to be connected with their brothers and sisters across geographical and ethnic boundaries for fellowship and correction (For further reading, see my article, “Navigating the Multicultural Maze: Setting an Intercultural Agenda for FEBBC/Y churches” in Being Church: Explorations in Christian Community, 2007).

  • Critique 6: Over-Contextualization

Stiles also believes that “Many involved in CPM … cut and paste the gospel, even giving different interpretations to clear biblical texts so that we can fit the gospel to culture, [and so give] up the biblical narrative.”

Summary answer: Stiles has confused syncretism with contextualization.

Detail: Contextualization is inevitable in our preaching and teaching, including the way the gospel message is communicated. The question is: does the message we present resonate with the culture AND maintain biblical integrity?  If the message maintains biblical integrity, but does not resonate, we are in danger of creating dual systems.  That is, we are presenting a foreign system that is added to the systems lived and understood by the insiders because it is not perceived as relevant to who they are. If the message resonates with the context, but does not maintain biblical integrity – i.e., the gospel has been compromised – that is syncretism.  One of the best and well-known examples of good contextualization of the gospel is “Peace Child” (1976) written by Canadian missionary to New Guinea, Don Richardson.  His first presentation of the gospel to the Sawi people was accurate, but did not resonate the way he intended – it was not appropriately contextualized. When he retold the gospel message with Jesus as the “Peace Child,” it resulted in a contextualized presentation of the gospel that maintained integrity with Scripture while resonating with the context. (For another example and further explanation, see my own contextualization journey among Sindhis).

Stiles has confused an appropriate representation of the gospel message that can be understood by the audience with a distortion of the gospel message due to some kind of compromise with cultural values.  The way to deal with the problem of syncretism is not to have one particular presentation of the gospel that is considered universal – this only results in dual systems. It also reveals a mono-cultural blindness that says, “The way I express the gospel is the only true way,” and does not recognize that our own expression is also culturally shaped.  The solution is to use the Bible as the final authority and ensure that people engage all the teachings of the Bible so that their beliefs and practices are challenged by what God has declared and what Jesus has revealed.  There is a reason why the first four books about the life of Jesus the New Testament are called the Gospels. The gospel may be summarized into a short statement, but all such statements are contextualizations designed to fit a particular way of viewing the world and they come with unspoken assumptions. The full message of the gospel is as broad and deep as Jesus himself, who declared that he is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6).


  • McGavran, DA 1955. The Bridges of God: A Study in the Strategy of Missions. New York: Friendship Press.
  • Naylor, M 2007. “Navigating the Multicultural Maze: Setting an Intercultural Agenda for FEBBC/Y churches” in Being Church: Explorations in Christian Community. Langley BC: Northwest Baptist Seminary.
  • Newbigin, L 1989. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
  • Niebuhr, HR 1951. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Richardson, D 1976. Peace Child, Ventura: Regal Books.
  • Sanneh, L 1989. Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture. Maryknoll: Orbis.

104. A Retelling of the Prodigal Son

Jesus’ parable retold with the True Older Son bringing the Father’s redemption. Luke 15.

Every day the son worked in the vineyards alongside his older brother and the other workers. At first, he enjoyed the smells, the connection with nature, the enjoyment of the fruit, the visits from the father and the guidance of his older brother.  (Gen 2.8,9,15)

But then the story teller came who spoke of exotic foods, exciting entertainment and riches and comforts unimaginable beyond the simplicity of the farm.  The son began to yearn for more beyond his current life and experience.  He began to wonder if his father was holding him back. A great dissatisfaction soured the daily experiences of his life. (Gen 3.1)

Finally, he went to his father and said, “Father, I need more than what you are giving me.  I know that you have great riches.  Since I am your son, let me have a portion that I can use for myself.”  The Father replied, “You are not yet ready for your inheritance.  There is some maturing and development of your body, spirit, heart and soul required before you are ready to handle the inheritance without injuring yourself and others.  Nonetheless, here is the key to your inheritance.  It is there in that trunk.  But do not open it until I give the word.”  (Gen 2:16,17)

Each day the Father came to spend time with the son and oversee his development, but the son was distracted and found the lessons tedious, irritating and irrelevant.  His thought was on the inheritance and he didn’t pay much attention to his tasks.  Finally, the temptation was too much.  He opened the trunk and took the inheritance.  He heard his father and his older brother coming, but he quickly left out the back door before they could find him. (Gen 3:8)

“Finally,” he said, “I am free.” He headed for the city of the story teller and began to experience the foods, excitement and pleasures he had heard of.

One day, as he was dancing, eating and drinking at a party, in walked his older brother. “I have come to bring you back to our Father.  He loves you, forgives you and wants you back.”  The younger son laughed, “Look at me.  I have discovered life on my own.  This is real living.  I don’t need the father, I don’t need you.  Go away.”

Time passed and the pleasures became desperation, the relationships with his friends crumbled and the coin he had did not buy the excitement and happiness he had previously enjoyed.  Life had become empty and without purpose.  He found himself deeply hungry for more and began to suspect that he had sold out what had really mattered for shallow promises and empty glitter.  A great gulf had opened up before his feet and he saw the end rapidly approaching which is death and darkness.

His brother came again.  “Come back to the father.”  The younger son groaned, “I cannot. I am no longer a son. I have burned my bridges. I have deceived and been deceived.  I have lied and believed lies. I have sold my soul and become a slave.  I am no longer worthy. I have debts I cannot pay.  I have hurt those I love and wronged them in ways I cannot make right.  I have cheated and been cheated.  I am lost and cannot get home. I have died and cannot live.”

The older brother replied, “I have come to find you and bring you home.  I have come from the father to make things right and bring you back to life.  I have spent my inheritance to come and make things right for you.  I have taken on your debts, I have broken your chains, I have healed the wounds you have inflicted and can bind up yours as well.  Whatever wounds that should fall on you, I take on myself. Come, in our father’s house are many rooms of healing, wholeness and purpose.  Look at what the father has sent for me to give to you.” He then showed gifts of the father that would cover his nakedness, allow him to walk on the right path, declare his identity as a son of the father and feed his soul. (Luke 15:22,23)

The younger son hesitated.  “What if I take these blessings and just live here?  I don’t think the father wants my presence.”

His brother replied, “You misunderstand.  These blessings do not exist without the father.  It is only in the father’s presence that you become clothed and can walk in wisdom.  It is only by walking beside the father that you are his son. It is only by sitting by his side that you can eat and feed your soul.”

“I want to, but I am too weak.”

The older son smiled. “Lean on me. I will carry you home where you will be made whole. I give my life for your life because the father is the source of all life and will make all things right.”

“My son,” the father said to his oldest on their return, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. We can now celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. Come sit by me.” (Luke 15:31,32)

100. Interpretation and Baptism

It is fascinating to consider how a literalist application of Scripture, as evident in the teaching and practice of the Pharisees, was challenged by Jesus and the New Testament writers. The apostle Paul is the premier example of how a transformational encounter with Jesus changed the way he interpreted and applied God’s word.

As a strict Pharisee, Paul was a legalist and a violent supporter of God’s law. “God said it, I believe it and that settles it” would have been his unspoken assumption to take Old Testament laws literally and apply them without compromise. The seriousness of circumcision and its foundational role in the religious and political life of the nation of Israel would have been one unquestioned example based on God’s command to Abraham:

This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant (Gen 17:10-14).

That is a clear, unequivocal command. Yet when Paul met Jesus, he changed the way he interpreted Scripture. He had a new lens through which he understood God’s purposes and so he amazingly rejects circumcision for God’s people despite God’s firm admonition that it be enacted as an eternal covenant. He states, “For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God” (1 Co 7.19).

The intriguing aspect of this verse is that in dismissing the direct command of God, Paul declares that we are called to obey the commandments of God! What has changed in Paul’s hermeneutic – the way he interprets and applies Scripture – so that by exhorting people to NOT literally fulfill the declared action of a command, Paul can still assume that Christians can (and must) obey God’s commands?

One influence on Paul’s thinking would have been Jesus’ teachings about the law. A particularly contentious command for Jesus that the Pharisees followed literally was to keep the Sabbath holy and not work on that day. Jesus’ argument against the Pharisees was not that they had mistaken the words of the command, but that they had misinterpreted God’s intention in giving the command. Jesus did not deny that he was working on the Sabbath but by saying, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working” (John 5.17), declared the right to do so. This interpretation of the command was not based on the meaning of the original terminology but on Jesus’ perspective of the fundamental purpose of the command. Jesus’ statement, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2.27 NRSV) announced the appropriateness of bringing wholeness and release to people on the Sabbath.

Where the purpose of the command was fulfilled, literal adherence to the words of the command was unnecessary and could even be deceiving by distracting from the purpose. This is why Jesus condemns the Pharisees for their strictness in following the letter of the law while ignoring the heart of the commands. It appears from the New Testament approach towards the law that the fulfillment of God’s commandments is not determined by passionate yet wooden attention to the words, but by comprehending and entering into the heart of and intention of the Giver of the command.

Therefore, when the question of circumcision came to a head in the early church (Acts 15), the argument did not focus on the terminology of the command – that was clear and unequivocal. Rather the concern was how God’s intentions were fulfilled through faith. Peter declared, “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:8,9).

From the way Jesus and the New Testament writers interpreted the law of God, it seems that we have been given a lesson in how to interpret God’s word. Rather than seeking to obey commands given in the Bible as if it was a law that must be adhered to in a word-for-word fashion, we are called to discern the intention and purpose of God in and through those commands. The meaning of the commands occurs in the context of following Jesus’ purposes, not by strict adherence to a particular wording. The one who obeys is not the one who focuses on the terminology, but the one who looks past the words into the heart of God. The approach of the apostles in the New Testament indicates that they were not preparing a manual of laws for Christians of all eras to follow like an algorithm even if they don’t understand the purpose; rather the apostles were discovering how to live out the gospel. This New Testament process serves as a pattern for us so that we also may work out our passion for the same kingdom purposes.

If this interpretive concern I have presented truly reflects the hermeneutic of Jesus and the New Testament authors, it provides support to accept into membership those who have not been baptized by immersion if their baptismal expression has fulfilled the purpose of expressing commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. Even though the literal word of the command is “immerse,” the heart of baptism is the expression of faith of a good conscience (1 Pet 3.21). To reject such an expression of faith as a fulfillment of the command of God based on a literalist adherence to the words of a command is to oppose the interpretive heart of Jesus and Paul.

(NIV used unless otherwise stated)

99. Baptism and Obedience

I appreciate the passion for obedience from those who are “Immersionists” and their desire to see that passion reflected in God’s people. I also promote the importance of obedience, but from a different angle.

When I was fresh out of high school I got a job with a construction firm and one day I had the job of tarring the foundation of a house. The boss gave me a brush and a bucket of tar and I went at it with gusto. A while later he came back to see how I was doing and exclaimed, “What are you doing!?” As far as I was concerned, I was following the instructions. He jumped down in the hole and grabbed the brush and showed me what I was supposed to be doing explaining that the purpose was to seal the foundation so water would not leak through. Where I was painting the sides, he slopped the tar on the cracks and ridges. Once I grasped the purpose and function of the tar, I was able to do the job properly.

What I learned from the experience is that while obedience is essential, obedience alone is insufficient. It is impossible to truly obey unless we understand why the command was given. If we just follow commands without knowing the deeper purpose, then we interpret them from our own perspective and actually may miss the original intention. A further negative result that can occur when the full intention is not appreciated is the slavish adherence to the appearance or mere words of a command. This is well illustrated by the Pharisees’ rigid adherence to tithing (Mt 23.23). Their emphasis on getting the form right blinded them to God’s original purpose for the law.

To revisit the “brush on the paint” analogy: Suppose there were two painters, each on one side of the house and both received the same instructions to “brush on the paint.” However, one uses a roller. When they finish the one with the brush exclaims, “You didn’t use the brush! This side cannot be considered painted. Brushing on the paint means using the brush. Your side doesn’t count.” The other painter replies, “Your focus on the brush means that you have missed the point. The purpose and function of the task is to have the house painted. If you focus so much on the mode that you dismiss the essence of the task, then you are misunderstanding the boss’ purpose.”

My perspective is that to nullify a person’s baptismal experience because of mode is to declare the spiritual reality of what was experienced as unworthy, invalid or inappropriate – dismissing that which is a significant expression of the covenant in their life. This is a pastoral concern, but my focus is to uphold the theological and hermeneutical validity of that pastoral concern; a person’s baptismal experience of repentance and becoming “in Christ” should not be denied because the mode was not as good as it should have been. The primary meaning and purpose is fulfilled, even though secondary expressions may be less than desired.

I hope it is obvious that affirming the validity of those baptized by another mode does not derive from a carelessness with God or His word. My years of living in another culture and being involved in Bible translation has given me an ever growing sense of awe at God’s revelation of Himself and its relevance to both ancient cultures (OT and NT) and 21st century eastern and western cultures. However, the Bible is not particularly easy to understand. It requires sustained study and the work of the Holy Spirit. My desire is to understand the heart of God as I translate, study, meditate and preach. I believe understanding God’s heart requires knowing why commands are given. If we don’t understand why, we may miss the real point – God’s revelation of Himself, His heart and His will.

There is a phenomenon of people redoing their marriage vows and having a second wedding on their wedding anniversary. I have no objection to this and can see how that can be impacting. What I would object to is a demand of that re-enactment in such a way that the first giving of vows was considered invalid because certain symbolic aspects were not present. Rings at a wedding are a helpful and appropriate symbol, but the lack of them does not nullify the impact of the vows and ceremony.

98. Baptism and a Painting analogy

The National Fellowship is considering a motion that would allow those who have been baptized as adults through a mode other than immersion to be accepted as members of Fellowship Baptist churches.  Immersion would continue to be the sole practice of baptism. A discussion is ongoing between those who promote and those who oppose the move.  Below is my response to a comment made on a blog from the “Immersionist” side suggesting that there are some issues of language and interpretation that are not being fully considered.

[Gary V Carter’s blog post: Two Little Words … By … Is
There is more than one way to apply paint. You get to pick between rollers and brushes and sprayers. (Oh, the paint sprayer was invented in 1892.) But you don’t get to pick the mode of baptism. There is only one option because of the meaning of the word.
Baptism is not by immersion; baptism is immersion. There are no other biblical options. Those who truly believe that the words of scripture are inspired one word at a time know this and live by it if they have looked into it sufficiently. Sadly, most in Christendom haven’t looked into it yet. Have you done the study yet? Don’t you think you should?]

My Response:

Thank you for the painting analogy. It started me thinking and I wonder if the analogy more naturally supports the opposite perspective? That is, if I see a blue house, my concern is not how it was painted (the mode: brush or roller), but that it is painted (the result is that the house is blue).

Of course, the objection could be that the boss had specifically said to use a brush and not a roller, in which case the painter would have been disobedient if he refused to use a brush. But perhaps it was not quite as straightforward as that. What if the boss had handed the painter a brush and instructed, “Brush on the paint”? The literal understanding would be that the painter must use the brush. But what if the question of obedience and disobedience is not based on the literal word “brush,” but on an intended message to paint the house blue? If the essential concern is that the house be blue rather than how the house is painted, the painter might feel free to be creative with the mode (particularly if the boss considered the painter a friend and a partner in his mission who understands why they are painting the house) as long as the mission was accomplished and the house was painted blue.

Linguistically speaking, the boss said “brush” and handed over a brush. That should be evidence enough that the boss intended for the brush to be used. “Brush” is a clear and unambiguous term and “brush on the paint” is an unambiguous action. However, the meaning of the verb “brush” could also be intended as a more general “paint the house;” such use of language is not uncommon. For example, an appropriate response to the command “run to the store and get some milk” would be to drive the car. If the point of the task was that the house become “blue” then it would not be surprising if the boss came back and asked “did you paint the house?” with the full intention of seeing the instructions (“brush on the paint”) and the action (painting) as equivalent even though a brush was not used. In fact, when recalling the work done, it would not be surprising if “the house was painted” was used rather than “the house was brushed with paint” because the purpose of the work is fully represented with the one word “paint.”

Nonetheless, the objection could be raised that the point is not just that the house be blue but that the boss’ intention was that a brush be used to paint the house. Perhaps a roller would splatter, paint was limited, or the brush would leave a particular pattern. In any of these cases, the boss would be disappointed and point out that the painter had not entirely obeyed, even though the house was now blue. The questions then become: Is the house sufficiently painted blue so that the job does not need to be redone? Can the house be considered appropriately painted because it was not done using a brush as specified? Perhaps rather than repainting the whole house, it can be touched up, maybe in some symbolic way that would adequately indicate a concern for the use of the brush.

I guess it comes down to the purpose of the task and how we determine what the boss intended.

89. Fear, Shame and Guilt:

A Model for developing a Contextualized presentation of the Gospel

In the previous articles of this series, I argued that there are cultural reasons why one biblical picture of the atonement may resonate1 with a people group, while others will be problematic.  I suggested that believers who seek to communicate the significance of the cross of Christ across cultural barriers will need to be aware of the cultural values and perspectives of the people they are addressing in order to discover appropriate metaphors that reveal the gospel message in a way that speaks to their felt needs.  In this article, I use Roland Muller’s three cultural dichotomies as a model towards analyzing cultures for the purpose of discovering an explanation of the atonement that will connect with the hearers.


Understand the Intended Audience

A missionary to Japan, Norman Kraus,2 realized that the forensic metaphor of the atonement, familiar to North American evangelicals – that Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins – did not make sense to the majority of Japanese.  In exploring the assumptions behind this rejection of the atonement, he discovered that they were interpreting the presentation according to a very different understanding of justice.  The Western concept of justice requires an impartial decision based on immutable laws leading to a debt that must be paid. For the Japanese the issue is not guilt banished through punishment, but shame that must be overcome through the establishment of right relationships and the restoration of honor.

Evangelical scholars excel at exegeting3 the Scriptures.  At the heart of our faith is a commitment to God’s word, and much work has been done to understand the meaning of God’s word within the setting of the author and original audience, as well as to determine the relevance and impact of that revelation for a 21st century audience.  The cross-cultural worker, however, has to move one step further, and discover ways to communicate that message in a relevant and impacting manner to hearers with different values, perspectives and worldview.  They must not just exegete the Scriptures, but also the cultural context in which the audience lives. The way the gospel impacts and is significant to cross-cultural communicators may be very different from their hearers because of the cultural grid through which they organize and perceive the world and reality.

It takes time, relationships and intentional exploration to discover and comprehend the cultural complexities of a people group.  There are a number of resources available to cross-cultural communicators that aid in the development of a “Cultural Quotient,” and promote the development of the skills needed to understand a different people group.4

Identify the Cultural Orientation towards Spiritual Brokenness

If Kraus is correct in his assessment, the implications for the presentation of the gospel are critical.  The communicator of the gospel must either explain the Western paradigm for justice within which the forensic metaphor can be understood, or discover a different metaphor for the cross, one that would resonate with the Japanese view of reality.  The former approach is not viable for a number of reasons.5 First, it requires the hearers to adjust their assumptions and accept foreign values.  This limits the attractiveness of the gospel message to those who are willing to move away from their culture to some extent. Second, the message remains unattractive to the majority of community members who only value those things that fit within their way of perceiving reality. Third, time and energy are required for a hearer to understand and assess the value of the message for their lives.  Unless the person has a strong dissatisfaction with their current spiritual condition, has the patience to spend the time it takes to puzzle through the presentation, and has a significant relationship with the messenger, they are unlikely to make the investment required to decipher a message that, at first hearing, seems irrelevant to their context. Fourth, even if the hearers can grasp the presentation intellectually, it still does not touch their felt need. Understanding is insufficient, there must also be perceived significance.

Roland Muller proposes three dichotomies6 at work in cultures that reveal people’s sensitivity to brokenness and dysfunction in their lives. These three dichotomies provide a helpful framework7 that can be used discover the primary spiritual felt need of a specific people group.  He suggests that all cultures exhibit each of these dichotomies to some extent, but usually one will be the predominant, default way of judging, processing and alleviating dysfunction.


Guilt – Innocence

The rule of law is a high value in Canadian society.  It is not unheard of, in fact, it is expected, that a father turn his son into the authorities if the son commits a crime.  This elevation of law to absolute status, beyond even family loyalty, is a feature of Western societies.  There are many reasons for this orientation, not least of which is the preeminence of individual values over community concerns or family ties.  To maintain a reasonable level of control, boundaries are set by governments within which an individual has the freedom to function.  These boundaries are continually being renegotiated, but the point here is the establishment of an external standard to which we are obliged to conform.  Because this is such a high value, a dysfunctional action is primarily understood as acting against a law, which is understood as guilt whether or not transgressors feel guilty.

A prominent politician in BC was caught drinking and driving in another country.  It was a scandal when reported in BC, but part of the politician’s defense was that the laws of that country were more lax than in BC, and therefore he should be judged according to those standards and not as harsh as if he had been caught in BC.   For him, guilt was based on a standard of law, rather than on a deeper moral foundation or a sense of identity with a particular community to guide his actions.

“Imagine a classroom full of grade school kids. Suddenly, the intercom interrupts their class. Johnny is being called to the principle’s office. What is the immediate reaction of the other children? “What did you do wrong?” they ask. Even our children immediately assume guilt. Perhaps the school principal is going to hand out rewards, but our society conditions us to expect the worst, and we feel pangs of guilt” (:24).

In a context where brokenness and dysfunctionality are defined in terms of “guilt,” restoration to a state of innocence is the highest value, a condition that often cannot be met.


Shame – Honor

Many cultures (e.g., Japan, Pakistan and other Asian and middle Eastern countries) function on the basis of shame and honor.  People assess their value by the way they are perceived by others. Their interpersonal relationships provide the motivation for their actions. The issue of brokenness is not guilt – whether or not they have transgressed a law – but shame – how a particular action is perceived by themselves and others within the context of a community that determines their identity.

“Why did you leave?”

When Berean8 became a follower of Christ he was kicked out of his extended family and forced to live apart from his wife and three girls for a period of two years.  At that time, his younger brother came to him and said, “Why did you leave?  Mother has been weeping and weeping for you.  Come home.”  Upon his return, his father commanded, “Don’t say a word.  I don’t want to hear about your faith.”  He then went to the neighbors and told them that his son had turned from his Christian faith and become a Muslim again.  The concern was the family honor in the eyes of the community, not adherence to a law or concern about facts.

Muller provides his own experience of living within a shame-honor culture but functioning according to a personal guilt-innocence paradigm:

“I would try to act correctly and they would try to act honorably, not shamefully. I was busy trying to learn the rights and wrongs of their culture and explain them to new people arriving from the west. But somehow my framework of right versus wrong didn’t fit what was actually happening. The secret wasn’t to act rightly or wrongly in their culture. It wasn’t that there was a right way and a wrong way of doing things. The underlying principle was that there was an honorable and dishonorable way of doing things” (:47).

Failing the expectations of those who speak for their community is the ultimate catastrophe. Restoration to acceptance and a position of honor is the need, a requirement that may be impossible.


Fear – Power

Other cultures, notably animistic cultures and many African contexts, see the world primarily as a power struggle.  The spirit world is very real and much effort is spent either appeasing powers that may harm, or appealing to powers that may address the individual’s needs by giving control over harmful spirits.  Transgression in this context is defined as an offence to the existing powers, the results of which are evident in disasters and personal set-backs, rather than through a set of laws.

This perspective is evident among Sindhis as well, who often look to saints and holy men to provide amulets with Quranic verses or prescribe rituals so that difficulties in their lives can be overcome.  Muller clarifies:

“In order to deal with these powers, rituals are established which people believe will affect the powers around them. Rituals are performed on certain calendar dates, and at certain times in someone’s life (rites of passage), or in a time of crisis.

In order to appease the powers of the universe, systems of appeasement are worked out. They vary from place to place. Some civilizations offer incense while some offer their children as sacrifices to gods. However it is done, a system of appeasement, based on fear is the norm for their worldview” (:44).

In a fear – power system, the transgression is often unidentified.  That “sin” (offense to a spirit power) has occurred is evident from the difficulty or catastrophe that has occurred.  Restoration to success or healing requires an outside power to counteract the action of the spirits who have caused the difficulty. The suffering person may need to try many different rituals before the correct appeasement is discovered.


Back to Eden

Roland Muller provides a biblical basis for these cultural dichotomies from the story of the fall in Genesis which he calls “the Eden effect” (:15).  When Adam and Eve disobeyed God – the essence of sin from a biblical perspective – three things occurred.  First, they realized they were naked (Gen 3:7), the experience of shame.  Second, they hid themselves from God (Gen 3:8), the experience of fear.  Third, their disobedience was exposed (Gen 3:17), the experience of guilt.  These three aspects of the fall or brokenness of humanity are evident in every culture, and have one original cause: rebellion against God.

Each culture strives for wholeness in each of these areas, with one aspect being the primary concern.  To some extent, cultures succeed in mitigating some of the impact of the fall, but the effects are still suffered by all.  When Jesus came as the savior of the world, he addressed the heart of the matter: sin.  Rather than a focus on past wrong deeds we have done, sin describes a rebellion or turning away from God’s desire for us, a rejection of the one who is the source of life and light and goodness.  Therefore, Jesus begins his ministry with a call to repentance (Mk 1:15). He turned people from their rebellion and provided a way back into a right relationship with God through the cross.  How that rebellion and restoration is expressed will depend on the emphasis within each people group, whether guilt, shame or fear.


Discover what Resonates

the cross demonstrates God’s love by Jesus voluntarily identifying himself with our sin, and therefore our shame

Kraus searched for an atonement metaphor that would resonate with the Japanese view of reality. This commitment is a necessity for the cross-cultural worker who believes that the gospel can be communicated through all languages and known within all cultures. The goal is to discover a metaphor that resonates with the values and perspectives of the hearers.  The picture adopted by Kraus was that the cross demonstrates God’s love by Jesus voluntarily identifying himself with our sin, and therefore our shame.  The establishment of a relationship with us while we are in a state of shame restores our honor.  We repent of that which causes shame and rely on God’s values for our meaning in life.  This brief description does not do justice to Kraus’ development of the meaning of the cross in a Japanese context and should not be critiqued solely on the basis of my representation. For the person who desires to communicate the gospel cross-culturally, his reflections are worth studying because they reveal a contextualizing process that is helpful in other contexts as well.  The result is a metaphor that is “easily understood” in the Japanese setting and also uses “images that are theologically sound and not so enmeshed in the culture that they fail to challenge the culture with the scandal of the cross.”9

Each dichotomy provides a framework within which potential metaphors can be discovered that may resonate with a people group.


Guilt – Innocence

A classic metaphor for this dichotomy is provided by CS Lewis in the first book of the Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  Edmund has repented of his treachery and been rescued from the Witch, but sin is not so easily removed. There is something that Aslan (the lion who is a picture of Jesus) needed to do:

‘You have a traitor there, Aslan,’ said the Witch. Of course everyone present knew that she meant Edmund. But Edmund had got past thinking about himself after all he’d been through and after the talk he’d had that morning. He just went on looking at Aslan. It didn’t seem to matter what the Witch said.

‘Well,’ said Aslan. ‘His offence was not against you.’

‘Have you forgotten the Deep Magic?’ asked the Witch.

‘Let us say I have forgotten it,’ answered Aslan gravely. ‘Tell us of this Deep Magic.’

‘Tell you?’ said the Witch, her voice growing suddenly shriller. ‘Tell you what is written on that very Table of Stone which stands beside us? Tell you what is written in letters deep as a spear is long on the fire-stones of the Secret Hill? Tell you what is engraved on the scepter of the Emperor-Over-Sea? You at least know the Magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning. You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill.’

‘And so,’ continued the Witch, ‘that human creature is mine. His life is forfeit to me. His blood is my property.’

At last they heard Aslan’s voice, ‘You can all come back,’ he said. ‘I have settled the matter. She has renounced the claim on your brother’s blood.’10

Aslan “settled the matter” by giving his life to pay the penalty demanded by the “Emporer’s Magic” so that Edmund could be set free.


Shame – Honor

A Japanese woman who came to Christ as an adult was explaining her conversion experience to my wife, Karen.  When she spent time with her friends, she would come away feeling dissatisfied and she concluded that her friends, although average Japanese girls, talked and acted improperly.  Then, one day, the realization dawned that she was no different, and she began to be sensitive to her “dirty heart.”  She did not know how to deal with her “dirty heart” until she began to explore the message of Jesus, and found cleansing in him.  Karen pursued the conversation and asked, “What is the word for ‘sin’ in Japanese, and what does it mean?”  The woman replied that it referred to evil deeds like murder and stealing.  Karen then pointed out that the word being used for “sin” did not fit with her conversion story.  She had not committed “sin” (according to the Japanese word mentioned).  Instead, she had grown to be ashamed of the way she had fallen short of an ideal that she longed for.  Most Japanese would not feel a need for salvation from “sin,” but it is possible that many, like this woman, would sense the brokenness and shame of a “dirty heart.”


Fear – Power

Paul Long provides a powerful true story of the conversion of a chieftain, Kalonda, within a fear – power worldview.  Kalonga summoned Long who went to see him with a few other Congolese Christian leaders.  After proper greetings, Long asked Kalonda what the meeting was about:

Kalonda’s reply startled me. “Tell me about the white man’s God.”

When I throw down this medicine … my spirits will withdraw their protection. And I will die

“The God I follow is not a white man’s God. He is the Father of the New Tribe. His people. Jesus Christ is the great Chieftain of the New Tribe. And He accepts anyone who will follow Him. My friends here are also members of the· New Tribe. They will tell you about it.” And I turned to my Congolese colleagues who really understood the battle old Kalonda was facing. One of my companions was an old witch doctor turned Christian and now an effective pastor among his people. I accompanied with deep concern the battle taking place between the powers which are real and the liberation which is possible.

Copper charm bracelets adorned the once-strong spear arm at the old chief. “You still trust in your medicine,” observed Pastor Mutombo. “Why do you ask about another God?”

With great reluctance, the old man slipped the bracelets from his arm, dropped them in the dust, and said, “Now tell me, ‘Teller of the Word’ about your powerful God.”

With those copper bands lying at our feet, I began to realize something of the price he was having to pay for what he asked. He had just renounced his potency.

“Now,” the pastor continued, “the war medicine on your belt shows where you look for power.”

After a long, thoughtful pause, the old warrior cut the small skin bag from his belt and dropped it in the dust.

“Now the ‘counter-hex’ packet at your neck.” The old man put a trembling hand to the thong around his neck. This little charm held his protection against all his enemies and made their magic of no power. Silently we waited until, at length, he broke the thong and let his “security” fall at our feet. Grunts of respect for his courage echoed around the ring of watching tribesmen.

“This is all the protection I have,” Kalonda said. But the pastor was evidently waiting for another, more costly surrender. “Now get your ‘life charm’ Kalonda, and I will tell you about the God of the New Tribe.”

The old man trembled, broke out in perspiration, shook his head and wrapped his tattered blanket across his bony chest. The three old wives had remonstrated with his renunciation of his medicines, and, with this last demand, they commenced the death wail, and started tossing dust in the air over their heads.

“Teller of the Word,” he said, holding out his little packet in his bony hands, “you have asked the life of Kalonda! This medicine has protected my life from all my enemies for many years. Many still live who hate me and have curses on my life. When I throw down this medicine all their curses will fall on me, my spirits will withdraw their protection. And I will die. But Kalonda is not afraid to die.”

As the packet dropped in the dust, the old chieftain straightened to his full height, lifted his old eyes to the distant hills, and waited for death.

It took a long time to answer questions from old Kalonda and his people. Questions about the God, he said, he had always feared but never known. As the afternoon shadows lengthened, the old chieftain arose with dignity before his people. In a quiet, confident voice he announced, “Kalonda has a new chieftain. I follow ‘Yesu Kilisto’ and He will help me across the river, lead me through the dark forest, and take me to His village where I can sit with His people. I belong to the New Tribe. Kalonda wants all his people to follow Nfumu Yesu, [Chieftain Jesus], and go with Him to the Village of God.”11



The essence of contextualization is the communication of a truth using the concepts, metaphors and categories of understanding that form the frame of reference and communication of a group of people.  The right terminology and images cannot be discovered without serious reflection of their culture and worldview.  The cross-cultural communicator of the gospel is required to initiate a “dance” between the text of God’s word and the reality of the context in order to discover those “bridges” that communicate the truth of the cross.  Even if the message is not accepted at first, the response should be, “Oh, we need that. I wish it was true!”


Mark spends part of his time assisting churches in developing significant cross-cultural relationships. If you are interested, please contact him via the Contact Me form. If you would like to leave a comment about this article, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.




  • 1 As in the other articles in this series on conversion metaphors, “resonance” refers to the way the hearer perceives and responds to the message.  It goes beyond comprehension to describe the impact of the passage upon the values and beliefs of the reader or listener.  But it is not limited to positive acceptance by a people group. When the message resonates, this “does not mean that a challenge to or contrast with cultural values is not possible.  The concept of resonance refers to any concept which speaks either negatively or positively to the reality within which the person lives. The point is that it speaks relevantly and significantly” (Naylor 2004:7-8).
  • 2 In Jesus Christ our Lord: Christology from a Disciple’s perspective (Scottdale, Penn: Herald, 1990), Norman Kraus examines Christology as an exercise of contextualization within a Japanese society.  Joel B. Green & Mark D. Baker summarize his work with helpful illustrations in Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament & Contemporary Contexts (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000), 153-170.  The latter is the primary source for this illustration.
  • 3 To “exegete” is to interpret or explain a text or context so that the meaning intended by the author (or “meaning-makers” of the context) is communicated to others.
  • 4 I would be glad to send you a list of my recommended books on developing cross-cultural skills.  Please use the form below to contact me.
  • 5 The adoption of a shame-based metaphor presentation of the atonement should not be misrepresented as a rejection of the penal substitution picture of the atonement.  Even as North American Christians can grow in their appreciation of the cross of Christ by seeing the impact of the cross through the eyes of a shame culture, so believers in Japan who have been delivered from shame can in turn develop a deeper sense of gratitude by recognizing how Jesus’ sacrifice also saves us from guilt.
  • 6 The three dichotomies, complete with underlying theory and theology are developed in Roland Muller’s book, Honor-Shame: Unlocking the Door (Xlibris, 2000).  The page numbers in the body of the text refer to his book.
  • 7 All models have their limitations, and this is no exception.  However, it is a helpful tool to begin the complex process of understanding another culture for the purpose of gospel communication.
  • 8 Not his real name.
  • 9 Green and Baker, 168.
  • 10 CS Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1950), 128-130.
  • 11 Recounted in Hiebert, P Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 199-201.

88. The significance of metaphor in communicating the Cross of Christ


Contextualization is Inevitable

A 10 year old Canadian boy squats by the bank of a river in Borneo and watches the Prayer Man of the Dayak tribal group prepare the Beranyut ceremony.  The son of missionaries to the Dayak people, Loren Warkentin1 was filled with curiosity about this ritual that these tribal animists performed once a year to drive sin and sickness from their village. Into an ornately carved piece of palm tree that was tied with bamboo to form a raft, the Prayer Man placed a burning lamp and two 3-day-old chicks, one alive and one dead.  He then slaughtered a dog or chicken and collected the blood, sprinkling some of the blood on the raft and spreading some on the doorposts and lintel of a nearby house.  He then turned and threw some blood on the surrounding people.  Loren quickly moved back out of the range of the blood and kept himself at a safe distance.

The goal of this series of articles is to propose a way to introduce the gospel into another cultural setting recognizing that some biblical metaphors are more appropriate than others, depending on the context.  This does not mean that other biblical images or metaphors are to be ignored or dismissed.  What it does mean is that in the process of contextualizing the gospel, we are searching for an expression or description of the gospel shaped in the cultural language of the people that communicates the significance of the cross in a way that connects with the hearers; it is receptor oriented. The cross-cultural communicator needs to identify metaphors present within the culture that can be used to reveal the message of the cross so that it makes an impact. The desire is that people will recognize the importance of the cross for them personally and begin a spiritual walk with Jesus. Their understanding of the gospel will expand over time and become multifaceted through the exploration of other biblical images.  But initially, there needs to be the bridge of an image of the atonement that speaks to the people within their cultural imagination and perspectives.

Don Richardson’s Peace Child2 is one impacting illustration that demonstrates how a cultural image can connect with a biblical picture of the cross so that there is relevant cross-cultural communication. As Richardson recounted the story of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus to the Sawi people of New Guinea, he was horrified by their reaction.  Due to a value of betrayal in that culture, Judas became the hero.  He was a friend of Jesus for 3 years and then betrayed the Lord to his death. The Sawi elders were thrilled with Judas’ cleverness.  Richardson despaired of the possibility of communicating the gospel message in such a setting.  But then he discovered the concept of the “peace child.”  In order to secure reconciliation with another tribe, a baby was given by the chief of one tribe to the chief of the other.  As long as the baby was alive and well and brought up as a child of the chief in the other tribe, there would be peace between the tribes.  In such a transaction any betrayal was viewed as a great evil.  Richardson used this tradition as a reconciliation metaphor of the gospel: Jesus was the “peace child” given by God to reconcile us to himself.  Jesus was betrayed, rejected and killed.  But in his victory over death, he has conquered all that separates us from the Father – sin, evil spirits and death.  This contextualization of the gospel used an impacting image of the culture to communicate the biblical metaphors of reconciliation and victory in the cross.3

Contextualization is inevitable

Contextualization is inevitable in cross-cultural communication.  We cannot understand anything unless it is communicated in a way that fits the patterns of thinking with which we are familiar.  This is most obvious in the nature of language. When I show people in Canada the Sindhi Old Testament in Arabic script, a comment I often hear is, “That just looks like scribbles!”  And it is not just the physical script, but also images, words, symbols, concepts and metaphors used in language that are the windows through which communication occurs.  The Bible is both the word of God and a culturally shaped text.  It is God’s word because God has revealed his character and his will.  It is culturally shaped because that revelation comes through the forms, concepts and symbols used by a people group located within a particular historical, geographical and cultural setting.

In particular, the gospel message originates with God and is communicated through his word, but the medium of communication is the culture of the hearers.  To communicate the meaning of the cross to the first century believers, many everyday metaphors, familiar to them, were used: sacrificial images, redemption / ransom pictures, salvation / deliverance metaphors, judicial / forensic language, concepts of forgiveness.  Many of these connected with the action of God in the history of Israel (e.g., concepts of salvation, redemption and sacrifice) while others drew on common social structures of the time (e.g., familial, slavery and judicial images). Contextualization takes place when cross-cultural communication of the message of the cross reveals the biblical message through common images within the language, concepts and imagination of the receptor audience (such as in Richardson’s example).  This method of communication, evident within Scripture, is a necessary pattern for the cross-cultural communicator.

Metaphors reveal the truth

The Prayer Man began to pray a lengthy and largely incomprehensible prayer. The people gathered round exuded a sense of excitement and anticipation, along with some apprehension, as the ceremony progressed.  One word in the prayer stood out, “Salamat,” the Dayat word for “salvation.” The prayer ended and, with further cries of “salamat,” some men picked up the raft and deposited it into the river. Beranyut in the Dayak language means “to float away,” and the people continued to shout as the raft began to move off downstream, leaving behind in their hearts a hope for a year of relief from the forces of evil that controlled their lives.  Loren followed as they moved with the raft downstream, watched as they released it from a tangle of branches in the water, and walked with them back to the village after they were assured that the raft had finally been set on fire by the lamp.  For another year, a propitiation had been made to the spirits in the hope of deliverance from fear, sickness and death.

metaphor is the best way to communicate the truth of the gospel

There is an important assumption lying behind this approach to contextualization that needs to be examined: metaphor is the best way to communicate the truth of the gospel. The goal of contextualization is not to “unpack” the metaphor or describe the truth “behind” the metaphor, as if the metaphor somehow obscures the reality or is less than what we can know about the truth.  Instead, the metaphor is itself the channel through which we come into the closest contact possible with the truth of the cross. The rational reduction of the metaphor into propositional statements does not take us deeper into truth. That approach merely uses a different, and often less helpful or complete, form of conceptual and cultural images to describe the truth. “To understand atonement, then, is to explore metaphors that open windows onto the act of God”.4

The goal of contextualization is not to construct a “mechanical” understanding of how atonement works and then use that as the basis of communicating the gospel across cultures. Attempts to peel away the “husk” of the metaphor to identify the “kernel” of propositional truth, rather than exposing reality, actually serves to take us farther from the significance of the cross.  Instead, the goal of cross-cultural communication is to discover the metaphors already present within the culture that resonate with the images of the cross provided for us within Scripture.  This resonance can then be enhanced, developed and deepened through the addition of other metaphors of the cross to obtain a number of facets or perspectives on the cross.

For example, a number of Muslim guests that I entertained in Pakistan would express disagreement over the concept of calling God “Father.”  Their arguments were logical, based on literal and biological assumptions: “God is Spirit, a father must have a body” and “To be a father, a person needs to have physical relationships with a woman,” and “We are creations of God, not his physical offspring.”  Because of their rational critique they were unable to enter into a relationship with God as father; they failed to embrace the metaphor in the way it was intended.  However, once reality is seen as relational and atonement is welcomed as reconciliation5 (one biblical metaphor), then the role of Jesus as the older brother bringing us back to the father has impact. As illustrated in the article Making the Gospel Understandable, it is not the analysis of the God as father that is important, but the act and experience of relating to God as father.

George MacDonald gets to the heart of matter by claiming that it is the “outside of things,” not the analysis of things that brings us closest to the truth:

The show of things is that for which God cares most, for their show is the face of far deeper things than they; we see in them, in a distant way, as in a glass darkly, the face of the unseen. It is through their show, not through their analysis, that we enter into their deepest truths. What they say to the childlike soul is the truest thing to be gathered of them. To know a primrose is a higher thing than to know all the botany of it.6

The truth of the flower is, not the facts about it, be they correct as ideal science itself, but the shining, glowing, gladdening, patient thing throned on its stalk – the compeller of smile and tear from child and prophet…. The idea of God is the flower; his idea is not the botany of the flower. Its botany is but a thing of ways and means – of canvas and colour and brush in relation to the picture in the painter’s brain.7

For me to know my family is far more important than to know about them. To know God is incomparable to knowing about him. Metaphors, far more than explanations, lead us into a relationship with and experience of God.

Contextualization functions on the assumption that it is not the analysis of metaphor or reducing biblical expressions to mere “illustrations” of facts that allows one to communicate, but the recognition that the metaphor becomes the door through which our hearers experience the reality of the atonement.  When they hear the message and connect the significance of the cross to experiences and relationships within their own context, then, and only then, Jesus’ death and resurrection becomes relevant and attractive to them.  The effective cross-cultural communicator, therefore, seeks for those images within the culture that connect people to the metaphors of the Bible with resonance and impact.

Contextualizing the gospel through resonating metaphors

In his book, Eternity in Their Hearts,8 Richardson documents many “redemptive analogies” that connect the gospel message to people groups around the world.  The Beranyut ceremony of the Dayak people, even though it was not used as an initial bridge to the gospel, did become a significant point of resonance for some Dayak believers in later years in ways that unveiled the truth of what Jesus had done for them:

  • Because Jesus died “once for all,” they were freed from the once a year atonement that required an animal sacrifice (cf. Heb 10:10-14), a sacrifice that could not redeem (cf Heb 10:4).
  • The blood sprinkled on the people and the doorposts parallels the Old Testament rituals of covenantal cleansing (Ex 24:8, cf. Heb 9:19,20) and the passing over of the angel of death (Ex 12:7). These Old Testament images are fulfilled through the blood of the perfect Lamb of God (Heb 9:23-26).
  • The two chicks, one dead and one alive, call to mind the two goats used on the day of Atonement recorded in Leviticus 16.  While one goat is killed for the sins of the people, the high priest is instructed to “lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert” (Lev 16:21,22 TNIV).
  • Living among continual fear and sickness, the Prayer Man year after year pleaded for redemption from horrors inflicted by the spirits. Now Dayak believers rejoice in a sinless high priest who died for them once for all (Heb 7:26,27) and intercedes for them continually (Heb 7:25) to provide them with a daily experience of deliverance from sin, fear and death (cf. Heb 9:25-26).

In one sense, the cross of Christ cannot be comprehended and we only have glimpses of what it means.  The Gospel of John is a theological treatise on the nature of Christ that is like a welcome splash of cool water that provides a hint of the ocean. Angels continually ponder the implications of this central act of history (1 Peter 1:12).  Yet, at the same time, like the metaphor of “father,” God has provided us the opportunity and ability to use concepts and images of our own culture to grasp the meaning of salvation in Jesus.  It is the intersection of biblical teaching with cultural metaphors that provide the most fruitful results for people to appreciate and experience the gospel.

Contextualization for the cross-cultural worker needs to have the same orientation as Jesus had when he explained the kingdom of God.  He constantly drew images from daily life, images that resonated with the people, and said, “the kingdom of God is like…” so that they would understand and begin to grasp some of the basic realities of the kingdom.  Similarly, we have a number of different pictures given to us concerning the atonement in the Bible.  These are pictures common to the people’s daily life and experience.  Such images are both cultural and a true representation of reality.  As with the kingdom God, the only way to provide a true picture of the cross is by connecting a biblical metaphor to what is known in the culture of the receptor audience.  This is the skill that needs to be developed by the cross-cultural worker: to take the images present within the context and use them to reveal the meaning of the cross.  How can this be accomplished?  The next article provides one model that has proved helpful.


Mark spends part of his time assisting churches in developing significant cross-cultural relationships. If you are interested, please contact him via the Contact Me form. If you would like to leave a comment about this article, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.



  • 1 Loren is my colleague at Northwest Baptist Seminary and he related this story to me.
  • 2 Richardson, D. Peace Child. Ventura: Regal, 1974.
  • 3 For passages on the metaphor of victory over evil see Colossians 2:15, Hebrews  2:14-15.
  • 4 McKnight, S. A Community Called Atonement. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007, p. 39.
  • 5 ibid., p. 16.
  • 6 G. MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons Series II, The Voice of Job, p. 350.
  • 7 G. MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons Series III, The Truth, p. 465-466.
  • 8 Richardson, D. Eternity in Their Hearts. Ventura: Regal, 1984.


87. Making the Gospel Understandable

Searching for a Metaphor that Connects

“Give me my share of the inheritance” (Luke 15:11). With one small phrase the son callously declares that his Father is more valuable to him dead than alive.1 He dishonors his father, disregards his family, abandons his community and treats his religion with disdain.  In the Muslim Sindhi society,2 a shame-honor context, there is no redemption for such shameful actions.  The Jewish society of Jesus’ time was similar.3

How can we communicate the gospel cross-culturally? As we struggled with this task among the Sindhi people of Pakistan, my wife, Karen, insightfully noted that “the goal is not to make Sindhis understand the gospel (i.e., in terms of one specific model), but to make the gospel understandable.” The Bible provides us with a number of metaphors (salvation, justification, sacrifice, etc.) that reveal the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus. These metaphors were contextually sensitive to the first century audience, drawing on the experiences and concepts familiar to those readers. Explaining the gospel cross-culturally in our age requires us to discover suitable metaphors already present within a people group that will communicate the meaning of the cross in a way that both resonates with cultural understanding and is faithful to the message of the Bible.

The danger for the cross-cultural minister is to consider one biblical metaphor, such as justification – a forensic term used by the apostle Paul to mean that through Jesus’ death God has declared us righteous – and develop it exclusively as the foundational understanding of the gospel.  Such a narrow focus runs the danger of ignoring other biblical images that may connect more clearly and relevantly with the concerns and perspectives of the people group.  In the initial article of this series I referred to my own experience in making this mistake. When presenting the gospel to the Sindhi people of Pakistan, I used one particular metaphor of a court scene that drew on the concept of justification.  I came to realize that this image did not resonate with the perspective of the people with whom I was conversing.  In order to correct this, I developed a different approach based on other biblical metaphors of the gospel.  This article provides further detail about the picture of the gospel I began to use that connected with the way the Sindhi people view the world.

A good friend of mine was troubled with my response to the guest who challenged the court metaphor I was using.  A part of my article is copied below with the objectionable phrases underlined:

To present the gospel, I would often use an illustration of a judge in order to communicate the need for Jesus’ death and resurrection.  My argument was that if someone commits a crime, a just judge can’t forgive wrongdoing based on past good deeds; he must punish the crime.  By implication, God cannot forgive our sins without payment or intervention from someone who can pay the price.

I had presented this scenario to my Muslim visitor.  After thinking for a few minutes he said, “It is true that a judge must be just, but a just judge can also be merciful.  Mercy need not be in conflict with justice, and God is a merciful God. God can forgive without undermining justice.”  I had been long enough in the country to realize the implication of this statement and I was struck silent for a time.  I finally replied, “You are right. I will need to think about this.”

My friend summarized the interchange as follows, which revealed his concern:

You: God cannot forgive sin without payment or intervention.
Guest: God can forgive sin without payment or intervention.
You: You are right.

this particular image … was not communicating

By putting it in this point form I see why he was disturbed, because such a rendering could imply that Jesus’ death is not necessary for salvation!  This was not my intent. Rather, my response was a recognition that this particular image of the meaning of the cross was not communicating in a significant or appropriate manner. It was an “aha” moment for me that initiated the search for a metaphor that would make sense to Sindhi ears.


Identifying the Sindhi Perspective

Living apart from his father, his family and his community, the son has no one to help him in desperate times.  He knows that he cannot return.  He has burned his bridges. But then he has an idea, “Not as a son, nor even as a servant in the house, but maybe as a hired worker! I can earn my living and even start to pay back what has been lost.4 Perhaps the mercy of the father will extend that far.”  He begins the journey home.


I began my ministry in the Sindh with the assumption that the Sindhi people approached salvation from a theology of works. That is, their hope was in their own ability to do more good deeds than bad and thus be able to enter heaven. The criteria for salvation was a simple accounting algorithm: When good – bad = +ve, then heaven is the reward. My use of the penal substitution imagery addressed this view by demonstrating that good deeds cannot mitigate the wrong that we have done.  Our only hope is if someone will take our punishment for us.  What I did not realize, until my conversation with my guest, was that I was addressing the wrong assumption.  Due to the influence of Sufism (the mystical side of Islam), the majority of Sindhis with whom I was communicating were neither denying the seriousness of their sin, nor attempting to accumulate credits from good deeds to be applied against the wrong that they had done.  Instead, their hope for salvation lay in the mercy of God to forgive.

their hope for salvation was in the mercy of God to forgive

Thus, when I said, “You are right,” I did not mean “God can forgive sin without payment or intervention.”  What I meant was “You are right.  This explanation of salvation does not adequately address your trust in God’s mercy.”  I also meant, “You are right. In human courts a just judge can forgive without punishing.” When it is obvious that a person’s character has changed and they have repented from their sin, the judge can decide that this “new” person should no longer be identified with the past sin, and therefore say, “I do not condemn you.  Go and sin no more.”  And this would be just, because true justice makes things right. Because the person’s orientation has changed, they do not require punishment (although restitution may be another issue). We understand this as parents and refrain from punishing children who show genuine remorse.  The goal is the restoration and correct orientation of the child to what is good, not a legalistic conformity to a sin / punishment paradigm.


A Resonating Image: Jesus as the Mercy of God

Even before the son could begin his speech of repentance, before he can articulate his plan of being hired and working his way back into the community, the father has come running –  RUNNING! To the shock of all, he abandoned the dignity and pride of the patriarchal position in order to embrace the son who had shamed and humiliated them all.5 The father calls for his best robe to cover the rags, his signet ring to restore the son’s position and shoes to remove the shame.  In the Sindhi culture, the feet are the place of shame.  One of the greatest insults is to remove your shoe and show the bottom of it to another person.  In a series of swift commands the consequences of the son’s sin are swallowed up by the father’s mercy.  With no regard for the shame, pain or loss that he suffers from this act, the father removes the obstacles between him and his son and calls for a celebration. Forgiveness is never free, someone always suffers.

Because of my new understanding of the Sindhi context, I realized that I needed a different picture of the cross that would address their perspective.  They don’t need to be told that they are sinners; they know that already.  They don’t need to be taught that good deeds don’t outweigh the bad; they are aware of their inability to attain that assurance.  They don’t need to be taught that God is merciful because that truth is repeated continuously throughout the day. One of the most common Arabic phrases I heard during my time in the Sindh was bismallah, a rahman, a raheem – in the name of God, the most merciful, the most gracious.

Jesus is the mercy of God

Through the interaction with my visitor I came to realize that what Sindhis need is an explanation of how Jesus is the mercy of God; how Jesus is the way to that “new birth,” to becoming holy, to becoming a “new creature.”  They need a picture of salvation in which Jesus becomes sin for us by entering into our separation from God on the cross so that we can access that mercy.  He became one with us – the Word became human (Jn 1:14) – and that incarnation was completed on the cross when he cried, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). While on earth Jesus was never totally one with us until the cross.  He was sinless, his relationship with the Father was not broken, until the cross.  But on the cross he took our sin, our death, our hell, on himself so that we could live. Jesus is the way that the mercy of God is realized in our lives.  Now those who do repent and humbly turn to Jesus are “in Christ” and therefore become alive to God.  He became one with us in our separation from God so that we could become one with him in union with God.  God freely forgives, because of what it cost Jesus.

God freely forgives, because of what it cost Jesus

This image resonates with the Sindhi worldview and perspective of God as merciful and forgiving.  The problem with the metaphor of the court setting was that it communicated to Sindhi ears that God could not be merciful. He needed to punish someone because of a legal difficulty that he could not set aside.  That is, the court metaphor created a contrast between God’s mercy and his punishment, and in this way miscommunicated the gospel as if God’s need to punish took precedent over his mercy.  What they needed was a realization that the work of Christ in taking the punishment was God’s way to pour out his mercy.  What I needed to contextualize the gospel was an image of salvation that affirmed what they already believed about the mercy of God, but put it squarely in the context of Jesus’ work of salvation, his substitutionary atonement on the cross. Because Jesus died – as an expression of God’s mercy rather than a focus on punishment – we do not.  George MacDonald’s quote resonates well with the Sindhi context: “It satisfied love to suffer for another, but it does not satisfy justice that the innocent should be punished for the guilty.”


The True Older Brother

Forgiveness is never free, someone always suffers

The older son is furious.  He does not appreciate the father’s love and mercy.  Nor does he value the father’s concern for relationship.  His heart, like the younger son’s, is focused on the benefits he gained from the father, not on the father himself.6 In shame-honor cultures mediation is the norm rather than direct confrontation, and it is often the older brother’s responsibility to seek out and restore those family members who have gone wrong.  This is true for the Sindhi context. In the story, the older brother not only neglected this role, but is now furious when his brother is restored.  However, there is another older brother implied by this scenario who needs be mentioned.  Jesus is the older brother who responds in stark contrast to the older brother in the story.7 He is the one who did come to seek and save, who did come to suffer and die, who did come to bring life to the dead. Such mercy is costly.  Forgiveness is never free, someone always suffers.

There is an appealing Islamic saying told to me by the leader of a Islamic group in Canada, “God has given 1% of his mercy to the earth, and reserved 99% for the day of judgment.”  It is appealing for it grasps the grandeur of God’s graciousness and love towards human beings.  But it is not Christian.  The message of the cross proclaims that God has reserved none of his mercy for a later time, but has poured it all out on the cross.  Jesus is the mercy of God.  “In Christ” we experience the full mercy of God.


In the next article I will address the inevitability of using metaphors to communicate the gospel and the importance of choosing culturally sensitive metaphors. In a further article I hope to demonstrate the value of holding as the heart of the gospel Alistair McGrath’s phrase “the saving action of God toward mankind in Jesus Christ,”8 when seeking contextually relevant metaphors.


Mark spends part of his time assisting churches in developing significant cross-cultural relationships. If you are interested, please contact him via the Contact Me form. If you would like to leave a comment about this article, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.


  • 1 Bailey, K The Pursuing Father at http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/2367.htm, see also Bailey, K 1976 (1983 combined Ed). Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 162 and Keller, T 2008. The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. New York: Dutton, p. 18.
  • 2 Mark and his wife, Karen, worked among the Sindhi people for 14 years.
  • 3Malina, BJ 1981. The New Testament World: Insights from cultural Anthropology. Louisville: John Knox Press, pp 25-50.
  • 4 Keller 2008. p. 21.
  • 5 Bailey 1976, pp. 181-182. See also Rohrbaugh, RL 1997. A Dysfunctional Family and Its Neighbours in Jesus and his Parables: Interpreting the Parables of Jesus Today, V. George Shillington (Ed). Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 141-164, p. 158.
  • 6 Keller 2008, pp. 49-50,53-56,58-59,62. See also Nouwen, HJM 1992. The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. New York: Doubleday. pp. 20-21.
  • 7 Keller 2008. pp. 80-81.
  • 8 McGrath, A 1986. Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification from 1500 to the Present Day. Cambridge University Press, pp. 1:2-3.

86. Contextualization and the Essence of the Gospel

This article tries to explain why a contextualization of the gospel, such as described in Shaping the Gospel Message so that it Resonates, does not compromise the Bible or the gospel message. It argues that one universal explanation of the cross is insufficient to communicate the gospel message because of the depth of the gospel and the diversity of the nations.


“Don’t talk to him.  He has a demon!”

It was a fairly cool day in the Sindh, Pakistan when I sat down on the cot in the courtyard of Nathaniel’s1 house to chat with him.  I noticed another man in the corner of the courtyard, sitting by himself.  I asked Nathaniel who he was.  “He is my uncle,” he replied.  “But don’t talk to him.  He has a demon.”  I was somewhat taken aback by this and rehearsed in my mind any teaching or training I had received in Canada that would have equipped me to deal with a demon.  I came up with a blank and so took Nathaniel’s advice.


each culture’s reading and experience of the world is vastly different

While living in Pakistan we came to the realization that the stories of Jesus’ authority over demons had a far different impact for Sindhis than the stories had for Canadians.  While Sindhis welcome the possibility of overcoming a very real fear in their lives, Canadians tend to be puzzled about the lack of demons in the world and discuss how “demons” should be understood.  The contexts determine the significance of the story.  Because each culture’s reading and experience of the world is vastly different, people’s responses to the stories are different as well.  Similarly, some expressions of the gospel message that are impacting in Canada do not connect with the Sindhi people.


The Main Question

Some people assume that there is one particular understanding of the significance of the cross that is “real,” all other biblical descriptions or images are considered mere metaphors of that one perspective.  But is this so? Or are all the images equally true and “real” expressions of the atonement?  In particular, is the “penal substitution” description of the meaning of the cross, i.e., that “Jesus satisfies the wrath of God by enduring the punishment we deserved on account of our sins,”2 the essence of the gospel message, or is it one expression out of several, albeit one that helps those understand the gospel who have a particular worldview?


I propose that the “penal substitution” picture is a true and valid explanation of the gospel that, along with other equally valid metaphors, helps us understand and experience the reality of Christ’s work on the cross.  It is a picture that connects well in a culture that values the rule of law and sees justice as a leading principle. However, it is not the only valid image.  Other cultural contexts require different or additional descriptions to appropriately grasp the enormity of the gospel message. Due to the nature of the gospel, multiple images are required to do justice to the universe-altering impact of Jesus’ death and resurrection; and, due to the nature of cultures, multiple images are required to speak to the diversity of worldviews and experiences of reality.


What I am NOT saying

When I speak of an “image” or “picture” of the gospel, I am not suggesting that it is less than, or other than, the gospel. Rather, the use of images and metaphors is a necessary form of communication that allows us to comprehend the gospel by using symbols and concepts familiar to us.  It can be compared to the image of God as “father” in the New Testament.  This description of God used by Jesus is a contextualization of an absolute truth; it is an aspect of God’s character that constitutes reality. Jesus uses a cultural symbol and metaphor (“father”) so that we may grasp the relationship that God desires to have with us. The depth of God’s love for us is revealed through our experiences of familial love in our human contexts.  In the same way, proper contextualization of Christ’s death on the cross draws on appropriate and impacting images from the cultural setting in order to communicate in a way that resonates with that culture.  By “resonates,” I mean that it connects in a meaningful and relevant way so that lives are transformed.


When I suggest that a contextualization of the gospel will use a different metaphor for salvation than “penal substitution,” this should not be construed as a denial of the truth of that description.  A judicial or legal perspective of our standing before God is a biblical picture. Perhaps the clearest imagery used to support this view comes, not from the New Testament, but from the suffering servant in Isaiah 53:

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all (NIV, verses 5,6).

This understanding of the meaning of the cross recognizes that God cannot overlook sin, and the consequence of sin is God’s wrath, i.e., death (Rom 6:23).  Furthermore, it emphasizes substitution, the need for Jesus to die so that we can live.  “Either we die or he dies.”3 “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).


Many Images, One Gospel

These are important truths that cannot be lost, but more than one explanation can accommodate them. Moreover, it is important for the sake of communication of the gospel into other cultural contexts that we do not to elevate one concept, such as “penal substitution,” above the other images of atonement given to us in the Bible in order to communicate these realities.  If we assume that the “penal substitution” scenario, in which we are acquitted of punishment because Jesus pays the price through his death, is the one and only true description of the work of the cross, then all the other images – redemption, ransom, propitiation, sacrifice, forgiveness, deliverance, etc., – become “mere” metaphors pointing to the one penal substitution truth.  In contrast, contextualization assumes that all the biblical descriptions of the death and resurrection of Jesus can be used to bring people to faith in Christ, and their emphasis and expression will depend on the context.


There are a number of reasons why teaching penal substitution as the only true and real understanding of the significance of the cross is problematic:

  • First, it undermines the impact of the other biblical images, which are also true and real descriptions of the cross of Christ, by attempting to make them “fit” into a penal substitution model.
  • Second, when it is considered the only “real” description of the meaning of the cross, people attempt to answer all questions about the atonement according to that one picture. The result is that the logical implication of the metaphor can be pushed too far leading to a perversion of the gospel message.  For example, I have talked to a number of people who have abandoned their faith because this expression was interpreted as “divine child abuse” or a cruel manipulation.
  • Third, it fails to recognize that a worldview grid that emphasizes law and justice makes this particular image resonate in a western culture.  As a result, it is sometimes used as the default explanation within cross-cultural contexts even though other biblical images would have a better impact and communicate a clearer message of the cross.


The Core of the Gospel message

There are aspects of the gospel message that must not be lost, no matter what image is used to communicate the gospel.  The core is that Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplishes our deliverance from sin (1 Cor 15:3,4).  The images used to communicate that reality will depend on the context of the audience and will require the message to be shaped in a way that speaks to them in their cultural forms and language.  The following article will explain why contextualization is inevitable, and provide the beginning of a theology of culture to support the claim that any and all explanations of the cross are culturally shaped.  A future article will provide one particular model of the atonement that facilitates the contextualization of the gospel in other cultures.

Mark spends part of his time assisting churches in developing significant cross-cultural relationships. If you are interested, please contact him via the Contact Me form. If you would like to leave a comment about this article, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.



  • 1 Not his real name.
  • 2 Green, J & Baker, M 2000. Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in the New Testament and Contemporary Contexts. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 13.
  • 3 Morris, L. 1955, 1983. The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 213.

85. Shaping the Gospel message so that it Resonates

A Shift in Communicating Salvation

There was a pause in the conversation.  My visitor considered seriously the illustration I had presented to him.  He then spoke words that became a critical turning point in my ministry in Pakistan – he challenged my understanding of salvation.  To present the gospel, I would often use an illustration of a judge in order to communicate the need for Jesus’ death and resurrection.  My argument was that if someone commits a crime, a just judge can’t forgive wrongdoing based on past good deeds; he must punish the crime.  By implication, God cannot forgive our sins without payment or intervention from someone who can pay the price.

I had presented this scenario to my Muslim visitor.  After thinking for a few minutes he said, “It is true that a judge must be just, but a just judge can also be merciful.  Mercy need not be in conflict with justice, and God is a merciful God. God can forgive without undermining justice.”  I had been long enough in the country to realize the implication of this statement and I was struck silent for a time.  I finally replied, “You are right.  I will need to think about this.”

This was a crisis point for me and I realized that the judicial view of salvation that I had been teaching, based on Paul’s forensic metaphors in Romans, did not resonate in this Muslim setting.  My assumption was that people were depending on their good works for forgiveness, but this was not necessarily the case.  Their hope was in the mercy of a God who knows our weakness and is willing to forgo punishment.  In Canada, we live in a guiltinnocence culture; sin is doing wrong against a moral code and we have a high regard for the rule of law. On the other hand, Pakistani Muslims live in a shame-honor culture.1 Forgiveness is always possible when a command is broken, but a person who dishonors their family faces disastrous consequences, often without the hope of redemption.  I set aside a couple of days to wrestle with this question and discovered a perspective on the salvation of Christ that connects more closely with their felt need for a savior: through bearing the cross of shame (Gal 3:13), Jesus joins us in our separation from God. Because his relation to the Father has not been broken and he is alive with God, we can have a restored relationship with God by becoming “in Christ” (to use Paul’s phrase, eg. Rom 8:1).

Through this experience I realized that people with a history, culture and traditions unlike ours need to hear the message of salvation in a way that is relevant to them, a way that resonates with their sense of brokenness and need.  The way we understand Jesus’ salvation in our setting may not connect with the view of reality in another setting. Effective communication means that the hearer understands within the categories they use to make sense of the world.  By using words and concepts that they are familiar with, we are able to contextualize the gospel message.

Contextualization in Canada

Marie2 took a break from her emotionally taxing work at a charity in downtown Victoria to visit a family friend who made a comment about her spiritual search by means of an eastern meditation technique.  Marie responded by asking, “Does that satisfy you?”  The colleague was silent for a moment and then said, “Actually, no.  It doesn’t.”  The honesty of Marie’s friend has opened the door to further significant conversations, but where does she go from here? Would a description of the death and resurrection of Christ be accepted as the fulfillment of her colleague’s spiritual search?  How is Marie to discover and communicate how the message of the gospel resonates with her colleague’s yearning?

When a Christian believer interacts with a person with different beliefs there are a number of barriers that must be crossed in order for them to converse intelligently about their respective faiths.  Furthermore, intercultural encounters require lengthy and elaborate communication to facilitate reciprocal understanding.  For example, an outline of the gospel that makes sense to the Christian will be met with incomprehension from a Muslim:

Christian: “Because Jesus died, we can be forgiven.”

Muslim: “But is not God free to forgive whomever he wants?”

This gap of understanding needs to be bridged by discovering how the cross of Christ resonates with the spiritual need of those who do not know Jesus.

Steps to Discover Gospel Resonance

Fortunately, there are steps that can be taken by the believer to make the gospel message comprehensible to a friend whose allegiance is with another faith.  In Learning to talk ENGLISH, we considered four steps provided by Wen-Shu Lee that can help an English speaker converse comfortably with an ESL (English as second language) speaker.3 These same steps can be adapted to provide a process through which the gospel message can be shaped in a way that resonates with others.

Step 1. Establish a Conversational Etiquette that facilitates open dialogue about faith.

Younas sighed and looked ruefully at the end of his burning cigarette.  He had given up drinking “bhung,” a narcotic, he had quit chewing betel nut, but he couldn’t give up smoking. Whenever I meet with Younas, we share our faith journeys with each other and through the drifting smoke we discussed some Sufi sayings that he found significant (Sufism is a mystical expression of Islam popular among the Sindhi people). On this occasion one of the sayings reminded me of a lesson from the Sermon on the Mount, and I showed him the Scripture passage.  Laughing, he replied, “Every time I tell you a Sufi teaching, you are able to show me something similar that Jesus said.”  I concurred and explained, “In the Bible it says that Jesus is the Word of God.  He is the source of truth and all truth originates in him.”  Our established conversational etiquette permitted us to be open with each other about our faiths.

As emphasized in the articles on Significant Conversations, a conversation is not a battle to be won, but a pleasant interchange of ideas and experiences.  The purpose should not be to establish superiority of belief.  Such a stance will damage the relationship by initiating arguments, not conversations, about faith. Instead seek to establish an environment in which both faiths can be discussed, and be respected even in their differences.  There are a number of actions that will ensure this:

  • Listen to understand your friend’s faith, not to find weaknesses or inconsistencies.
  • Articulate your friend’s faith back to them so that they are convinced that you not only understand what they believe, but appreciate this intimate part of their lives.
  • Communicate your own faith with the goal of transparency so your relationship with your friend can deepen.
  • Follow the ABC process: Agree, Build and Contrast (See article: Tools for Talking about Jesus).
  • Don’t spend time developing arguments about why your faith is true, except where such concepts shape your life.  Tell stories about how Jesus makes a difference in your life.

(For further discussion on ways to hold Significant Conversations see “God will not let me not into heaven”)

Step 2. Differentiate between explanations about faith and stories of personal faith

Joanne was adjusting her chair so she could better view the other members of the committee around the table when one of her colleagues declared, “I am a very spiritual person.”  My friend was taken aback and interpreted this as arrogance and an expression of superiority, which is how it would be understood in our Christian or churched culture. She only realized later that her colleague was referring to a sensitivity to and interest in a reality beyond the material needs of life. Metatalk is important when conversing with people of other faiths in order to avoid misattribution: judging someone’s actions according to incorrect assumptions.4

When discussing faith, communication needs to take place on two levels.  The most important level is sharing stories of personal faith experiences.  When we talk about what moves us spiritually, whether a passage of Scripture, appreciation for salvation in Christ or the intimacy of prayer, we are being transparent and vulnerable about who we are.  This is what it means to be a “witness” to our faith.

However, a second level of metatalk is critical when speaking to someone of another faith. Metatalk happens when we step back from the content of the conversation and ensure that communication is actually occurring.  Linguistic Metatalk occurs when we discuss the meaning of vocabulary and concepts to ensure a common understanding.  A colleague related her frustration as a missionary in Latin America while dialoguing with nominal Catholics.  Although the religious terminology was the same, the assumed meaning of the words was different which hampered communication.  I have started to develop a new vocabulary to avoid using Christian words that tend to be misunderstood in the Canadian context.  For example:

Instead of…        I say…

Fear of God =    don’t be careless with God

Sin =   telling God “we can do better for ourselves than by following your way.”

Redemption =  “there is a way to be good again”5

Relational metatalk happens when we talk about the appropriate respect expected by each other when discussing spiritual things.  For example, in Islam the physical Scriptures are sacred, not just the message, and must not be placed on the floor.  The prophets’ names require titles of respect.  The way God’s name is used needs clarification.  A friend was talking to a Muslim woman who had learned English and was using the phrase, “Oh my God!”  When he questioned her, she was devastated to learn that in many western contexts the expression is used as an expletive rather than a sincere reference to God.  In her Islamic context, God’s name is constantly invoked with respect so that his presence is acknowledged.  Metatalk provides a means to prevent inadvertent offense and discomfort.

Step 3. Identify the spiritual yearnings of your friend.

a whole new doorway of understanding about how salvation can be communicated

Abdul Ali leaned towards me intently and responded to the story of Jesus washing the disciples feet.  He said, “Jesus’ meaning, as far as I understand, is this.  He was a prophet of God.  According to this book and according to our faith, he was a beloved prophet of God.  God gave him all knowledge to know who was true to him and who deceived him.  So God gave him the wisdom to know how to make his followers holy.  This means that there was a message here that Jesus said he would wash their feet and make them holy, that is, draw them towards him.  With his hands he would wash the feet, make the person holy and so draw the person towards him.”6

I had never heard the washing of Jesus’ feet explained in this way, but at this point in our discussion the correct interpretation of the passage was not the point.  I was discovering an aspect of the Sindhi culture that would open up a whole new doorway of understanding about how salvation can be communicated.

The way Jesus fulfills my spiritual longings will not necessarily reflect the way my friend finds Jesus relevant to his life.  We cannot assume that what makes sense to us about salvation will resonate with those from another religious tradition.  This was the primary discovery of the research project, Towards Contextualized Bible Storying: Cultural factors which influence impact in a Sindhi context.  We need to first understand how people hear scripture from within their different culture setting in order to shape the gospel message in a way that connects with their worldview.

This is accomplished by listening carefully to our friends when they describe their faith.  What are the spiritual yearnings that they hope will be fulfilled through the practice of their faith?  How does their faith make a difference in their life? It is important at this stage to listen well to discover the stories, images and concepts that express their spiritual concern.

The concepts of “clean” and “unclean” as spiritual issues are lacking in our western society. In another story, when Jesus heals a woman of her constant bleeding (Lu 8:43-48), we are impressed with Jesus’ power and compassion.  But the impact of Jesus reaching out his hand, touching the unclean and making them clean, is, for us, a minor part of the miracle. However, for those living in a culture like the Sindh, the state of being constantly unclean gives impact to the story.  A woman in the Muslim Sindhi culture is not permitted to touch a holy book during her period.  She cannot come into the presence of God because she is unclean, unfit for the holiness of God.  Imagine 12 continuous years of separation from God!  For the Sindhi reader, Jesus did not just heal a woman from a daily discomfort and medical distress, but released her from spiritual bondage and set her free to come into God’s presence.  The concept of  “unclean” for a Sindhi Muslim woman can reflect a deep spiritual longing that, when discovered, opens the door to the gospel.

Step 4. Demonstrate how Jesus addresses your friend’s spiritual desires

Manzoor raised his voice against the rattle of traffic outside the door as he related to me an expression of his faith in Jesus.  He had recently donated one of his kidneys to his brother who had suffered kidney failure.  After the operation, a number of people came up to him and said, “Because of that great sacrifice you are surely destined for heaven!”  His reply was that his action was not the reflection of a desire for heaven, nor was it fit as credit for paradise.  Instead, the action demonstrated his faith in Jesus.  Jesus showed the way of giving up his life for the sake of others.  Jesus’ death on the cross intersects with Manzoor’s life.  Jesus’ sacrifice resonates with that expression of his faith.  This powerful connection of the gospel with real life illustrates one way the gospel message has been contextualized into the Sindhi setting.

The final step to shape the gospel message in a way that fits the perspectives of others is to connect God’s word with the spiritual desires that have been identified in their lives.  As we provide stories and examples of teaching from Scripture that connect with these desires, we illustrate how Jesus is relevant to them.  Furthermore, illustrations from our friends’ own cultural context, such as in Manzoor’s example, can also reveal Biblical values. Discovering such stories will provide a clear connection between their spiritual yearnings and the Gospel message.

For the Sindhi Muslim, there are many connections between their lives and the gospel message: the sacrificial system, a concern for ritual purity, respect for God’s word, the importance of obedience and submission, the role of prayer in their relationship with God.  Similar connections exist in Canada.  Contextualization, whether in Pakistan or here in Canada, demands that we discover and understand the spiritual hungers that people have and then do the hard work of discovering how the gospel message can be communicated so that it resonates with those hungers.

Mark spends part of his time assisting churches in developing significant cross-cultural relationships. If you are interested, please contact him via the Contact Me form. If you would like to leave a comment about this article, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.


  • 1 Roland Muller proposes that each culture is influenced in different degrees by three dichotomies: Shame-honor, Guilt-innocence and Fear-power. See Muller, R 2000. Honor and Shame: Unlocking the Door. USA: Xlibris.
  • 2 The names used in this article have been changed.
  • 3 Lee, Wen-Shu 2000. That’s Greek to Me: Between a Rock and a Hard Place in Intercultural Encounters in Intercultural Communication: A Reader. 9th Ed. Samovar, Larry A. and Porter, Richard E. Eds. Belmont: Wadworth Pub, 222.
  • 4 Patty Lane helpfully elaborates on misattribution and how it can be overcome in her book A Beginner’s Guide to Crossing Cultures: Making Friends in a multi-cultural world. IVP: Downers Grove, 27-30.
  • 5 Husseini, K 2003. The Kite Runner. Canada: Random House, 2.
  • 6 Naylor, M. 2004. Towards Contextualized Bible Storying: Cultural factors which influence impact in a Sindhi context. Unpublished: 68-69.

77. The Pastor as Spiritual Coach (Part II)

see also The Pastor as Spiritual Coach (Part I)

From Programs to Contextualization

Who is to blame: the Congregation or the Leadership?

spiritual-maturity1In my responsibility of providing outreach and missions resources to churches, I have come across a curious phenomenon. My experience is that there are a number of people in church leadership who do not have a positive view of the spiritual maturity and commitment of their congregation.  Comments such as “a mile wide and an inch deep,” “20% do 80% of the work,” “half an hour after the sermon is over they don’t remember it, let alone apply it,”  “they don’t take advantage of opportunities to go deeper,” and “they don’t know their Bibles” have been expressed in my hearing.  Why this is curious is that my experience with the people of God in our churches has given me quite the opposite opinion.  I have been constantly impressed, motivated and encouraged by the level of spiritual maturity and commitment to Christ in the people I meet.

leadership-developed-visionI have an uncomfortable suspicion that a significant part of this negative view of congregations stems from an inadequate approach to ministry by the leadership.  The average church organization, whether labeled traditional, seeker sensitive or missional, has a leadership-driven program which members of the church are encouraged to support.  The response by the congregation tends to be less than expected, especially if support has been indicated by a congregational vote.1 Priorities of attendance, giving and evangelistic participation are not at the level the leadership considers appropriate, and so the congregation is judged to be lacking in spiritual maturity. However, involvement in church organized activities is unlikely to prove to be a good measurement of spiritual maturity.

An alternate approach to ministry

member-developed-visions2A couple of months ago, Karen and I proposed to our church an approach to ministry that focuses on the visions and desires of the individuals in the congregation.  Rather than developing a church wide vision and unified program in which all are expected to participate, the pastor acts as spiritual coach to empower believers in their desire to become intentional and authentic followers of Christ within their day-to-day lives.  Instead of encouraging people to “get involved in the church program,” the focus becomes “how can I be a support to you as you serve Jesus in your daily life?” The role of the spiritual coach is to help believers develop spiritually synergistic relationships with people both inside and outside of the church, as opposed to a posture of attending church events or participating in church programs. Instead of approaching people with the call to “join our team,” the pastor asks, “How can I be a part of your ministry?” I believe that such a change in focus would alter the perspective of pastors as they witness people’s concerns, prayers and struggles in their God given role of being salt and light.

Organic Community

help them become more intentional Christians within their current life setting

There are a number of writers who view the church in a similar way.  In his excellent book, Organic Community,2 Joseph Myers encourages leaders to make “the shift from programmer (master planner) to environmentalist (one who follows the principles of organic order to create and shape environments)” (34).  Rather than adopting “models and programs that force prescriptive patterns onto our congregations, … [o]rganic order suggests there are many patterns we can use to connect to God and others.” (40-41).  People are already living according to patterns and rhythms that make sense to them.  Instead of calling them out of a context that defines their life so that they can serve in an organization driven program, it would be more satisfying and impacting to help them become more intentional Christians within their current life setting and relationships.  Myers says, “[A] master plan tries to manufacture life, whereas organic order is an invitation to live.” (28) There is wisdom in encouraging church leadership to start where individual people live, and discover the ways that God is working in and through them. Synergy is created when people are encouraged and guided in the tasks they have initiated themselves, whereas pulling people into a centralized structure can result in frustration.  In this organic dynamic, the scorecard is not attendance at events, but people’s stories.  “Story is the measurement tool of community” (80).  It is the narratives of those who have been impacted through their relationship with people in the church that measures the life of the community.

Another complaint I have come across from church leadership is that a major weakness of the congregation is that people are self-centered.  The claim is that they come to church events with a clientele mentality looking to have their needs met.   However, from my experience, I would agree with Myers that this perspective is a  “misunderstanding that people generally operate from a position of ‘What’s in it for me?’”  He further states that he does not find the presumption to be true, “Most people are not primarily selfish or self-serving.” When people are asked to participate in a project,

organic-communityI do not see that people are asking, “What’s in it for me?” Instead, they want to know, “Why me?” This is not a self-serving question. It is a self-identifying, individual question.

People participate as individuals. They are interested in why they – specifically – are being asked.  They want to know that you have chosen them first and foremost because of who they are, not to fulfill a strategic master plan.

‘Why me?’ comes from a deep desire to live beyond one’s self. A person wants to contribute in concrete ways, possibly in ways that only he or she could.” (62)

I believe that the reason many believers do not participate in the programs of their church is not that they are ignoring their responsibility, but because they are not convinced that those ministries are God’s calling for them. Imagine a ministry mentality that begins and ends with the dreams and visions of the individual members.  Rather than searching for gifted people in the congregation to fulfill the needs of an overall church program, the focus is to create connections and provide support that guides believers to discover the calling of God in their lives.

Missional Renaissance

The reluctance of believers to serve church programs is not an indication that they are spiritual immature

Reggie McNeal has one helpful chapter in his book, Missional Renaissance,3 that deals with this congregation-focused orientation.  He begins with a personal anecdote during his days as the leader of a programmatic church.  One day he asked himself, “Are people better off for being a part of this church, or are they just tireder (sic) and poorer?” He realized that he did not know. He “could tell how busy people were with church but not how their lives were going” (89).  In a major shift from this pattern of ministry, he calls leadership to recognize and conform their ministry to the fact that people do not want to fit their lives into the program of the church (96).  The reluctance of believers to serve church programs is not an indication that they are spiritually immature or selfish.  Instead, he claims that “God has created a cultural milieu where people are clamoring to grow…. [So] get out of the church business and into the people business.” (111).  In praising one pastor who has changed from a program director to someone who empowers and releases the people in the congregation, McNeal says,

miss-ren-mcnealHe plays the essential part of empowering leaders to pursue their callings and passions. He strengthens others’ obedience by creating a culture where they can say yes to the Spirit…. [All] the ministries he told me about happened away from the church. This same pastor went on to say, “I wouldn’t have a clue how to do what they do.” The very thought that clergy could preside over these kingdom expressions is ludicrous. Yet many congregational leaders do not trust people to minister out of their sight. (140)

Spiritual Coaching Description

Steve Ogne and Tim Roehl provide a good definition for the spiritual coaching of leaders that pastors can use to create the kind of environment that Myers and McNeal are promoting, “Coaches help people develop their God-given potential so that they grow personally and make a valuable contribution to the kingdom of God.” Ogne goes on to underscore the essential principles (with alterations to emphasize the application to the pastor as spiritual coach),

  1. transformissional_coaching_book“Coaches help people.” Coaching is a relationship…, not a program. It is focused on the [believer], not the program. You coach a [believer], not his or her ministry….
  2. “[D]evelop their God-given potential.” The potential comes from God, not the coach. A coach helps draw out the vision, values, gifts, calling, and passion God has already placed in the [believer].
  3. “[S]o that they grow personally.” Like mentoring, coaching is concerned with the personal (including … family), spiritual, and professional growth….
  4. “[M]ake a valuable contribution” Coaches help [believers] accomplish something for God. Coaches help [believers] identify and fulfill their specific calling and contribution.
  5. “[T]he kingdom of God. ” The kingdom of God is far greater than any one congregation…. [A pastor as spiritual coach will] ultimately equip individuals within their faith communities to engage and transform the culture as representatives of the kingdom of God.4

Spiritual Coaching as a means of Contextualization

The kind of thinking that promotes spiritual coaching resonates with missiological principles.  The temptation of leaders is to take control of the ministry and make decisions that bring immediate results. Programs are implemented that exhibit characteristics the church leadership wants to promote in the church.  The longer and more difficult road, which treats the people and environment being ministered to with respect, is to listen, discover and respond to the rhythms and networks that already exist as a natural part of people’s lives.  This is an important application of the principle of contextualization, an essential methodology for the cross-cultural minister. A problem arises in the North American church sub-culture when this principle is ignored.  Rather than altering the well-known traditional patterns of doing church to fit the ever changing rhythms of life of the community, the response of leadership can be to blame those who refuse to break their rhythms for the sake of a programmatic approach to ministry.  But many believers are not being lazy or spiritually immature.  Instead, they are seeking ways to bring Christ into their lives, rather than sacrificing activities that are fulfilling for the sake of a master plan that does not satisfy their spiritual hunger.

Mark spends part of his time coaching churches for evangelism and missions.  If you would like to contact him please use the Contact Me form.  If you would like to leave a comment, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.


  • 1 For a description of the 4 meanings of a “yes” vote see The Pastor as Spiritual Coach (part I).
  • 2 Myers, J. 2007. Organic Community: creating a place where people naturally connect. Grand Rapids: Baker.
  • 3 McNeal, R. 2009. Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard for the Church. San Francisco: Jossey-Boss
  • 4 Ogne, S. & Roehl, T. 2008. Transformissional Coaching: Empowering Leaders in a Changing Ministry World. Nashville: B&H Pub., pp. 26-27.

74. Influencing from Behind

perspectivesglobeEvery year I enjoy teaching the “Pioneering Church Planting” lesson for Perspectives on the World Christian movement in the  Lower Mainland, Vancouver.  Perspectives is a very popular and highly recommended course for any believer who has an interest in what God is doing worldwide.  The primary thesis of my lesson is that the cross-cultural church planter should not attempt to plant a church according to the presuppositions they bring to the task.  Rather the goal is to present Christ relevantly to a people group and see how Jesus creates his church using the forms and structures of that cultural setting.  The question the church planter must constantly ask is, “What would this look like if Jesus was Lord?”  “This” could refer to a neighborhood, a social structure or any organization that facilitates relationships between people.

What would this look like if Jesus was Lord?

I recently had the privilege to observe a cross-cultural church planter demonstrate several of the principles I had been teaching. He works among one of the largest unreached people groups. The names have been changed because of security concerns.

dolakRajeev is a follower of Christ with a Hindu background who dedicated his life to Christian service as a young man. He is a talented musician who plays an eastern style drum, a teacher of adult literacy and an evangelist of the gospel of Christ. The drum is a perfect analogy or symbol for Rajeev’s approach to ministry. The drummer is not the lead instrument, but provides structure and support for the singers and other instruments.  It does not dominate but enhances and guides.  It leads from behind.  With his mouth shut, Rajeev’s hands fly across the drum while others sing.  This reflects the attitude that Rajeev has as he serves Muslims with the goal of showing them the light of Christ.

imga0045When he teaches adult literacy, an important goal for Rajeev is for students to teach others what they have learned in their first week of lessons.  He quickly moves to the background so that his students can become the teachers and pass on what they have learned.

But Rajeev’s greatest impact is through music.  Hindu people in that area are not well respected by Muslims, but he has used his gift of music to build bridges.  He invites musicians – all Muslim – to his house where they sometimes spend the entire night playing and singing.  He provides essential back-up through the playing of his drum.  But he has one restriction: the music must focus on and honor God.   “If music is not worshipful, it is not being used for its essential purpose,” he claims. For Rajeev, music is worship.  The only music worth playing is music directed to God.

“The only music worth playing is music directed to God”

Rajeev challenged the musicians to see music in the same way and to use their gifts and talents to bring glory to God.  Because Muslims do not use music in their worship, this was a new concept to them and they asked, “How do we do that?” Rajeev explained that the initial step is to discover what God has revealed about himself in the Bible and then use that understanding to write songs in praise of God and Jesus Christ using popular poetry styles.

Rajeev knows the scriptures, but they do not.  Nonetheless, he does not teach the meaning of a passage to them, but instead says, “I don’t understand what this means. Can you explain it?”  After they explore it for a while and the participants have struggled to the answer, he says,  “Ah, now I see it!  You have explained it well.  Thank you.”  The student has become the teacher and through the process has taken ownership of the lesson.  As an evangelist, Rajeev seeks to be eyes and ears, rather than a mouth. He explores faith with them, rather than preaching to them.  In Islam, while leading prayers in the mosque, the Imam faces in the same direction as the worshippers. Rajeev adopts a similar format that resonates with these Muslim musicians; he is one with them in their search for spiritual treasure from God’s word.

These musicians are poets and songwriters.  Therefore, their faith is naturally expressed through their music. They are growing and developing in their understanding of Jesus, not because Rajeev is sharing his knowledge of Scripture, but because he has provided the opportunity and direction.  I had the privilege to interview some of the musicians and hear their faith, but the most impacting experience was listening to them sing the songs they have written in praise of Jesus. They sang about Jesus the healer, who heals both body and soul.  They sang about his coming to earth in the “form of Adam” to bring us life.  They sang about the empty tomb and the need to die to self in order to live for God.  And Rajeev never opened his mouth.

Once a month in the local church Rajeev preaches and leads worship.  The musicians come and lead the congregation in singing songs of praise.  People also ask them to come and perform at weddings.  When Rajeev responds, “We only sing songs of worship,” the response is generally positive and the invitation is repeated with greater insistence.  Rajeev has witnessed older men and women weeping as they listen to the songs.  “We have never heard about the grace of God in Christ in this way,” they say.

In the book Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, the authors speak of “master change agents” who develop “a handful of powerful influence strategies that they themselves can and do replicate and that others can and do learn.”1 To be an influencer, one must not use force or seek to dominate.  Rather, a true change agent is one who works within an accepted environment while providing content that stimulates and challenges those with whom they partner.  The impetus, power and choice to move forward lies in the one being influenced, not the influencer.  The change agent provides a channel, the power of the flowing water lies with those who make the choice to travel in that direction.  As Rajeev plays his drum in the background, he is one of those influencers through whom Jesus is changing the world.  A church is emerging as these men gather to sing.

If you would like to contact Mark please use the Contact Me form.  If you would like to leave a comment, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.


  • 1 Patterson, K Grenny, J Maxfield, D McMillan, R & Switzler, A 2008. Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, New York: McGraw-Hill. p. 11.

67. What kind of God is that?!

What kind of God commands people to strap bombs to their bodies and blow up crowds of people?  What kind of God tells people to drive passenger planes into the sides of buildings?  What kind of God commands parents to kill their children?  What kind of God would come to one of his worshippers and say, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love – Isaac – and … sacrifice him…” (Gen 22:2)?

Those of us who believe in God as the loving father of the Lord Jesus Christ quickly rise to the challenge these questions represent and protest that the latter question is in a different category than the first three.  There is a fundamental difference between the God of the Old Testament and the God of terrorists.  Nonetheless, I suspect that the average churchgoer would find it hard to provide a defense or articulate a reasonable distinction. Furthermore, most outsiders to the faith, reading the Genesis passage, would likely categorize the God of Genesis 22 with the God of the first three questions.  One friend of mine described God as “despot” and the Bible as “full of terrors” because of passages such as the sacrifice of Isaac.

In fact, skeptics often like to pose the question: “Suppose that God told you to kill your child…. If you are a God-Fearing Christian, do you have any theological grounds for refusing to kill your own child?”1 The correct answer to this question for Christians is to deny that the God of the Bible would require this, and to provide legitimate theological grounds for refusing to do such an evil deed.  But such theology needs to be explained in light of Genesis 22, not by ignoring it.

A theology about the Bible

I believe that part of the reason for this uncomfortable comparison of the God of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, with the God of terrorists is an inadequate theology about the Bible.  In speaking of a theology about the Bible, I am not referring to a biblical theology, that is, a description of God and his relationship to humanity developed from an understanding of biblical content.  Rather, I am referring to an understanding concerning how the Bible functions in shaping our faith.

Wm. Smalley provides a description of how the Bible is used and viewed by people around the world. Some approach the Bible as a cultural artifact of the Christian religion.  Others make magical use of the Bible and view it as a fetish. For many people the Bible is primarily a law book to be obeyed.  Another use of the Bible is as textbook to provide information. Others use the Bible as a reference, to answer the questions they have. Another use of the Bible is as a behavioral manual, a guide in developing moral practice. A common use of the Bible is as a devotional book, a book of worship.  For many people the Bible is an oracle, through which they hear God speak.2

the Bible should be primarily viewed as revelation of the character, nature and will of God

Without denying the validity of some of the uses mentioned, I would argue that the Bible should be primarily viewed as revelation of the character, nature and will of God.  We need to the approach the Bible for the purpose of understanding who God is and how he relates to us.  It is only through the formulation of biblically shaped perspective of God that we can comprehend who we are: people created in his image.  Genesis 22, then, is not a passage that we are to explain away in order to preserve a prior concept of God, but one through which we develop a better understanding of the God we worship.  However, in order to do this, we must view the passage through the correct “lenses.”

Developing the right exegetical “lenses”

The Islamic understanding of their sacred scriptures, the Koran, is that it is a book that was written in heaven and then dictated to the prophet Mohammed.  It is a book that is 100% divine without any human participation.  Thus, it is pure and holy and untranslatable.  The story is told of a journalist who approached a Muslim cleric and asked for a translation of the Koran that he could read in order to understand it.  He was told, “There is no translation of the Koran.  You must learn Arabic!”

The Christian view of the Bible is different.  Christians also believe that the Bible is 100% divine.  But it is also 100% the product of human beings, albeit in a different way. God teaches us his truth, but it only occurs through human language, human understanding and human culture.  In order to communicate, God accommodated to people, he did not command that they accommodate to him. “Prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit”  (2 Peter 1:21 TNIV). Moreover, the incarnation is the ultimate accommodation to our need: “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14 TNIV). It is the realization that God spoke to people within their language, within their perspective of the world, and within their culture and worldview, that provides the basis for Bible translation. The divine message can be represented in any language, because the original is also not a divine, but a human language.

The divine message can be represented in any language

Furthermore, this human cultural dynamic of the biblical passage provides us with the “lenses” through which we can properly understand what on earth God was doing when he said to Abraham, “Sacrifice your son.”

Cultural Contrast

Abraham was surrounded by gods.  He was in Canaan and the Canaanites had many gods: mountain gods, river gods, fertility gods, and gods of war.  Abraham’s understanding of the gods came from the context in which he lived.  His relationship and response to the God who had chosen him was shaped by the worldview that he lived in.  For the people of that time, the most powerful god could do the greatest things, and the most powerful god demanded the greatest sacrifice.  Some of those gods demanded human sacrifice – Molech is the best known – because they demanded the best.

It may have been a surprise to Abraham to receive this command.  But, as far as Abraham knew, it was not out of character for the way gods acted.  He wasn’t shocked.  He didn’t go through a lot of soul searching.  He didn’t argue with God.  He didn’t look for a way out. Instead, “early the next morning” he set out to fulfill this command. Why would he do this? Because in Abraham’s world this was consistent with the way gods acted. The greatest god demanded the greatest sacrifice, and God was proving to Abraham that he was the greatest God. Abraham obeyed without question, because that was the response required by his cultural setting and by his vow to be the servant of this God.

However, from our modern Canadian perspective, the scenario is strange and perverse.  If this happened to us, we would question it.  We would look for a second opinion.  We would doubt our sanity.  We would do all we could to get out of this dilemma, because it doesn’t make sense.  This is not the God we know. The story makes no sense to us in our culture because we understand God in Jesus Christ – a God who loves and redeems, not one who destroys.  My friend looks at this story and sees a god of terror, a vindictive and a cruel god.  And I know why, because I live in the same culture and see things the same way.

But for Abraham, this scenario fit perfectly in his world.  This was how gods acted. This story made perfect sense to Abraham because it was played out over and over again in human sacrifice all around him.  This, for Abraham, was normal. God was speaking Abraham’s language.

What Abraham didn’t know, and needed to learn, was the character of the God who had chosen him.

The Message is in the Medium

I am not that kind of god

At the point of sacrificing his son God commanded Abraham to stop, he provided a ram and Isaac was saved.  In essence, God said, “I am not that kind of god.  I am not like the common gods that you see around you that hurt and destroy and damage. I am not a god who destroys life, but one who gives life.  I am the redeemer.  I am the provider.”

This passage is one of the major turning points in understanding God in the whole history of humanity.  It is a watershed lesson about the character of God.  This is the beginning of the comprehension that God is a God of love, provision and redemption.  That understanding begins here and grows throughout the Bible, culminating in the cross of Christ.  Isaac’s sacrifice is the prelude to the cross, in which God says to humanity, “Not only do I not bring death and destruction, but I suffer death and destruction so that you may have life.” In that greatest of all accommodations to our weakness – the cross – lies our salvation. God becomes a frail human being dying on a cross, bringing life to all, showing us that the greatest God is the one who has the greatest love.

When this passage is looked at through our modern cultural lenses, it is easy to fear that God may be a god of terrors and an arbitrary despot.  But this is not the intended lesson.  Rather, it was understood by Moses, the Israelites and all the worshippers of God throughout scripture, as a foundational lesson revealing the sacredness of human life and God’s redemptive nature. Abraham had a lesson to learn and through him, humanity had a lesson to learn about the true character of the God who provides.

God is light; in him there is no darkness at all

Would I kill my child if God told me to?  Absolutely not.  Because that is not the God I worship. We know and believe that God will never do nor command that which is evil because of Jesus Christ.  “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5 TNIV).

If you would like to contact Mark, please use the Contact Me form.  If you would like to leave a comment, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.


  • 1 posted by Terry at http://able2know.org/topic/22070-1.  Accessed Sept 28, 2008.
  • 2 Smalley, William A. 1991. Translation As Mission: Bible Translation in the Modern Missionary Movement. Macon, Georgia:Mercer University Press. 224-233.

56. Crossing Cultures with the Bible

Three ways to understand the Bible
My wife, Karen, heard a message by a young woman with no theological training on Jer 29:11, “I know the plans I have for you….” The young woman spoke of the verse as if it was addressed to us today and talked about the plans God has for us.  Although God has revealed his will for us as human beings in his word, this was a misapplication of the verse because God was not speaking to us in this verse, he was speaking to another people in a different historical time and place; we are not part of those particular plans.

A better, and common, approach is to recognize that while the verse is a promise to people of another age, we can still ask, “What lesson can we learn from this that is applicable to us?”  That is, even though the words are not written to us, the message is still, in some less direct sense, for us.  

A third approach which is my primary concern in reading the Bible cross-culturally is to examine this interaction of God with his people in order to discover his character and his heart.  This perspective recognizes that the passage provides a revelation of the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ and asks, “What can I learn from this to know him better?  How can I shape my thoughts, speech and action to fit with the image that emerges from God’s revelation of himself?”

there is something grander in the Bible than chapter and verse application to the way we live: it is the vision, the revelation of God himself

The Bible as revelation of the nature of God
The latter approach is based on the conviction that there is something grander in the Bible than chapter and verse application to the way we live: it is the vision, the revelation of God himself.  The primary purpose of the written word is not to give us instructions on how to live, but to be a witness to the Living Word who in turn reveals to us the nature and heart of God.  It is within that broader perspective of discovering God that we become shaped into the image of Christ and respond in worship.

The Old Testament does not reveal the nature of God in propositional intrinsic qualities (omnipotent, omnipresent, etc.) but through extrinsic characteristics in terms of his relationship and actions towards his people and the universe (1). There is therefore not a particular chapter and verse we can point to and say, “that defines God,” or “that is a comprehensive summary of the heart of God.”  Propositional descriptions of God are like photos. Just as one snapshot of Karen is a true image of my wife, at the same time it is not her because she cannot be truly known through one photo. Rather it is by living with her that I know her in a deep way and can “read” her; that is, I know her heart. It is with this attitude I approach Scripture: each and every verse is a revelation of the character of God, not in terms of propositional descriptions as if God can be known through a dictionary definition, but as an expression of the relationship he desires to establish with those created in his image.

This is the primary role of the Bible: we read in order to interact with God

Philip said to Jesus, “Show us the Father.”  Jesus did not start quoting chapter and verse, nor did he give a propositional discourse on the nature of God. Rather he said, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father.”  God was revealed through their interaction with Jesus.  This is the primary role of the Bible: we read in order to interact with God.  We look in the pages to discover the nature and character of God, and it is around this emerging image that we are called to shape our lives.

Our Story intersects with God’s Story
The majority of the Bible is narrative, Jesus spoke in parables and the book of John weaves the claims of Christ together with his actions to reveal his nature so that we can believe and live (John 20:31).  There is a place for propositional truth, but not when dealing with the deepest issues of life and relationships.  A proposition plays a secondary role by providing a concise description of a reality.  It can be a sign pointing to the reality, but it is not the reality itself.  By using narrative, the Bible helps us explore the intersection between our personal reality and the broader “story we find ourselves in,” which is God’s story.  

There is a saying I have on my computer: “The universe is made up of stories, not atoms.”  Atoms are important.  I am very happy that scientists study atoms so that we can gain from the benefits of their efforts.  But that is not what life is about.  Life consists of stories. When Jesus was questioned about what it means to love our neighbor, he gave a story about relationships, self-sacrifice and mercy.

Crossing cultures with God’s word
Stories cross cultures much better than propositions.  Propositions are shaped for greatest impact according the assumptions of one context.  Stories, on the other hand, provide a more holistic and detailed picture of reality and they are heard with a variety of nuance and emphasis depending on the hearer.  Stories communicate and resonate in ways that propositional statements do not because the hearer is able to place the message within a context that is relevant to the world they live in.  When propositions are derived from the stories – a common process prompted by our human desire to summarize and categorize – they reflect the concerns of the hearer’s context.  

God’s story in the Bible needs to be seen as a communication of the character and nature of God in ways that relate directly to the hearer (as opposed to the more secondary, abstract channel of propositions).  When the Bible is read as the revelation of the nature of God, then it speaks to people across cultures about a Father who loves and cares.  It also provides the framework within which they are able to work out the expressions of life that conform to his image, some of which will be summarized in propositional form.

This, I believe, is the theology of the Bible that drives the use of “Bible Storying” in many missions efforts around the world.  Bible stories are chosen and shaped with sensitivity to the values and concerns of the audience and as a result the hearers are introduced to the Father of Jesus Christ in a way that relates to their lives.

The Essence of God’s word
There is benefit when we look at the details of the Bible and ask, “what is the application for us?”   This approach is good and can provide guidance in the way of Christ.  But I do not believe that it is the essence of God’s word.  Ultimately, the Bible is a revelation of the nature and character of God, a window opening up onto the wonder of his love and mercy and grace.  It shows me his heart and my goal is to respond to that revelation and reflect his character in my life.


  • (1) Martin Parsons, Unveiling God: Contextualizing Christology for Islamic culture (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2005), 48.

53. Patriarchy and Understanding the Bible

“That’s just NOT right!” exclaimed a woman in a Bible study I was conducting.  The object of her disapproval was Naomi’s instructions for Ruth to approach Boaz while he was sleeping (see Ruth 3).  She was correct in that she recognized the inappropriateness of such an action within our society.  She was incorrect because she failed to recognize the cultural values of the Hebrew context (particularly patriarchy) during the time of the “judges”, which validated Ruth’s approach to Boaz.

The Bible is God’s revelation of his will to humanity given within a cultural context that is very different from our situation today.  Although the Bible remains God’s revelation of his will for us, it was originally written to people whose language, culture and worldview greatly contrasts with ours.  Thus, the more the values, beliefs and situation of the original audience are understood by today’s reader, the better the meaning of the divine message can be comprehended.  Similarly, the more we comprehend our own culture and society, the better equipped we are to understand how the biblical revelation can be expressed and applied in our context.

The implications of this reality are profound for the Bible translator and the cross-cultural worker as well as for all those who want to understand the relevance of God’s word for them.  We cannot understand and appreciate the way the Bible relates to us without first recognizing that God spoke his message to people both through and because of their situation.  To the degree our modern context is similar to the context of original audience, the original message will have direct relevance for us.  However, differences between the ancient and modern cultures require us to adopt a two step process of interpretation.  First, we must understand the message through the original cultural perspective and second, we must consider how that revelation can be expressed relevantly for us today.

The differences between biblical cultures and our western context can easily be underestimated by the modern reader resulting in the misinterpretation of scripture. For example, the egalitarian values of our western culture make it hard for us to grapple with the pervasive patriarchal values and assumptions that lie behind the Pentateuch.

The patriarchal nature of the nation of Israel and the cultures of that time is especially evident in Deu. 23:1-10, which declares that only circumcised males may belong to the “congregation” or “assembly” of the LORD.  The word used in this passage is the same word used throughout the Old Testament to refer to the nation of Israel.  The struggle for the egalitarian modern reader comes because it is evident that only adult males were considered members of the LORD’s congregation, that is, members of the nation of Israel.  When the congregation or assembly is mentioned in other passages, it is assumed by the modern reader that the whole community consisting of men, women and children is being referred to.  However, in a patriarchal setting it is only the adult males who constitute the essence and identity of the community.

Most English translations seem inadequate in their translations of the Deu. passage since they often imply that the “congregation” is a special group within the nation, rather than the nation itself. However, the passage actually refers to the whole nation of Israel focusing on the central religious identity of belonging to the LORD.  This was a privilege reserved solely for the circumcised adult male. All others were dependent on the relationship with an adult male member in order to survive and find their identity and meaning of life within that community.  This is the reason for the ongoing concern in the Old Testament for widows, orphans and the resident alien. The book of Ruth can scarcely be understood without a grasp of this concept.

The modern reader can easily become confused or repulsed by the patriarchal values of that time and thereby miss the revelation that God offers. But the solution to this clash with modern values comes by recognizing that God consistently revealed his nature and will to people in a way that made sense to them within their context.  The point of the passage for us today is not to encourage patriarchal values and assumptions; these are not values that we espouse.  Rather we need to grab hold of the truth relevant in our setting that we are called to holiness and purity as we keep the LORD at the center of our lives and purposes.  For our context it is not just circumcised adult males of one people group, but men and women of all nations who are invited to be full members of the congregation of the LORD.

34. Why Am I A Christian? (Part II)

Jesus, No Justification for Sin

There is much politically correct rhetoric about Islam in this day of suicide bombers.  For example, political leaders have proclaimed that “Extremism is not true Islam. True Islam is peace-loving.”  Although politically circumspect, it is not all that accurate.  Islam cannot incorporate Western values and remain uncompromised and so Muslims must fight those impositions in order to maintain the integrity of their faith. In effect, these Western leaders are challenging Muslims to change their religion and accept Western ideals such as democracy, gender equality and individual rights.  People like Irshad Manji, a fully westernized and articulate Muslim woman, agree with this in principle and are seeking to change Islam.  They do desire a peaceful Islam.

On the other hand there is Wahhabism, the dominant religious movement in Saudi Arabia.  Wahhabism resulted from a reformation in Islam that arose in the 18th century as an authentic expression of Islam.  It is Islam going back to its conservative, uncompromising, legalistic, and controlling roots.

Fundamentalism vs the way of Christ

If approached by a prostitute what is the correct response of a conservative Muslim man who takes seriously his responsibility within the community? The way of fundamentalist Islam, and the way of all legalistic religions, is to slap her down, to humiliate and destroy, to call the police, and to erect laws and fences to keep her from plying her trade.  However, if I am a follower of Christ I will have a different approach: (1) Following the way of wisdom (e.g. Proverbs 5-7), I will teach my son the perils of the prostitute / adulterous woman.  Where there are no johns, there are no prostitutes. (2) I will practice the way of Christ in not condemning, but redeeming (John 8:1-11); seeking not to control but to heal and deliver.

As a legalistic religion the heart of Islam is control and enforced conformity because it is a religion of law.  In contrast, true Christianity is Christ: redemption that seeks freedom in conformity to life – eternal life – in God.  Christianity goes bad as it becomes like conservative Islam and unfortunately, there is a long history of bad Christianity.

Our View of God Shapes our Lives

Another way of viewing this contrast is by recognizing that the way people view God will shape their values and determine their treatment of others. In Hinduism there are four castes: Brahmins, the priestly caste that sprang from the mouth of Brahma, Shatriyas, the soldiers taken from his arm, Vaissyas, the merchants who originated from the thighs, and the Sudras, the laborers who were created from his feet. A fifth caste, the Pariahs, resulted from the unauthorized union of individuals from different castes. “They are not only considered unclean themselves, but they render unclean everything they touch.” (1) This creation myth reflects a belief that determines the relative worth of people in India through the caste system. 

In Islam God is the transcendent, all powerful and controlling judge – the ultimate Patriarch.  The view of God as Absolute Patriarch whose honor must be kept above reproach is the model used by many Muslims to structure their family life. In the true story found in the book “Not Without My Daughter” (2), a man returns to his Islamic roots which creates incredible tension between him and his American wife. The influence of his religion as promoted by his relatives convinces him that anything less than full submission cannot be tolerated and he seeks to force her to bend to his will. This value is an outworking of a particular belief in God and it is prevalent in many legalistic expressions of religion.  It was present in many cultures described in the Bible and is evident in some expressions of Christianity.

The Vision of God in Christ

However, in Christ we encounter a different vision of God.  One who is immanent (God with us), vulnerable (he weeps, he bleeds), transforming (he heals), and father (he embraces the hurting). When a leper approaches Judaism, Islam and Hinduism must push the leper aside and keep themselves pure.  Jesus, on the other hand, opens his arms and embraces the pain, bringing cleansing, wholeness and healing.

There is a famous photograph in the history of Life magazine I remember seeing as a child. It is a picture of a well-fed Asian storekeeper sitting in front of his store and smiling for the camera.  At his feet on the step lay an emaciated beggar who must have died shortly after.  Most people, I trust, would be moved by the implications of that image and feel compassion and some level of responsibility for the suffering of a fellow human being.  However, in many belief systems there is justification to turn away.  In contrast, as a Christian I can only ignore the beggar by ignoring Christ.

Justification from sin

I follow Christ because he takes upon himself all that is wrong and in that act shows us the Father. In Christ there is no justification for sin, as exists in many religious systems, so that the evil remains and is tolerated.  Instead, there is inflexible justification from sin: cleansing that comes via the inexorable road of love.  Such is my hope, and the reason I am a follower of the one who speaks the impossible command, “Be perfect” (Mt 5:48).

33. Why Am I A Christian? (Part I)

Jesus, the Essence of Reality

I was traveling down a street in Larkana, Pakistan with a friend on a very hot summer day when we came up to a “T” intersection.  On the sidewalk directly in front of us sat a beggar girl.  She was crippled and lay exposed to the blazing heat of the sun.  Behind her in the shade was the person who had placed her there to beg.  I was shocked – and I did nothing.  I felt helpless.  I did not believe that I could take any kind of responsibility for her, and so I continued on and left her, unchanged and untouched on the side of the road. 

Whenever I think back to this incident I feel ashamed. Jesus would have stopped but I just drove by. I have many reasons to excuse myself: I had no authority, ability or resources to take responsibility for her; My mandate in Pakistan was not to help beggars, I do Bible translation; I was busy and people were waiting for me; My interference would not have been appreciated; It is a cultural thing I don’t understand; There were other important things I needed to do. 

Jesus Would Have Stopped

Nonetheless Jesus would have stopped.  In fact, in a very real way through the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:37), Jesus told me to stop – and I kept on going. Verses like “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and don’t do what I say?” sound scary when I think about this incident.

But this is why I am a Christian: because Jesus would have stopped. Such an attitude of love, mercy and redemption resonates with me as the essence of reality, the heart of God. Jesus only did what he saw his Father doing. So when I do not follow Christ, I am rebuked, corrected and challenged. When I do not obey, I am called to turn, change and follow more closely.  In contrast, many philosophies and religions do the opposite and provide loopholes so that the sacrifice of compassion can be avoided and selfishness can be justified.  However, in this arena Jesus allows for no compromise.

Faith that Undermines Compassion

This does not mean, of course, that only Christians can show compassion.  Merciful and kind people can be found in any religion and any culture. The hero in Jesus’ parable is a Jewish heretic. Christians do not have a corner on the market when it comes to love, mercy, humility and meekness. Gandhi is a good example.  All people in all cultures, in all religions, in all walks of life reflect the image of God in some way and so they demonstrate love and mercy.  However, in many cases it is not an outworking of their professed view of reality, their religion, but in contrast to what they confess to be true.

For example, a Hindu would believe that the beggar girl was experiencing the result of her own karma.  As a consequence of reality it is, in some sense, appropriate.  A Muslim would see this as fate, judgment from God and therefore right.  The Buddha was known for his compassion.  But Buddhism would consider the situation as something to be ignored, as unreal.  A materialist would dismiss the person’s life as irrelevant and justify their self-centeredness.

People, whether Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or materialist, are compassionate, but often the tenets of their religion and philosophy run counter to acts of compassion. However, a true Christian, that is, one who follows Christ, sees the situation of the beggar girl as a perversion of what God desires and seeks to follow Christ in bringing restoration.

Christ: The God who is Real

I am a Christian because when I look at Christ I see the God I believe must be real:  a God who cares, a God who hurts, a God who heals.  When Jesus met a leper he did not clean him up and then touch him (Luke 5:12-13a).  He first touched him and then cleansed him.  He first entered into his pain, his disease, his anguish. Then he brought healing, not condemnation.  There are people, most of whom, I suspect, are not Christians, who do this with those suffering with AIDS.  That is a Jesus thing to do.  And therefore that is also a God thing to do, because when we look at Jesus we see God. 

Jesus said, “Be perfect” (Mt 5:48). Such a laughably impossible goal is the only one worthy of beings made in the image of God.  How do we do the impossible?  “Follow me,” Jesus says.

30. Contextualization and the Lord of the Rings

Contextualization is an important part of missiology.  This is the process of discovering culturally appropriate means of communicating the transforming power of the gospel.  Authenticity requires the missionary to live out the gospel with integrity according to the assumptions and priorities of his or her own culturally shaped worldview. However, missions necessitates cross-cultural sensitivity and the missionary must find appropriate expressions of the gospel that help others discover how the gospel provides life transformation according to their unique worldview assumptions and cultural priorities. 

Moving from Book to Movie: An Analogy

Moving from God’s revelation in scripture to transformed lives in another culture requires an expertise which can be illustrated by the process of taking a book and representing it in movie form. The work of re-shaping a story so that the message, the emotion and the spirit of the book is revealed in movie form, as with The Lord of the Rings, parallels the hermeneutical process required for missionaries to bring the gospel to life in another cultural context.  The cross-cultural missionary begins with revelation of God in the Bible and, like a script writer for a movie, works to see its message transformed and revealed in the story of people’s lives.

In the appendices of The Two Towers DVD version (all following quotes are taken from the appendix “From book to script: Finding the Story” in The Two Towers) the writers of the script explain that when they “deviate” from the original book, they do so because of the tension between the restraints of the context within which the story is to be told (the movie dynamics) and the desire to be faithful to the essence of the story, the emotional drama and the development of the great themes.  Thus changes need to be made “on some levels”, to fit the movie context as well as maintain the integrity of the story.

“Jesus” Movies require Interpretation

As an example of good and bad interpretive processes, consider some recent movies about the life of Christ.  The CBS Jesus movie was a less than perfect, but thoughtfully adapted and theologically interpretive movie about Jesus that sought to be true to the meaning and essence of the gospels using the modern movie medium.  Compare that with the dull, unthinking movie I began to watch, but never finished, from the book of Matthew which simply provided word for word Scripture quotations with background action (and Scripture references given in the corner!).  It is through reflection and interpretation that we delve into the heart and spirit of Jesus.  Mere repetition of his words without thought for their relevance within a particular cultural context and without an appropriate use of the medium to provide meaning and impact does not do justice to the gospel.

Contextualization requires Interpretation

Similarly, a thoughtful, interpretive and faithful approach to the contextualization of the message of scripture is required of the missionary.  Contextualization requires translation, adaptation and an assignment of priorities.  In my MTh dissertation on Contextualized Bible Storying, I dealt with the response of Muslim Sindhi men to John 13:1-10, the incident of Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet.  One major theme identified by the men revolved around the tension in Peter’s interaction with Jesus.  Although it was good of Peter to be concerned with Jesus’ honor, in the minds of the Sindhi men it was totally inappropriate for him to refuse his teacher.  In the Sindhi culture the teacher demands absolute obedience.  Although not a theme with any prominence in the culture of the west, for that eastern culture the relationship of the disciple to the teacher is significant.  An appropriate application of this reality would be to adapt the story in its telling so that aspect of Jesus’s lesson is given priority.

Contextualization: “our attempt to bring it to life”

Such cultural sensitivity in presenting the message of scripture parallels the attitude of the script writers of the Lord of the Rings concerning the change they made to the age of Frodo. Even though a young Frodo was not the original intent of the author, the central purpose and meaning of the story is not obscured by the change and, in the movie context, the younger Frodo represents the innocence of Hobbits in a better way than a middle aged Hobbit would have accomplished.  “You can’t be a guardian of this [as with purists defending the original book].  It’s an organic thing.  The film is what it is.  The books are untouchable.  They exist.  They will always exist. This is one group of fans’ version.  We are all fans of these books.  We all love these books.  And this is our interpretation, our vision, our attempt to bring it to life.”

Contextualization demands a hermeneutic that attempts to transform the Bible into a living expression of the gospel within a unique, culturally shaped reality.  This requires a dialectical relationship between the revelation of God and the reality within which people live.  It requires a transformation of the words and concepts into living action and relationship.  It requires an incarnation of the Book into their lives in such a way that on one level it is completely different (as a book is different from a movie) while on another level it represents precisely the meaning and truth of the book. The purpose of the Book is fulfilled in their lives as God’s reality touches and transforms their reality.

Transforming Book into Story

As a missionary who has spent much time seeking appropriate expressions of the gospel for the Sindhi people, I would paraphrase the script writer of the Two Towers in this way, “The Book is untouchable.  It exists.  It will always exist.  The contextualized gospel is my version as I attempt to express its relevance to the Sindhi people.  We all love this Book.  This expression of the gospel is my interpretation, my vision, my attempt to bring it to life.”  My prayer for the Sindhis is that they will catch the vision and repeat the process by transforming the written message into the story of their lives.

23. Seeing Through Another’s Eyes

Learning to be an effective change agent for Jesus Christ in another culture is the goal of a missionary. This can be mistakenly reduced to methods of communicating the gospel message which do not reflect sufficient appreciation or validation of the existing culture. Cross-cultural ministry is not a matter of learning a new language to express a pre-established gospel message.  New concepts must be learned which are shaped by values and beliefs that have their roots in different assumptions about the world.  Understanding people from other cultural backgrounds is not a matter of logically assessing reactions and preferences according to one’s own understanding about the world, but learning to think and act within a different perception of reality.  Only then can the communicator of the gospel recognize how the cross is relevant in the cross-cultural setting. 

There are two books that I have found particularly insightful and helpful for the person who seeks to relate to others in a productive and more than superficial way across cultures.

Gifts and strangers by Anthony J. Gittins, 1989. New York: Paulist Press. Anthony Gittens is an anthropologist at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago who does a masterful job of exploring the sociological implications of gift giving for cross-cultural communication of the gospel. After outlining the mechanics of gift-giving which involves the three obligations of giving, receiving and repaying, he points out that evangelism is giving a gift, the gift of the gospel. If this gift is not received, then we must ask why it has not been received and not jump prematurely to the conclusion that the people are rebellious sinners. Perhaps the Christ we have presented deserves to be rejected, because the values and truths that ought to be present in the message have been mis-communicated. "Perhaps the gift seems meaningless, or inadequately contextualized, or useless, or inappropriate, or embarrassing" (p. 106). Even the most well-meant gift will be rejected if its nature and purpose are not carefully clarified. Those missionaries sensitive to contextualization will not pass judgment on those who don’t respond, especially if they don’t know why there was no response. When the gift is not accepted in its present form, then the donor must consider other implications as well. Maybe the gift was correct, but the packaging was not. As Gittens (p. 107) goes on to say, "we have talked to people, but have often talked down. We have listened to people, but often selectively. We have craved relationship with people, but often only as givers. we may well have set ourselves to learn from people, but primarily and paradoxically as their teachers. We have brought a clear message to people, but often in the wrong language."

In addition, cross-cultural workers must recognize the role of the stranger as defined by the setting in which they live.  Strangers must allow their hosts to fulfill the role as understood in that culture and earn credibility and trust according to the established rules.

This book is an eye-opening analysis of cultural relationships that will help clarify much of the struggle that the cross-cultural worker experiences.

Strange Virtues by Bernard Adeney, 1995. IVP. Bernard Adeney teaches at Universitas Kristen Satya Wacana in Java, Indonesia. This book focuses on cross-cultural ethics and in the process has provided us an excellent overview of how culture affects many issues in the life of the cross-cultural worker. Anyone who has been frustrated when living in a foreign context will find much that resonates and clarifies in this book.

Although academic in places the author provides sufficient true life illustrations that explain the points being made. Cross-cultural church planters would do well to consider his comments on "Practicing Theology in Cross-cultural Experience" which emphasizes the reality that theology is dependent upon context. The "Bible and Culture in Ethics" section outlines the importance of story in the Bible to convey meaning as opposed to limiting the approach to a more rationalistic mindset of working from first principles. "Strange Communications" has a fascinating section on nonverbal communication that will greatly assist those is cross-cultural settings to appropriately evaluate cultural difficulties and comprehend why misunderstandings occur.

The difficulty of the Christian missionary in dealing with other religions is honestly and insightfully considered in the chapter entitled “The Ethical Challenge of Other Religions.”  He describes his approach as epistemologically pluralist, inclusivist when exploring the mystery of grace and exclusivist when dealing with the ultimate truth of God in Christ.  A positive and profitable emphasis is given to a dialogical approach towards other religions as providing the appropriate arena for both learning from and challenging other belief systems.

11. Missions and Other Religions

One of the greatest shocks a missionary faces when entering a new culture with the gospel is the discovery that other religions can teach us important spiritual lessons.  I can still vividly picture the follower of Sufism (a mystical philosophy of Islam) who taught me a good lesson.  He stood before me dirty and disheveled in his ochre robe and recounted a disaster that had befallen him.  I began to commiserate when he stopped me with a gesture.  "Don’t say ‘O no!’" he said pointing upwards, "Say, ‘Yes, Lord!’"

Does Our Faith Measure Up?

Religion is an important part of culture that brings meaning and stability to people’s lives. It is often that satisfaction and sense of goodness within their religion that provides the greatest challenges to the missionary who seeks to communicate the gospel as relevant, necessary and unique. Such challenges force us to reexamine our faith and discover its relevancy and significance in new contexts.  A plurality of worldviews raises issues that would not be addressed in a monocultural setting.  Without such questions we cannot discover how deep our faith is and what life challenges the gospel can truly answer.  Other worldviews and faiths demand that we ask if the needs that our faith answers are the universal and fundamental needs of humankind.  Can our faith answer the needs that are addressed in other worldviews and other faiths which are different than the ones we perceive as essential in our faith?  Are the answers of our faith sufficient to meet the fundamental needs of humanity?  Are the answers of our faith necessary to meet those needs?  Are the answers of our faith unique in meeting those needs?

A Christian woman in Pakistan with whom we are well acquainted has a son with severe mental problems.  She had visited many doctors and we had prayed with and for her and her son, but without any positive change.  One day she declared that she was going to visit a Hindu faith healer.  My mouth dropped and I remonstrated with her, "You are a follower of Christ.  You need to trust." She stood to her full 5’3" and looked me in the eye. "I must do what I can for my son," she said.  I was left struggling for an answer from the Christian faith that would answer that need without disparaging the expression of love for her son.

The challenge of these questions arises when we face the truth claims of an alternate world-view or faith.  These claims cannot be refuted by clever logic and yet neither can they be ignored for they conflict with the message of Christ.  What is required is an encounter that expresses an attitude of humble belief, not arrogant certainty in our faith.  It requires respect and openness to the reality of another’s faith, and yet at the same time maintaining commitment to our own. Our confidence is not obtained by professing an absolutism found in our experience, our understanding or even our belief, but upon the willingness to trust Christ and commit our lives to the gospel.  Because we do not have absolute knowledge but are rather called to trust, we are in a position to approach other religions without the arrogance of superiority and knowledge (because we do not have that luxury) and yet without fear because they, too, cannot claim superiority.  The importance of what we bring is the confidence of an experience of Jesus that answers the fundamental questions of life.  The challenge is to recognize the way in which Jesus relevantly and significantly brings answers to those living within the context of another faith.  Humility is required in this process because other faiths "face in different directions and ask fundamentally different questions" (Bosch 1991:485).  We enter as guests into another faith in ignorance of the depth and perceptiveness of their understanding of and questions about life.

Relevant and Significant Transformation

Missions cannot be reduced to a non-judgmental study of religion nor, on the other hand, expressed in rivalry with other religions.  The gospel is not to be considered one of several competing faiths as if missions can be reduced to a kind of spiritual operation in which other religions are to be replaced with the gospel.  Neither is the aim to strip other religions of what is wrong until what is left matches with what we believe.  Instead, we are called to share this truth, this salvation, this life which is found only in Christ, with all others.  Rather than looking to undo other religions, we look to provide the truth of Christ which answers the mystery and meaning of life by providing relevant and significant transformation.  Such transformation occurs primarily in people’s lives and only derivatively in religious expression.

Nonetheless this does not negate the fact that the gospel must confront what is wrong in other religions.  Even as we must critique Christianity according to the light we have received from the revelation of Christ, so the same standard must be used in critiquing other religions (cf. Mt 23).  Although all religions provide a positive contribution to society, it must also be acknowledged that all religions also play a role in keeping people from Christ and this must be addressed.  But the solution is not a simplistic promotion of Christianity as "right" and other religions as "wrong", rather it is recognizing the gospel as that universal salvation which all must experience in order to know the one who is the Truth.

Imagine Such a Love

The key to a mission of transformation among other religions is not an attitude of superiority and condemnation, but love which "must move us to lose ourselves in service" (Kavunkal 1994:93). The essence of the gospel is found in Jesus’ example of service and love.  Both the humble obedience of the incarnation and the ultimate sacrifice of the cross are but the grand opening and closing expressions of the one ministry that Jesus lived out in service to humankind.  In Pakistan we discovered that arguments against Islam that were perfectly logical to us, were ineffective and dismissed as immaterial by the Sindhi people.  But they were moved by the story of the prodigal son.  Imagine, could such a love really exist?


  • (1) Bosch, D.J. 1991. Transforming Mission.  Paradigm shifts in theology of mission.  Maryknoll: Orbis.
  • (2) Kavunkal, J. 1994.  Ministry and Mission: Christological Considerations, in New directions in missions and evangelization 2.  Theological foundations, edited by J.A.  Scherer & S.B.  Bevans, Mayknoll: Orbis, 87-98.

5.   Confessions of a Failed Church Planter

Karen and I worked in evangelism and church planting for 10 years among a Muslim people group. Although our goal was to plant a church and a number became followers of Christ, we were not successful in establishing a “3-selfs” church (self-governing, self-supporting, self-propogating). Whenever we attended a conference in the country with those engaged in similar ministries, we would compare notes, trying to find out if anyone had been exceptionally successful so we could use their methodology as a pattern.  But no one seemed to be any farther ahead. At one of these conferences I was told about a study which had researched the activities of missionaries in an attempt to determine those factors which promoted success.  It was discovered that there was no difference in methodology between missionaries who worked in an area where there was a people movement and those who worked in an area where there was little progress. The obvious conclusion is that church planting, conversions and people movements occur because of the moving of the Holy Spirit, not because we have discovered that special method or unique spiritual key that unlocks the heart of a people group.

But this raises the question of the missionary’s role in the process: what is the point of missiological analysis and methodology if all depends upon the moving of the Spirit of God?  The encouraging answer to that question which confirms the partnership that we have in the spread of the gospel is found in Mark 1:1-4, the prophesy of Isaiah concerning the messenger who prepares the way. Even as the coming of Christ was a new beginning (v. 2), so every church planter is another John the Baptist preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah. Until the Messiah comes, until the Holy Spirit moves, there will not be any conversions, nor will there be any churches planted.  But we still have a job to do.  Our job is to make the path straight, to prepare a road.  What we are exploring in missions is the best way to construct a road; to remove the obstacles so that when the Lord comes in power people are ready.

The fundamental mistake we made in our church planting effort was the attempt to introduce an unfamiliar social structure which we had understood to be the New Testament church pattern. The true goal in cross-cultural church planting is not to impose a NT model of church upon a group of believers, but to discover a communal context that is already present within which spiritual growth in relationship to Christ can occur. Working with social structures that are already being used by the people in that setting is an example of “preparing the paths” of that culture. Those familiar structures can become the channels through which Christ can be met.  The focus is not on the form of a social institution (i.e. an imported model of “church”) but on function, the resulting effect on the spiritual life of individuals.  McLaren says “the top question of the new century and new millennium is … whether [Christianity] can be powerful, redemptive, authentic and good, whether it can change lives, demonstrate reconciliation and community, serve as a catalyst for the kingdom and lead to a desirable future. The drama must be lived out at a local level by communities of people who live by the gospel.”[1]

When I started my ministry, my church planting method was to present the gospel to those whom God brought to me, teach the believers about “church”, meet together to “do church” and then develop a leader who could lead the “church”. Unfortunately it wasn’t until the final step that the unsustainable nature of this social institution became obvious. In my mind a “NT church” was based on the common bond of the members’ faith in Christ rather than on an established social structure. However the organizational structure I had put in place was interpreted by the believers according to a structure they were already familiar with – i.e. the group was dependent upon the wealthiest and most powerful individual who was the recognized teacher.  Rather than accepting their common faith as the bond for the social structure of the church, they understood the bond to be me, the teacher. As a result, when I tried to establish new leadership through the development of one of the members, there was conflict. They had no other social ties to each other except for their new faith in Christ and so there was no social reason for choosing one person over another to be the new leader. As a result the group collapsed.

A more permanent and reproducible pattern of “church” is to discover those social structures already present in the culture which can be adopted to develop a context in which spiritual growth in following Christ can occur. A couple of examples:

Nathaniel[2] told me one day of his favorite chapters in the Bible.  Most of them were the expected ones (Ps 23, Rom 8, 1 Cor 13, etc.), but then he said Genesis 7.  I was a little taken aback as I recalled that this was the chapter in which God destroys the entire world and I asked him why such a chapter would be so important to him.  He replied, “Just as God chose Noah to save his family, God has chosen me to save mine.” On the basis of this, rather than challenging him to be involved in a “church plant”, I encouraged him to focus on being an active and intentional believer within his family.  Thus he is fulfilling a mandate that he believes is from God.  His efforts are all within a given societal structure (family) and as a result the conflict of authority and control which occurred in the church plant I attempted are nonexistent.  Relationships are established on social grounds, not on the basis of a common faith, and within this context biblical teaching is given the opportunity to influence the members of the family.  Moreover because the family unit is ongoing, so is the influence of the gospel.  Such a model is also reproducible when the patriarchal heads of the family are targeted.  As a result of Nathaniel’s efforts a number of family members have come to Christ and worship services are a regular occurrence within the family context.

Another believer was encouraged by his mother to engage in the folk Islamic practice of becoming the follower of a Pir (holy man).  He replied, “I already have a Pir.”  His mother was ecstatic and asked who it was. “Jesus,” he replied. Is this a viable concept?  Rather than being a Christian, he presented himself as acting in accordance with local “folk Islam” practices.  The implications would need to be explored. What are the expectations in a Pir-follower relationship?  How do Pir followers interact with each other?  Can practices and expectations inherent in the Pir societal structure be Christianized?  Would this provide an appropriate context for spiritual growth?  Could the adoption of such a societal form legitimately be called a “church”?

The benefit of failure is that it stimulates us to discover better answers.


  • (1) p. 154. McLaren, B. A New Kind of Christian. San Franscisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.
  • (2) Not his real name.