Flatland, Lineland, Spaceland and Cross-cultural Mission

Recently, I completed an old classic novel by Edwin Abbot entitled Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions.  I mention it here because (and maybe I see missiology where it is not) I found some interesting insights of missiological significance.  In short, the book is written as a memoir of a "square" that lives in "Flatland" - the world of 2-dimensions.  Most of the book is spent describing this world to those of us in "Spaceland" who exist in three (or four really . . . we'll talk later) dimensions.  This, itself is fascinating -- yes, even to someone like myself who tends to recoil at the mere mention of the word mathematics.  The Square's descriptions of life and society in Flatland bring to mind innumerable issues related to social justice, class and caste, gender roles, government, and much more.

But it was the last chapters of the book that really made me love Flatland.  I will avoid any spoilers here, but suffice it to say that the chapter describing communication between the Square in Flatland with the king of "Lineland" is simply full of terrific cross-cultural insights.  This chapter is then followed by concluding chapters which are much more explicitly missiological as the "gospel of three-dimensions" is proclaimed by a sphere entering the home of the Square in Flatland.  But, I'll leave it there.

I would heartily commend to you Abbot's classic regardless of your interest in mission (unless you prefer a moving story which require little reflection).  However, if you are into missiology, I would put Flatland right next to Alice in Wonderland on my list of great, unexpected missiological texts.  Check it out!



RSVP: "A Night of Missiology"

"Night of Missiology"

This Sunday night, Trinity International Baptist Mission is hosting a very special "Night of Missiology" during our normal house church gathering time.  What's behind this is (1) our desire to engage in fruitful dialog with others about missions issues that are important to our day to day work and (2) our desire to just hang out with some friends that we don't usually get to hang out with on a Sunday.  So . . . want to come? Here are the details:

“Starting Church Planting Movements among Diasporas:  Considering David Garrison’s Models in Light of Diaspora Phenomenon”
Sunday, April 1st 6:30PM
112 Horizon Circle
Carol Stream, IL 60188


On our Similarity or Dissimilarity with the World (Guest Blog by Katherine Lorance)

[Today's post is written by a special guest to the blog, my wife, Katherine Lorance.  This is the second installment in a new, potentially long-term series entitled "On our Contextualization".]

One common objection to intentional contextualization centers around the perceived loss of distinctiveness to following Christ.  The argument goes that since people who don’t follow Christ do XYZ, people who do follow Christ should not do XYZ.  Often, XYZ-ing is seen as inherently sinful.  Other times, XYZ-ing is seen as so prevalent among people who don’t follow Christ that, it is argued, people who follow Christ must avoid XYZ-ing in order to demonstrate that they in fact are different.

On the other hand, someone who pursues contextualization looks at a person who doesn’t follow Christ doing XYZ and asks, “Is there some way XYZ can be done to worship Christ?”  Sometimes the answer is no because XYZ-ing is clearly prohibited in Scripture (for instance, you cannot hate your brother in Christ as an act of worship to Jesus).  But what about the other times?

Even the most ardent opponent to intentional contextualization must agree that sometimes doing XYZ can please God.  After all, people who don’t follow Christ eat, sleep, and breathe, but no one is suggesting that people who follow Christ stop eating, sleeping, and breathing.  People who don’t follow Christ pray, give thanks, and sing in worship, but no one would ever tell the Church to stop praying, giving thanks or singing.  On the contrary, the Church is exhorted in Scripture to pray to the Lord, give thanks to the Lord, and sing to the Lord.  It is important for opponents to the pursuit of contextualization to realize that they recognize on some level that similarity alone is not enough to condemn a specific action.

I recently read 1 Kings 18 and I think the account of Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel is one Biblical example that demonstrates what distinctiveness is necessary.  Elijah and the crowd of Baal priests each prepared one bull and arranged some wood.  They did so at the same location and on the same day.  They both called out to the one they worshipped.  Note that the Israelites who observed all this and the prophets of Baal were not at all confused as to whether Elijah was worshipping Baal or worshipping the Lord.  Unlike the 450 prophets, Elijah did not cry out to Baal but to the Lord.  The fire of the Lord consumed Elijah’s offering as an answer to the prayer “that the people may know that you, O Lord, are God.”  What grieved the Lord about the prophets of Baal’s sacrifice was not the bull, the wood, the location, or the day – which were the same as Elijah’s -- but the fact that those people failed to worship Him.  The two sacrifices offered were deliberately similar outwardly but the spiritual attitudes of those offering the sacrifices were completely different.

Some of those concerned with specific Christ-centered contextualized practices being too similar to the practices of people who do not follow Christ seem to emphasize outward actions at the expense of inner attitudes.  In order for the global Church to cooperate and grow to maturity, those who are concerned with the pursuit of contextualization need to accept that the “that’s what the prophets of Baal do” argument is insufficient.  Yes, intentionally contextualized practices should be carefully examined in the light of Scripture – as all of our practices should be, if we desire to be living sacrifices to our Lord.  Let us be careful, though, to avoid dismissing or belittling the unseen turning of hearts toward the Triune God.


Timothy Howe: Our Power Over Fear

Fear has been a significant theme for me during the past couple days.  It seems to be a key factor that the Enemy uses against me -- the fear of others formulated into attacks and my own fear which tempts me to shrink back.  Today, I commend to you Tim Howe's brief reflection on fear, confidence and hope.  Good and timely word, Tim!

Timothy Howe: Our Power Over Fear: "But Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope
Heb 3:6 NLT

Fear can be debilitating. it thwarts dreams and keeps us from accomplishing all that God has in store for us. This week, we have seen how fear can be overcome. Hebrews 3:6 tells us that we have two weapons in our arsenal against fear. These represent the power that we have over fear - confidence and hope. "


On Syncretism

Perhaps no other word in the ecumenical vocabulary has aroused more fears, created more unnecessary controversy, and, more often than not, succeeded in sidetracking urgent issues in the life of the churches in pluralist situations than the term syncretism.  – Stanley Samartha[1]

Very often in discussions regarding the topic of contextualization in mission, one is warned not to “go too far” lest we inadvertently wander into the forbidden realm of syncretism.  Ah yes, syncretism, the very word itself conjures up specters of heretical cult-leaders dabbling in pagan rites and sends most of us running to dust off our Inquisitor tool boxes.  Having learned to uncritically assume the orthodoxy of our received church traditions (most of which are decidedly Western in derivation), we tend to be especially prone to hurl the term at any form, symbol, or ceremony we encounter as foreign.  For far too many of us, the term syncretistic is roughly equivalent to a term like “exotic” or “odd.”  

It is better, indeed, safer to command the pagans and savages coming to Jesus to abandon every scrap of their former life and cultural context – to “make men of our Fridays”.  After all, the Biblical appropriateness of leather Bibles, Christmas trees, pig-eating, white wedding dresses, pianos, and Windsor knots is beyond dispute.  But their old traditions?  No, no, they must be discarded.  Failure to do so would be the very definition of syncretism. 

I have noticed, by the way, that those who are prone to use a phrase like “the very definition of syncretism” are often the least likely to be able to actually provide a definition of the term.  They seem to take a very emotionally-driven, “I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it” approach.  Indeed the proclivity to use the term in this way – that is, as a missiological mortar – isn’t uncommon at all.  As the late Carl Strokloff pointed out, syncretism has become the “ten-letter, four-letter word”[2] in missions, used primarily as a device for inciting fear and winning a debate by default. 

But what is syncretism?

I have appreciated Richard Twiss’s definition:

“Syncretism can be described as a way of thinking that says by performing or participating in a particular religious ceremony or practice, you can alter the essential human spiritual condition in the same way that Jesus does, through His death on the cross, burial, and resurrection from the dead, because they are parallel truths.”

Twiss, however, would agree with the slight corrective that syncretism speaks more of a result than a process.  Syncretism exists when the Lord Jesus Christ is not at the center of things and when a false gospel emerges -- when this, in Twiss’s words, exists as the “settled state”.  If Twiss is correct then, it is difficult to blame the intentional pursuit of contextualization on the arrival at this “settled state”.  To be sure, something similar in form to contextualization can be a vehicle that gets you there (i.e. accomadatio), but it isn’t the only thing going that direction.  Indeed, if we assume that the practitioner of contextualization begins with a firm commitment to the authority of Scripture and a correct understanding of the gospel and of Jesus Christ, then it would actually be impossible for such a “settled state” to develop so long as theological orthodoxy is maintained.  The nature of intentional contextualization (particularly as possessio) actually seems to preclude the possibility of syncretism as it necessitates the engagement in a continual process of examination, intentionality, and cultural and theological reflection in its appropriation and utilization of symbols, signs, forms, ceremonies, and traditions as communicators of spiritual truth and vehicles of Christian expression.  Syncretism, the “settled state” of an off-centered Christ and an aberrant gospel, requires either poor discipleship or else the uncritical use of cultural forms (regardless of the context from which those forms emerged) to exist.  Thus, it would ironically seem that those who uncritically accept the importation and transmission of foreign cultural forms, symbols and traditions are the ones who are often more susceptible syncretism.  Such syncretism can be witnessed frequently as when Santa Claus is given a major role in the church Christmas drama, when Christian leaders are tempted to mistake financial affluence with divine blessing, or when new followers of Christ are required to add to their faith conformity to various foreign cultural forms.

For the record, I oppose the development of false gospels and the off-centering of Christ in the Church.  Such syncretism is far too prevalent.  But to harass those who seek to magnify Christ by sacrificially imitating his incarnation in cross-cultural mission is no more than a diversion from the real problem.  I have little doubt that the Enemy would have us hunting demons in everything foreign to the received traditions of Christendom so as to overlook the syncretism among us that we have grown far too comfortable with.  Truly, as I have contended elsewhere, the supposed link between contextualization and syncretism is mythological.  Syncretism grows out of some other soil.  As we have seen, understanding the term properly requires us to say more than simply that it is too much contextualization.

For more on this topic:

[1] Samartha, Stanley J. (1979), “Guidelines on Dialogue”, The Ecumenical Review.
[2] Strokloff, Carl.  A Theology of the In Between.


The all-important rubber/glue principle of doing missiology

This is something the Lord is trying to teach me today.  Thought I'd pass it on to you as it is simply loaded with timeless wisdom:

"I'm rubber.
You're glue.
Whatever you say,
Bounces off of me,
And sticks to you!"

Amen, even so, come, Lord Jesus!


What has happened to commitment in missions?

Yesterday, I was in a board of directors meeting for a mission organization that I love.  One of the discussions we were having had to do with how we can be more effective at engaging the younger generations in mission service.  How do we mobilize volunteer and student missionaries to commit themselves to long-term ministry?  It seems to be the trend that the generation of missionaries who served 25 or more years with the same mission organization is going the way of the dodo bird and is being replaced by a generation that views mission commitment more in bite-sized portions of 1 - 5 years.  Now, I tend to be among those who buck this and see this as just a bad thing, but today at Member Care Radio, a discussion was posted on this very topic that is very insightful.  Here's a quote from Colin Buckland:

If I'm a man in my late 50's, early 60's and I've lost my job, I'm completely at sea.  I don't know how to view the world, but the younger generation is saying, 'Well, we can't even do career like that anymore'.  The effect is that those people think in shorter pieces.  They look at life in a series of jumps and so a career, now, one would expect to go through something in the region of 13 changes in a lifetime, maybe more.  I think it's getting this way more and more as the days go by.  There's a massive change there. 

I this is a topic that interests you, I recommend listening to the whole conversation.  Go on over to Member Care Media now and check it out.


Reaching Oral Learners - Testimony from E3 Partners

Here at Trinity International Baptist Mission, we are giving a lot of thought and prayer towards the issue of orality and its implications for how we carry out the work of the Kingdom in our context.  The question on my heart for my team is, "Can we all become well-equipped as Bible storytellers?"  To this end, we are looking at developing a plan to get us there.  How about you and your church or mission team?  Have you given this subject any thought?  Below is a pretty compelling video introducing and testifying to the way the Lord is using orality strategies in mission.


3 Million Refugees in the United States

J.D. Payne, over on his Missiologically Thinking blog has recently shared with us that the total number of refugees in the United States has now surpassed three million.  That is significant.  Refugees are peoples from all over the world who have endured some of the worst forms of suffering imaginable and who often represent some of the most obscure and underengaged people groups in the world.  The resettlement of these people in the United States signifies a tremendous enrichening of this nation as refugee peoples bring with them invaluable life experience and lessons learned through the endurance of great trials.  Refugees also present a gift to the Church in the form of an unmistakable opportunity to serve hurting, neglected and precious individuals and families.  Whether you are in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Oklahoma City, Baron, Wisconsin or Garden City, Kansas -- refugees may not be very far from where you live.  Local church leaders must ask themselves, "Can we really claim to be faithfully carrying out our gospel mandate if we have no level of engagement with our refugee neighbors?"

From J.D.'s blog:

Missiologically Thinking » 3 Million Refugees in the United States
"Since 1975:

  • Over 1.4 million refugees came from South East Asian countries
  • Over 605,000 came from countries of the Former Soviet Union
  • Over 262,000 Africans arrived
  • Over 289,000 came from the countries of the Near East and South Asia
  • The five largest nationalities resettled were Vietnamese, Ukrainian, Iraqi, Cuban, and Somali
  • The five states that have resettled the most refugees, in descending order, are California, New York, Texas, Washington, and Florida"


Communion or Disunion? | Sexuality/Gender

I do not belong to the Roman Catholic Church. However, I find this so-called "shift" in the Catholic community disturbing. Stories like this concern me about the times in which we are living. Seems to me that the author, Mary Hunt, is not a Catholic (or a Christian for that matter) in any meaningful sense of the word. She doesn't seem to have any sense of Scriptural authority or belief in basic historic Christianity. Anyway, I would greatly appreciate insight from my readers who may have a better perspective on such things.

Communion or Disunion? | Sexuality/Gender | Religion Dispatches: "The egregious breach of decency that led a Catholic parish priest to deny Communion to a lesbian woman at her mother’s funeral has received widespread and well-deserved condemnation. Even the Archdiocese of Washington DC admitted that the priest had violated their policy. In a little note, a vicar promised Barbara Johnson and her family that he would celebrate a Mass in memory of her mother. They deserve sympathy for their loss, a full-blown apology from the institutional Church, and time to deal with their grief in peace."


Thanks to Nate Taylor for referring us to a helpful article on this.  Check it out here:  I also want to reference here the letter of apology that came from the Archdiocese.


A Place of Healing by Joni Eareckson Tada

I just finished Joni Eareckson Tada's latest book A Place of Healing.  Friends, if you have never read or listened to anything by Joni, please do.  I don't know how else to describe this woman except as a global treasure for the body of Christ.  The path marked out for her by the Lord has been so unique and her ministry and message so profound that it is simply impossible to estimate what value she has brought to the Church over the years.  I still remember the life-changing impact her book Heaven: Your Real Home had on me years ago as a young youth minister in Oklahoma.  Now, having tasted the tears of nearly 15 years of ministry, sitting to learn at Joni's feet again is a very refreshing and humbling experience.  I was sad that she wasn't able to come to Cape Town for Lausanne III back in 2010.  I still hope I get a chance to meet her this side of eternity.  So, go and read (or listen to, it is available in audio) Joni's book and also check out the ministry she leads at Joni and Friends.


The Spiritual Life by Evelyn Underhill

For the second time, I have now prayed through Evelyn Underhill's The Spiritual Life.  Underhill was known as an "Anglo-Catholic" writer and thinker in the early part of the 20th century who wrote chiefly on spirituality and mysticism.  I haven't read anything else by her, but I have really enjoyed this particular book--twice.

This second time through, I feel that I picked up on areas in which I would probably disagree with her if we were to discuss the topic further.  However, Underhill writes with such profundity and insight that it is simply very difficult to point out places where she is wrong.  Besides, it isn't really a theological treatise that Underhill is presenting to us here (though the book is certainly very theological).  It is much more of a meditation, a devotional of sorts.  The book begs to be read in the presence of the Lord and in conversation with Him.  And that conversation isn't supposed to be about Evelyn at all, about whether you and God agree with her doctrinal positions.  It is to be a conversation about your communion with God.  And I think Underhill does a pretty good job of keeping us from wriggling away from that.

So, I recommend The Spiritual Life for mature Christians who just need to sit at the feet of an old saint like Evelyn Underhill and listen to the wisdom she's gotten from the Lord.  Enjoy!

You can purchase the book from by following the link above.  Or, the full text is available online for free here.


Hare Jesus, Hare Jesus: Answering a Critic

Recently, a video of mine that was long ago posted on YouTube received a concerned, yet graciously written, comment (BTW- Another visitor to my channel apparently flagged that comment as spam and I want to go on the record as saying that it wasn’t me).  Welcoming the chance to clarify any misunderstanding, I quickly responded.  I have not yet received a follow up, but thought it might be a helpful thing today to share the substance of that exchange here.  First, here is the video in question:

This is called the "TriEak Pameshwar Mahamantra" (i.e. "the great meditative prayer to the Triune God").  It has been adapted from what is called the "Mahamantra" and is especially popular among members of the ISKON or Hare Krishna movement.  The text of what I am saying is as follows:

हरे पिता हरे पिता, पिता पिता हरे हरे
हरे पुत्र हरे पुत्र, पुत्र पुत्र हरे हरे
हरे आत्मा हरे आत्म, आत्मा आत्मा हरे हरे
त्रिएक परमेश्वर हरे हरे,
त्रिएक परमेश्वर हरे हरे । 

Hare Pita Hare Pita, Pita Pita Hare Hare

Hare Putra Hare Putra, Putra Putra Hare Hare
Hare Atma Hare Atma, Atma Atma Hare Hare
TriEak Parmeshwar Hare Hare,
TriEak Parmeshwar Hare Hare.

Which may be translated as:   

Father, remove my sin
Son, remove my sin
Holy Spirit, remove my sin
Triune God, remove my sin.

Now the concern raised by my YouTube viewer seemed focused on the use of the word "Hare" (हरे).  Here is the comment:

Brother, I really admire your heart and effort. But if we are not careful about this kind of contextualization then there will be greater consequences. I do not feel comfortable while contextualization fades power of gospel. The word 'Hare' is Hindu god Bishnu and you are putting Father, Son and Holy Spirit after hindu god Bishnu in your maha mantra.

As I said, a very graciously and kindly written comment.  The above comment (with the exception of the kindly tone, which is sadly rare) is actually a pretty good representation of the kind of opposition that is leveled by Christians against the efforts of other Christians to pursue contextualization.

Vishnu's Name

The commenter's basic mistake is a misunderstanding of the word "hare" (हरे) which he incorrectly identifies as a name for the god Vishnu.  It seems that the commenter has confused the Sanskrit terms "hare" with "hari" (हरि).  The latter is a term which has the basic meaning of yellow, green or "fawn-colored".  It has come to be popularly associated with the gods Vishnu and Krishna  and is sometimes used simply as a proper name in reference to one or the other (or both) of them.  The former (hare) is a variation of the Sanskrit word हर (hara) which means "taking away" or "removing".  Connotative use in prayers by Hindus carries a meaning of "take away my sin" or "take away my evil".   In one Nepali tradition, devotees of "Mahadev" will take a ritual bath while repeating "hara-hara".  In that case, the sense of meaning is clearly "wipe away my sin".  

The popular "mahamantra" prayer contains the refrains, "hare Krishna, hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, hare hare" and "hare Rama, hare Rama, Rama Rama hare hare".  There also, the meaning is clear.  The word is हरे and should be understood to mean, "Krishna, take away my sin" and "Rama, take away my sin."  It does not mean "Vishnu Krishna" and "Vishnu Rama".  Nor does it mean "Green Krishna" and "Green Rama".  The word is not हरि (hari) but हरे (hare).  One Hare Krishna devotee explains it this way:

"The word hare has come from 'haran' which means 'to take away' or 'to end'.  So when one says 'hare Krishna', he requests the God (the supreme consciousness) to take away his sorrows, his shortcomings, his failures, and pains.  This Hare Krishna Mantra is actually a little prayer to God for taking away all the sorrows, pains and shortcomings of the chanter and provide him bliss and joy."

The above, I hope, illustrates why it is important to seek proper understanding before leveling criticism.  My experience has taught me that followers of Jesus can be very quick to condemn things that they don't understand.  This can have the effect of obscuring the message of Jesus Christ to our listeners.  They may hear us saying something like "Jesus hates you" when that isn't what we meant at all.  Again, we may look to Jesus who didn't hesitate to prophetically critique the societal sin that he saw in his day.  While his opponents sometimes reacted very strongly against him, they never accused him of not understanding.  My commenter is concerned that contextualization sometimes "fades the power of the gospel".  Setting aside for a moment that nothing can actually do that (i.e. fade the power of the gospel), what should be of a bigger concern is whether or not it is actually the gospel that is being communicated.

Billions of Names Off-Limits?

Beyond this, however, I need to highlight another element to my commenter's argument.  There is an unchecked assumption that undergirds his critique that must not be left unexposed.   That is, while we've refuted the notion that "hare" is to be understood as a name for Vishnu, there is still the underlying assumption that any name given to Vishnu by the devotees of Vishnu cannot be used by followers and devotees of Jesus in their worship of the Triune God.  Still further below this is the assumption that no name used by devotees of any other god can be used by the followers of Jesus.  This assumption however, must be rejected outright.

In the first place, my commenter is probably getting his idea of "hari" (again, not "hare") as a name for Vishnu from stanza 69 of the Shri Vishnu Sahasra-Nama Stotram (although he may have arrived at this idea in a very indirect way).  The title of this ancient Sanskrit text can be translated as "The Thousand Names of Vishnu".  Again, stanza 69 features the name "hari" (not "hare", which doesn't appear in the text) as one of the names of Vishnu.  That is, one of a thousand names for Vishnu!  What are some of the other names?  Just to mention a few: paramaatma (supreme spirit), saakshee (witness), prabhu (lord), pavitram (holy one), sharanam (refuge), satyah (truth), guru (teacher), sarva shaktiman (all mighty), and parameshwar (supreme god).  A natural question flowing from my commenter's argument would be "upon what basis do Hindi and Nepali-speaking Christians justify the use any of the above terms in their worship of Jesus Christ?"  These are all "names of Vishnu".  If we accept the premise that any name used in reference to Vishnu cannot be used in reference to Jesus (or the Father, or the Holy Spirit), then we cannot use any of the above names.  Moreover, much of South Asian hymnody, Christian theological literature, and Bible translations would need to be scrapped as they make great use of the above terms.  Once we've then cleaned up the Church from all of these names of Vishnu, we would then have to proceed to the thousand names of Shiva, Lalita, Ganesh, Lakshmi, Durga, and 330 million others.  I highly doubt that we'd be left with any language at all.

No, this assumption must be discarded.  The question is not whether or not a name has been used in reference to another deity.  It is, after all, undeniable that words like Christ, Lord, God, Adoni, El, Theos etc. have all be used in reference to other gods and did not emerge from the mysterious ooze of some primordial Christian "super-culture". The question must be whether or not a particular word can be appropriately used in reference to the Triune God of the Bible.  Is he Master (swami), Lord (prabhu), all-mighty (sarva shaktiman), the light (jyoti), savior (muktidata)? And does he remove sin (hare)? 

To the one who desires to share the hope of the Lord Jesus with the Hindu world, I would ask that you consider the following:

  1. What is your Hindu friend praying?  Do you understand it?
  2. Are they asking for something that they shouldn't desire?  Or is their desire legitimate and commendable (e.g. forgiveness, illumination, eternal life)?
  3. Is part of the "good news" of the gospel the fact that the person and work of Jesus Christ actually offers an answer to that request?

In the case of the traditional "mahamantra", what we have done is simply to let people know that we resonate and empathize with their desire to have their sins and failures removed.  "Hare-hare" is a legitimate prayer to pray.  We then offer both the form and substance of the "TriEak Parmeshwar Mahamantra" -- pointing people to a fulfillment that can be found in Christ.  In response to our "hare-hare", Jesus, by virtue of his atonement on the cross says, "Yes!"  He has accomplished by his blood what countless Hindus pray for daily.