January 2009


One of the greatest obstacles to overcome when addressing the American culture is the approach that the evangelical church has to amassing her converts. We think that everyone wants the same thing that we want. But perhaps they don’t. Mark Twain picked up on this discrepancy between what the witness wants and what the target wants and recorded it in his boys’ novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Miss Watson would say, “Don’t put your feet up there, Huckleberry;” and “Don’t scrunch up like that, Huckleberry -­ set up straight;” and pretty soon she would say, “Don’t gap and stretch like that, Huckleberry -­ why don’t you try to behave?” Then she told me all about the bad place, and I said I wished I was there. She got mad then, but I didn’t mean no harm. All I wanted was to go somewheres; all I wanted was a change, I warn’t particular. She said it was wicked to say what I said; said she wouldn’t say it for the whole world; she was going to live so as to go to the good place. Well, I couldn’t see no advantage in going where she was going, so I made up my mind I wouldn’t try for it. But I never said so, because it would only make trouble, and wouldn’t do no good.

Now she had got a start, and she went on and told me all about the good place. She said all a body would have to do there was to go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever. So I didn’t think much of it. But I never said so. I asked her if she reckoned Tom Sawyer would go there, and she said not by a considerable sight. I was glad about that, because I wanted him and me to be together.

It seems that Huck didn’t have a full understanding of the concepts of Heaven and Hell, but neither did Miss Watson have a cultural understanding of her pupil. Sadly, we seem to miss the point of culture still today. Just to assume that someone wants to go to Heaven when they die is a misconception. Some people are positive that there is no Heaven and there is no Hell.

If my premise is that salvation is all about getting to Heaven, then my premise is flawed as well. Look at much of the music popular in the church today—you know, that Southern Gospel variety. Here we find songs like “Carried Away” which says, “I’m gonna let the glory roll when the roll is called in Glory,” and “Heavenbound” to name a couple. We probe our friends’ readiness to accept the message of Jesus by asking, “If you were to die tonight and stand before God in heaven, and He asked you, ‘why should I let you into my heaven?’ what do you think you would say?” Our entire focus is on heaven.

I recall a youth minister who was fond of saying (because we as Baptists immerse baptism candidates), “If heaven is all there is to salvation, then the preacher should hold you under when he baptizes you.” The point he wanted to make: there must be more than just an end game involved here.

When I think about all of these things, I come to the conclusion that not only is heaven (or a trip there) not the basic point of salvation but neither should we make it so. Heaven, as wonderful as it is or will be, when seen as the point of salvation is the selfish side of salvation, if any side at all. It becomes the carrot with which we tantalize those who are not of us.

The point of salvation, as I understand it is to draw me into a relationship with the Creator, and so that I can give Him all of who I am—including the glory for who He is. In determining that, I should begin to build relationships with people where they are so that I can glorify God in their presence. In so doing, perhaps they will become a part of Christ’s kingdom for the express purpose of building a relationship with the Creator and giving themselves to Him in the process.

That said, I must then begin to develop relationships outside the church that invite rather than alienate. To do that, I must know the culture outside my own church culture and live my life accordingly.

As a new missionary with the International Mission Board, I spent several weeks training at the center they have for that purpose outside of Richmond, VA. The curriculum and living experience is to provide a bridging step from everyday, normal existence in the life that the new missionary knows and prepare them for what is ahead. Much of what is taught in the coursework portion of the orientation deals with a crazy animal called Culture Shock—that demon that rears its ugly head when a person moves from a familiar surrounding to an entirely different cultural atmosphere. The concern is that those preparing for service in an unusual culture will be crippled by the overwhelming nature of immersion into a new culture. Even with all the emphasis, some still despair and return to life at ease in their home country, home state, home county, home town, home.

With all the emphasis on living in a new culture, one discovers that language is integrally related to a person’s culture. We say what we say because of what it means to say what we say. We use the words we use to mean a specific thing. When crossing cultures, one must discover the right way to say what they are intending to say. Otherwise we find that we are not saying anything near what we thought we were saying. Here are several examples I encountered while serving in a Russian-speaking setting:

1. The story is told of the American preacher on a two-week trip preaching in several places. At one church he and his translator were going well until the American used a Baseball illustration. After a moment or two, the preacher realized that his translator had stopped translating and was starring at his guest. When the preacher looked inquisitively at his translator, the young man said, “Besbol, what is this besbol? We do not know this.”

2. Some of my friends commissioned to the Russian-speaking world warn new missionaries and possible volunteers to avoid talk about their passion for Jesus. The reason is that unless they have a very experienced translator working with them (and sometimes even when they do) their helper will translate that they have a “strong sexual desire” for Jesus. That’s what the only Russian word for passion means.

3. When translators first started working on getting the scripture translated into a certain dialect of one particular Turkish people group who live in the former Soviet Union, the workers began doing a word for word translation. Without properly testing the translation with native speakers, they went to press with a scripture portion complete with pictures. Searching for pictures revealed some beautiful artwork that could be used and depicted the Christ in their gospel portions. When the portion was printed and distributed, the target people would have nothing to do with it. First of all, because the language was not smooth or communicative to the people. But even more, the pictures used were Russian Orthodox icons and represented the “God of our oppressors.” Learning from these mistakes, new teams began working and rather than rushing to print, took sometimes up to two years to field test the language learning the best way to say what they were trying to say so that the message would be clear without cross-cultural baggage. Better yet, an artist from within the people group was commissioned to illustrate the stories, and many of the people not only read the first collection of scripture stories, but accepted the Christ about whom they were written.

My point with these examples is that we need to be aware of the culture in which we are sharing our faith. That is true whether we are crossing the street to a new culture, crossing the tracks to a new culture, crossing the country to a new culture, or crossing the globe to a new culture.

Today’s suggestion: learn two or three (or even four or five) different ways to say what you are trying to say when you are speaking of spiritual matters. Take the time to know your friend, and speak their language. This does not water down the gospel, but it makes it effective on all the levels it is meant to be effective. After all, the message of Christ is one that is for any and all who will hear—not just those who speak my language.

(more to come)

A recent post at sbcIMPACT has generated strong emotions and great consternation from opponents of the article. In the post, the author (known as From the Middle East – FTME) shares an example of an initial witness to Jesus Christ which he would use in the context of bringing the gospel of Christ to a muslim setting. Mainly because of the language used (for example – use of the word “Allah” in place of the word “God”) a plethora of commenters queued up to point out the short-comings of the testimony. Some addressed the specific words used, others have been convinced that FTME did not address the deeper theological truths that we know. From the discussion, I can only assume that the majority of the participants hold several commonalities—they are Americans, trained in American theological seminaries (for example).

Additionally, the good folks over at SBCToday enlisted a teacher of theology to respond to the original post. I would encourage you to read both posts (with comments) if you’re interested in the whole shooting match.

And now to my thoughts—I am not here defending or rebutting FTME (others are more capable of arguing against him than I, and FTME is well able to defend himself). Instead, I would like to develop a few thoughts that were sparked by the overall discussion. It will probably take a few posts to say all I intend, so be patient.

To begin with, whenever we are engaging someone new in the conversation leading to Christ it is important to get on the same page. We must not assume that their understanding of the Christ is the same as ours. Often we must not expect that they mean the same thing with their words as we do although we may be using the same words. I have discovered that whenever someone says what they mean, I interpret it with my understanding of the words they use and often hear what I hear—which isn’t always what they said. Therefore, it isn’t any wonder that our witness is often hampered when we use language that is ambiguous at best to our unbelieving friends and acquaintances.

I recall a time of particular evangelistic zeal we experienced in my high school youth group. One of my friends (a Catholic in background) approached me with concern in her face. She had literally be accosted by one of my fellow youth group members with the hearty question, “Are you saved?” and then left to ponder the question while he went merrily on his way. Her question to me, “What did he mean? I don’t understand.” I don’t recall my answer, but I remember thinking There must be a better way to find out somebody’s spiritual situation—one that doesn’t require damage control.

My advice at this point: write a dictionary for yourself. Include all the terms that you use specifically addressing spiritual condition. Define those terms without using language from the church. Then stop using the terms as part of your testimony, but only in the church setting where everybody’s on the same page.

(More to come.)

I’ve been kind of quiet lately — just haven’t been fired up about much with all the responsibilities outside of the blogosphere. But I’ve been thinking again (and you know how dangerous that can be).

I’ve been thinking about an old saw that preacher’s love to repeat —
“In my life I’ve learned two things: There is a God, and I’m not Him.”

As I bump elbows with my congregation and with my friends (physically and via the Internet) I’m discovering that while most people are comfortable with the fact that they are not God, often God is not God for them either.

Here are some of the replacements we regularly substitute for God:
Religion
Family
Food
Football
Baseball
Basketball
(insert favorite sport here)
Music
Things
. . .

I could go on, but you get the idea. And for many Americans, it seems that the sport du’jour is what takes the place of the One True God. Especially guilty are those of us who serve Christ as ministers.

We find ways to pipe special games into our worship centers in the guise of outreach. We spend more time worshiping our team than we do our Lord.

At the risk of sounding overly pious or stuffed into my halo too tightly, I think that it might be worth our while to let God be God. Because I’ve learned a thing or two in my life: There is a God, and it ain’t football.