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Musings on Missions and Evangelism: Evangelism as Art

02/07/2013

I don’t know about you, but my life of faith has had its fair share of doubt and uncertainty. This was clearly evident during my graduate education in theology. I wrestled with all the questions you would expect. It was, and still is, hard to intellectually reconcile all the competing theories, arguments and experiences related to the existence and activity of God. In the end, I left graduate school with some serious doubts and questions. Yet, strangely enough, my faith was stronger than ever before.

Those trends have continued, and escalated, during these years serving in cross-cultural ministry. I constantly grapple with serious questions about God, but answers continue to evade me. The cosmological, ontological, and all the other -ological arguments fail to bring satisfactory resolutions, while the problem of evil continues to give me nightmares (pun intended). I still have no idea how atonement works, and Joshua and Judges remain thorns in my side. And don’t get me started on divine agency.

However, despite my intellectual conundrums, I am wholly and completely captivated by the story of Jesus Christ. The longer I spend observing, seeking, following Jesus, the more beautiful his life, and the life he offers us, becomes. I don’t remain faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ purely because I think it is true; I continue down this path because I am moved to my core by the potentiality of life seen in him.

This is why I say that evangelism is less like science and more like art. The tendency in evangelism is to focus on convincing others of the scientific, logical, and rational veracity of our faith claims. While this aspect of evangelism has its place, proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ should be more akin to writing poetry, performing music, or painting a canvas. We should be less concerned with explaining the logic of the incarnation and more interested in awing others with the portrait of a God who was born in a manger. We could give fewer defenses on the authority of Scripture and instead perform dramatic acts of reconciliation and restoration. We can spend less energy on convincing people of how Jesus atones for their sins and more on describing the beauty of what happens when a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies. We do not have to persuade people of the historicity of the resurrection as much as point to the new creation that breaks forth when we participate in the resurrection life.

The other day Ann was spending time with a friend of ours who has caught a glimpse of the beauty of Jesus Christ. Ann was talking to her about the significance of Jesus being Lord. Ann then asked her to name the characteristics of Jesus that make her want to follow him. Her immediate response was, “Everything! I want to be like him in every way!” That kind of response does not come from someone whose growing faith is based primarily on the reasonableness and logic of the gospel. It only comes from one who is being consumed by the beauty of the life lived by, and found in, Jesus Christ.

 

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Musings on Missions and Evangelism: Short-Term Missions as Distraction

01/25/2013

This post is from a few months ago, but I am re-posting it in order to put it alongside the other two posts about short-term missions. It is unedited.

I don’t think it is too strong to say that we are addicted to stimulation. And we particularly like our stimulation in rapid, short bursts. We want our news scrolling by at the bottom of the screen in 5 second intervals. We like our opinions and stories in 140 characters or less. We change jobs once the excitement has worn off. We don’t like the mundane, the routine, the commonness of everyday life. We need the newer, the bigger, the better in order to keep us engaged. I don’t say this to be judgmental. I am as inculturated in this mindset as the next person. However, I am concerned that we are losing something vital to the Christian life if we don’t resist this strong tide.

Generally speaking, our spiritual lives are characterized by trying to string together exciting and moving experiences. We long for the next powerful worship service. We want that next great blog post to move us. We can’t wait for the upcoming spiritual retreat and mission trip. These are obviously not bad things, but I am afraid that we use these experiences to catapult us over the mundaneness that fills the majority of our time.

My assertion is that we have substituted “experiences” for “practices” in our discipleship. I believe central to following Jesus is cultivating practices which, over time, conform us into the image of Christ. The way for virtues such as generosity, selflessness, and peacemaking to manifest in our lives is to go about the hard work of engaging in consistent and long-term practices that shape our character accordingly. If I want to become generous, then I might think about covenanting to stop and converse with every beggar I see. If I want to be selfless (and I recognize the irony in that clause), then I could start doing the house chores that my wife dislikes the most. If I want to be a peacemaker, then maybe I should spend significant chunks of time with people from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds than myself. I think our churches need fewer experiences and more practices.

What does all this have to do with short-term mission trips? Well, I wonder if the rise in STMs over the past 20 years is, in some way, connected to our stimulation addiction and desire for the next “spiritual” experience. It is a lot easier to “experience” God and be moved spiritually during a two-week campaign to an exotic place than to commit weekly, for months or years, to serve a hot meal to local homeless people. We might feel righteous when we do door-to-door evangelism in a faraway place (this is one aspect of STMs that I have serious reservations about but that’s for another time), but we don’t “get much” from making weekly visits to the nearby nursing home. We feel blessed to step outside of our circumstances for a few days in order to understand the suffering of others, but what about moving our home from our familiar neighborhoods and incarnating among people unlike ourselves?

My desire here is not to evaluate the benefits, or lack thereof, of STMs, either to the participant or the receiving group. My concern is whether or not STMs can serve as a distraction, and a rather expensive one at that, from the cross-bearing practices involved in daily discipleship. And my goal, if I have one, is not necessarily to see a decrease in short-term mission trips but to witness an increase in long-term missional practices.

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Musings on Missions and Evangelism: Are Short-Term Missions For Us or Them?

01/22/2013

“Our main goal for this short-term mission trip is to provide a powerful spiritual experience for our kids.” These were the words of the leader of an STM group that was “evangelizing” in the Chiang Mai University cafeteria where we were eating. I approached the leader and asked about their trip in response to the following situation that occurred moments before.

Lek was a sophomore and had come to two or three events with our church. She did not know much at all about Christianity but seemed to enjoy hanging out with us. On this day in the cafeteria, she was sitting with Katy, one of our interns. When Katy went to get some desert, a teenage girl from the States sat down with Lek and began talking about how awesome it would be if Lek was a Christian. She sat really close to Lek, spoke loudly and excitedly, and constantly made physical contact. Finally, the girl said that she would get one of her leaders to come over and talk about saying a prayer of belief in Jesus. Then they would be sisters in Christ! Once the girl left the table, Lek quickly gathered her belongings and retreated in the opposite direction. Katy tried to ask her where she was headed in such a hurry, but Lek did not stop to talk. Lek never came around again.

Once I pieced the story together from Katy and others sitting nearby, I decided to go ask the group’s leader about their purpose and strategy. That is when she informed me that they organized these trips primarily for the benefit of their kids.

My inner monologue, at this point, went something like this. Providing a “spiritual experience” for your kids came at the cost of alienating a sweet girl in northern Thailand. If you want to have a spiritual experience, then go hang out on a mountaintop where you cannot engage in gross cultural insensitivity. How would you like it if someone used you as a means to his or her own selfish desires? In reality, I said it was nice to meet her and hope her time in Thailand is fun.

I have used this story, which happened about twelve years ago, in graduate school papers and in classes to illustrate the danger of doing ministry for the sake of the one ministering. Whether in the context of STMs or local humanitarian efforts, I railed fairly hard against the idea of doing ministry for the sake of your own spiritual formation. My thesis was that ministry, and STMs more specifically, should be done for the sake of the other. If you are going for your own benefit, then stay home.

However, while that story still makes my stomach turn after all these years, I have begun to change my feelings about who STMs are about. Though I do not like the strategy of that particular group, I am starting to think that it is time to admit that, in fact, STMs are for our sakes. And that is the way it must be. Let me explain with an analogy.

I think healthcare is one of the best vocations and acts of service in which a person can engage. Therefore, I am planning to go on a 2-week surgery rotation at a local hospital. I will spend that time learning from doctors and nurses, making diagnoses, and performing minor surgical procedures on unsuspecting patients. Though I might not be trained in surgical procedures, I am sure the patients will not mind because, after all, I really do want to help them. Plus, I want to experience the joy that comes in healing a sick a person.

This is obviously a ridiculous scenario, but I do think it surfaces the dynamic present in STMs. I believe that most people who go on STMs have true and sincere motives, in that they do want to help and serve others. However, if we are honest with ourselves, we know that we do not have the skill set to do the task well. We cannot speak the local language. We are not trained in construction. We know very little about the religious, political and economic situation within the local culture. Yet, we still go.* And I believe we go because we think the benefit to ourselves will result in a net gain. We will be changed. We will give more money to missions afterwards. We might become long-term missionaries as a result.** We will better understand poverty. We will learn and appreciate a different culture. We will grow closer to God.

I think most of those are good motivations. I believe they provide a good basis upon which to build the STM experience. But that means there needs to be a significant shift in the mindset and practice of STMs, which centers on recognizing that we are going primarily for our own benefit and then discerning how to do that in healthy ways for all parties involved.

So, here are my broad, sweeping suggestions for the future of STMs. (Many of these have already been written in books and articles.)

  • Spend far fewer resources on STMs. Spend more on long-term development. (Though we think STMs produce more long-term missionaries and workers, STMs actually produce more STMs. The best way to produce long-term missionaries is to model long-term church planting and development, particularly in your local community.
  • STMs should have two primary purposes:
    1. The building of relationships across cultures – The interaction between those going and those receiving should be based on humility and mutual respect. The only agenda should be to enjoy being together. There should not be any preconceived plans and ideas for how “we” can help “them.”
    2. The education and formation of those going – There should be an explicit intention for the trip to connect to discipleship and the long-term relationship between the senders and the receivers. In other words, how is this trip going to contribute to long-term development, discipleship and partnership for both parties? The goal should not be to just go on a STM, as if that is an end of itself. The goal should be to join God in what He is doing long-term, both in the sending community and in the receiving culture, and then discern whether this particular group of people going there for a short time contributes to that goal. If it does, then the preparation stage should be focused on learning about the cultural, religious, political and economic circumstances of the destination. The schedule of the trip should reflect the purposes of spiritual formation and education (e. g., times for prayer and reflection, opportunities to hear from locals, exposure to existing works, etc.). The post-trip should have intentional times for reflection and discernment for what the trip means for the future.
  • Short-term missions should not be geared around service, doing good works, evangelism, and the like. (I use the word “missions” here, but I join the chorus of those who say we should find better language, such as “short-term learning opportunities,” to talk about this practice.) This is because, as I still believe, ministry must be done for the sake of the other. And if we really do not know much about the people in the host culture (i.e., their language, values, pains, strengths, etc.), then how can we expect to serve them in truly loving ways? Plus, going with the expectation of providing for a “need” they might have can quickly become a form of paternalism and perpetuate the inequality of power. The only opportunity for such tasks should come at the request of local church leaders, without any provocation from the missionaries or the group. (If it sounds like I am being too dramatic in saying that STMs should not be about “doing,” then just imagine a group of Thai, non-English speaking, teenagers coming to your church and insisting on evangelizing and helping take care of your needs.)
  • Whenever there is a sense in which the group is being exposed to the poverty and suffering in the local community, be sure to leave cameras tucked away in a bag.
  • Local church leaders (i. e., not missionaries nor the sending church leaders) should be the primary catalysts for inviting and organizing the trip.
  • Local church leaders should be the ones the group hears from the most as the group seeks to understand the local culture.
  • Those going on these trips should use their own money to cover at least half, if not all, the cost of the trip.
  • The exception to all these suggestions: coming to babysit the children of missionaries in northern Thailand.

For anyone who is involved in short-term missions, particularly those planning and overseeing STM programs, I highly recommend Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience by Brian Howell.

*I am speaking in generalities. There are situations, like doctors doing a medical campaign, in which the person going has the right skills. However, even in the case of medical missions, I think a doctor or nurse needs additional skills to do cross-cultural service well.

** Though the rationales of increased long-term missionaries and increased giving to missions sound like good warrants for STMs, the research is starting to show that STMs do not actually produce an increase in either.

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Musings on Missions and Evangelism: The Rise of Short-Term Missions

01/18/2013

I am continually fascinated by the prevalence of short-term missions (STMs) going out from our churches, particularly in the U. S. The emphasis on STMs continues to grow and is now interwoven into the very fabric of our communal life and ministry. I’m guessing you would be hard-pressed to find a youth program that does not engage in STMs. This intrigues me because STM trips (particularly cross-cultural endeavors) are a fairly recent phenomenon. This practice, at least in any significant manner, started about 50 years ago. But, in those early years, short-term trips were made primarily in support of and for recruitment into long-term mission efforts and did not use the terms “short-term missions” or “short-term missionary.” That language did not take hold until the 1980’s. And yet, the practice and vocabulary of STMs is now part of our DNA. Thus, I am very interested in how such a young practice has become such a significant component of our churches, utilizing a vast amount of our time, energy, and resources.
I think there are a number of factors that have contributed to the rise of STMs. The most significant, and obvious, is the rapid increase in international travel during the mid-20th century due to the availability of commercial air travel. Other factors include the emergence of youth and college ministries, the success of the Peace Corps, and the increase in global awareness through media and technology. While those and other sociological and logistical factors are important, I think there are two theological/philosophical trends that have provided fertile soil for STMs. And understanding these two factors will help us understand the development of STMs and, more importantly, provide insight into how we can approach STMs in healthier ways.
First, the rise of STMs piggy-backed the swell of evangelism crusades (think Billy Graham and the like) throughout North America in the mid-20th century. Due to the apparent success of such crusades and ministries, the idea of presenting the gospel and producing conversions in one hearing quickly became normative in the minds of Christians. Thus, the implication for missions, in our collective subconscious, was that it is not necessary to move your family to a foreign land to be a long-term missionary. Missions and evangelism were things that could be done in a short period of time. And the prevalent message in such crusades was one of “making a decision” for Christ so you will be saved. It was a simple message, so why couldn’t anyone proclaim it? Therefore, as opportunities to travel abroad increased, this notion of evangelism spurred people towards spending their vacations and holiday breaks doing something of seeming eternal significance.
Here’s an example of this reality taken from our rhetoric. If you have ever gone on an STM trip, there is a good chance you heard something similar to the following as you raised funds and made preparations. “Even if just one person gets saved, all this money and energy and sacrifice is worth it.” Now, I appreciate the motivation of people who have shared similar words with me, but that sentiment is an indication of a deeper theological idea that continues to fund STMs and needs to be seriously critiqued.
To further illustrate my point, here is an example of STMs as evangelism crusades that I experienced about 12 years ago in Chiang Mai. I was walking through the mall, and I came upon a group of American teenagers performing a skit near the entrance. It was obviously a performance related to Jesus, so I stuck around. Afterwards, I approached a couple of them and asked what they were doing in northern Thailand. One of the young girls proceeded to explain how they were there for two weeks doing drama and evangelism presentations. She was extremely excited as she described what all they had done and what God was doing in their midst. Just the day before they had gone to a village in the mountains and performed skits. She said they had 27 “salvations” after that one presentation. Besides the fact those villagers had probably never seen a group of white teenagers before and would have raised their hands if you asked them if they believe Elvis is still alive, what struck about her description of their work was how evangelism had somehow become a one-time event instead of an ongoing practice.
My problem with the notion of evangelism as a short-term practice is its theological shallowness. (There is also the lack of cultural awareness and sensitivity, but that is for another time.) Though there are numerous historical factors that contributed to this notion of evangelism (i.e., Luther’s influence, frontier revivalism, Western individualism, etc.), the truth is that proclaiming the gospel is not about “making a decision” or “salvations.” Evangelism is about inviting people into the  kingdom of God that is breaking in around us. It is about calling people out of the reign of the powers and principalities, of sin and death, and into the reign of Jesus Christ. And this is not something that gets completed during a two-week trip overseas. Therefore, if we are going to think of STMs as evangelism, we must re-imagine how a short-term stay in a foreign culture can play a part in the long-term work of transforming communities of faith into the image of Jesus Christ.
The second factor in the rise of STM has to do with an increased emphasis on poverty alleviation, humanitarian aid and justice issues in our churches. The literature on STMs in the earlier years placed a strong emphasis on evangelism, but the past decade or so has seen a shift in focus towards helping those in poverty. The motivation to go on an STM trip in order to “serve the needy” stems from the broader trend in poverty alleviation among churches. As explained in When Helping Hurts, the vast majority of our energy and resources go to relief, while little goes to rehabilitation and even less towards development. We are really good about helping those in a tragic situation with quick, overwhelming relief. That has become our primary way to engage poverty, thus fertile ground for STMs.
If our answer to poverty is fundamentally about relief, then a short-term trip to a “poor” or “developing” country is a great strategy. It takes little effort to recruit people to go help  on a project for a week or so. We have been groomed for that type of service. However, as Corbett and Fikkert argue, poverty alleviation and economic justice will only improve when we commit to the long-term work of development. We need to change our overall approach to poverty alleviation, and, therefore, we must rethink how a short-term trip can contribute to partnered development. In other words, like I said about evangelism, poverty alleviation has to be conceived of as the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, which is fundamentally developmental.
The reason I am writing about this is that the effectiveness of STMs has, for the most part, gone unquestioned in our churches. We come back reporting stories of conversions and of helping the poor, and so we send out even more STM groups. I don’t want to say that sending out more STMs is a bad idea, but I do want to change the standards of effectiveness. If we are going to spend more money and energy on STMs, then let’s at least do the hard work of figuring out strategies that do more than perpetuate inadequate approaches to evangelism and poverty alleviation.

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Video for Highland

01/14/2013

Highland, our supporting church, recently asked us to get a few video clips together featuring our ministry here in Phayao. They showed it at church last week. There were some problems with some of the clips I sent, so it didn’t have everything I intended it to. So, I am posting a revised video here that has clips from various aspects of our ministry. It is only about 2 minutes long, but hopefully it gives you a taste of what life is like here these days.

 

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2012 in Pictures

01/03/2013

I love having time to reflect at the end of a year and at the start of a new one. Derran and I have enjoyed looking through pictures of 2012 and re-living the experiences we had last year. We wanted to share a collection of pictures from 2012 and some highlights of the year.

It was a year that we experienced Brynn losing four teeth, Dax getting eight teeth, and me having one wisdom tooth pulled (3 more to go! Gearing up.) A year that Meg learned to swim. Meg had a Spider-Man birthday party (4), Brynn had a Pig party (6), and Dax celebrated his first birthday, a “Firetruck” party (theme selected by his big sisters). We are now the proud owners of two cute little Chihuahuas, Pixie and Daisy, who, praise the Lord, are finally not pooping in their kennel every night and now sleep past 6:30 in the morning. I’m finally getting to the point of not threatening to give them away and actually being able to say, “They are pretty cute, aren’t they?”

Our family got to go to Malaysia for the Asian Mission Forum. We really enjoyed experiencing Borneo and Kuala Lumpur (and going to Chili’s!). We happened to be there during the time of Ramadan. During this month, Muslims fast from sun up to sun down and then break fast and eat together after dark. Not thinking of this beforehand, we got to Chili’s right as the sun was setting. Made for a long wait! And for months after that if we were going out to eat, one of the girls would say, “Hurry, it’s getting dark, we better get there fast!”.

Brynn graduated from kindergarten and started a new school for first grade. Meg and Brynn went to different schools for the first time. We decided to not homeschool and let the girls do full-time Thai school for this last half of the year. Their language skills are really improving, and they both enjoy being with sweet friends at school (except for the part where Brynn is afraid if she doesn’t finish her homework her teacher will hit her hand with a ruler….little different punishment techniques over here! But hey, she gets her homework done!).🙂

Dax is affectionately called “Big Boy” by our friends and neighbors. He loves people everywhere, loves to eat, and has a great smile. He especially loves being with his momma these days (and she loves it too!). Derran lost his dear grandfather, Leon Reese, this summer and was blessed to be able to go back to Texas to be with family at the funeral. I was also blessed with a free ticket to come back to see family in October for two weeks during the school break. (You know a girl misses home when she is willing to make THAT trip by herself! 21 hour trip one-way.) I believe I will carry the badge of “I took my three small children from Thailand to Texas and back all by myself” around with me for awhile! They did great, despite experiencing the very worst, plane-dropping turbulence I have EVER experienced in my life! My feet were covered in sticky orange juice for about 8 hours and the girls would not let go of my arms. The girl next to me was throwing up, the girl in front of me was putting her backpack on (not sure where she thought she would need that), Meg’s hamburger landed on top of the seat in front of us, and the lady behind me had her rosary beads out…it was an experience I will not soon forget.🙂 Despite that hiccup, it was such a fun treat to get to be with friends, family, and cousins (and a trip or two to Target and Sonic).

Derran joined a city basketball team and has played in two tournaments so far (proudly sponsored by none other than Brick Oven Pizza Phayao). We love going to watch him, and I think Brynn finally has started calling it basketball and not football (got some work to do on our sports identification skills). Brynn was a drum major for her school sports day parade. She loved every minute of the make-up and fancy dress-up. I lost twenty pounds last year (and only gained three back over the holidays–I’ll call it a win!).

We celebrated three years in Phayao in September. We painted our kitchen, our room, and the girls’ room. We tore down the back gate, “borrowed” land from our neighbor, and made a backyard (which has brought much joy to all of us and has brought new experiences like gardening and a compost pile). We enjoyed trips to waterfalls and beaches. I took the girls on a day-long 8th grade field trip to a nearby town with a teacher friend in which we rode on a double-decker bus and listened to middle-school karaoke blaring through the bus speakers and enjoyed disco lights and dancing on the bus for 11 hours–another badge for me. We made new friends and enjoyed friendships that have grown closer and dearer through our three years here. Our favorite meals here are grilled chicken, sticky rice, and som tham (spicy papaya salad), and pizza, of course! Brynn still lives mostly on peanut butter sandwiches, and Meg and Dax prefer grilled pork balls on a stick. I’ve actually started to like the taste of spicy papaya salad with fermented fish (tastes better than it sounds, I promise!). The girls favorite thing is having tickle fights with their daddy in the evenings and listening to the stories he makes up at bedtime.

It has been a long, good, full, lesson-learning, sometimes lonely, growing, stretching, short, patience-building, hard, rewarding, exhausting, lovely, challenging, perseverance-gaining, overflowing-with-blessings year. We are so thankful for your love, support, prayers, and friendship. You all bless us beyond measure. We end last year praising God once again for His faithfulness and presence in our lives and start 2013 with hearts ready to see where He leads us and a prayer of hope for strength, peace, wisdom, and deep joy in living out His call daily. God bless you all as you begin this new year. May we be people of ever-increasing love for our Lord and our neighbors.

Happy New Year from the Reeses!

Derran, Ann, Brynn, Meg, and Dax

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Musings on Missions and Evangelism: On Syncretism

11/23/2012

Despite variations in methods and models, there is one common idea found in the various books and articles on contextualization—beware of syncretism. The discussion always leads to the proverbial slippery slope of going too far with contextualization. The argument typically goes something like the following.

Missionaries must utilize appropriate cultural forms and practices so that the audience can understand the gospel in its own terms. Although it is advantageous to use “cultural” symbols, missionaries should avoid using “religious” symbols. The result would be a syncretistic, thus an invalid, expression of Christian faith. Therefore, the role of the missionary, and other church leaders, is to safeguard against the church losing its distinctiveness by incorporating religious forms and practices from the surrounding context.

Although I am sympathetic to the motivation for this common argument, I believe this train of thought stems from a misunderstanding of culture/religion and, ironically, produces the very thing—that is, a distorted gospel— it seeks to avoid. Let me explain.

The notion that a clear boundary between cultural and religious symbols exists is incontrovertibly false. This distinction assumes a narrow understanding of religion and falsely purports that the missionary, or any person, has the ability to designate forms and practices that do not have “religious” significance. Therefore, contextual theology is not about deciding whether the Christian community should engage in “religious” practices in an effort to uphold its distinct boundaries. The crux of the matter is how the community uses and negotiates the meaning of the relevant symbols and forms in light of its faith in the triune God. Kathryn Tanner explains:

“Differences between ways of life are often therefore established by differences of use and not by the distribution of entirely discrete cultural forms to one side or the other of a cultural boundary. . . The distinctiveness of a way of life emerges out of tension-filled relations with what other ways of life do with much the same cultural stuff.”[1]

The fact that the community is in a culture means that it will employ symbols and practices that are loaded with previously constructed cultural-religious meanings.  Therefore,

“The distinctiveness of a Christian way of life is not so much formed by the boundary as at it; Christian distinctiveness is something that emerges in the very cultural processes occurring at the boundary, processes that construct a distinctive identity for Christian social practices through the distinctive use of cultural materials shared with others.”[2]

Another way to frame this is that the issue is not so much if the church should use a particular symbol or practice but to whom the symbol or practice is in service. The truth is that syncretism (defined as the blending of symbols from more than one religious domain) is inevitable. Therefore, the potential threat is less a matter of which symbols and practices we utilize in worshiping, loving and serving God and more about whether it is the God revealed in Jesus Christ who is the object of those symbols and practices.

It undoubtedly takes wisdom, diligence and humility when discerning which specific symbols and practices to actually employ in each particular community of faith. Not every form or ritual is well suited or appropriate for the local church to re-appropriate. For example, a young church might not have the resources to incorporate some symbols. Or, more significantly, some practices must be avoided because of their ethical implications. (I will hopefully say more about the process and criteria for choosing specific symbols and practices in a future post.) However, the point here is that the fear of using symbols from the “religious” sphere is misplaced. And, in fact, the real danger comes when any “sphere” (i.e., religious, political, economic, etc.) within the culture remains outside the purview of the Christian community.

I think an example from the American context will help illustrate this.

The Enlightenment produced numerous ideas that affect our understanding of religion. There was an emphasis on the separation of church and state. There was the tendency to segregate religious affairs to one’s private life. And, the separation of the body and soul became the accepted view of biological anthropology, especially in the church. These ideas produced a fascinating effect on the church in America. The gospel was relegated to the realm of securing the destination of one’s soul after death. The church was concerned with getting people saved. This meant that the church did not have much to say about political affairs or concerns of the nation-state. (I realize there are exceptions to this like Christian abolitionists, the Social Gospel, and the Civil Rights Movement, but I do think it is generally true, particularly in non-mainline churches.)

The result of this was that the church eagerly incorporated numerous cultural symbols and practices (i.e., Christmas traditions, new music styles in worship, etc.), re-appropriating them in light of the gospel, while simultaneously avoiding the symbols and practices of the nation-state because such things were not related to saving souls. This trajectory has come to a head in recent decades. Because churches did not feel the need to bring the gospel into direct contact with the symbols and practices of the nation-state, many Christians were able to develop a robust Christian identity alongside a robust national identity without much conflict or tension. Therefore, it is not problematic for churches in recent years to have an American flag next to the pulpit, sing the national anthem after “Amazing Grace”, or recite the Pledge of Allegiance before the Eucharist. They feel it is appropriate because some practices are “Christian” while others are “patriotic.”

This example illustrates what happens when the church decides, whether consciously or unconsciously, to leave some spheres of life, and their related symbols and practices, unchecked and unchallenged by the gospel. The issue here is that the rituals of the nation-state are extremely formative and highly emotive. Engaging in these practices and behaviors, such as reciting the Pledge every day at school, creates a sense of devotion and solidarity. If the Christian community is not intentional with how it negotiates these symbols and practices, then the church can easily experience a bifurcation in its mission and identity. The same is true if the church fails to contest the significance of “religious” symbols as well. Those forms and practices, if left untouched, will continue to have power and value for the larger community and will be used in devotion for something other than the One who deserves all devotion.

Therefore, the danger of syncretism is not due to the use of “religious” forms and practices. In fact, there is no way, even if one desires it, to avoid such symbols. Ironically, a distortion of the gospel (or should I say idolatry) is more likely when religious (or political or economic or . . .) symbols and practices are left unchecked.

I will conclude with an example from our community. Our church has borrowed practices from the surrounding culture for the sake of worshiping God. On Sundays we light incense (which is done at Buddhist temples, at spirit houses, and in various ceremonies), and we all bow down (grapwai) to the ground (which is done before monks, idols, and the king). We have had a few (I do mean only a few) people express concern that we are treading close to syncretism, particularly because of the practices that resemble “Buddhist” practices. I understand their concern. But, our concern is that churches in Thailand, in an effort to avoid “non-Christian” forms and practices, have failed to sufficiently connect all parts of the Thai psyche and identity to the life of the triune God. For example, there is something deep and formative, in a way a foreigner cannot fully comprehend, that happens when a Thai bows down. If the Thai church does not have the opportunity to bow before Jesus Christ, then there is a deep part of its devotional life that never gets expressed in relation to its lord and king. The potential danger, at this point, for the Christian community is that the emotions and values connected to bowing down, which are at the core of their identity, will either stay connected to another object or fail to be fully realized in relation to Jesus Christ, thus establishing an unnecessary obstacle in their love and devotion to God.

Thus, our belief is that missionaries and church leaders are called to reorient symbols and practices towards the triune God. The issue is not whether lighting incense is an acceptable Christian action. It is, instead, whether or not that action is done in submission to God and God alone. Therefore, utilizing “religious” symbols and practices is actually beneficial because it puts the emphasis in the right place. It forces people to choose not which practice they will engage in but which god they will call “Lord.” And thus the gospel will be proclaimed.


[1] Tanner, Theories of Culture, 112.

[2] Ibid., 114.

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