One of the laudable aspects of modern missions has been to take the Gospel to remote places and peoples. Such peoples were often considered undeveloped or even “primitive”. We’ve mostly abandoned that conception, replacing it with the idea that such peoples are authentic or that they represent an ideal way of living. Under that conception, anything that changes their traditional way of life is inauthentic – a kind of degredation or cultural pollution.
Even missionaries get caught up in this idea. I saw it in Africa when missionaries loved the people and culture in the remote place where they lived and ministered, but they disliked the cities, sometimes considering them to be less than truly African. The real Africa, for them, was rural Africa supposedly little changed through time and contact with the outside world.
Some missionaries even considered educated Africans to be less than fully African. I even heard one once say directly to a highly educated African that he was not really African when he showed that he no longer believed the local traditions about camelions.
It is certainly true that not all outside influences bring helpful change to rural peoples. Some are very destructive. But we are called to minister to the people in front of us, not some idealized version of them.
I spent my life in Bible translation into smaller languages because I believe in the power of God’s Word. I also believe that ordinary people can understand the Bible. This is not just a theoretical belief. I’ve actually seen uneducated, rural Africans read the Bible and understand it well. I’ve even seen cases where highly-qualified theologians have discovered that rural, uneducated Africans have developed very helpful understandings of topics like chronic ethnic conflicts from reading the Bible. Professional theologians missed those points but uneducated Africans found them.
God gave us his Spirit to guide us into truth. He helps us understand as we read. But to hear some talk, you’d think that the Spirit is no help at all, and that only experts using historical-critical approaches can really understand the Bible. One of the first people to translate the Bible into English was William Tyndale. Even though he was a highly trained scholar, he had complete confidence that ordinary people could understand even saying that ordinary “plowboys” would understand.
In our day, professor N T Wright has written that the Bible was not written under God’s inspiration so that it can only be properly understood by savvy, late twentieth century scholars. I agree. I’m against approaches to understanding the Bible that concentrate interpretive power in the hands of a few. Rather, I’m for putting that power in everyone’s hands.
I grew up in a church where the idea of a call to missions was promoted. The idea was that certain people heard from God a call to be a missionary. My own experience was a bit different. Knowing how important the Bible was iny own life, I was easily convinced that it would be a very good thing to spend my life giving the Bible to others by translating it into their languages.
Later, after a few years on the missions field, I encountered another understanding of a call to missions. Some missionaries would resist getting involved in some programs or activities, saying “I’m not called to that.” For example, the church in a place where we were translating would say that they wanted more literacy but the missionary would say that they weren’t called to Literacy.
It appears to me that some missionaries understand their call to missions in a very specific way. They often developed their understanding long before leaving their own country. When the realities of the place they were translating didn’t fit with their understanding of their call, they denied those realities or said that they were someone else’s responsibility by saying they weren’t called to deal with those realities.
It looked to me like they were constantly trying to shoehorn ministry according to their call into a place where it didn’t fit. They couldn’t consider that they had perhaps not fully understood their call. I remember a leading Christian in one of the countries where we worked explaining this phenomenon very well, saying that new missionaries often come with a fully developed idea of their ministry before they knew anything about the place they were going, and then they resist any changes to their conception based on the realities on the ground.
Some people go overboard trying to conform to their context, and others do the opposite trying to rigidly maintain their call. The former effectively abandon their call while the latter effectively allow no space for the voice of the Spirit.
If your car keys are missing, it’s more likely that they’re on your dresser than in another state. We look in the obvious places first. It makes sense. We solve problems the same way – by looking for the obvious solutions first. When the translation of the Bible into a language fails to progress well, we looked for the most obvious problems first. Were the translators well-trained? Did they have adequate resources? How’s their morale?
But things change when dealing with a perennial problem – one that’s been around for a while. In such cases, all the obvious solutions have already been tried. That doesn’t keep us from trying them again, however. I remember the moment that it dawned on me that we were trying the usual solutions on a translation program that had been under-performing for two decades. Church leaders were saying that something had to change but we were just trying again what had been tried several times before. The obvious was obviously not a solution.
The solution had to be in something untried, something different, something not obvious at all. The problem was that anything untried is also untested. We don’t know if it will work. But is that really a problem when all the tried and tested solutions have failed? Isn’t what might not work better than what has already failed?
I got some inspiration idfor this blog from Seth Godin Obvious. Places First
Most of what we do is motivated by urgency, fear or fun. If there’s a fire or an accident we act out of urgency. If it makes us happy or gives us satisfaction, we act because it’s fun. If we’re worried someone will disapprove or check up on us so we avoid doing something, we are acting out of fear. All these reasons to act are often legitimate.
But there’s another reason to act – because it’s important. What’s important might not be urgent. It might not be fun, or it might have negative consequences of which we might legitimately be afraid.
Our circumstances dictate what is urgent, or fun, or to be feared. But where do we get our sense of what’s important? Where did I get my idea that it is important to translate the Bible into the languages of the world? Why did I pursue that whether is a fun or not? Or whether it was safe or not? Or whether it seemed like the most urgent thing or not? Where do we get an anchor for our lives that’s not moved around by what’s urgent, or fun or scarey?
Jesus said to first seek the kingdom of God. That allows us to make something important the center where it can moderate the urgent, pleasurable and scarey.
PS: This blog was partially inspired by Seth Godin
Fun, urgent and fear-based