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Read the Bible Like a Missionary

Read the Bible Like a Missionary

A subtle but deceptive way to misread scripture is to read the Bible from our own cultural context. At one level I realize that this is unavoidable. We should, however, always remember that many Bible passages were written in a particular cultural context. Some passages are truly timeless treatise of theology (I think of Romans 8 as an example). Others are cemented into a worldview quite different from our own.

Consider the following story about Mike and Joe.

Used Car Salesman

Then Mike needed a car when he was living among the people of a foreign city called New York. He said the people, “I really need a car.” The New Yorkers heard him and said, “Listen, man, you are a prince of God among us. Pick any car you like and it’s yours. Nobody will say ‘no’ to your request for a car.”

Mike bowed down to the New Yorkers, the people of the city, and said, “If any of you are willing that I should have a car, hear me and ask Joe for his Cadillac, the one he owns. It is at the end of the street. I want to pay the full price and you can be witnesses to this transaction.”

Now Joe was standing there on the sidewalk when this discussion was happening. He stepped forward in the presence of the New Yorkers. He said, “No, dude, you listen to me! I am giving you the Cadillac. It’s yours; take whatever is in the trunk, too. Here, in front of all these witnesses, I give you the Cadillac. Take it.”

But Mike bowed again and then said, “If you would just listen, please, I want to pay you for the car, the full asking price. I have the cash right here.”

The Joe responded, “C’mon, man. A car that’s worth ten thousand dollars is nothing between you and me. Take the keys and drive, my brother!”

So Mike took out his money and counted out ten thousand dollars, the amount that Joe had declared as the used car’s value in front of all the people on the sidewalk. And Mike took the keys, and drove off, content with his purchase.

The End

So what passage of scripture are we seeing mirrored in this little story? Genesis 23 in which Abraham negotiates for Sarah’s burial place. If you go read it you will see that I tried to copy the structure of the negotiation that takes place in that chapter. In our culture we do this in a very different way so it sounds very funny when placed into the style of an ancient culture.

But before we judge the ancients too harshly take a look at their approach to negotiation. There are some thing we might learn!

In the ancient context the negotiation isn’t just about getting the lowest price (the buyer’s interest) or the highest price (the seller’s interest). It’s also about the community. Everybody was present and say the exchange happen between them. In our system, financial dealings are almost always private. In our system there are also a lot of lawsuits. Abraham didn’t have to fear that he was taking advantage of the Hittites because the dealings were transparent to all. Nobody was going to complain later on that Abraham had acted deceitfully.

In our system we dicker over the price pretty boldly (other cultures are even bolder – if you’ve ever bartered at an Asian street market you will know what I mean).  We write the prices of used cars in bold letters on the windshield.

Abraham’s negotiation starts off with respectful, face-saving statements. Note that Abraham wanted a good price but he started off by making a generous offer. Ephron, the owner of the field, knew its value, but offered it for free. Nobody thought this would happen but they were giving the other respect in the process. Do you feel respect when a used car salesman approaches you? Do you show them respect? In most cases we see them as trying to get the most money out of us.

Am I suggesting that the ancients “did it better” than we do? Not at all. Rather, when we read the Bible, look for the ways in which the ancient culture affects and informs the storyline. This will give you perspective about your own culture and how it influences your interpretation of the Scriptures. Cross-cultural missionaries develop this skill in all areas of life.

Another part of this story is Abraham’s cross-cultural maturity. When he started out he was fearful of other cultures and made bad decisions about them (see Genesis 12:12-13 and Genesis 20). He jumped to conclusions about their reaction to him. Now, as an old man who has lived cross-culturally for many years, we see him adopt the customs of the Hittites and act in a way that shows an understanding of their culture.

This is how you read the Bible like a missionary.

Can identity and spirituality be separated?

Can identity and spirituality be separated?

I was just reading the International Journal of Frontier Missiology’s recent edition. There is an article which is a conversation between two missiologists on the topic of Insider Movements. I really appreciate LD Waterman’s questioning of the “socio-religious” identity issues (it’s too bad my article was sandwiched in between the articles debating Insider Movements – mine has nothing to do with the controversy).

What I sense from proponents of Insider Movements is that they have taken the Western concept of dichotomy to a “whole nuther level.” Modernity taught us to compartmentalize our religious worldview. You might believe something “personally” but it was best not to talk about it if it was religious. We separated our spiritual persona from our social persona (it’s rather amazing to me that Evangelicals played into this whole paradigm with the bizarre concept of “knowing Jesus as a personal savior” – now that’s some strange language for you). With the mix of cultures and religions globally in our major cities it has made it even more dichotomous (try talking religion at work and see how far that gets you).

So… when Insider Movement advocates say that one can be a “follower of Jesus” but have a “Muslim identity” I cringe. For sure, Christendom introduces many aspects of culture into what we know as Evangelicalism. However, as a believer in Jesus, my identity must be firmly rooted in him. Christendom certainly injects unhelpful culture into my spirituality (which is the thing the Insiders are seeking to combat) but Islam, I am pretty sure, would inject far more. Doesn’t the whole idea of being transformed by the Holy Spirit mean that my whole person will be transformed? How can that be wrapped in a separate socio-religious identity?

It makes me wonder if Insider missiologists are influenced by modernity’s concept of dichotomy.

The Effect of Protestant Missionaries

The Effect of Protestant Missionaries

Check out the effect that missionaries have on other cultures:

Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations. (39)

For the “article about the article,” (the original is behind CT’s paywall) check out

BAM Effectiveness Study

BAM Effectiveness Study

Steve Rundle of Biola recently published an article in the International Bulletin of Missiological Research on the effectiveness of donor supported versus business supported cross-cultural workers. I want to give you a few of my thoughts on this study but before I do I must unequivocally state that I LOVE BUSINESS AS MISSION (BAM).

However…  Rundle’s article makes a few presumptions that I believe are downright harmful to the discussion. Since the article is behind IMBR’s paywall, let me quote this section and then respond:

Business-As-Mission Continuum
missionary-sending organizations < ———–> “regular” business
Practitioners are donor supported. Self-supported.
Spiritual fruit is the only thing that matters. Holistic view of ministry.
Business can distract from “ministry.” Business itself can glorify God.
Business is a means to an end. Business success is essential for any meaningful impact.

The problem with this table is that it is a biased view of what missionary-sending organizations think about BAM. This representation about BAM starts off in the wrong place by creating an unnecessary dichotomy. I know hundreds of missionaries and I don’t believe any would say “Spiritual fruit is the only thing that matters.” Words like “holistic” can be code for “we don’t have other standards for what it means to be spiritually effective – for us, just being a good influence is enough.”

There must also be recognition that BAM can create problems in a culture if it’s not missiologically well thought out (see this article, BAM: The New Colonialism).

Rundle compares two groups of BAM practitioners: those practicing BAM who are donor supported versus those that are business supported only. His conclusion: “This study found that, compared with fully donor-supported BAM practitioners, those who are fully supported by their business report significantly better results in the economic and social arenas, and are no less effective in producing spiritual results.” Note that the study could easily be mistaken as a comparison between BAM practitioners and non-BAM practitioners. It is not that.

Missing from this analysis is a working definition of “spiritual results.” The questions suggested by the article suggest that this was limited to “making ones faith known.” From my perspective, the best missionaries are not out there “making ones faith known.” They are working with cultural insiders to assist them in making their faith known. This indirect influence has a far greater and more indigenous impact than direct evangelism by foreigners. This is just one example among others that cause me to question the premise behind the BAM-supported versus BAM-for-profit dichotomy. The study would be better if it defined “spiritual results” (to be fair, few agencies do this sort of analysis on their own work either!).

Until we leave behind the either/or dichotomy represented in Rundle’s paper we will not realize the full potential of BAM. The best definition of BAM is not one in which profits are a requirement: we should embrace the spectrum of BAM opportunities. The doors of BAM are opened widest when we see it as one more tool in the toolkit and not an end in itself. The same is true for full-time, donor supported missionary service: they are not the end, they are a means.

The best BAM work I have seen on the field happens when full-time, donor supported (non-BAM) missionaries work hand in hand with team members who are tentmakers and with BAM practitioners in for-profit enterprises. This model captures the best of all models and provides a way forward that the current BAM evangelists seem to ignore.

The NSA, Spies and Missionaries

The NSA, Spies and Missionaries

The fact that the NSA has been regularly and consistently spying on US citizens has become undeniable. What impact do these revelations have on global missions?


Throughout the last half centuries there have been charges leveled by anti-Christian governments that missionaries are spies. I personally have never met a missionary-spy. Do they exist? I have no doubt that they do.

There was a story that circulated among the missionary community in the Balkans about a certain missionary from a large denominational board was a “dual-income-creative-access” worker. Upon leaving the field he moved to the Langely area and supposedly worked for the CIA. It was an intriguing story but never verified. The infamous John Birch society got its name from a missionary who also spied on Japanese forces during World War 2. There are other historical examples.

The use of missionaries as spies discredits the work of all missionaries and should be strongly condemned. It puts the people in danger, calls into question the character of foreigners and brings dishonor to the gospel. I have no hard proof that contemporary agencies are harboring spies. The sheer devious and evil nature of the NSA, as we have come to learn, gives me concern. We in agency leadership should do all we can to oppose this perverse approach to intelligence gathering.

So what can we do about it? One of the best defenses against this is for agencies to know their candidates. The process of selection and screening must be designed to increase the relationship component. It’s only by careful listening to candidate testimonies, a strong sending church partnership and honest evaluation can the true motives for each potential staff member be discerned.

Another step toward protecting the missionary force is through team ministry. All church planters should be working shoulder-to-shoulder with other workers who intimately know and can observe the behavior of their teammates.

Good, basic security principles should be taught and re-taught to all staff globally. This type of training typically teaches staff how to spot intelligence activities such as “tails” and snooping. This could be extended to increase sensitivity to spy recruitment while on the field. Staff should be instructed to avoid the embassy whenever possible: all countries use these outposts for spying activities.

Finally, good computer security protocols should be followed. They can hack us, they can listen in and now we know that they are and that they will. We must recognize that when you live abroad you essentially have no rights to privacy. Be careful out there. Border crossings are particularly dangerous (see this link for more info). I no longer travel abroad with a computer. My phone and the cloud is enough.

We know that Americans abroad are targets of the US spying regime. That is a fact we must simply accept as I see little that can be done about it. Could I ask why so few Christian bloggers and organizations have spoken out on the NSA spying on US citizens within our own borders? It’s a clear violation of our rights as Americans. Support policies and politicians that respect privacy and seek to limit the amount of spying that our government is bent on doing.

Email Chain on Persecution

Email Chain on Persecution

This is a slightly edited email exchange I had in my files.

To:  Ted
From: Pastor John
Subject: Persecuted pastor

 Hi Ted,

One of the pastors we support in a Muslim country has been arrested and charged with blasphemy against Muhammad. If found guilty, this is punishable by death.

As the new guy in charge of all global missions with our church… Well, I can organize prayer but I don’t know what else to encourage our staff and friends to do. So, any suggestions would be much appreciated.


– John


To: John
From: Ted
Subject: RE: Persecuted pastor

Dear John,

My first thought to share with you is something you already know, but let me remind you of it.  God is glorified when his saints are willing to suffer for Him.  It’s His will for it to happen.  Since we are so removed from suffering in the US, we often fail to see His providence in situations like these.  Nobody loves this pastor more than the Lord!

I would be very careful with whom I shared this information.  Thereare numerous organizations that work on behalf of the persecuted church. These organizations should not be contacted unless the pastor or his family specifically asks for it.  Many times there is an “honor” issue involved.  It is possible that they want to punish the pastor because they have lost face over something – not because of the facts of the case.  If you involve the outside world, you actually work to build more “shame” into the situation making it impossible for them to back down.

On three or four occasions national pastors have implored me to publish the plight of their suffering people.  I have done so, but only because the local church there asked for it.

Oftentimes in cases like these, there is a death penalty but it is intended to “set the bar very high” so that later on, when he is found guilty (as is almost always the case) the authorities can portray themselves as merciful and compassionate when they reduce the sentence.  Rarely does it end up with the death penalty (although at times it does).

I would get my direction from the pastor’s family or at least the local church he serves.  Since they are the locals on the ground they have a better sense of what has happened and what is going to happen.  For all we know, this has been going on for some time. A sense of hopelessness might be what is behind the communication you are receiving.  That’s when it is time to consider doing some sort of public communication about the pastor’s situation.  Again, I would emphasize that you need to make sure the local believers want this.

Finally, this is a great time for prayer.  I would develop a pseudonym for the pastor and put it out everywhere, asking people to pray.  Obscure the details enough to protect pastor but give enough detail so that the prayers are meaningful to those who are making supplication.

The undeniable fact is that the church grows best when suffering servants obediently follow him.  I personally would not pray that the suffering would cease but that His will be done.  That may sound heartless and it goes against our human understanding of justice.  However, the pastor may be right now experiencing the deepest and most meaningful moments of grace in his life.  Ask the Lord to help you trust Him for the pastor’s situation.  The sense of injustice you feel can be directed for His glory.

I hope this helps.  I am going into prayer for this pastor this very moment!

Sola fide,

– Ted

Book Review: Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes

Book Review: Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible

By: E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien
Published: July 31, 2012
Pages: 241
Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0830837825
Ted’s Rating: 4 of 5 Stars

I am reminded of a story from my days living in Eastern Europe. An old Baptist church-attending woman received a copy of Decision magazine from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. While she couldn’t read the English text, she did look at the pictures and was horrified by the women – Christian women – wearing makeup. She thought, “The Bible teaches us that we should not adorn ourselves!” She was cut to the heart and a tear welled up in her eye. It rolled down her cheek and plopped right into her beer!

That little joke (not taken from the book) is the essence of this book’s thesis. Not only do we have our own culture but the Bible has its own as well. We must learn to understand the areas of our own cultural blinders and be able to see the Bible in its context. Simple enough but rarely do I see this sort of analysis by Western theologians.

Richards served as a missionary in Indonesia, which colors the illustrations in a very helpful way, and O’Brien is an editor at Leadership Journal. They lead the reader through nine areas of caution in regard to understanding the Bible mono-culturally. The book is filled with excellent examples highlighting the arguments being made using both real life experience and Biblical texts. I highly recommend that you read the account of David and Bathsheba found in chapter 5.

This book is not an attack on Western values or a defense of them. It also avoids the politically correct position that “all things non-Western are noble.” It simply points out the ways that Westerners can assume their worldview into the Bible. It is a timely book; the immigrant push into the USA is forcing American Christians to look seriously at cross-cultural ministry regardless of geography.

This is a balanced, concise and well written treatment of the topic. I would actually say that it is “bravely written” because the people that will take exception are those who fall prey to the traps described therein.

For the full review, with notes and highlights, click here.

Subscribe to these reviews to get them via email – they arrive days ahead of what I post here.

Diaspora Archipelago

Diaspora Archipelago

I am at the International Society for Frontier Missions today and am listening to a presentation by  Michael Rynkiewich about the changing nature of mission in light of diaspora communities.

He used the term “diaspora archipelago” in highlighting a particular island culture’s identification with the home island despite the fact that the people were living in the United States, not the home island (I don’t think it’s original with him, but I am sitting in the conference right now and can’t really research it).

I really like that language: diaspora archipelago. It conveys the idea that diaspora communities are small islands of culture reflecting the home culture wherever they are found.

One way of looking at diaspora ministry is to consider the urban center and all of the groups within it. This helps when one is “down in the weeds” of a particular location and trying to understand it.

The “diaspora archipelago” offers another way to look at diaspora peoples. It sees the connections between the communities regardless of location. It emphasizes the connections between the various communities and the relationship to the home culture.

Both ways of seeing diaspora peoples is important.

Where would you bury your heart?

Where would you bury your heart?

We recently had a group of candidates come through the Pioneers office for a week of orientation. At the end of the week we usually have a time with an “open microphone” for people to share what the week meant to them as they begin their missionary journey.

One young woman, of Korean-American background (I will call her Joy) read a powerful letter from an American missionary to Korea. She was writing to her parents back home.


Dad, mom!

This land, Chosun, is truely a beautiful land. They all resemble God. I see their good heart and zeal for the gospel, and I believe that in few years it will be a land overflowing with the love of Christ. I saw children walking over 10 miles on barefoot to hear the gospel and the love of God in them encourages me.

But the persecution is getting stronger. Two days ago, three or four of those who have accepted Christ less than a week have been dragged away and were martyred. Missionary Thomas and James were also martyred. There were orders from the mission board to return, but the most missionaries are in hiding and worshiping with those whom they have shared the gospel with. It seems that they are all planning to be martyred. Tonight, I have strong desire to return home.

I remember you mom who resisted to the last moment of me leaving the port because of the stories of the hate of foreigners and opposition to the gospel.

Dad, Mom! Perhaps, this may be the last letter I will be writing. The seed that was sown in the backyard before I came out here must be filling our neighborhood with flowers. Another seed bear many flowers in the land of Chosun and they will be seeds to other nations.

I will bury my heart in this land. I realized that this passion for Chosun that I have is not mine but God’s passion toward Chosun.

Mom, Dad! I love you.

Joy read the letter and then said, “I want to thank Americans like this young woman who gave their life for Korea.” She went on to describe the incredible privilege of being able to bring Christ to yet another culture. Joy wants to “bury her heart” like the woman in Korea did.

It was a great moment of reflection on God’s sovereignty as his Spirit filled the room.

More of the story can be found here.

CPM Rebuttal Case

CPM Rebuttal Case

A few months ago it fell on me to give the rebuttal case to church planting movement strategy. I prepped a list of my top objections and presented them even though I am personally not on board with these critiques. The entire conference was captured on video and will soon be made available on the Pioneers website.

Jerry Trousdale, author of Miraculous Movements: How Hundreds of Thousands of Muslims Are Falling in Love with Jesus, was on hand to give the main presentations. He and I will be videotaping a follow-up session on these objections.

Here’s the list if you are interested:

  1. Too much emphasis on methodology – do we believe in the Holy Spirit anymore? This is a “silver bullet” approach that replaces the importance of why we do things with the how.
  2. Teaching and preaching is paramount in scripture and overlooked in this strategy. Person of Peace is not common but preaching is, why the imbalance?
  3. Unbelievers should not lead Discovery Bible Studies. If you are of the Reformed camp this is particularly important.
  4. You raise expectations that will later on be smashed by the realities of frontier missionary work.
  5. This is only happening in a few select places and there are 3,000+ unengaged UPGs, let along all the 7,000+ UPGs that have yet to be reached. Anybody could plant churches in these few places: Ethiopia, Siera Leone, N. India, and China (among the Han).
  6. There is little contextualization in a method that is to be used in many people groups with little modification.
  7. You are creating an environment in which heresy will multiply.
  8. The numbers are suspect at best, downright lies at worst.
  9. Church definitions are very loose.
  10. The examples are cherry picked and only focus on the “last few years” when in fact, these UPGs have a long, long history of missionary suffering and contribution. Why don’t we also focus on this longer time frame?
  11. This focuses on the “easy” places in terms of receptivity. It is a “going where God is working” approach when the need is to go to the spiritual deserts of the world.
  12. Why the emphasis on speed: what’s the big deal about going fast? Should going deep be a more strategic approach?
  13. This is no more than a fad (typically accompanied by a statement like, “I have been in missions a long time…”).

Keep in mind that there are good rebuttals to these rebuttals!