Friday, January 29, 2016

Do We Really Need to Contextualize?

A video by William Taylor of St Helen's Bishopsgate seems to have stirred up some conversation on social media. Here are some of my thoughts on it.

Taylor argues that there is far too much emphasis on contextualization in preaching. The idea, commonly shared, that we should preach the gospel with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, Taylor says, is profoundly unhelpful. We need rather to preach with the Bible in both hands and as we do so it will be shown to be truly relevant to the people to whom we are speaking. We need, he suggests, to be beavers in regard to the Word but magpies in regard to the culture: we beaver away at understanding the text and that makes us aware of the shiny objects (the cultural phenomena) that magpies are supposed to be fond of.

I have deep respect for Taylor and am very thankful for his ministry. I must say, though, that I cannot agree with him. I appreciate the point that we can make contextualization a science such that people are intimidated to even try to communicate the message for fear of not connecting properly. What he says is clearly true when it comes to working in one's own society (if one acknowledges the variations within it). The big issue comes as we try to move out of our society and encounter people from a very different background. And the greater the cultural mileage, the bigger the issue becomes. So when we attempt to communicate a message across a cultural gap we need to be aware of how that gap affects the communication. And that works two ways - the way we understand the receptor culture and the way the people of the receptor culture understand us.

It is only by working hard to understand the receptor culture that we can appreciate the way our message should be articulated. Then we will hopefully avoid the kind of faux pas that every missionary would rather forget and that can have such a negative impact on the way our message is received. If they reject my message because they understand the significance of the cross that is their shame and their folly. But if they reject it because I didn't do my homework carefully enough, well, that is my shame and folly. Not that we all need PhDs in understanding the culture. But if none of us grapples with it, who will tell us when we are failing? The Apostle Paul 'looked carefully' at the Athenians' objects of worship (Acts 17:23). That gave him the way in to his audience. If Paul, who grew up in that region, felt the need for deliberate, conscientious cultural observation, then surely we should too. I have written before about Reformed cross-cultural naivete. My fear is that Taylor's stance is an example of just that problem.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Cultural Mileage

I have just come across the term 'cultural mileage' thanks to this 'missiographic' from gmi. It shows the idea of cultural distance between two countries and uses the research of Geert Hofstede and his associates.

Geert Hofstede conducted a huge cross-cultural study of the employees of the multinational corporation IBM. Through his research Hofstede demonstrated that national and regional cultures can be evaluated on a number of dimensions of culture, particularly in so far as they are related to the work place. These dimensions or values belong to a very basic level of culture, affect the behaviour of organizations and are very persistent over time. Hofstede’s initial work delineated four dimensions: Power Distance, Individualism v. Collectivism, Masculinity, and Uncertainty Avoidance. The initial research did not include China or the Soviet Union or most other eastern European countries. Further research was done by Chinese colleagues who constructed a survey called the Chinese Value Survey by which a fifth value, Short v. Long Term Orientation, was added to the initial four.

More recently still Hofstede’s associate, Michael Minkov generated two dimensions using recent World Values Survey data from representative samples of 93 national populations. One has been treated as an update of the Short v. Longer Term Orientation dimension (LTO). The other is called Indulgence versus Restraint (IND). This is how this dimension is described by the Hofstede Centre.

Each of the six dimensions has now been given a scale from 0 to 100. From this the idea of ‘cultural mileage’ is quantified. Cultural mileage is the ‘cultural distance’ from one country to another using the six dimensions of Hofstede’s work. Any two countries can be compared giving a total mileage anywhere from zero to 600, with the top score describing two countries that we might say are ‘poles apart’, i.e. totally different. You will see by going on the web site how many cultural ‘miles’ there are between your country and others with which you wish to compare it.

Like all of these attempts to scientifically compare cultures there are weaknesses. Rarely will any one individual be representative of their country, for a start. A host of factors should be considered in assessing whether one is suitable for ministry between cultures, but anyone who is thinking of crossing cultural boundaries to share their lives and their message will want to check this web site out and consider carefully the implications for their calling. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

How to Prioritize Your Church's Mission Funding

I received an email from a pastor today: 
Reason for emailing: our church recently agreed to focus our missions support by reducing down from 13 organisations and individuals down to 6 (2 individuals and 4 organisations). We have for a long time given 10% of our income which is something we're intending to keep going.
My question is what principles you use to decide how you divide that 10% up, particularly with the individuals we're supporting? Have you got any advice you'd be able to offer?
This was my answer: 

I think that your prioritizing should be along the following lines:

  1. Biblical theological factors: your priorities should reflect the centrality of gospel ministry that is in line with the Great Commission – pioneer evangelistic ministry especially among peoples who otherwise would have little or no witness plus those who support that and ministries that complete that (‘teaching them to obey’).
  2. Historical factors: you will have relationships with people perhaps going back a long time. These should be honoured, though if people you have been supporting are simply giving out teddy bears in children’s homes I think you should look for ways to redeploy them in more suitable ministry rather than feel under compulsion to continue their support simply on the basis of relationship. Relationships are very important. But they are not absolute.
  3. Global realities: mission is now from everywhere to everywhere. Are there folk from other places, including from previously ‘receiving’ countries, who are not connected with you, share your vision and priorities but don’t have sufficient support?
  4. Missions mobilization: some money should go into growing the mission vision and wisdom of the church. That may include sending people for short trips to visit situations for that purpose.
  5. Training: God willing, the result of missions mobilization will be people coming forward to be assessed for their personal long-term involvement. That should include training, which can be costly.
I trust you will be seeking to grow the vision and commitment of the church so that you can increase your giving in the future. At least one church in Wales I know gives 50% to mission.