Thursday, October 26, 2017

Are You a Zombie Missionary?

On the radio the other day there was a discussion about ‘zombie companies’, that is businesses that should have folded years ago but because of low interest rates they have been able to hang on by the skin of their teeth. And because the British economy is replete with such companies, productivity in the UK is much lower than it would otherwise be.

That got me thinking about some people that I have encountered in mission. The clear majority of cross-cultural gospel workers I have encountered and worked with are industrious, conscientious, and spiritual people. Now, I fear to induce anxiety in some who are already overly-anxious. But to be frank I wonder if it is time for some missionaries to wind up what they are doing and go home. Some people who have lived in their adopted country for a long time are filled with dread with the prospect of returning to their passport country. ‘What will I do?’ ‘Where will we live?’ ‘How will we survive in a society that is increasingly antagonistic to our values?’ Is that you? Maybe it is not really ‘going home’ anymore, since your host country has increasingly become your home. So, you cling on. Maybe you have a family and the children are happy where they have grown up.

And so, you stay. But as you stay the reasons for staying slowly morph. I have met people like this. One man was a secretary to his organisation’s regional director. He plodded along for two decades doing the same thing day after day. I was impressed with what I thought at first was his stickability. He had started as a single man but along the way he had married and now had three children in their teens. But rather than take on more responsibility with growing experience he still typed up letters and filed reports. In pure economic terms, each letter cost a fortune to produce because of the expenses his family demanded. And then there was his participation in team devotions and prayer meetings. Was a poor devotional life the cause of his low productivity or correlated in some other way? It became increasingly clear that his apparent stickability was in fact sheer inertia. In the end, the leadership in the organization did say his time was up. It was a sad and costly transition.

And then there was the mission school teacher, another worker who now had a family. The school was a great place for his own children to get an education—much better than it would be back home. And that seemed to be the main reason for his remaining ‘on the field’. I can sympathize with that. But one wonders if his supporters understood his motives. Wasn’t it time they had an honest discussion about their ministry?

So, what if you suspect you might be a zombie missionary? Take my advice:

1.     Reflect on your spiritual life. Do you love God more now than when you began this ministry? Are you spending time with your heavenly Father on a regular basis? Do you enjoy fellowship with his people? Does your heart ache for people who don’t know the Lord?

2.     Review your prayer letters critically. What is the tone of the letter? Does it edify your prayer partners even as it informs them? (And I am not talking about a Bible verse at the top; most of us skip those anyway!) Is it only about the family, the car, or the holiday? Does it suggest to your supporters that if you were not there, the work of the gospel would carry on just fine? Now, you must be careful here: you may not be good at writing letters; your work may demand patient long-term investment of time and effort before you see any tangible results; you may be encountering huge obstacles so that simply staying there is a cause for celebration. So, this is not a fool-proof test.

3.     Request someone you trust to give you a thorough review of your ministry. Choose someone who is looking out for your good but will not easily be fooled; someone who is loving and wise; someone with spiritual maturity. Encourage them to ask hard questions. This must include probing questions about your spiritual appetite.

What if you fail the test and you are a zombie missionary? Do yourself and everyone else a favour: grasp the nettle, go home, and get help. You need to seek the Lord to recover your lost love. You need help from a godly pastor or brother or sister in Christ who will help you get back on track spiritually. Returning to the ministry is not the main goal. Returning to the Lord is. You may never get to go back to the scene of your backsliding. But that is all right. It was too important to you anyway. As George Verwer says, “The issue is not geography; it is reality”. And be encouraged: the Lord wants to refresh you with his grace. "A bruised reed he will not break and a soldering wick he will not snuff out" (Isa 42:3).

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Some Thoughts on Conversion

Recently I had some discussion on Twitter on how we use the terms 'conversion' and 'convert' so I thought I should follow it up with a blog post. What does it mean to be converted? Is conversion the same thing as regeneration? We often use the term conversion without thinking. Here are some thoughts on why we should be much more thoughtful on this issue.

Bible on conversion

Modern English translations of the New Testament (I have only looked at NIV, ESV, NLT, and NASB) use the word ‘convert’ or its cognates to translate several different words (8 times in NIV, 7 in NLT, 5 in ESV, 3 in NASB). But a quick analysis of the Greek words that are translated convert or converted shows that the English words are being used in ways that do not match the Greek:
  • In Matthew 23:15 and Acts 2:11, 6:5, and 13:43 the NIV and NLT use ‘convert’ to translate proseluton (from where we get the word proselyte), referring to a Gentile who had become a Jew. (The AV & NASB renders it as ‘proselyte’ in all four cases and the ESV likewise in the first three.)
  • In Acts 15:3, Romans 16:5, 1 Corinthians 16:15, and 1 Timothy 3:6, rather than use the word proseluton, Luke and Paul use various expressions to describe someone who has come to Christ. They seem to be at pains to distinguish what has happened to someone coming to Christ with what had happened to someone converting to Judaism. So, they use words that would ordinarily be translated as novice or firstfruits. But both NIV and ESV render the words as ‘convert’, ‘converted’ or ‘conversion’ in all four cases. The NIV is making no attempt to distinguish the experience from that of those who joined Judaism. (The AV uses ‘conversion’ only in Acts 15:3; the NLT is like the AV; the NASB is as NIV and ESV except in 1 Corinthians 16:15.)

This begs the question why the translators of some modern versions have opted to render several different Greek words as convert. The NIV makes no attempt to distinguish the experience of those who have come to follow Christ from that of the proselytes to Judaism. I suggest that they have bought into a modern conceptual framework of religions.

Comparative religions

The discipline of comparative religions emerged in the mid-19th century alongside that of anthropology, sociology and psychology. Till this time, the study of religion was largely construed of as one of reflection on one’s own religion. But the 19th century witnessed major advances in travel and trade, as well as the development of the modern missions movement. The unprecedented encounter with hitherto unknown religious traditions, coupled with the growing power of rationalist thinking led to the emergence of this discipline in the universities. Now the way societies thought, worshipped, lived their lives, in short, their traditions could be compared across the world. Religion became plural – religions. But how many are there and how are they distinguished from each other? Can we group them together and can we discover how it is that different groups believe similar things and carry out similar rituals? And what do we make of our own tradition? Are Roman Catholicism and Protestantism different religions or two versions of the one religion? Can we speak validly about conversion from one to another?

Probably the most obvious thing about religion around the world is that it is social: people do religious things together. So, are there as many religions as there are societies? The biggest challenge came in trying to sort out Eastern religions. Let me ask you a question: are you comfortable talking about Christian Hindus? William Carey was. But almost no one talks in such a way anymore. So, what has happened?

The whole development of the study of religions has led to the creation of religions. So, Christian and Hindu have become two mutually incompatible categories. And as social groups in South Asia as well as elsewhere are massively important to the people, religion must, of necessity, be a characteristic of a social group. And conversion must be the requirement to change from one social group to another.

Social change

But social change is not a requirement of discipleship to Christ in the Bible. Paul instructs the Corinthians thus: “…each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him” (1 Cor 7: 17, 20, 24).  And to make sure no one says, “Well that was just for the Corinthians,” the apostle adds, “This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.”
Even if the new believer does not say that he has changed religion or community, his actions will speak louder than words if he rejects his family traditions.

So, I argue, let’s be very careful how we use the word conversion. Maybe we shouldn’t use it at all—certainly not in situations where it will be misunderstood.

See a fuller discussion in Mark Johnson, “The Yatra in Christ