Thursday, April 13, 2006

Sacramento, California Trip Summary and Words of Clarification

My family and I are nearing the completion of our trip to Sacramento in the northern California area. Tomorrow is the last day as we have a few more meetings, luncheons, and time with friends.

The ministry experiences here have been encouraging. I presented Bridges to a combined group from two churches, RiverCity Calvary Chapel of South Sacramento, and LifeSong of Elk Grove. The presentation was well received, and several people expressed appreciation for a missional and relational approach to understanding Mormonism and sharing the gospel with Mormon friends.

This trip to California also included meetings with large churches in the greater Sacramento area. Several of them are considering hosting a Bridges presentation, along with the new Grounded program for teens developed by Salt Lake Theological Seminary. We are well on our way to developing an alternative evangelical approach to the LDS temple opening this summer.

In addition, I was able to touch bases with supporting churches, including First Baptist Church of Elk Grove, and Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church, where I gave a summary of our Utah ministry at the monthly missions potluck. We are thankful for the partnerships with these churches and many of their members who's prayers and financial support literally make our ministry possible.

During this visit I also had an opportunity to meet with a ministry colleague who shared concerns about the missional direction that I have taken. Similar concerns were shared with colleagues of mine in Utah while I was away. I'd like to use the opportunity presented by these concerns to clarify issues and provide further food for thought.

1. Missional paradigm. My colleague shared his concerns that the missional paradigm I am involved in was too academic, it could not be understood, and that he was against it. Several thoughts come to mind in response to this concern.

First, what is the missional model to new religions that I and colleagues from around the world are presenting? Very simply, we are suggesting that the cross-cultural missions approaches that are articulated in the New Testament, and continue into the history of Christian missions overseas, should be applied to the new religious movements in the U.S. and the West. This means viewing Mormonism, for example, as a culture rather than as a "cult," and engaging this culture holistically, drawing not only upon apologetic argument, but also cross-cultural missions.

Second, our missional paradigm has been developed academically, and our book, Encountering New Religious Movements (Kregel Academic & Professional, 2004), was designed as a textbook for Christian university students, Bible college students, missiologists, and other Christian scholars, but this does not mean the book should be dismissed by those who do not feel they are academically inclined. We hope to develop these ideas for the "lay" Christian reader in the near future, but I would encourage those who are tempted to dismiss the articulation of our missional thesis in the academy not to return to the anti-intellectualism that marks Christian fundamentalism.

Third, if someone cannot understand our missional paradigm then it cannot be dismissed as inappropriate. Recall the maxim of the necessity to be able to say "I understand" before you can say "I disagree." If countercult personalities do not understand the cross-cultural missions paradigm we are articulating then they have a responsibility to ask questions and to seek clarification and understanding before leveling criticism.

Fourth, we might consider the possibility that the reason why the missional paradigm has been reacted to so negatively by many in the countercult is not because the the thesis has not merit, but because it involves a paradigm shift. Shifting from heresy contrast and refutation to cross-cultural missions is not easy, and the heresy refutation filter for countercultists likely results in a skewed interpretation of the missional paradigm.

2. Critique of countercult philosophy and methodology. My colleague also shared his concerns about my critique of countercult theory and praxis. He feels that it is inappropriate to state that a given methodology is problematic and should not be engaged in, even when it comes to the "street preachers" in Utah. Two thoughts come to mind in response to this concern.

First, the cross-cultural missions paradigm to new religions contains within it an implicit critique of countercult approaches. While my vocal critique of the countercult paradigm has no doubt added fuel to the fire for those who disagree with me, eventually the deep differences between the two approaches would have been evident and would have to be dealt with.

Second, why can't criticism be leveled against different paradigms in the free marketplace of ideas, including the arena of ministry? Theologians and missiologists routinely engage each other and critique each other's work and few cry "foul" in these contexts. I also find it curious that a few countercult critics have recently refused to label even the most extreme street preachers in Utah as inappropriate and out of bounds, and yet these same critics feel comfortable leveling criticism against those of us developing a missional model. It seems that those of us who are arguing for a missional model that takes culture and Scripture seriously are more problematic for the countercult than those who hold up derogatory signs and wipe their buttocks with Mormon temple undergarments.

I would ask the critics of the missional model to give this approach a fair consideration. If you don't understand something, ask one of the proponents and we'll do our best to help you understand. Also keep in mind that our thesis was presented in a book that won a Christianity Today Book of the Year Award in the category of missions/global affairs, and the book and its ideas have been favorably reviewed by missiological journals in the U.S. and the U.K. Other academic periodicals have begun to consider the thesis as well, and in the recent issue of Bibliotheca Sacra our book was favorably reviewed. Beyond this, our paradigm has received the support of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, and leading theologians and missiologists as well. There is something credible and exciting here.

But at the end of the day it may be that representatives of our conflicting paradigms must part company. Recall Paul's parting of the ways with Barnabas. One of the great challenges for Christians has always been balancing our diversity with our unity. As the granddaddy of the countercult used to say, let's try to exercise the maturity necessary to "agree to disagree agreeably" even as we wish each other godspeed and pursue our differing pathways.


Jeff Downs said...

I also find it curious that a few countercult critics have recently refused to label even the most extreme street preachers in Utah as inappropriate and out of bounds...

Perhaps it would be appropriate to name these individuals and ministries?


John W. Morehead said...

I appreciate your desire to have specific examples, Jeff, but I think this would make a bad situation even worse. Over the last several weeks I know of two well known individuals in countercult ministry who have shared their deepest concerns with me and my ministry methodology, as well as like minded colleagues, but who have also shared their feelings that they would not critique the street preachers (other than perhaps to change sign slogans) because these preachers feel God has called them to do what they do. Perhaps it never occured to some of these folks that missional minded Christians developing the cross-cultural missions model feel called to what they do, and that critique is permissible if methodologies appear at odds with biblical and missional models in church history.