Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Bounded Sets, Centered Sets, and Missional Modalities

Let it be known that I don't get along well with mathematics. You might recall the scene in the movie Apollo 13 where the ship has just experienced a massive explosion and is losing power and oxygen. The astronauts and NASA decide that the astronauts need to move from the main portion of the ship to the lunar module in order to conserve precious resources to enable a return trip to earth. The astronauts have only a few minutes in order to make the transition from one ship to another, and their lives hang in the balance. In order to make the transition properly, Jim Lovell, played by Tom Hanks, has to perform quick, complex mathematical calculations, and not trusting himself given the stress of the situation he radios NASA to verify his calculations. When I watched this scene for the first time I turned to my wife and said, "If my survival ever depends upon my abilities in higher mathematics, I'm dead."

This doesn't mean that I can't appreciate the insights of math, however, and I believe that the discussion of bounded and centered sets has an important contribution to make to an interdisciplinary approach to missional thinking.

Paul Hiebert, a Christian anthropologist and missiologist, discusses mathematical set concepts in his book Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Baker Books, 1994). His entire discussion on this topic, found in chapter 6 with the title "The Category Christian in the Mission Task", is helpful, but given the space limitations of a blog I will limit my discussion to bounded and centered sets, and their application to missional thinking.

Hiebert draws upon studies in mathematics where categories are created that define a set which entail certain structural characteristics and boundaries. He contrasts bounded sets with sharp boundaries, and centered sets that have boundaries but the emphasis is placed on that which centers the set rather than the boundaries around it.

Hiebert lists five characteristics of bounded sets:

1. The category is created by listing the essential characteristics an object must have in itself to belong to the set.
2. The category is defined by a clear boundary...The central question, therefore, is whether an object is inside or outside the category.
3. Objects within a bounded set are uniform in their essential characteristics - they constitute a homogeneous group.
4. Bounded sets are essentially static sets.
5. Bounded sets, as we use them in the West, are ontological sets. They have to do with the ultimate, changeless structure of reality, which is defined in terms of unchanging, universal, abstract categories. (Hiebert, 112-3)

If we consider the concept of "Christian" as a bounded set, Hiebert notes some interesting results. First, since we must classify objects in the set by their essential nature, in this case, whether someone is a Christian, in the absence of omniscience and a window into the human heart, we focus on external characteristics, such as assent to doctrinal orthodoxy, or adherence to certain moral behaviors, or both. Second, with a bounded set sharp boundaries are drawn between Christians and non-Christians. Hiebert states that with this emphasis, "we would work to maintain this boundary, because the boundary is critical to maintaining the category." From this perspective great emphasis is placed on determining who's in and who's out of the clearly bounded set.

In contrast to bounded sets Hiebert later moves to discussion of extrinsic well-formed (centered) sets. This he defines as a grouping of things "on the basis of how they relate to other things, not what they are in and of themselves" (emphasis in original).

Characteristics of centered sets are:

1. A centered set is created by defining a center or reference point and the relationship to that center.
2. Centered sets do not have sharp boundaries that separate the set from those outside it. The boundary emerges automatically by the relationship of the object to the center.
3. The variables of centered sets are membership and distance from the center.
4. Things headed away from the center can shift and turn toward or away from the center. (Hiebert, 123-4)

Hiebert then discusses the concept of "Christian" as a centered set. From this perspective Christians primarily define themselves as followers of the biblical Christ as the defining center of their lives. Second, and very importantly, Hiebert notes that while there is still a clear separation between Christians and non-Christians "the emphasis, however, would be on exhorting people to follow Christ, rather than on excluding others to preserve the purity of the set."

Hiebert then applies the concept of centered set to missions and states that "our primary aim would be to invite people to become followers of Jesus, not to prove that other religions are false. We would stress our personal testimonies of what Christ has done for us more than argue the superiority of Christianity."

As missional thinkers draw upon insights from various disciplines, including mathematics as applied within the context of missiology, set theory can help us rethink our concepts of "Christian", "Christianity", "church" and "missions". There are helpful aspects found in both bounded and centered sets. In terms of a bounded set concept, perhaps the primary concept most western evangelicals would consciously or subconsciously adhere to, the church must have some kind of boundary, defined in a variety of ways, including relationships, beliefs, and practices. These boundaries must be carefully defined and maintained, and yet balance is key to such efforts. As Roger Olson has insightfully noted, "The bounded set model ends up allowing little or no distinction between the center (the gospel) and the boundaries (orthodoxy). It also leads inevitably to obsessive boundary maintenance and inquisitorial judgments about whether persons and groups are Christian or not." (Roger E. Olson, The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity & Diversity, [InterVarsity Press, 2002])

As we critically reflect in missional fashion in light of changing cultural circumstances in the western world, might it be possible that the church has overemphasized a bounded set mentality within a Christendom culture, and now the time has come to consider a centered set concept? How would our understandings of what it means to be a Christian, to be the church, and to engage missionally (not to mention our understanding of and relation to "the religious Other") be different if we spent less time building the fences of the boundaries and more time facilitating a journey to the Lord that is the center of the Kingdom set?

Friday, August 26, 2005

Getting the Most Out of This Blog (or Any Other Form of Communication)

This week was my first week as a graduate student pursuing a degree in intercultural studies at Salt Lake Theological Seminary. Last weekend was orientation, and one of our sessions dealt with basic study skills. The interesting thing about the basics is they are often so basic it is easy to neglect them. I found one aspect of this orientation session relevant to those who would like to get the most out of the learning process, whether it involves interacting with the ideas on this Blog, or any other source of information.

The session on basic learning skills reminded us that learning and forms of communication are interactive processes. While the professor in a classroom setting, or a writer and speaker are often considered the active part of the communication process, the listener or reader often take a more passive stance. But this is an inappropriate posture for real understanding and learning to take place.

This session referred to Mortimer Adler's great book on how to read a book (again, a basic skill often taken for granted, and thus done inappropriately) where Adler uses an illustration from baseball as a parallel to senders and receptors in the communication process:

"Catching the ball is just as much an activity as pitching or hitting it. The pitcher or batter is the sender in the sense that his activity initiates the motion of the ball. The catcher or fielder is the receiver in the sense that his activity terminates it. Both are active, though the activities are different."

With this analogy in mind we see that truly understanding someone or something involves careful and appropriate activity on our part as receivers of the information. This activity may include an attempt to step outside our normal frames of reference and templates of understanding in order to understand new ideas on their own terms. Our mental grids provide a filter for ideas which may not mesh with our previous conceptions and experiences of reality. But rather than merely rejecting new ideas outright, those actively involved in the communciation process will take the time to fairly understand ideas on there own terms, as much as possible from the senders frame of reference, before raising criticisms. We must be able to say we understand before we say we disagree.

In my follow up reading this week for classes I was reminded of another important element to communication. In a book on the Great Tradition of Christian theology Roger Olson notes the importance of maintaining an irenic spirit. When we discuss foundational issues of great importance to us as individuals, particularly those touching on major aspects of theology and praxis, it is easy to get upset, and to respond to those sharing ideas we strongly disagree with in less than friendly fashion.

Being a disciple of Jesus in the postmodern Western world will be very different than the modern world of the twentieth century. Changes in culture demand that we be willing to take risks, think outside the box, push the envelope (you get the idea). It will be a messy process, and it may mean that some Christian thinkers put forward ideas that challenge the reigning paradigm for how we do church and ministry. This process has already begun, and this writer is self-consciously involved in this activity. Those satisified with the status quo will take issue with our ideas, and that's fine, but the way in which they take issue with us, and share their concerns are important. Let's make an active effort to understand before we say we disagree, and when we disagree let's do it with an irenic spirit. If we're willing to take these steps we'll get more out of the communication and learning processes, and we'll do so in ways fitting to the way of Jesus.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Missions as Adjective Rather Than Verb

In October of 2004 I was able to participate in a short-term mission trip to Australia. This great country has seen the decline of the Christian church to such extremes that it is rivaled perhaps only by the situation in the United Kingdom. In response to their changing cultural situation there has been continued growth in various expressions of alternative spiritualities, including the New Spiritualities, Neopaganism, and Wicca. During this missions trip I had the opportunity to meet with a number of cutting-edge missional thinkers and practitioners, including Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost. Alan and Michael are the co-authors of the book The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church (Hendrickson/Strand, 2003). I began reading the book while I was in Australia, and finished it after my return to the States. The book complimented my previous reading in the area of missions and I enjoyed it immensely.

Last week I was looking at various Blogs and found one from a self-described "professional practitioner of youth ministry", Dixon Kinser, who listed Frost and Hirsch's book on his Blog as a book he had recently read. The influence of missional thinking was apparent in this youth pastor's comments on a short-term missions trip he took with youth in San Francisco, California. I'd like to highlight some of his ideas to stimulate "outside the box" thinking in American churches concerning not only short-term missions for youth and adults, but how we "do church and missions" in general.

Dixon writes about the mission trip and wonders whether it "is a helpful way to invite students into this way of life. I know that 'missions' are crucial, but I believe the time has come for there practice to be reimagined." He then discussed six personal struggles he has with how we presently conceives of and engage in short-term missions. I personally resonate with his concern about "consumerism" (that short-term missions trips become yet another church product to be bought and consumed, albeit for noble reasons), and "evangelism with no relationship" (wherein we perpetuate our evangelism as event or activity rather than incarnationally as ongoing process in relationships). In light of his concerns, Dixon then asks insightfully, "How much short-term mission practice exacerbates alienating dynamics?", and how often do we end up being "'do-Gooders [rather] than servants."

Having deconstructed popular conceptions of short-term missions in his first post on the topic, Dixon then provides some thoughts on a reconstruction in a follow-up post. In this post he has picked up on a key insight, namely the needed transition from missions to missional. Missions is often thought of as a verb, that is, something we do as an external activity, rather than as an adjective, something that describes who and what we are as a way of being. With this shift in perspective, individuals and churches are not so much called to engage in missions as an activity, but rather to embody being missional as a way of life that partners with God in the way of Jesus in proclaiming and living the radical life of the Kingdom in both individual and communal ways.

Dixon has changed the way he conceives of and participates in missions with his youth that moves beyond short-term missions trips to a concenpt of a Trip of Mission and Spiritual Formation. I believe this idea has a lot of potential, not only in correcting our faulty thinking about and participation in short-term missions, but also in the how being missional is an integral part of our individual and corporate spiritual formation, and the exercise of spiritual disciplines in the Christian church.

I'd like to thank Dixon for his thoughts on this issue. As a missional Christian in Utah I have wanted to involve Christians in short-term cross cultural missions experiences in Utah and California in the area of new religions and alternative spiritualities. After reflecting on Dixon's insights I have rethought this concept and changed it from traditional short-term missions concepts of trips and activities to one of spiritual formation that provides another facet of the continuing development of the people of God as they seek Kingdom growth in the way of Jesus. It will be difficult for churches to revamp there short-term missions projects, but a new way of being missional rather than engaging in acts of missions will provide greater blessings to both Christians and those to whom God has called us to bless.

Dixon's articles may be found here:

"Deconstructing Short Term Missions Part 1

"Deconstructing Short Term Missions Part 2: A Reconstruction"

Monday, August 22, 2005

Why I Don't Believe in "Counterfeit Christianity"

"Counterfeit prophets who speak of a counterfeit Christ who preaches a counterfeit gospel can yield only a counterfeit salvation."

- Ron Rhodes, The Challenge of the Cults and New Religions (Zondervan, 2001), 19. Italics in original.

"Whew! John has finally come to his senses once again," will likely be the thought, and perhaps even the vocal response aired by some of my former colleagues in "counter-cult" ministry when the read the title of this post. With my shift away from traditional apologetic approaches to new religions and toward a cross-cultural missions paradigm, some have expressed concern for me in a number of areas. With the title of this post they might think that this signals a return to the counter-cult fold, but as continued reading will demonstrate, I have a decidedly different perspective on the concept of "counterfeit Christianity".

A common concept in evangelical and fundamentalist treatments of "cults" is that of counterfeit Christianity. While a few evangelicals might hold to a broad version of this concept wherein all non-Christian religions are spiritual counterfeits, perhaps most evangelicals would hold that at least the Bible-based groups, or those which spring from the Christian tradition, are counterfeits. Thus, new religions such as The Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Watchtower Bible and Society would fall under this categorization. But even with the tendency in evangelicalism to utilize a more narrow definition of counterfeit Christianity, it is not uncommon to see other religions or spiritualities, such as the New Spiritualities (or "New Age") also conceived of in this light, even though the New Spiritualities make no pretense at being Christian, and hence difficult to conceive of as a counterfeit of Christianity.

But I question the concept of counterfeit Christianity on a number of grounds. This post will not be exhaustive, but it will provide readers with a few of the reasons why I believe this concept is faulty, and why it hinders our understanding of and response to new religious movements. I believe the concept of counterfeit Christianity is conceptually inaccurate, exegetically problematic, and inappropriately applied by some segments of evangelicalism to new religions, and at times, to world religions as well.

1. The nature of a counterfeit. When we consider the nature of a counterfeit, we might imagine a personal agent purposefully crafting something which is designed to look very much like a genuine article of some kind, but which is subtly engineered in such as way as to purposefully deceive. However, when we look at new religious movements, we see great diversity and complexity, and great divergence from Christianity. Even with those new religions which have arisen out of the Christian tradition, the great divergence in their foundational worldview, doctrines, and praxis makes it very difficult to conceive of them as meticulous counterfeits of traditional Protestant expressions of Christianity. Unless we engage in a form of reductionism and gross simplification, even the Bible-based new religions are significantly different than Protestant Christianity, which should give us pause before accepting and applying the concept of counterfeit Christianity to such groups.

2. The identity of the counterfeiter. If we continue to dissect the concept of counterfeit Christianity we must address the identity of the alleged counterfeiter. As evangelicals have tried to explain the existence of other religions traditionally there are three possibilities here: a) Satan, b) idolatry through human sin, c) influence of the sin-damaged imago Dei. Space limitations in a Blog post preclude any sustained analysis of each of these possibilities, so I will make brief comment on the most prominent view in evangelicalism.

Many evangelicals, particularly in the counter-cult community, identify Satan as the personal agent responsible for the creation of spiritual counterfeits. We might note in response that no biblical text explicitly states either that there are spiritual counterfeits, or that Satan is the creator of such alleged fabrications. Evangelicals have formulated this view based upon inferences drawn from a handful of biblical texts. One that is especially popular in counter-cult literature is 2 Cor. 11:2-4, 13-15. In this passage Paul mentions "another Jesus," a "different Spirit" and a "different gospel" presented by "false apostles" and "deceitful workers" who disguise themselves to look like genuine apostles, just as Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. From this passage the inference is drawn that there are various false prophets and apostles, and that they present a counterfeit form of Christianity under the influence of Satan as the ulimate counterfeiter. This passage, and the concept of counterfeit Christianity, is then applied to "cults" or new religions, particularly new religions arising out of the Christian tradition.

3. Problematic exegesis and application. But is this the best interpretation, and application, of this passage? Fresh theological reflection might give us reason to rethink this. P. W. Barnett, following C. K. Barrett, argue that Paul is referring not to those who oppose him from outside the Christian fold, false apostles from a first-century Mormonism, if you will, but rather, that Paul is referring to Jewish converts to Christianity who were "Judaizing Jews". Barnett concludes his essay on this topic by stating that, "It is their cold-blooded invasion of his sphere of ministry, marked by deceit and pretence, which has evoked from the apostle the strong and polemical language which is the mark of 2 Corinthians 10-13."

With this exegetical perspective in mind, the false apostles Paul so strongly condemned were those who attacked Pauls' own apostolic credentials, and sought to place Christian converts under the Mosaic law. From this interperpretive perspective, Paul was addressing false teaching and false teachers within the church, and not responding to "cults" outside of the church that might be considered in some sense a counterfeit of Christianity. If this interpretation is correct, then as we move to application it would seem inappropriate to apply this text to new religions in our own time. Paul's language and concepts do not support the notion of a spiritual counterfeit, and his concern is with false teaching within new Christian churches, not with first century religious movements outside the church.

We need t o move beyond the concept of counterfeit Christianity in order to further our theological and missiological research program on new religions in more promising and fruiful directions. In this Blogger's opinion, evangelicals might benefit from greater theological engagement with other ideas as they develop a theology of religions, particularly in the area of sensus divinitatus, and the theological reflection that begins with pneumatology in the creation which then moves toward consideration of Christology and soteriology. The concept of spiritual counterfeits is a highly problematic and questionable one, and which is in need of reassessment in light of sound theological and missiological reflection.

Resources for Reflection

P. W. Barnett, "Opposition in Corinth," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 22 (1984): 3-17.

Terry C. Muck, "Is There Common Ground Among Religions?", Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40, no. 1 (March 1997): 99-112

Amos Yong, Beyond the Impasse: Toward a Pneumatological Theology of Religions (Baker Academic, 2003)

Friday, August 19, 2005

Complimentarity and Perspectives on Alternative Spiritualities in the West

John Drane recently made me aware of a website with some interesting articles with perspectives that dovetail with this Blog. The website was for an electronic publication called The Bible in TransMission produced by the Bible Society in the United Kingdom. The publication issue with the relevant articles may be found here http://www.biblesociety.org.uk/l3.php?id=300.

Three articles are of particular interest. They are part of an exchange between Christopher Partridge and John Drane. Partridge, who's work I referenced in my last post on "occulture", is Professor of Contemporary Religion in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at University College, Chester, U.K. Drane was teaching practical theology at Aberdeen University in Scotland, and is now pursuing full-time writing. I have the utmost respect for both of these scholars, and encourage the readers of this Blog to secure as many of their books and articles as possible. (A few are listed in the Recommended Books link of this Blog.)

Partridge and Drane's exchange referenced above focuses around differing perspectives on the re-enchantment of the West. Partridge comes at the issue from the perspective of a religious and cultural studies scholar pursuing a phenomenological methodology. Drane approaches the topic from the perspective of missiology and theology. In this Blogger's estimation, both authors raise valid issues for consideration, and their differing perspectives and methodologies, rather than being contradictory and exclusionary, support the need for evangelicals to triangulate to their understanding and response to emerging spiritualities and ministry in a pluralistic Western context by utilizing an interdisciplinary approach.

This interesting exchange can be found in these installments:

"Alternative Spiritualities, Occulture, and the Re-Enchantment of the West" by Christopher Partridge

"New Spirituality and Christian Mission" by John Drane

On Kairos Moments, Alternative Spiritualities, and Phenomenology: A Response to John Drane" by Christopher Partridge

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Emerging Culture and Emerging Spiritualities: New Perspectives and a Fresh Agenda

The next time you visit your local Christian bookstore, notice where you find the books dealing with emerging spiritualities. They will be found in a section of the bookstore under the headings “cults”, sects, and various “isms”. None will be found in the missions section. In fact, the missions section of our Christian bookstores are usually thin in terms of the number of titles provided, and I would venture that few sales result from this category.

This phenomenon at Christian bookstores is paralleled in the hyper-specialization of certain ministries that address the emerginr spiritualities. These ministries are usually self-designated as “counter-cult” organizations. Although these ministries represent something of a cottage industry, and are prolific in terms of the production of tracts, books, and website content, they represent a very small segment of evangelicalism. They also appear to have very little recognition and influence beyond this narrow niche in the evangelical world.

This situation is curious in light of cultural changes in Western culture where the emerging spiritualities are increasingly influential. I am not arguing for the stereotypical “cult explosion”. I’m referring to a phenomenon that Christopher Partridge refers to as “the re-enchantment of the West”. Partridge notes that while the Western world has experienced a decline in traditional religious expression with the spread of secularization, this has not resulted in the disappearance of religion. Instead, as the West moves beyond secularization with its disenchantment of the world, and toward a re-enchantment and renewed interest in spirituality, traditional religious expressions, such as Christianity, are giving way to emerging expressions of spirituality. (See Partridge's article on this topic linked on the right hand side of this Blog under Western Re-enchantment. Partridge's thesis was later expanded into the book length treatment.) Quoting Robert Wuthnow, Partridge describes this shift in American religion as one away from “a traditional spirituality of inhabiting sacred places” or “a spirituality of dwelling” to “a new spirituality of seeking”. The increasing number of individuals in the Western world who are engaged in this spiritual quest are drawing upon a cultural ethos that includes “hidden, rejected and oppositional belierfs and practices associated with esotericism, theosophy, mysticism, New Age, Paganism, and a range of other subcultural beliefs and practices” (emphasis in original). These expressions of the new spiritual quest are no longer relegated to the fringe of Western culture, but are now mainstream and not only surface in popular culture, they often are influence popular culture itself to a significant extent, so much so that Partridge says we are witnessing a new “occulture”.

As this occulture grows in popularity the church will continue to find itself speaking a language of and expressing form of a spirituality that speaks less and less meaningfully to increasing numbers of people. In this new cultural context in the West, including America, traditional evangelistic and apologetic methodologies, as well as expressions of church, will be increasingly ineffective and culturally irrelevant.

What does all of this have to do with our Christian bookstore example that we began with? We have noted that evangelical responses to emerging spiritualities are marginalized, both within the evangelical subculture and beyond it. Yet the emerging spiritualities represent serious cultural phenomena, so much so that they influence popular culture to the extent that are defining the ways in which increasing numbers of Westerners think about and experience their spirituality. The time has come for evangelicalism to take the emerging spiritualities more seriously. Our conceptions of them and responses to them must move beyond the refutation of heresy. Although emerging spiritualities have been on the agenda of the counter-cult movement for quite some time, I suggest that it is time to place them on the broader agenda of evangelicalism, to be considered by other segments of the evangelical church. The evangelical missions community has begun to address this issue in recent years, and it may be time for the emerging church movement to consider it as well. While this movement's concerns for epistemology and ecclesiology in a postmodern context (at least this seems to be the major concerns in the American emerging church movement) are worthy of note, the significance of Western cultural shifts means that the movement must seriously engage with cross-cultural missions. From this vantage point the emerging church movement might make a meaningful contribution to the issue of the emerging spiritualities.

For a further exploration of this topic see Christopher Partridge, The Re-Enchantment of the West: Alternative Spiritualities, Sacralization, Popular Culture, and Occulture, Vol. 1 (T & T Clark International, 2005). Click the link on the book from Amazon.com on the Recommended Books section on the right hand side of this Blog below.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Rethinking Evangelical Extractionalisms

As part of my steady diet of reading I recently consumed Charles H. Kraft's Christianity in Culture: A Study in Dynamic Biblical Theologizing in Cross-Cultural Perspective (Orbis Books, 1979). The book is full of interesting insights that come from the author's interaction with not only cross-cultural missions, but also anthropology and communication theory as well.

One of the items the author discussed that struck a chord with me was what he called identificational and extractionist approaches to communication. Kraft notes that human beings live in diverse contexts and frames of reference. We communicate from our own cultural frame of reference to others who may not share the same frame of reference as we do. Kraft defines an extractionist communicator as one who assumes or demands that their fame of reference be the one which provides the background and foundation for communication. He says that a "primary concern of such communicators, then, is to convert receptors to their way of extractionist thinking. Communicators seek to teach receptors to understand and look at reality in terms of their own models and perspectives."

By contrast, the communicator using an identificationalist approach seeks to adopt the hearer's frame of reference. Kraft states that "in this approach communicators become familiar with the conceptual framework of the receptor and attempt to fit their communication to the categories and felt needs of that frame of reference. Communicators employing this approach first attempt to learn where their hearer is and what needs the hearer feels before attemptoing to present any answers. And then the answers are presented in such a way that they 'scratch the hearer's itch' - not the speaker's."

Kraft also notes that extractionalism not only takes place in approaches to communication, but also in concepts of revealed truth. In discussing the idea of static rather than dynamic revelation he states:

"Western culture places an extremely high value on information for its own sake. Information and the increase of knowledge are thought to be good in themselves whether or not the knower is able to do anything with that knowledge. In keeping with this emphasis of western culture, we have both accepted the informationalizing of revelation and often lost our ability to imagine that it could be anything else. We have done the same thing with truth - and in the name of the One who made a point of the fact that truth is not informational but personal." (Emphasis in original.)

As a student of intercultural studies in the religiously plural Western world, I believe evangelicals must become aware of, and rethink their utilization of various forms of extractionalism. I will comment briefly on the two forms mentioned above, and mention one other below.

1. Extractionalism vs. identificationalism. Whether consciously or subconsciously, evangelicals often assume that their hearers share their frame of reference, particularly on religious and spiritual matters. Their starting point in interreligious discussions is a conservative evangelical frame of reference, with a strong concern for doctrinal acumen. From this vantage point the evangelical then contrasts and refutes the beliefs of the "religious other" because they are in conflict with an evangelical worldview. Such an extractionalist approach often results in a lack of any meaningful understanding or communication, with the hearer perceiving little other than a sense of attack. Evangelicals might benefit from reconsidering such approaches, and substitute an identificationalist approach wherein the evangelical would sympathetically enter into the conceptual world of the hearer, thus providing an opportunity to frame the Christian message in the hearer's conceptual and cultural context.

2. Extractionalism and informationalism in divine revelation. Having assumed an extractionalist stance in communication, as evangelicals share Christian doctrine with those in other religions it appears that there is also hidden Western cultural assumption that doctrine, as divine information, is valuable in and of itself, regardless of the ability of the hearer to understand the information, or to assimilate it in personally and culturally relevant ways. In utilizing our traditional evangelistic methodologies, particularly in the area of alternative spiritualities, have we become little more than information brokers monologically proclaiming abstract ideas, conceptually and culturally detached from the hearer, rather than the One who is Truth?

3. Extraction evangelism. We might also consider another facet of extractionalism, and that is the tendency in evangelicalism to shy away from indigenous expressions of church, preferring instead to extract converts from their indigenous culture and reinculturating them as middle-class, Western evangelicals. In an article in Evangelical Missions Quarterly H. L. Richard discusses the drawbacks of such approaches in missionary work among Hindus and Muslims. (See "Is extraction evangelism still the way to go?: Several other models suggest some possible alternatives in mission to Hindus and Muslims," EMQ, April 1994.) If we pause and apply the insights of this aspect of extractionalism in Western missionary contexts among alternative spiritualities (assuming that the church shifts gears and applies cross-cultural missions approaches to such religions and spiritualities) can we learn from the extractionalist failures on the world's mission fields in order to allow indigenous expressions of church within the subcultures of Wiccan converts, Neopagans, or Latter-day Saints? Will we have the insight and patience to sort through the various aspects of these cultures in order to create vibrant faith communities within their own subcultures, or will our aversion to heresy and our long history of conflict with such groups perpetuate extraction evangelism?

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Mariners Church and Temple Openings: Consider Alternatives

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently held an open house following the completion of the building of their latest temple in Newport Beach, California. In response to such temple openings evangelicals often stand on public property and pass out tracts, carry signs, engage Mormons and the general public in conversation about evangelical and LDS doctrinal differences, and in the case of the Newport Beach temple an ad was taken out in a local Christian newspaper. The concern many evangelicals have is that evangelicals and others in the community will not realize the differences between Mormonism and Protestantism, and that the temple opening will be used for LDS proselytizing.

A new twist was added to this scenario in southern California. A church near the Newport Beach temple, Mariners Church, raised the ire in countercult and apologetic ministry by opening the church parking lot to Mormons and the community who wanted to use it in order to facilitate their attendance at the temple opening. To make matters worse (from one evangelical perspective) the church took an additional step and refused to allow evangelicals to use the church parking lot to pass out tracts. The perception on the part of the the apologists was that the church was compromising the gospel, and taking a stand with those who promote heresy rather than evangelical brethren interested in sharing the truth. This incident has become something of a small controversy in apologetic circles, having been discussed on a few websites, and on at least one apologetic radio program in southern California.

I can't speak to the motivations of Mariners Church that stood behind these actions. I haven't been able to get in touch with anyone at the church. I have read some website comments posted by those who expressed concern with the church's actions, and if these statements are accurate, the church was motivated by a desire to be a good neighbor to Mormons. Although many evangelicals are upset over this incident, what lessons might we learn, and what other perspectives might we consider as evangelicals as we consider our response to future temple openings? I'd like to offer another perspective to consider, followed by a recommended alternative.

It might be helpful for us to step back and put ourselves in the shoes of the Latter-day Saint. Imagine that your church has just completed the building of a new chapel or worship center. You have just left the dedication ceremony, a time of celebration and fellowship for your Christian community, and as you return to your car in the parking lot you see Mormons standing on the sidewalk passing out literature stating that your chapel is part of a false church and your doctrine is corrupt. Would this warm the heart of the average evangelical to the message of the LDS Church? Hardly. We would rightly be upset, we'd become defensive, and we would not be in any frame of mind to listen to any possible merits in the LDS message. What evangelicals fail to understand is that Mormons feel the same way when we pass out tracts and hold up signs at their temple openings. In fact, considering the significance of temples to LDS culture, their reaction is even more severe.

If we step back conceptually once again and look at this situation not through the lenses of cultism and heresy, but through other perspectives, such as cultural anthropology, we can gain some important insights. Scholars have noted that cultural groups celebrate and reinforce a sense of communal identity in a variety of ways, including through community celebrations. These are expressed in a variety of ways, including celebrations that focus around a religious pilgrimage to sacred places. If a cultural outsider is perceived as attacking the symbol and substance of the religious pilgrimage this threatens the sense of identity of the individual and defensiveness and confrontation are the result. These insights are applicable to not only temple openings, but also to the Mormon Miracle Pageant at Manti, and Pioneer Days celebrations. As a religious community Mormons come together, sometimes traveling great distances, other times to engage in nearby local celebrations, in a form of religious pilgrimage. They come to the temple to participate in a celebration as part of their community that centers around an important religious and communal symbol, the temple. When well meaning evangelicals show up at such events, no matter how well intentioned, they are perceived by Mormons as attacking that which is held sacred, and thereby put a wedge between the evangelical and Mormon communities. Thus, temple tracting is actually counter-cultural and counter-productive to evangelical desires to communicate meaningfully to Mormons.

If this is the case, how might evangelicals respond more effectively and culturally appropriately to temple openings, using them as an opportunity for positive interaction? How can we learn important lessons from the Mariners Church example: a well intentioned church which wanted to be a good neighbor to LDS people, but one which apparently had no proactive strategy involved for interacting with Latter-day Saints? I'd like to suggest that evangelical churches consider the following course of action for the future.

1. Reaffirm your church's commitment to effective evangelism. This may also include an assessment of traditional forms of outreach at LDS temples used by parachurch ministries. As we've seen from the discussion above, these activities are actually counter-productive. While evangelicals might feel good about engaging in such activities, they appear to have little positive long-term impact.

2. Model positive and effective evangelical-LDS dialogue. One way this can be done is by inviting qualified representatives from each faith community to publicly dialogue thereby demonstrating how civil and respectful dialogue can take place between evangelicals and Mormons, and how these dialogue partners need not shrink from honestly discussing evangelical-LDS distinctives. Rev. Greg Johnson of Standing Together and Dr. Robert Millet of BYU have been speaking around the country, and overseas, in various venues modeling just such a dialogue. Churches should consider inviting these individuals to their community and involving both evangelicals and LDS to attend to witness a model of interfaith dialogue. While evangelicals have tended to be more comfortable with debate than dialogue, this particular dialogue format, and these participants, are well qualified to provide an example that evangelicals and Mormons can learn from. (See the sidebar under Evangelical-LDS Resources for contact information for Standing Together to explore this option.)

3. Provide theologically sound, culturally-sensitive evangelism training. The dialogue should be followed up with a training program that equips evangelicals to understand not only LDS theological distinctives, but also important LDS cultural considerations that will allow evangelicals to share their faith in sensitive and effective ways. Such a program may be found in "Bridges: Helping Mormons Discover God's Grace." It is a cutting-edge multi-media training resource produced by Salt Lake Theological Seminary. Contact the seminary via the contact information in this Blog's sidebar, or this blogger to consider Bridges training for your church and community.

The above mentioned three-pronged approach represents a positive, proactive, culturally-appropriate alternative in response to LDS temples in the community. Might evangelicals not only consider what makes them feel good about defending the gospel, but also what is culturally appropriate as we seek to be ambassadors of the gospel to our Samaria (1 Cor. 9:20-23)?

Those interested in mining for further missional gems relative to these issues will benefit from the following:

Christian Anthropology

Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Baker Books, 1994)

Charles H. Kraft, Anthropology for Christian Witness (Orbis Books, 1997)

Religious Pilgrimage

Ellen Badone & Sharon Roseman (eds), Intersecting Journeys: The Anthropology of Pilgrimage and Tourism (University of Chicago Press, 2004)

Alan Morinis, Sacred Journeys: The Anthropology of Pilgrimage (Greenwood Press, 1992)

Mormon Community Celebrations

Davis Bitton, The Ritualization of Mormon History and Other Essays (University of Illinois Press, 1994), pp. 171-187

Steve Olsen, "Community Celebrations and the Mormon Ideology of Place", Sunstone 5 (May-June 1980), no. 3: 40-45

Steve Olsen, "Celebrating Cultural Identity: Pioneer Day in Nineteenth Century Mormonism," BYU Studies 36 (1996-97), no. 1: 159-177

Friday, August 12, 2005

Lausanne Issue Group on Postmodern and Alternative Spiritualiites

I have followed and appreciated the work of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization for many years. Lausanne is an organization comprised of international network of missions organizations, missionaries, theologians, and others working together to address key challenges in the global missions task. I was especially interested in a paper produced in 1980 by a Lausanne issue group that addressed "mystics and cultists". One of the insights of this paper was that mystics and cultists warrante the classification as unreached people groups. Following the work of Ralph Winter, many in the missions community have recognized that Christ's Great Commission command was not merely to reach the nations in terms of geographical or geopolitical boundaries, but rather, to reach the ethne or people groups of the world. This necessitates an understanding of various sub-cultures where people identify with each other based upon not only a shared geographical living space and language, but also other aspects of culture, such as worldview, religious or spiritual practices, unique terminology, perceptions of reality and spirituality, and other cultural identifiers and boundary markers.

Evangelicals have readily recognized the people groups and unreached peoples of the world religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, and even tribal cultures, but have not so readily recognized that the new religions and alternative spiritualities should be similarly understood. This shortcoming surfaced in the 1980 Lausanne paper, in that while it classified mystics and cultists as unreached peoples, the issue group did not draw upon cross-cultural missions principles available at the time in order to apply them to these groups. And while Lausanne recognized the missions implications of new religions as far back as 1980, very few evangelicals ministering in this area followed Lausanne's lead, or worked to develop and impliment missions approaches to these groups. Indeed, in the counter-cult community in the U.S., although there has been some discussion of missions to new religions, and even those in this movement who would consider themselves missionaries to "the cults", they have really been engaged in defensive apologetic approaches rather than cross-cultural missions methodologies.

I have been in contact with Lausanne for several years, and in 2003 was asked to participate in a Theology and Strategy working group meeting in southern California. This group was fine-tuning the issue group needs and subjects for the 2004 international Lausanne gethering meeting in Thailand. Eventually I submitted my application for the 2004 gathering and participated in Issue Group 16 addressing postmodern and alternative spiritualities. Our group met in Pattaya in October of 2004, and we produced one of the more extensive and "boundary pushing" papers. We began with the insights of the 1980 issue group and paper, and then moved to addressing its shortcomings, and then discussed incarnational missions strategy and how it should be applied to new religions (moving beyond counter-cult heresy refutation approaches), which was demonstrated in a handful of case studies. The paper also includes a significant bibliography, and recommendations to various segments of evangelicalism.

It was a privilege to work with this issue group, and to gain an international perspective on alternative spiritualities. We are currently planning a mini-consultation in Hong Kong for 2006. Those interested in postmodern spirituality in the West will be interested in our issue group paper. It is available on the Lausanne website (the link is included in the sidebar of this Blog. A 90-page paperback copy in book(let) form is also available. Contact me for more information if interested.

As we reflect on the gap in missional thinking and activity in regard to alternative spiritualities between 1980 and 2004, what might our missions efforts look like 20 years from now (should the Lord tarry) if we reflect on and apply the insights of incarnational missions in 2005?

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Are We Being Needlessly Confrontational?

I am still a new Utah resident. My family and I moved here from northern California in June, so I am still soaking in the unique culture of Utah, with its large LDS population, compared to northern California's culture with strong overtones of Do-It-Yourself Spiritualities, Neopaganism, and Neobuddhism.

Last month in July a friend and colleague invited me to attend the Mormon Miracle Pageant in Manti, Utah. This is an annual drama held in front of a historic LDS temple, and during the course of the pageant thousands of LDS come from around Utah, and many from out of state. I had long heard from evangelicals that this was a "must see" in terms of evangelical efforts to reach Mormons "in the trenches." I thought it was important to attend both to understand more about LDS culture, and to see how evangelicals are engaging Mormons at this important cultural celebration.

The pageant is truly a moving spectacle. It includes drama, stage lighting, music, and narration, that recreates many aspects of the sacred history of Mormonism. I understand why so many Mormons find the pageant an important personal and cultural event. But while the pageant was instructive for me as a student of LDS culture, the activities of the evangelicals who attended was perhaps even more instructive, unfortunately in the negative.

A handful of evangelicals were at the pageant, and many passed out tracts, while still others engaged Mormons in conversation. One evangelical stood out by holding up an inflammatory sign that attacked the founding prophet of Mormonism while also advertising his website. The Mormon crowd was understandably upset by this, and it turned into something of a feeding frenzy, as Mormons were angered, other evangelicals joined in and shouted Bible verses and slight taunts to the crowd, and eventually the police intervened to prevent violence.

As I reflected on the pageant, and evangelical activities at this event, I wondered why many felt this was an appropriate and effective form of "outreach." If we step back for a moment and consider the insights of anthropology, cross-cultural missiology, communications, and self-identity, it seems to this observer that evangelicals were engaging in forms of confrontation and denunciation at an important sacred celebration. This resulted in a combative form of counter-cultural interaction that threatened the individual Mormon's self-identity and I assume caused most Mormons there to be defensive rather than open to the evangelical message.

Would evangelicals think they were being effective in ministry to homosexuals if they held up signs that said "God Hates Fags". Some fundamentalists (and perhaps evangelicals) do think this is appropriate, but the vast majority recognize it is inappropriate and needlessly confrontational. Why then do we think similar approaches to Mormons (and other new religions) are somehow appropriate (and supposedly effective)? Surely there are examples of confrontation in the Bible, but a careful examination of the contexts reveals that they are not appropriately applied to situations and contexts like the Manti pageant. Are we being needlessly confrontational, and acting in ways which make us feel good as defenders of orthodoxy, and in the process not only losing the argument but also losing the individual?

After the pageant I wrote an article on this titled "Reflections on the Divide in LDS Evangelism in Utah: Why I Practice An Incarnational Missions Approach". It can be found in the sidebar of this Blog under "Articles I Have Written". I wrote it in the hopes of stimulating fresh thinking, discussion, and methodology among evangelicals in Utah. I'm still waiting for the dialogue to begin.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Encountering New Religious Movements

In 1993 I had the privilege of working with Jim Stephens of The Sonrise Center for Buddhist Studies ona Buddhism theme issue of the International Journal of Frontier Missions Vol. 10, no. 3 (July 1993)< http://www.ijfm.org/archives.htm#Volume10>. Given my research and work in I was interested in seeing this and other missions journals devoted specifically to treatment on new religious movements. In 1998 I approached the editor of IJFM, Hans Weerstra, about the possibility of his journal addressing this issue. He agreed, and we produced Vol. 15, no. 3 (July-September 1998), where I served as a guest and theme editor <http://www.ijfm.org/archives.htm#Volume15>.

Several years later, given the depth and complexity of new religions, and the lack of treatment on these groups and movements from a missiological perspective among evangelicals, I thought about contacting Mr. Weerstra about the possibility of a follow up issue. But after contacting my friend and colleague Philip Johnson, we thought that a book format might be more appropriate. We compiled a "wish list" of contributors and topics, drafted a proposal, and sent it to Kregel Publications which was then developing a new line of Academic and Professional books. After some discussion Kregel agreed to publish the book and it came out in 2004 as Encountering New Religious Movements: A Holistic Evangelical Approach, with Irving Hexham, Stephen Rost and I serving as co-editors.

The book is divided into three sections: Biblical and Historical Perspectives, Methodological Issues, and Practical Application. The book is the result of a group of top-notch international contributors, and the volume puts forward the thesis that we have not gotten very far approaching new religions through the lens and paradigm of "cult busting" and heresy refutation. Instead, we suggest that given that the new religions in many cases represent the cutting edge of growth of the older world religions, new religions should be approached from the perspective of cross-cultural missions. (See the book at Amazon.com by clicking the following link:)


Kregel took something of a gamble on two unknown co-editors, and several unknown contributors (at least in the U.S.), but given that Irving Hexham was working as co-editor, and the book contained contributions by leading scholars that included not only Hexham and his wife Karla Poewe-Hexham, Terry Muck, and David Hesselgrave, they decided it was a "safe bet." It was one that paid off for them. The book has been well received and positively reviewed by missions journals in the U.S. and abroad. In addition, the book was positively reviewed by Christianity Today magazine <http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/007/30.67.html>, and earlier this year we won the 2005 Christianity Today Book of the Year Award in the category of missions/global affairs <http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/006/16.30.html>.

This award, from the flagship periodical of the American evangelical world, and the positive reviews of the book by missions periodicals, indicate that the thesis put forward in the book by its contributors is worthy of serious consideration. For those interested in a book-length treatment of issues discussed in this blog, our book should be considered "must read."

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

My Background

I currently live and work in Syracuse, Utah, about 25 minutes north of Salt Lake City. My family and I recently moved here from northern California where we were born, raised, and lived for many years.

My family background is a combination of agnosticism and membership in a Restoration offshoot, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now known as the Community of Christ). I had a strong emotional experience as a junior high school student that caused me to attach myself to this group. Seven years later I read works by evangelicals critical of Mormonism that caused me to doubt the validity of my experience as a form of emotional and psychological self-deception. Evangelical writers did a good job at tearing down worldviews and religions, but left me nothing positive to replace it with.

As an open-minded agnostic I read extensively in the areas of philosophy and religion, and eventually encountered materials that, contrary to my expectations, demonstrated to my satisfaction that one could, in fact, be intellegent and be a Christian. Much as C. S. Lewis described his conversion experience, I would say that I was brought "kicking and screaming" into the Kingdom of God.

Given my previous background in a Restorationist Christian religious group, after my conversion to traditional Christianity naturally gravitated toward evangelical "countercult" ministry, and adopted its approach to addressing "cult" groups. This involved a comparison of the teachings of various groups with Protestant Christian orthodoxy, offering a biblical refutation of this doctrine as unbiblical, and often included a refutation of rational inconsistencies in a given religious group's worldview. My colleague, Philip Johnson in Australia, has labeled this the "heresy-rationalist" approach, one which used extensively in evangelical countercult ministry.

I utilized this approach in my own ministry, and in encounters with "cultists" at my door, for many years. But over the years I also read extensively, and beyond countercult literature, systematic theology, and apologetics. My reading was of an interdisciplinary nature, and it included missiology, religious studies, sociology of religion, and communication theory. As I read, and as I reflected on the history of Christian mission, specifically on contextualization (or the framing of the gospel in culturally-relevant ways across cultures) I noted a general contrast between evangelical evangelistic efforts in the American context contrasted with those overseas. In general, a missionary in an overseas contexts lives in the culture and seeks to understand its various facets, and how to communicate Christ's gospel of the kingdom from a modern American culture into the host culture of the missionary. While an overseas missionary will at times confront aspects of a culture, in general, the overseas missionary does not major on being confrontational or counter-cultural. By contrast, in the American context, with lingering notions of Judeo-Christian America, and the decaying Christendom culture, we have largely pursued aggressive and confrontational evangelistic methodologies that are often needlessly counter-cultural, and I would argue, counter-productive as well.

Although I worked with various countercult ministries for years, I became increasingly dissatisfied with the evangelical countercult paradigm of "cult busting" and have spent the last few years working with like-minded colleagues internationally to develop an interdisciplinary perspective and approach to new religions and alternative spiritualities from a cross-cultural missions perspective.

In the posts and discussions that follow, you will greatly I have been influenced by the missio Dei, God's mission in the world, which unfolds in the Old Testament and carries over into the New. The impact of the missional love of God for all peoples and cultures, and its resulting impact on my theology, praxis, and thinking, will be evident as you join me in the journey of conversation.

I'm Jumping In!

For some time now various colleagues have been encouraging me to enter the "bloggosphere". My reply has been varied, including that I don't have time to add frequent posts to do blogging justice, to a fear that I might not have worthwhile comments to post, among other things. But since I have benefitted from the blogs of others, and believe this is a worthwhile means of sharing ideas and facilitating discussions, I've decided to jump in.

I will begin by sharing some of my experiences that will be helpful for folks in understanding the perspective I bring to the issues I will discuss. I look forward to the possibility of stimulating new ideas, and providing reasons to reassess some old ones. I only ask that my fellow bloggers truly engage me in mutual dialogue, no matter how off the wall you may find some of my thinking.

Let the blogging begin.