Thursday, April 30, 2009

Learning The Lingo #6: It takes time.

One of the most common questions I get asked when it comes to language learning is, “How long did it take you to learn the language?”

I have a hard time answering that question.

You would think that after hearing this question a thousand times I would have come up with a good quick answer that made people say, “Oh, that’s nice,” and move on with the conversation. Most people aren’t ready to listen to a 5-hour symposium entitled, My Theory of Language Learning Based Upon Experience.

When I used to drive a van for a particular ministry I would often get the question, “How much longer until we get there?” Now, this was on those two-day trips to Mexico and such. They would usually ask this after a couple hours into the journey. I had a standard answer: About a half-hour. The response was always the same. They thought, “Oh, that’s not too long,” and went back to talking with their friends, playing card games, listening to their headphones or sleeping. Three hours later it would begin to dawn on them, “Hey, hasn’t it already been more than a half-hour since Koffijah told me that?” But that answer bought me a solid three hours of non-whining.

I could do the same with the “How long did it take you to learn the language?” question. I could just answer, “Two years,” and be done with it as we continued on talking about things they found more interesting. But I just can’t bring myself to do it. I just can’t pass up the opportunity to dismantle one of the misconceptions about language learning.

People often have the idea that you spend time learning a language until you become “fluent.” After that you go out and start using it to accomplish the work you want to do. But that is not what it is like at all.

First of all, it is difficult to learn a language unless you start using it from the beginning. Then, you gradually increase in your ability to speak it as the years go by. I imagine a hyperbolic curve that continually rises and continually approaches this thing we call native-like-fluency, but never gets there. The curve is smooth. That means there are no distinct points at which we can say, “Okay, now you can speak the language.” We can always only speak “some” of the language from the first day we start learning a few words. It is just that this “some” continually increases.

So it is difficult for me to answer honestly that it took me __ years to learn the language. I am still learning. I am still running into new vocabulary and ways of saying things that I have never known. This is true even after many nationals say I speak just like them and even confuse me as a fellow national when I talk with them on the phone.

It takes time to learn a language. There are days when you feel like you are not making any progress. Then there are days you feel like a whole new world has opened up to you because you finally understand something new. It just takes time. But the less social contact we have with the community, the more time it takes.

If you do the right things, over time, you will learn the language. How long will it take? About a half hour.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Learning The Lingo #5: Commitment

Let’s get one thing straight—Learning a second language doesn’t happen on accident. Save a supernatural gift from God, the language isn’t just going to get downloaded into our brain. As “natural” as we try to make our learning process, it is still hard work. Sometimes it hurts. It takes commitment if we are going to learn the language well.

That's probably not a huge revelation. Most of us tend to think learning a language is an impossible task, not an easy one. If it is possible, it's only because we have a firm commitment and good discipline. While it might not be as impossible as we may think, it is still a good idea to be prepared. If you can get others to join with you in learning the language it is even better. But in any case, it is good to have someone (or several people) holding you accountable for your language learning.

Along the road of language learning there will be plenty of detours and distractions encouraging you to give up or lessen your language commitment. Commitment to language learning will be necessary when…

  • Your head is aching from the onslaught of new information that you just don’t understand.
  • You’ve said something that you shouldn’t have said and made someone feel bad.
  • People laugh at your speaking mistakes—for the thousandth time.
  • You are confident you are saying it right but the nationals just don’t understand you.
  • You just don’t feel like hanging out with your national friends tonight.
  • You just can’t pronounce that strange vowel that doesn’t exist in English.
  • You really, really, really want to skip language class today.
  • Your language teacher insults you in a way he thinks is funny.
  • You lack the courage to walk up to a group of nationals and begin a conversation.
  • You just want to buy a small item in the store but you can only think of the English word for it.
  • You don’t understand the difference between five words in the language that all translate to the same word in English.
  • You described her as a “pig” when you meant to say “friend” because you messed up the tone.
  • You have an English-speaking national who is more than willing to translate for you.
  • You have invitations to go hang out with other expats doing something you actually enjoy instead of hanging out with the nationals.
  • The phone is ringing with a national on the other end of the line and you just want to hang up.
  • You’d rather just save the language learning opportunity for class-time.

It is hard work to learn a language. You should know this going in and make a plan for it. You should also not be too hard on yourself—your brain needs breaks and time to process all that you are learning. Just be careful not to turn breaks into extended vacations.

I have noticed the best language learners are the ones who make the most of every opportunity. Whether that is riding a bus, standing in line at the immigration office, reading signs along the road or talking with a previously unknown merchant, they never miss the chance to pick up a new vocabulary word. These people are motivated by a desire to really "get it." Those who feel like, “I’ll get to that when I take my class,” usually go much more slowly.

Commitment means we really want to obtain fluency, not just survival phrases. We shoot for native ability even though we know we will never quite reach it. Still, that commitment moves us further down the road of language competence.

Other qualities such as grace and humor also go along well with commitment in language learning. If we are too afraid to make mistakes, or find it hard to laugh at ourselves, then we become more hesitant in opening our mouths. Perhaps that is where real commitment lies—in “getting back up” from our setbacks, failures and embarrassments to keep going.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Learning The Lingo #4: Many Methods

Okay, up until now you probably think that I am anti-language classes, anti-videos, anti-language books, anti-lesson material altogether, but am just in favor of immersion into the social community of native speakers. Well, I do believe that immersion into the social community of native speakers is foundational. It will make the biggest difference in our language learning endeavor. But that doesn’t make me against other methods. In fact, I believe they’re all good. (Think Samuel L. Jackson.)

For effective language learning I’m very much in favor of an “all of the above” approach—just so long as it includes lots of social contact with native speakers, preferably immersion into their community so that real communication can take place in the language we’re attempting to learn. But along with that, I believe it is a great idea to take language classes, read language books, do a language route and hire language teachers. I wouldn’t limit myself to just one approach.

In my experience, I found that I learned different but very valuable things from different people. Had I limited myself to one language teacher three times a week, it would have been crippling. Even if I lived with this person 24/7 it wouldn’t have been as helpful as having a multiplicity of language teachers (both people and books). I found that after an extended time each morning with one teacher I would get a pretty strong headache. I needed a break. After I started using three different language teachers (while also living with a national family) my headaches weren’t as much of a problem.

I also found it helpful to have both national and expatriate language teachers. The native speaker would do a much better job of teaching pronunciation and of just knowing what was right or wrong in the language. They would also have a much wider vocabulary and knowledge of the language to share. The expat teacher, on the other hand, would have a much better understanding of where I was coming from and why I made the mistakes I always made. The expat teacher could explain many things about the language better than the national speaker because they understood what my “hang-ups” were as an English speaker.

Flash cards were a tremendous help for me when I first got started. The language here in The Location doesn’t use roman letters, so I learned the alphabet by using flash cards. After I had that down I used flash cards for basic vocabulary. I repeated the cards I had trouble with. It wasn’t long before I learned all the words on my cards and no longer had a need for the original cards I made. I had to keep making more. They were very helpful.

Recording a native speaker saying difficult phrases on audio tape was also a big help. Especially when it came to pronouncing different “tones” in the language. I could replay the recording a hundred times without the tape recorder getting tired. If I had my language helper say the phrase a hundred times in a row they would probably have quit on me the next day. But I would listen to these phrases one after the other until I could say it at the same speed, rhythm and pitch contour as the native speaker. It was a vital help to me.

Books were also good, though confusing at times. I went through several books with a couple of my teachers. I also bought children’s school books from kindergarten through sixth grade and read them on my own. I would constantly try to decipher signs around town. I learned to play some of their popular songs on my guitar and wrote down the lyrics. I studied them with my friend until I understood the meaning of all the words in the song. Then I discovered how much fun it was to play those songs with The People. They were always amazed that not only did I know their music, but that I could play and sing it too. It was an amazing social connection that opened many doors for me.

I also did a language route for a while a la LAMP (Language Acquisition Made Practical). Though it was a bit slow for me, it was helpful as another contributor to language learning. I enrolled in language classes, too. I also found them to be slow and sometimes below my level, but I learned many things that I previously didn’t know about the language. It helped me, too.

Learning a language effectively takes many methods. We should not limit ourselves to just one or a few.

Now, does this apply to other areas of ministry, too?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Learning The Lingo #3: Social Contact

Languages are best learned by people from people.

Kind of sounds like a no-brainer, right? Well, many of us try to learn language without involving other people, for some reason. We buy books, tapes, videos, flash cards and other lesson materials. Those are all fine and good. But the biggest ingredient needed is social contact with native speakers of the language.

That’s right—social contact. I’m not just talking about learning from a language teacher. I’m talking about interacting with speakers of the language who are not trying to teach you a lesson, but are just having a conversation with you, trying to tell you a story or a joke, or just doing life together. One of my favorite quotes from the LAMP (Language Acquisition Made Practical) method people is the following:

“If you set out to learn a language you will possibly fail, but if you set out to have a deep relationship with people, you will learn their language.”

-Thomas Brewster, Bonding and the Missionary Task

The point is that if we have the mere goal of learning a language—and if we subconsciously think we can do this without building friendships with any native speakers—chances are we will fail to speak it fluently or we will find it extremely difficult. However, if we make it our goal to form a friendship with at least one or several native speakers (preferably someone who speaks little or no English) then in the course of that process we will pick up a great deal of the language. Not only will we have the language learned, but we will have a good friend, too. So this approach is ideal for ministry, too.

Of course, if we see the people we’ve come to reach as simply “subjects” then we probably won’t want to build friendships with them. “We want to help them; not hang out with them!” If we are afraid of them and view them with suspicion, we probably won’t be allowing them to get too close to us or our children. If we fear giving up our lifestyles, eating their food and doing things with them that they enjoy, then we will probably only try to build friendships with those few who are brave enough to come into our big luxurious houses and eat our strange Western food—not too many, if any.

So, how we view people can end up being a big factor in how well we learn the language. That is because how we view the nationals will mostly determine how much social contact we have with them. How much social contact we have with them will greatly determine how much of the language we learn.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Learning The Lingo #2: Immersion

There is no single language learning technique, method, class or dynamic that beats total immersion.

The word “immersion” gives us the image of being thrown into a large body of water. I imagine a raging river. We don’t just go visit the edge. We don’t just take sips of the water or dangle our toes into it. We don’t just splash around and get a little wet. No, we are thrown into all the fury of its current and the river takes us where it is going—not where we want to go. We are not so much in control—the river is. But by being in the flow we learn the currents, the eddies and the falls.

That is what learning language by immersion is like—a bit crazy and uncontrolled. But please notice two things: One, it is for this very reason many people choose not to learn by immersion but select a more comfortable and controlled approach by taking in the language in “small doses.” Two, immersion is exactly what our first language learning process was—when we were born into a crazy world full of people speaking a language we didn’t know. But we still picked it up.

Now, learning a second language as an adult is different than learning a language as a child. But adults can learn faster. An adult can become rather fluent in two years’ time when the baby who was born into the culture is still just saying a few words. Now, give the baby another 7-8 years and he’ll blow the adult away. But with immersion adults will be hearing things “outside the lesson” that will help them to pick up the language must faster than simply taking classes. This is the same dynamic for the child who grows up hearing the language.

Here is the key: Immersion gives you no crutches. Crutches can be rather crippling. That is because we have little confidence in ourselves and we depend on the crutches more than we need to. But when we put ourselves into situations where we need to speak the language for real life communication—that is when we really learn it.

So, if you want to learn a second language my biggest advice to you is this: Find a way to live with native speakers of that language who DO NOT speak English. Yes, it will be crazy at times. Yes, you will use a lot of sign language. Yes, it will seem like you are getting nowhere. But I promise you—you will be making much more progress than if you are only taking the language in small doses.

Now, does the dynamic of immersion apply to other things in ministry besides learning a language?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Learning The Lingo #1: You can do it!

You’ve heard the joke before:

“What do you call someone who can speak many languages?”

“What do you call someone who can speak two languages?”

“What do you call someone who can speak only one language?”

Americans are somewhat unique in the world. And it is not because many Americans only speak English. There are plenty of monolingual people in the world—probably in every single country. But the thing that is unique about many Americans—especially those who come from the Midwest—is that we can live the majority of our lives without ever hearing someone speak another language (in real life—not on TV). Now, if you’re from the South or Southwest you are probably accustomed to hearing Spanish being spoken, and this is increasing in many locations. (And many people resent it, too.) But in many corners of middle America you will rarely, if ever, hear someone speaking a language other than English.

In most parts of the world it is common to have native speakers of many different languages living all around you. This is certainly true in The Location. Even if you don’t speak these languages it is not an uncommon event to hear others speaking them. And I have come to see that this is normal. Living in such a monolingual environment is the exception.

Consequently, I believe this is one reason many Americans have this mental barrier to learning a language. We see it as a near impossible and very difficult task. I did, too. I remember when I was in high school I had the opportunity to study Spanish my freshman year. Something told me that I was “too young” to do this and needed to put it off until my junior or senior year. (Oh, how I regretted this—and oh, how wrong I was!) Learning another language was something only a very talented and intelligent person could do, so I thought. And so think many people.

The truth is, learning a language is difficult. However, it is not as difficult as many people think or make it out to be. Sometimes those who have learned to speak another language fluently don’t mind others thinking it is an amazing feat because it makes them look more impressive. But it is not an impossible task, or even an improbable one, if approached the right way.

I know how to help people learn to speak the language here in The Location. I have done it. I mentioned before that I have had interns from the US come for 4-6 months and in that time learn to speak more of the language than many full-timers who have been here for years. I know how to do it.

First, you must believe it is possible. You can do it. Yes, it is tough. Yes, you will get headaches and probably cry at times. Yes, you will make mistakes that are both funny and offensive. Yes, you will be confused and clueless. Yes, you will look dumb. But in the end, you will learn the language. Wanna know how?

Stay tuned…

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Learning The Lingo

Bob, Bill, Betty, Bart, Bee, Ben, Brody and Brad have something in common. None of them are fluent in the language of The Location. A couple of them can carry on the most basic of conversations, but most of them can only say a greeting, thanks, brief introduction and “how much?” for shopping. Is this a coincidence?

In my view, the most important thing about being a missionary is loving people as Jesus loved them. The second is learning the language. It is critically important. It doesn’t matter how good your translator is or how well your disciples speak English—if you don’t speak their language well you don’t truly understand them, their problems and their perspective. You just don’t.

I have found that most cross-cultural “understanding” is more projection that true understanding. We listen to someone explain the difference between our own culture and theirs and then we take this “understanding” (which we didn’t get from our own experience) and we project it onto the people. Often, the things we’ve heard are incomplete or simply incorrect. But these “understandings” persist and are abundant. The only way to get past the clutter of misunderstanding is to learn the language for ourselves—to the point where we can truly see things from the nationals' perspective.

In my time in The Location nothing has been so rewarding as learning the language. It has opened the door to this entire country and people. It is exciting to know that wherever I go within The Location I can find people that I can talk and listen to. And the things I’ve learned from listening to people here have changed many of my initial opinions and understandings. I can’t imagine living here for an extended period of time without knowing the language. I don’t know how so many people do it.

Learning the language isn’t important just so that we can share our message. It is important so that we can listen to the thoughts and perspectives of The People. When we listen, we learn. When we learn, we begin to understand. When we understand, we can begin to come close to the heart of The People. Then we learn how to begin communicating effectively—what they really need to hear in order for them to understand who God is.

You would be surprised how many missionaries don’t ever learn to speak the local language fluently. I was surprised when I first came. I would say it is a majority. Virtually all of them can say enough to fool a non-speaker from their home country that they know how to speak the language. But most of them depend on translators or English-speaking friends and staff. These “crutches” actually are hindrances to learning the language. I have had interns from the US come to The Location for 4-6 months and in that time learn to speak more of the language than a large percentage of full-timers who have been here for years.

Two enemies of language learning are (1) very limited contact with the nationals (or spending too much time with other expatriates and in public places that cater to the tourist industry) and (2) viewing The People as subjects rather than as friends. So many foreigners do not have any nationals as friends. Of those who do, many of them are the ones who know how to speak English very well.

Up until now I have not talked much about language learning in the Koffi House. However, it is one of the things that is very close to my heart. I have seen the benefit of learning the language fluently and desire to help others avoid the trap of settling for non-fluency. Unlike Brad’s friend in The Ugly Missionary #7, I believe learning the language IS necessary to being effective in The Location.

So my next few posts will focus specifically on language learning. I will discuss what it takes to really learn a language. Please feel free to share your stories, too, if you have some.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Ugly Missionary #7: Language Learning

I’m sorry for posting about ugliness here at the Koffi House. I do it for a purpose, however. I write these stories so that we will see what we should not be; how we should not think; and what we should not do. There aren’t any “old scores” I’m trying to settle. (Some of these stories will include my own actions.) Rather, I want us to evaluate and adjust, consider and repent, so that we will be effective missionaries wherever we are.

Brad moved to The Location not too long ago. Before he came to the field his organization sent him through a rigorous pre-field orientation process that included instruction on cross-cultural living, language learning and ministry. Brad was inspired by this training and reported to his friends before leaving to the field that it was some of the best preparatory instruction he has even gotten even after majoring in “missions” in Bible college. Brad had in mind to use local transportation for the first year on the field (instead of quickly buying a car) so that it would increase his interaction with the nationals.

Brad also had in mind to use the LAMP method of language acquisition. LAMP stands for “Language Acquisition Made Practical” and consists of doing a language route where you go around to the same 15-20 nationals every day and speak a phrase or two that you’ve just learned. Over time this helps the missionary not only learn the language, but also build a core of national friends.

But Brad wasn’t alone when he moved to The Location. He also had his family—a wife and three kids. After arrival one of his first obligations was to get his children enrolled in school. The only problem was that they each had to attend different schools because of their ages. Brad spent more than an hour taking each of them to school in the morning by riding the popular motorcycle taxis in the city. In the evening it was another hour. Brad didn’t want his oldest (a 14 year old son) to take the taxis alone—he feared something bad might happen. So every day Brad spent 2 hours riding motorcycle taxis.

Brad was also trying to get his house settled and his stuff shipped over from home. He was inundated with all kinds of decisions, not only about school and work, but about hiring a maid, buying food, purchasing computers and Internet access, getting to know other expats, etc. It wasn’t long before Brad said, “Forget this! I’m getting a car.” So Brad found a car he could use to send his children to school every day, and then to work.

Brad never got around to doing a language route. He kept putting it off. First it was to make sure his children were enrolled in school. After that he would start his language route. Then Brad found himself busy setting up his house. He had furniture to buy and things to get shipped over from home. As soon as the house was set up then he would start his language route. Brad’s project gave him a month to “get settled” before starting to work in the office and a year to concentrate primarily on language learning. But Brad found that a month wasn’t enough. Even so, Brad thought to himself that a regular schedule would help him be more disciplined about doing a language route.

As assistant director of his project Brad was given a national employee to help him. This young man was fluent in English. So Brad enlisted his help with getting set up in The Location. He became Brad’s translator. If Brad wanted to discuss something with city utilities, this young man translated. If Brad wanted to buy some things at the market, he took his employee along to translate and help settle the price. Brad was so much happier having someone who could speak the local language working for him. But he still always felt guilty about never doing a language route or learning much of the language.

Brad decided to hire a local language teacher to give him lessons every afternoon. However, Brad found that afternoons turned out to be a busy time doing e-mail, picking his kids up from school and crossing the border to a more developed neighboring country to do shopping, eat pizza and take a break from living in The Location. So Brad had to cancel his language lessons often.

Finally, Brad met another missionary who worked in the same city and has been living in The Location for three years. This man teaches a Bible study several times a week to The People. He uses one of his employees to translate for him. After many dinners out with their two families, this man explained to Brad that he feels it isn’t really necessary to learn the language to work and minister in The Location. He has been doing just fine using an interpreter. Brad really respects this man and began to feel better about not picking up the language.

After a year’s time, when his language-study period has been completed, Brad can only say, “Hello,” “Thank you,” and “How are you? I’m fine.” All of his kids know how to greet people in the local language but cannot say anything beyond that. When a representative from Brad’s mission agency visits the field and asks about his language ability, Brad admits that he has not done too well. But he points to the necessity of taking care of his family and making friends in the expat community, to the hectic nature of his office and the reality that learning the language isn’t as necessary as he once thought.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Ugly Missionary #6: The Undercover M

I’m sorry for posting about ugliness here at the Koffi House. I do it for a purpose, however. I write these stories so that we will see what we should not be; how we should not think; and what we should not do. There aren’t any “old scores” I’m trying to settle. (Some of these stories will include my own actions.) Rather, I want us to evaluate and adjust, consider and repent, so that we will be effective missionaries wherever we are.

Brody loves a good suspense novel. The mafia. Corruption. Plot twists. Mystery. International espionage. Global politics and warfare. It is all good stuff. Brody enjoys the danger and adventure of such stories and the movies made from them. Deep down inside Brody fancies himself a courageous and “smart” undercover agent. He knows he could do the job.

Well, Brody is doing the job—kind of. He is a missionary in The Location. An undercover one, at that. No missionaries are allowed in The Location. Everyone tells young wannabe missionaries that visit the field as tourists: “If the government finds out you’re doing evangelism, you will be kicked out in 24 hours!” Oh, how this thrilled Brody! He would do it! He would dare to go where few others would tread. So that is what he did. Now Brody runs a handicraft business in The Location, sending boxes of small souvenirs to the US to be sold. But Brody is really an undercover missionary.

The only problem is that the government in The Location knows exactly what Brody is doing. And what is more, they don’t really care that much. Why? Because Brody is working in the capitol city where there is already a large Christian presence in the legal church. Most of Brody’s employees were already Christians when he met them. His Bible studies are small and consist of people who are already a part of the national Christian community. The nationals who are not Christians and join Brody’s group are mostly poor youth that the government doesn’t consider a threat.

But when you tell this to Brody it kind of peeves him. He bristles at the suggestion the government knows and doesn’t care. No, his work is dangerous, gosh darn-it! He could get arrested at any moment, put into prison, martyred or escorted to the border. And he has stories to prove it.

One morning Brody saw a policeman outside the gate of his house. “They’re watching me!” So Brody called his missionary colleagues and asked them to meet him at a local coffee shop. He wouldn’t dare mention anything about God, the government or persecution over the phone—they could be listening. When his friends gathered at the shop Brody had everyone take the batteries out of their cell phones. “The government can turn on our phone’s microphones from a remote location and listen in on our conversation. I’ve heard this was true.”

“We had a B.S. last week at my house. I was the only M there with several nationals. Perhaps we have an informer. We need to yarp.” B.S. is code for ‘Bible study’ and M means ‘missionary.’ Yarp is ‘pray’ spelled backwards. Brody would always speak in code to mask words with Christian meaning—even when in private rooms and cell phone batteries removed. “I think I’m going to have to move our B.S. to a new location. The police are on to me. If I don’t see you guys again, I just want you to know that it was all worth it!”

Brody goes a bit overboard. When you first meet him you kind of scratch your head. Then you are enthralled to hear of how many “close calls” he has had and how much danger he has braved. He is completely serious about all of his adventures. Then you realize that he is perhaps exaggerating the peril he has faced, and you find it somewhat humorous. Brody believes (and relates to others) every near-persecution rumor he has ever heard. Then, after hearing him talk over the course of years, you find it very annoying.

Brody views his missionary world as an imminently dangerous place where he is always on the verge of being persecuted, arrested or martyred. When the government tax collector comes around and asks for payment Brody sees it as persecution for being a Christian. He sees himself as a major player in this game of international intrigue. He wonders why the CIA hasn’t tried to recruit him yet. But then again, he did hear that comment from an embassy employee at the Fourth of July party softball game—“Brody, you’ve got to sacrifice yourself and grab that ball. Then send it right home to me.”

Brody wondered if this man wasn’t talking about diving for a softball and throwing it to the catcher at home plate to prevent the tagging runner at all. “No, he was talking about me risking my life to get some ‘intel’ and then feeding it to him. That’s how those guys recruit. He must really be CIA. I’ll have to yarp about that opportunity.”

The Location is in fact a “closed” country. But the government is not stupid. They know foreign Christians come to work here in businesses and NGOs. In fact, if you are European or American they assume you are a Christian—even when many are not. There is persecution against Christians and foreigners have been arrested and kicked out. But never for doing the kinds of things Brody is doing—small quiet Bible studies at his home in the big city. Those who have been kicked out are those who have done widespread Christian literature distribution, street preaching, or have been responsible for entire villages becoming Christians in the countryside. Missionaries do have to be smart here in the Location, but not as paranoid as Brody.

Brody’s supporters are inspired by him and the stories he tells of his adventures on the field. When he visits home they gather big groups of people to stand around him and pray for his safety. They compliment him for being so brave—so self-sacrificing. They applaud his heroism. Some of them call him Missionary Agent 007. Brody just smiles and soaks it all in.

“That’s M Agent 007,” he tells them.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Ugly Missionary #5: Secrets and Shame

I’m sorry for posting about ugliness here at the Koffi House. I do it for a purpose, however. I write these stories so that we will see what we should not be; how we should not think; and what we should not do. There aren’t any “old scores” I’m trying to settle. (Some of these stories will include my own actions.) Rather, I want us to evaluate and adjust, consider and repent, so that we will be effective missionaries wherever we are.

Ben is a loner. Perhaps that is his problem. He is the husband of a beautiful wife and three children, but he doesn’t like to spend a lot of time around his family. He loves them, but they cause too much commotion for him. He lets his wife take care of the children and Ben keeps working. His wife doesn’t seem to mind—most of the time. She still wishes Ben would spend more time around them. But when Ben is home he gets frustrated because he can’t think or read. There is too much noise. When he complains about it an argument ensues. So Ben has become rather detached.

Ben is not like many missionaries and ministers who put their flock before their family. No, The People stress Ben out, too. When a national comes to visit Ben at his office, he quickly finds ways to get them to leave. If they don’t seem to be moving along very fast he sometimes says something rude. If they don’t have any business then they don’t need to come by! Ben prefers his solitude. The People seem to always interfere with it.

Ben also doesn’t like to spend time with the expatriate community. They feel so self-righteous and super-spiritual to him. He feels they look down on him, too. They make too many negative comments and Ben takes these personally. So Ben has isolated himself from almost everyone.

Ben also has a problem with anger. Nothing ticks him off more than irresponsible and chaotic driving in The Location. When someone cuts him off he honks his horn. When someone on a motorcycle doesn’t let him pass, he races past them at the first opportunity he gets creating a cloud of dust for them to breathe. When someone makes a traffic violation Ben angrily waves his arms and yells at them out the window. Ben drives very fast and doesn’t like anything to slow him down. Hitting a chicken or a duck never fazes him. “Serves them right. It’s a road, not a chicken coop!”

Stress is killing Ben. He needs to get away. He dreams of spending his time alone at a resort hotel outside of town. Just for a few days. Ben talks his wife into letting him get away for a while. She cares for him and is worried about the effect the stress of living cross-culturally and running a project is having on him. So she lets him go away… alone.

Ben enjoys the tranquility of his secret retreat. But his body is so tired from the previous week’s work. He decides to have a massage at the resort. A young lady comes to his room. However, she gives more than just a massage.

Ben’s problems have just multiplied. He knows what he did was wrong, but can’t bear to tell anyone. They will simply judge him and he’ll have to stop being a missionary. He couldn’t bear the shame. So he decides to keep his actions a secret. He also decides he will never do that again.

Two months later Ben does it again. He is so wracked with grief. It isn’t long before he starts taking drinks from the bottles of whiskey in his hotel rooms—just to settle down from all the stress and grief about his own sin. It seems to help if he doesn’t drink too much at once.

Ben had never drunk alcohol before coming to the mission field. He always thought it was something Christians should never do. But after seeing so many other missionaries drinking at local weddings in The Location, and the ensuing discussions about alcohol, Ben agreed that it wasn’t wrong for Christians to drink. This opened the door for him to try it out. The only problem was that Ben enjoyed the buzz.

It wasn’t long before he started getting drunk. First it was about once a month. Then it progressed to weekly. There were more retreats, more girls, and more problems.

Ben couldn’t keep it a secret anymore. His wife and friends saw that he was falling apart. Finally, they confronted him. Ben confessed it all with much shame and many tears. He promised he would never do it again—just don’t tell his supporters. Ben didn’t want to stop being a missionary. They agreed to keep it a secret as long as Ben would give all those things up for good.

But Ben never could give it up. Even after quitting the mission field. Even after losing his wife in divorce. That’s when the drugs started. They ate him up. Now Ben couldn’t even keep a job. One day, when Ben was mowing grass to make a little money, he had a heart attack.

Ben is now dead.

This story makes me very sad. Why didn’t Ben reach out for help sooner? Why didn’t people give him better help? Perhaps this is “ugly,” but to me it is heart-breaking.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Ugly Missionary #4: Desperate Young Women

I’m sorry for posting about ugliness here at the Koffi House. I do it for a purpose, however. I write these stories so that we will see what we should not be; how we should not think; and what we should not do. There aren’t any “old scores” I’m trying to settle. (Some of these stories will include my own actions.) Rather, I want us to evaluate and adjust, consider and repent, so that we will be effective missionaries wherever we are.

Bee is an MK (Missionary Kid). She grew up on the mission field with her parents as they translated the Bible into the language of a remote tribe. Being an MK is a difficult thing. Not only are you caught between two worlds—the world of your parent’s home culture (the USA for Bee) and the world of your parents ministry (tribal third world)—but you're often caught between two communities right on the mission field, too. The first is the community of the people your parents have come to reach. Some missionary kids grow up in that community and identify with it more than their parents. The second is the community of expatriates on the field. And this is where most MKs land. (That’s right—most!) This is where Bee landed, too.

Bee grew up dreaming about getting married. It was her one life’s desire even though she had never dated. Unfortunately, she wasn’t too impressed with her prospects in the MK community. So many of them were messed up or just plain weird. But when college came and passed Bee was still single and didn’t know what to do. So, she decided to be a missionary in The Location—a place not too far from where her parents had served. While being a missionary is a major decision for most people, it was always kind of the “default” occupation for Bee as an MK. Her heart was really set on getting married and following her husband.

That was Bee’s problem. She was at a very marriageable age, but there were no real prospects. In the missionary community there were single women missionaries and married couples. Few single guys. And Bee would never consider marrying one of The People—they would be below her educational and financial levels and that would be too weird. Bee and her other single female missionary friends would get together regularly to complain about the lack of marriage options on the mission field. They dreaded the thought they would turn out like some of the older women they knew who served as missionaries into retirement without ever getting married. This thought made them shudder.

Finally a single missionary guy moved to The Location. He was a pretty normal guy, but never attracted much attention from the ladies at home. Oh, but this changed when he arrived in The Location. At home he was used to female-male ratios of 51-49%. Here in the location—90-10%. Suddenly, all the single girls were interested in him. Who would land him?

Bee was first in line. She was determined to beat her friends to the prize. She had been studying online the principles of the seduction community and was learning things to do to snag and keep a guy’s interest. The only problem was that she had shared all of these same tips with her single girlfriends and now they were using them, too, to attract the new missionary. So jealousy and fighting broke out among the girls. Bee’s roommate had to find a new place to live.

Bee decided it was time to notch things up and keep the competition down. She let it be known in the missionary community that she was “in love” with the single missionary guy. It became so well-known that people just assumed they were dating. So this had the effect of blocking other interested parties from daring to engage in flirting behavior without risking the appearance of trespass against Bee. Bee was confident she had cornered her man.

Not too long after that the single guy married one of The People. This was a big blow to Bee. How could he?! When she had the opportunity, she purposely humiliated the fiancé of “her man” in front of other nationals. She told her friends how she had been led on. Slowly, Bee reconciled with them. They resumed gathering to complain about the lack of single guys on the mission field and how the single ones who do come marry the locals.

So Bee did what many young women do in desperate situations—she looked for love online. She spent the better part of her evenings chatting on the Internet and filling out personal profiles. On weekends, after most missionaries were already asleep and therefore wouldn’t notice, she would sneak out to the local tourist bar. A few beers wouldn’t hurt anything and it allowed her the opportunity to meet some of the guys traveling through. Her knowledge of The Location was all that was needed to start up a conversation. But these guys never seemed to be very marriage-minded.

Bee became self-conscious about her weight wondering if being a little chubby was keeping the boys away. Bee was not fat, but not skinny either. So from time to time she would force herself to vomit just to make up for eating a little too much. Over time she did lose weight and people noticed. She reassured everyone that this was actually her “normal” weight.

Bee had a national friend who started living with her when she took a new job in a new city. This girl was also single and didn’t want to marry a fellow national. She wanted a foreign husband. So Bee helped her to make online profiles on several Internet sites. She also taught her some of the basic techniques in attracting a man.

Finally, Bee was successful. Her time online paid off. She is now married and no longer living in The Location. Her national friend is still single. She is still applying the principles she learned from Bee hoping they will one day pay off for her, too.

The Ugly Missionary #3: Living the Life

I’m sorry for posting about ugliness here at the Koffi House. I do it for a purpose, however. I write these stories so that we will see what we should not be; how we should not think; and what we should not do. There aren’t any “old scores” I’m trying to settle. (Some of these stories will include my own actions.) Rather, I want us to evaluate and adjust, consider and repent, so that we will be effective missionaries wherever we are.

Bart is definitely a Type-B personality. An hour lunch break could easily turn into a two and a half hour affair when the conversation gets going. Bart would spend long conversations sipping on fruit shakes in boutique tourist-oriented cafés telling his missionary colleagues how he just couldn’t ever find enough time to do language study. Yes, Bart was pretty laid back.

This was Bart’s third “tour of duty.” His first was to an austere Eastern European location with a lot of history, cobblestone streets and ancient cathedrals. He would often reminisce about his “old world” European lifestyle and the things he missed about living there—going to cafés and pubs, watching football (soccer) matches, touring through other European cities, the sophistication of people there in general. Bart had served seven years before disagreements with other missionaries who wanted him to put in more hours at the church caused him to leave.

Bart’s second missionary station was in Northern Africa. That didn’t last too long—just over a year. Bart found the Muslim way of life a bit repressive for his style. But when the subject of “Africa” or “Islam” ever comes up, Bart is quick to share a few stories from his life experience.

Finally, Bart landed in The Location. This is his first assignment in a more “tropical” environment. Of all the cities available, he chose to work in the largest tourist town. It offers the biggest selection of European restaurants, resorts and swimming pools. Bart enjoys taking his children to the local resort’s pool for swimming every weekend as he makes use of their golf course and driving range. His wife has joined the fitness club there and works out three times a week.

Along as he has air-conditioning for the hot days, the climate here is agreeable to Bart. He spends all of his time in sandals, shorts and sunglasses. Among The People sandals are common, for sure. Shorts—not unless you’re playing sports or working around the house. Sunglasses—only the pimps and young men in the drug-culture gangs would wear them here. But Bart takes comfort in the fact that he’s a foreigner and points to the tourists as his example. He knows The People know he’s a foreigner and expect him to be different; so he lives in their good graces.

Living in a tourist town in a tropical country can be kind of trendy. But after a while Bart became unsettled about some of the inconveniences he had to put up with. Namely, those were the nationals. He hated it when local servers at the restaurants would never quite understand what he said. “They’re in the tourist industry—they should learn English better.” It was one of Bart’s constant gripes.

And then there was the fact that there aren’t any good supermarkets or furniture stores around. Bart had to ship his furniture in large containers from overseas. Other items he had custom-made by local carpenters. But they would never do a good job and the quality was always sub-standard. Bart would just complain about how The People did everything substandard. It wasn’t like home. It wasn’t like Europe. He would often joke about how “stupid” The People were. “All they do is shoddy work, and then they want to get paid!”

One night, as Bart was going out to eat at a French Fusion restaurant with a friend, he bumped a parked car with his new SUV. Bart’s SUV was fine, but the car was scratched and the fender cracked. When the owner ran out to look at it and expected Bart to take responsibility, Bart told him, “Your car was already messed up and ugly!” Bart walked away laughing telling his friend in the restaurant what happened. “He’s just trying to get money out of me!”

Yes, Bart is living the life. It would almost be paradise if it weren’t for The People.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Ugly Missionary #2: Over Protection

I’m sorry for posting about ugliness here at the Koffi House. I do it for a purpose, however. I write these stories so that we will see what we should not be; how we should not think; and what we should not do. There aren’t any “old scores” I’m trying to settle. (Some of these stories will include my own actions.) Rather, I want us to evaluate and adjust, consider and repent, so that we will be effective missionaries wherever we are.

Bill and Betty want to do things right. In particular, they want to raise their children in a Christian family.

Betty didn’t grow up in a Christian family and didn’t become a Christian until after she was an adult. So many hurts and scars in her life trace back to the harsh treatment she received from her parents. She grew up with this ever present feeling of “I don’t measure up” and struggled to find love. When she became a Christian she received so much love and healing from her Christian community. It was unlike anything she ever experienced. So Betty completely devoted herself to God.

It wasn’t long before Betty noticed two things. One, many people who called themselves “Christians” were NOT living up to the standards she was learning about from reading her Bible. Two, of those Christians who were actually totally committed to Christ, they had families that were so much different than the one she was raised in. She saw how these people taught and disciplined their children. She saw how their lives were in order and how the children respected the parents. When she talked with these committed families about raising children she learned about “Growing Kids God’s Way.” So she determined in her heart that when she was married and had children she would raise them the right way—God’s way!

Betty married Bill who was a scientist and a very logical and rational man. He was also a Christian who seemed committed to God—not just someone who attends church on Sundays. In fact, Bill wanted to be a missionary and Betty admired this clear demonstration of all-out commitment to Christ. It was the best thing someone could do if they really loved Jesus.

After having two kids at home Bill and Betty moved to The Location where they had two more children. Before they came they met another American family in The Location with children. “Thank God!” Bill said, “Now our children will have someone to play with.” They didn’t know much about the culture there but they determined to continue to do their family “God’s way” in spite of their new address. Because there were no Christian schools to which they could send their children, Betty decided to home school. All day long their children would stay at home to study their curriculum and Bible lessons.

Bill and Betty became fast friends with another American family who seemed to value doing things “God’s way” and not allowing the non-Christian culture of The Location to affect their children. When they got together they would often talk about a third American family who didn’t seem to be very committed to Christ. “They just let their children go play with the local kids and don’t even supervise them!”

Bill and Betty’s friends told them about when they first arrived in The Location. “My youngest boy was playing in front of our house, and a local kid came up to him… said something to him in his language… and then pushed him! The next day when my son was out there the local kids threw rocks at him!”

This was all Bill and Betty needed to hear; they would not allow their kids to go out and play with the children of the nationals. “Yes, we have heard stories like this, too. When you leave your kids alone for long periods of time with the house helper—they might molest them. I’m not going to take the chance of exposing my children to that!”

After five years of living in The Location, none of Bill and Betty’s children speaks the language. (Neither do Bill and Betty.) None of them have any local friends. Their only friends are the children of the other American family. The only nationals the parents know well are their landlords and the ones they’ve hired to work in their house and with their project. After years of doing their family “God’s Way” and protecting their children in such a non-Christian environment, Bill and Betty started to feel like they weren’t accomplishing much on “the mission field.” They decided to return home.

To me this is very sad. Bill and Betty are not bad people. But they just couldn’t seem to come to trust the nationals or to open up their family to the wider society and really engage the people of The Location. Learning the language was always a task they kept putting off. But for children—they don’t need language classes to pick it up—all they need is exposure. Exposure they never got for fear of harm.

When we create our “little America” within the walls surrounding the house we rent on the mission field and never leave, we become pretty ineffective. The only nationals we meet are the ones we invite to come into our “sub-culture.” The only time we go out is to make “forays” into the wider culture surrounding us. This is a recipe for depression and ineffectiveness. But it was done in the name of “doing what’s best for our children.”

Bill and Betty are not just one family. There are about a dozen or so families similar to this here, and probably many, many more around the world. When such families visit home supporters will often hear them spout off a few words and phrases and think this represents fluency. But just imagine how far a Chinese person would get in building relationships in America if the only things he could say were, “Hello, how are you?” “My name is…” “How much to buy…?” “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.” “I am believe Buddha.” “Come to my house for food very delicious tonight!”

That’s right—not very far. Especially if he spent the rest of his time in his apartment stir-frying strange foods with heaps of MSG.

You know… Cooking food God’s way!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Ugly Missionary #1: Gross Misunderstandings

I’m sorry for posting about ugliness here at the Koffi House. I do it for a purpose, however. I write these stories so that we will see what we should not be; how we should not think; and what we should not do. There aren’t any “old scores” I’m trying to settle. (Some of these stories will include my own actions.) Rather, I want us to evaluate and adjust, consider and repent, so that we will be effective missionaries wherever we are.

Bob is a former Bible college professor who decided to move to “the mission field” a few years back. He is a good man. Most missionaries are. He loves the Lord and wants to share what he knows with the people here. What does Bob know? The Bible. He has been teaching it for years. He knows theology, Old Testament history, the Roman empire—the works.

Bob is also an American. Proud of it. And when Bob moved to The Location it didn’t take him long to see some of the many cultural differences between his new home and his old.

For example, in The Location when a young couple gets married—it is not just up to the guy and girl to decide to become engaged and later inform parents, relatives and friends. No, before the engagement is official the parents of both the man and woman must meet and decide upon all the particulars, dates and arrangements. When the wedding takes place it is not only a marriage of two individuals, but a joining of two extended families.

Bob has a problem with this custom. He says that the Bible says a man will leave his parents to get married, and therefore this “joining of families” is not biblical. The American custom is better. Never mind that The People are better at community living. Never mind that the extended families help support the strength of marriages better than in America. Never mind that the divorce rate in The Location is much lower than in America.

Another example—in America it is customary for men to say their wives are the most beautiful women in the world, and compliment them as such. We know it isn’t true—even with our “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” defense. The wife knows it isn’t true either, but it is still nice to hear. We somehow feel that if we say anything less than our wife is the most beautiful woman in the world, then we are being mean or not loving her enough.

In The Location a man may think his wife is pretty but he would never say it to another person or to her in front of others. Why? To do so is considered arrogant. If you say, yes my wife is beautiful—even with her present—then it looks to others that you are bragging—not being nice to her.

Bob loves to tell the nationals that his wife is the most beautiful woman in the world. When asked why The People don’t ever compliment their wives as such, Bob says it’s because their native religion teaches them not to love their wives too much. He heard another expatriate tell him this was true. And so it is because they don’t love their wives that they don’t compliment them.

Bob was asked to teach at a meeting of missionaries. He talked about how we need to change the worldview of The People. One person mentioned how there were certain things in their culture that they do better than Westerners—and even more biblical. Bob objected to this assessment. No—their culture is broken. Yes, even American society has problems, but it is better because of its Judeo-Christian heritage. Nothing in the culture of The Location is redeemable—it is all broken. If people only smile when they are angry—it is not because they know how to control their anger better than us, but it is because they are repressing their emotions and don’t know how to be honest about how they feel.

Bob has it pretty much all figured out. He considers it part of his ministry to help orient new missionaries that arrive on the field. They learn from Bob and pass his vast knowledge on to others.

The only problem is that Bob’s assessments are often dead wrong.

The Ugly Missionary

There is a book I read a couple years back that was recommended to me by a missionary friend. He said this book should be required reading for all new missionary recruits. It is not about missionaries or ministry. It is not even a Christian book. What is it called? Maybe you've heard of it:

The Ugly American

It tells a "fictional" story about American involvement in Asia during the Vietnam war. While the narrative is fictional, it is made up of an amalgamation of true stories, actual personalities (names changed), and some of the real dynamics that existed during the war in Southeast Asia. It is one of those books that makes you angry as you read it when you see how inept and arrogant many of the American Foreign Service people were. And it is this very arrogance and ineptitude that led to failure in the region.

Why is this book appropriate for missionary recruits?

Because it describes the same attitudes and dynamics that make many missionaries ineffective, too.

I am not a perfect missionary. Far from it. I have made many cultural mistakes and have been confronted by my own ignorance and arrogance on multiple occasions. In fact, I don't think there is anything out there that challenges and stretches us more than extended cross-cultural living where we try to accomplish something in that context and have meaningful relationships with the people. And it is perhaps because of these challenges that many missionaries either fall into some certain well-worn ruts or circle the wagons and separate themselves from the community. And when these two things happen it can produce some pretty rancid ugliness.

I have considered writing a similar book and calling it The Ugly Missionary. This would detail (using "fictional" characters who actually exist) some of the dynamics of arrogance and ineptitude that I've witnessed in the missionary community. These are things that many who support missionaries back home never realize. And my purpose in writing would not be pride or to lift myself up as a good example. (Parts of the Ugly Missionary would be myself!) But my purpose would be to warn new missionary recruits of the pitfalls that face them and to educate supporters on what to look for in sending and pastoring the missionaries they choose.

A "missionary" is equivalent to "hero" or "big time spiritual stud" to many people who have never traveled overseas. It doesn't take many qualifications other than going to another country (the more different the better), knowing how to say a few words in the language (if you can tell people your language is "tonal" then they're really impressed), and being able to do the "secret handshake," or whatever the local greeting gesture is. People are mostly impressed because you are doing something they know they couldn't or wouldn't ever do. (And many of them will give you money because of it, too.)

But far too often we fall very short of being effective cross-cultural ambassadors of Christ who demonstrate a genuine love for the people we've come to reach. Far too often we fail to even come close to immersing ourselves in their communities. Instead, we become the Ugly Missionary who spends all of his time around other expats, only eats at foreign restaurants, lives in a gated mansion far removed from the nationals, prohibits his children from playing with the local kids, and only dabbles in the the language, food, and community.

For many missionaries the only contact they have with nationals are the ones they hire as maids, nightwatchmen or as English-speaking managers of their projects. For many, the only knowledge they have of the culture, country and people is what they have read in an English travel guide or heard from other expats. I have found this information to be quite unreliable here in The Location.

So, if you get a chance, pick up The Ugly American. Give it a read. Think about it in terms of ministry--wherever you are. Is it applicable?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Smart Snakes and Holy Birds

What makes us effective--our programs and strategies, or our character and personalities?

I guess that depends on your answer to the following question: Effective at what?

There are plenty of jerks out there running very "cool" programs and people flock to them. If by "effective" we mean we are able to attract a crowd, then character flaws can be covered up.

If by "effective" we mean transforming people by God's grace into the likeness of God--then I don't know if that could happen (except in spite of us) unless we have a godly character and personality. Why is that? Well, Jesus gave us the answer:

"Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." John 15:4-5

Jesus didn't command us to bear fruit. He commanded us to remain (abide) in him. His promise is that we will bear fruit if we do. Bearing fruit for God is not a command to be obeyed, but a promise to be fulfilled by God when we obey the command of staying close to Christ and rooting ourselves in him. So, you could say that the fruit we bear--we are not even the ones who are bearing it. However, it is Christ bearing fruit through us.

So for all the thoughts about strategies, approaches and programs... it is not worth very much if our hearts are far away from God and we have not stayed close to him.

Does that mean we throw away all strategic thinking? No, I don't think so. Jesus also once said...

"I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves." Matthew 10:16

Unfortunately, we are often only one or the other. Good and naive, or, smart and corrupt. But Jesus would have us to be good and smart; holy and shrewd; pure and wise. Certainly, we will be the most effective if we are pure in heart as we walk closely with Christ and use the wisdom God granted us to do the best we can. Being holy isn't an excuse for being lazy. And being clever will never replace the need to depend on God to make the change we want to see happen.

I have a very good friend who is one of The People here. He is unlike any other I have met. He understands the deep things of God and of this world. And he was encouraging me to stay strong and not be too discouraged--that God himself had called me to serve in The Location.

I told him, "Every day I struggle against two things. One is not being smart enough and the other is not being good enough." And I wasn't talking about salvation or making myself pleasing to God--I was talking about making a difference here in The Location.

Everything is set against us here. No one is rolling out the red carpet for us to do either business or ministry. Certain parties do things against us (steal land, money, assets, or lie and cheat) and we have no recourse. No one is on our side even though the law technically should be. There is corruption. There is a warped view of wealth and people. There is an especially warped view of outsiders and Christians. There is false-teaching. There is jealousy and infighting among those we aim to help. There are harmful approaches being undertaken by other workers that pull many well-intentioned people in the wrong direction. There is injustice. There is spiritual oppression.

So, I told my friend that I cannot waste time complaining about how things aren't the way they should be. I need to accept the fact that they are the way they are. Now it is up to me to figure out, taking the situation into account, how to be effective in spite of it all. It is not an easy task. I'm still learning a whole lot. I need to become smarter and wiser.

But before that, I must be good. I must be Christ-like. I believe I can only be like Jesus when I am seeking him and his ways. When I rely on him he helps me to love as he loved. When I read his Word he shows me how to view people as he views them. When I pray he helps me to quiet my heart and put my trust in him.

I'm a lot more effective when I do that.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Organic Microchurches

Aaron at The Road Less Traveled has written an excellent series on microchurches that I think is well worth your time to read. He has written it in four parts and I am including all four links under the following titles:

Microchurch 1: Disciple Making
Microchurch 2: Stewardship
Microchurch 3: Simplicity
Microchurch 4: Reproducibility

Aaron is not condemning one model to try to justify the microchurch model and he gives his disclaimer before talking about the good points of microchurches. Here are some nuggets from both the text and the comments:

"Everyone we talked to within our church said that the main environment that helped them become a follower of Jesus was our small groups."

"We spent about $800-$1000 a month on facility rental... We had thousands wrapped up in equipment. We spent most of our week getting ready for Sunday... All on an event that didn’t contribute to making disciples. The cost/result ratio was ridiculously out of whack. And we weren’t putting near enough into what was really making disciples–small groups. So we cut out the Sunday service altogether."

"It all revolves around relationships."

"If we see church as a lifestyle instead of an event, then our systems will be simpler."

"...there’s a lot of effort being put into making things 'relevant'… which, to me, is trying to make up for that vacuum for no relationships. A lot of effort is placed on 'assimilation,' which has to happen if there are no relationships."

"But because our system is simple, reproducing churches has been simple. Now we’re looking to multiply (and multiplication always starts slower than addition… but it eventually surpasses it)."

"Pick up 'Organic Church' by Neil Cole. It gives a pretty decent overview of organic churches."

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Aaron.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Jesus Program

Even looking at it from a human perspective you could definitely say that there has never been another person who has effected human history more than Jesus. The few things he did during a finite amount of time on earth has sent reverberations throughout the generations. And what strikes me is that he never had any kind of "program" going, as far as I can tell.

We never see Jesus planning events. "Hey, let's invite 5,000 people to a picnic and feed them with a few bread loaves and fish. Peter, you distribute fliers. John, you paint a banner. Phillip, go get a radio ad going."

We never see Jesus offering regular public services. "Now tell all those people to meet me on the mountainside every Thursday at 3:oo as I go through my current series on Beatitudes. And tell them after I am done teaching we will have a time of prayer and healing. Andrew, while everyone is praying with their eyes closed I want you up on that mountain behind me playing music as soon as I say 'Amen!'"

We never see Jesus outline his discipleship training curriculum. "Okay, disciples, we're going to have 40 days of purpose as we go through my various parables, memorize my Thursday 3 pm sermons (verbatim--including punctuation!), and I will quiz you on the names of all the books of the Old Testament. Those who get the higher marks will be rewarded by not having to pray before our meal times."

And we never see Jesus setting up organizations or committees. "After I finish writing these bylaws I'm appointing Peter, James and John as board members who will receive occasional special counsel from Moses and Elijah. With the synergy we generate from all of our ideas we'll put together an impressive package for the post crucifixion event. Now, Peter, don't bail out on me at the last minute!"

But Jesus was still able to change the world. How did he do it without a program?

Now, I don't think programming is wrong and I think there are some great programs out there that do a lot for God's kingdom. But, sometimes I wonder if we put more energy into programs than we do people. Sometimes I wonder if our programming keeps us buried under work and isolated from the community. Instead of worrying about our relationship with people and their relationship with God, we worry about their relationship with the program. "They haven't been in attendance lately." "Why haven't Bob and Melissa signed up for this class yet?" "Janice should be a small group leader by now."

But when I look at Jesus, I just see him going out there and doing things in the community and addressing events as they occur. It was his presence and his exposure to the community that allowed him to have such a great impact.

What do you think?

Monday, April 6, 2009


Do you remember Klingons? No, not the race of warriors in Star Trek. I'm talking about people from our youth--you know--those people who would seem to "cling on" you if you showed them too much friendliness? Well, okay, maybe I was one of those Klingons. Actually, I confess, I was...

I remember trying to enter a particular group of friends from town who were some of the "cool kids." We were at the county fair together and they literally ran around different amusement park rides trying to get rid of me. I was a pretty fast runner and they couldn't shake me. It finally took one of the guys to come talk to me and tell me that they didn't want to be friends with me, so, Go away! True story.

Well, as the years passed by I wizened up a bit. Then came the girls.

Do you remember those girls who were so nice to you? You wondered, "Does she like me? Or, is she just nice to me because she's that way with everyone?" It was the latter. Always the latter; but it never seemed to kill the hope.

Some of the guys I knew who were very friendly had a problem. Over and over girls would get their hopes crushed because they thought this guy liked them. However, he was just being friendly. They took his friendliness for interest and had high hopes. Later when they found out he was just a friendly guy to everyone and had no specific interest in them, they were hurt.

Then, of course there were the girls I liked.

With me, it was a little different. When I was friendly to a girl I usually got a distinct "Go away!" vibe from her. My friendliness didn't spring hope in their hearts. Instead it generated fear. Fear that this strange "uncool" guy might like them. They wouldn't dare act friendly towards me in fear that it might cause me to hope for them. Being rude and generally disinterested usually did the job of letting me know that I didn't have a chance with those girls. So, I would go away. No need to be a Klingon anymore.

We humans are very good at sending non-verbal signals to people that have the same effect of hanging a sign on our cold shoulders that says, "No friendship available here! Go away!"

Much of this arises from a fear that if we are too nice to people (or to certain people) they will get clingy, we'll have to hang out with them and others will think we are like them (when we really view ourselves as being much above them).

Do you think Jesus struggled with this?

I have been writing a lot about how we view people because I have discovered that it is fundamental to how we treat them. And while many may think this is simply about personal Christian virtue, I have learned that it is all about effective ministry, too. And it is completely applicable to cross-cultural missions. How do we view The People?

I am sad to report that many missionaries I know (even right here in The Location) view the nationals as Klingons. "As soon as they get to know you they start asking for money, a motorcycle or a job." And so they subsequently send subconscious messages to the nationals that have the effect of saying, "No money here so don't even ask!" or, "I don't want to be your friend!" While some missionaries throw money around to draw a crowd of followers, others withhold any kind of interaction in fear of drawing people they don't understand and don't really want to get to know. In fact, this latter kind is even more common.

When I was a new Christian and first became interested in missions I was very impressed when I met a missionary. Now after serving on the field and seeing how so many missionaries never learn the language with any degree of fluency, never have any peer friendships with nationals beyond those they employ, rarely eat the local foods or visit nationals in their homes and instead spend most of their time with other expatriates, I have become more cautious in being impressed.

It is easy as a missionary to get caught up in the expat community where people "light-heartedly" complain about the nationals and their culture. It feeds a rather negative view of the people God has sent us to love and reach with his message. It also shows that we haven't come to understand them very well at all. And in the end, holding such a view of them will make us pretty ineffective in influencing them towards Christ.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Love and Like

“I love you; I just don’t like you.”

When I was young I heard these words from other children at different times. Only children are honest and brave enough to say such words to your face. As adults we learn to control the expression of our inner thoughts and feelings. However, as adults we still feel like this toward people. At least, this is what we say to ourselves and perhaps even to other people who share our dislike for another person. “Just because I love him doesn’t mean I have to like him,” we assure ourselves.

I have to be honest. I meet some people I don’t like. It could be things about them that are different. Sometimes I find myself disliking someone when I see that their views and opinions oppose mine. Other times I dislike people when I see them celebrating immorality. And sometimes I don’t like people just because I am jealous of them—they are better looking, more talented or more popular and they know it. I tend to dislike people universally who portray themselves in an arrogant way or who are very aware of how “cool” they think they are. I’m not saying I am right to dislike these people, but I am trying to be honest with you.

I have discovered something about people I don’t like. Almost always, I would say 99.99% of the time, when I don’t like someone it is for one of two reasons: 1) I feel inferior in their presence and they say or do nothing to make me feel less inferior, or, 2) I perceive that they don’t like me or that they look down on me.

The first reason is simply the feeling of “I don’t measure up.” When I feel like this around people, it can be overcome by their friendliness. That is, if people I know I don’t measure up to (in education, in wealth, in looks, in popularity, etc.) show me that they really like me, then I will not be intimidated by them and will begin to like them. If they are neutral towards me, then I am in danger of projecting. I project onto them the idea that they look down on me because I am not as educated; or because I am not as wealthy; or because I don’t enjoy the same kind of “cultured” lifestyle. I assume that they look down upon me even though they have done nothing to actually indicate this. In reality I am looking down on myself when I compare myself to them. I dislike myself for the fact that I do not “measure up” to them. I suppose without any evidence that I would not be accepted into their circles.

The second and more typical reason I find myself disliking people is when I perceive that they don’t like me or that they look down on me. It is difficult to like someone who doesn’t like you. It is really difficult to like someone who seems to purposely offend you, insult you, or make you feel stupid. So, I usually don’t like people who don’t treat me very well and don’t show respect.

So, what about liking versus loving people? Jesus commanded us to “love one another.” He didn’t say, “Like one another.” But these very much depend on how we understand “like” and “love.”

Traditionally, we understand that to love someone we wish them no ill-will (don’t want to see them suffer or die) and we do nice things for them in spite of themselves. When we like someone, basically it means we want to hang out with them and be around them. We want to become their friends. That’s what the children were saying to me when they said, “I love you; I just don’t like you.” They were saying, “I don’t want anything bad to happen to you, but I don’t want to be your friend. I hope things go well for you, but I don’t want to hang out with you.”

Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) He also said, “I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” Jesus associated love with friendship, and friendship with letting people in. We know from Jesus’ example that he spent time with people. The power of his presence was found in the fact that he accepted people others didn’t like. He spent time with them. He let them in.

Much has been said to explain the different Greek words for “love.” We say that agape love is the highest and most Christ-like of the different “loves.” And this is the word we typically translate “love.” Eros love, on the other hand, is often described as “selfish love" (which I believe is an incorrect understanding). Instead of calling this eros, I would call it conditional love. It is loving people for being lovable.

In reality, what we often call “love” (I hope you don’t die, and here’s a sandwich) is not much more than a mere gesture. Furthermore, what we call “like” is better described as that conditional love—we like those who like us back, and we therefore let them into our lives calling them our “friends.” However, Jesus’ example of agape love might better be described as unconditionally liking people. Could you intentionally like someone who doesn’t like you?

I was once at a Christian conference attended by people I mostly did not know. I only really knew one person who invited me to the meeting. As I sat and listened a woman went forward to the microphone to share something on her heart. The tone of her voice sounded a bit whiny to me and the things she said gave me the impression that people in the room weren’t being spiritual enough for her. She didn’t say that. That was just my impression. So, in my heart, I disliked this woman.

When the meeting was over I discovered that this very woman was close friends to the person who invited me to the conference. So I was introduced by my friend with some undeserved compliments. This woman smiled really big and seemed to like me from the very first moment I met her. I subconsciously thought that this “like” wouldn’t last long once we talked and got to know each other more. But as I saw this woman more and more over the next few years she continued to show a sincere interest in me and often invited me to eat dinner with her husband and family. I still don’t know why this woman likes me. But I discovered that I stopped disliking her. In fact, I would call her a good friend.

I have discovered that liking people is a very powerful thing. People don’t want to be loved. People want to be liked. We want for others to be interested in us. We want them to want to be around us. We want them to call us “friend.” We want to be liked. Because, when it comes right down to it, liking people is really loving people the way Jesus loved people.

I have also discovered that people don’t like me for the same reasons I don’t like them. People don’t like me when they perceive that I don’t like them. Things we do that indicate to people that we don’t like them make them not like us. So I am learning to respond differently when I perceive people don’t like me. I think, “Did I in some way show them I didn’t like them or looked down upon them?” And I try to treat them in ways that do not communicate dislike or disdain. More than anything, that is showing them that I see their value and that I want to spend time with them. This may be difficult to do, and at times impossible if the person persists in their dislike. But sometimes it is enough to turn a heart around.

God help me, for my heart is more bent on hate than on truly loving the unlikeable.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Arrogance of Agape Love

I don’t care if you love me if you still think I’m a chump.

I became a Christian as a freshman in college. And I’ll tell you, my major issue was feeling like I was a “chump” in the eyes of so many other people and, I feared, in the eyes of God. When I first got a sniff of the idea that there is a God and that he values me and loves me—that was an amazing feeling. It was completely foreign to me and tantalizingly transformational. I became “addicted to love”—agape love, that is.

Agape love was a term I learned fairly quickly in the Christian community. Agape is one of the Greek words for love, and it is the word Jesus used when he told us to “love one another” in John 15:12. We distinguish it from phileo (brotherly) love and most certainly from eros (erotic) love. So, even though Robert Palmer sang about being addicted to eros in the mid 80’s, we Christians would love to talk about the “holier” form of love: agape.

Agape love was good stuff. After all, it was unselfish love. It was love offered unconditionally. It was love that was offered with no strings attached. I can’t tell you how many sermons I have heard where we talk about how eros is “I love you if…”, phileo is “I love you because…”, and agape is “I love you regardless…”

Agape love was presented as the purest form of love because it was completely unselfish and unconditional. I didn’t love you in order to get anything from you (or in response to getting anything from you) and I didn’t love you because you somehow deserved my love. Agape love, the highest form of love, is what would motivate us to feed the hungry, preach the gospel to the poor, clothe the naked, encourage the depressed and otherwise love the unlovely.

So how could agape love be arrogant? After all, it is not self-seeking but unconditional. Who could be opposed to agape love?

Here is one of those ruts we often fall into as Christians. For example, the Bible teaches us to be humble, right? Yes. And it also teaches us not to be arrogant or prideful, right? That is correct. So what happens when I see you being arrogant and I am being humble? What if I see everyone else being arrogant, save myself? Will I stand up and announce to the group, “All of you are so arrogant! No one is as humble as me! Can’t you see how humble I am? I know I am so much better than all of you because I am so much more humble!” Wait, wait, wait… that doesn’t sound like humility at all! It might have honestly started out that way, but we just became rather prideful about how humble we are being.

This is what happens to so many of us Christians. We know the right way to be, and after we change to become that, we then become arrogant about the fact. Just like Al Pacino’s character in The Devil’s Advocate (Satan)—in the end he was able to get Keanu Reeve’s character to stumble for being prideful about doing the right thing. He says, “Vanity—it’s my favorite sin.”

This same dynamic occurs when we try to elevate agape love over other forms of love, implying that phileo and eros are somehow unholy. The truth is that Jesus also talked about phileo love and not in a negative sense. It is good and right for us to have phileo love towards others, as well as agape. And if eros is erotic love, what is unholy about sharing erotic love with my wife? In one way, eros becomes even more special as I share that only with her and agape I can share with anyone and everyone.

I do believe that agape love is special. There is, in fact, nothing more Christ-like than to offer unselfish love to another human being. Jesus’ greatest command was to love God and to love our neighbor. So how can agape love be arrogant?

Well, the arrogance isn’t in the agape love; it is in the people who think they are offering it. We define agape love as loving people regardless. Regardless of what? Regardless of the fact that they are undeserving, uneducated, unkempt, unbathed, unrepentant, under privileged, or downright unholy. We think (and sometimes say), “Even though you are a dirty rotten scoundrel, I give you this sandwich in Jesus’ name.” Then we congratulate ourselves in our hearts for being so godly in displaying agape love. Certainly that guy was undeserving. But we gave him that sandwich anyway!

Let me ask you—if you were the recipient of that sandwich, how would you feel? (That might just depend on how hungry you are.)

Many non-Christians resent the charity of Christians for two reasons. One is that it often has strings attached: “Can I give you this _____ in hopes that you will come to my church?” The second is the perceived message Christians are sending: “This ______ is given to you to let you know how much better I am than you by giving this to you.” Now it is not wrong to want people to come to church, but non-Christians often see that as an ulterior motive--that you don't really love them; you just want to grow your club.

When I was a new Christian I heard the slogan, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

I was really excited by that truth. The idea is that if I try to tell someone about Jesus—just give them a message but not really love them—then they will likely reject the message. But if I can show them that I really care about them, then they might be interested in the message I have to share. This is an important truth. And real agape love is in the realm of “really caring” about someone.

If we come to someone with the attitude that we think very lowly of them, then it taints everything we do to/for them—even the “love” we offer them. We don’t have any respect for them, but we do something nice for them. Can we say, then, that we “really care” for them?

“I don’t care if you love me if you still think I’m a chump. It would mean a lot more to me if you showed me some respect. It would mean a lot more to me if you valued who I am. What good is your 'love' for me if you have such a low opinion of me? How much is your 'love' going to affect me if you just don’t think I’m anything special? I would rather you ask me for something because you thought I had something to offer than to offer me something that you think I lack. I don’t care if you love me if you still think I’m a chump. You can keep your sandwich.”

The most powerful thing we can do to another person is think about them one way or another. If I think someone is an idiot, that person will soon get the sense of it if they spend enough time around me. If I am impressed with someone they will soon be able to tell. My disdain for others will drive people away. The admiration I show will draw them in.

So what happens when we show unconditional agape love to someone we disdain? (Even though I disdain you, I still love you.) Which will influence them more—the “love” we show them by whatever nice thing we are doing for them, or the disdain we feel toward them? If there is enough exposure, the disdain will overtake the “love.” They will not be impressed by the nice thing we have done if they learn of the low opinion we have of them. Our actions will not be seen as love, but as pity. And that is what a lot of the agape love we practice is—pity. Implicit is the message, “I’m more impressed with myself for doing this for you in spite of the idiot you are.”

No one gives to beggars because they think they will get anything in return. Even so, the offerings made to beggars are often not motivated by such unselfish love but by a desire for the beggar to quickly go away. So even though we have given “unselfishly” in that we don’t expect to be given anything in return, our “love” is not so impressive when the last thing we would want is a relationship with the recipient.

True agape love requires that we change how we think about those we offer it to. We might love people in spite of them not loving us, or in spite of their sin or other ugliness, but we must still learn to value them. If there is no value in our opinion of them then it negates whatever nice thing we might do for them.

Look what Paul said in Philippians 2:3:

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.”

Our agape love may be unconditional, but is it to the point that we consider others better than ourselves? Would we dare do that to a beggar? Would we dare consider a “wannabe” better than ourselves? Could we possibly extend such respect to someone who has repeatedly made bad choices in their lives and have suffered the consequences and consider them better than us? Or does knowing that it just isn’t true keep us from thinking of them in such a high manner? If so, therein lies our problem.

I don’t care if you love me if you still think I’m a chump.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Machine

There once was a scientist who built a machine. It was a rather large machine. In fact, it filled up his entire laboratory. It was a complicated machine and took him years to build. It had parts and pieces and all kinds of handles and hoses. It had belts and bearings, chains and chambers, gears and gaskets. The cost of building the machine was no small investment, either. The scientist spent $347,000 for each of the 4,000+ parts, though he did "borrow" some parts from other broken down or inefficient machines in the area.

When he started it up it would shake and shiver, purr and peddle, beep and bellow. The scientist spent most of his time adjusting the idle, lubricating the moving parts and attaching more mechanical accessories to the machine. Because the machine generated so much heat when it ran, he had his entire laboratory climate controlled in order to accommodate the machine so it wouldn't overheat from its own activity.

The machine also required quite an array of fluids. There were the standard greases and oils, hydraulic fluids and coolants. Then there were some more specialized chemicals--helium, liquid nitrogen, hydrochloric acid and mercury to name a few. All of these different and expensive fluids had their parts to play in the running of the machine. But the fluid most consumed by the machine was the gasoline it took to run. The scientist was constantly seeking new grants and government funds to purchase more fuel to feed the machine.

Because the machine took so many years to build the scientist was always updating it with modern technology to keep it current and keep it running. The scientist rarely shut the machine down. Mostly, he kept it running, running and running.

One day a group of children visited the scientist at his laboratory to see his machine. They were all members of the Science Club at their school. The scientist was very proud to show off his machine. It represented his life's work and his blood, sweat and tears. With gleaming pride he demonstrated to the children how the machine runs. He pointed out each part and each process. He explained the history of the machine and how he decided to construct each part. He spent not a small amount of time explaining problems that occurred--both those in the past and recurrent problems. The scientist had become an expert in solving things like broken belts or busted bearings. He stressed to the children the never-ending necessity of lubrication with oil.

Finally, one of the children raised his hand. The scientist was delighted to have someone so interested as to ask a question. "What does the machine do?" the child asked.

"Let me show you!" The scientist led the children around to the back side of the machine. He fired it up and adjusted all of the gears. He turned cranks, pulled on levers and pressed buttons. Lights lit up, monitors beeped and the engine roared. The scientist scrambled to add more fuel. He watched the analog and digital readouts very closely for the next hour and was so consumed by running the machine he seemed to forget that the children were watching. But right when the children started to become bored, he turned to them with a big smile on his face.

"Look!" he said, pointing at a small dispenser-like opening protruding from one corner of the machine. The children all turned their attention to the dispenser and slowly but surely they began to hear a "clink-clink-clink," like something was dropping down the chute. Then in a moment, into a tray on the dispenser, fell a single gumball.

"That's it? One stinking gumball?" the child asked the scientist.

The scientist was surprised at the insolent little child who didn't appear to appreciate the magnificence of the machine and the complexity of its functions. So he began to explain the machine in greater detail--how each part was necessary to address problems that arose in other areas of the machine--how this belt turned this gear and how that gear turned this motor which addressed that specific problem that resulted in the oscillation sector because of the activity of a distinct combustion arising from the capacitating performance of the flux manifold on whose chassis was built the dual processor that operated the timing of the ignition of the central magneto calculator for the signaling of critical mass in the execution of the Fangoli process in general.

"Don't you see how it all works?" The scientist couldn't appreciate the children's lack of appreciation.

"Well, that's a cool machine, sir. We just wish it actually did something more than produce one gumball an hour."