Cultural Self-Awareness: A Missing Element in Intercultural Service?

Professor uses Dr. Seuss as a case study.

There are a lot of books and articles that help prepare God’s people for working in other cultures. Most of the material provides insights into cultural difference and for understanding how to adapt to, interact with, and share the gospel with those from another culture. The perspective is usually that of understanding the cultural other. In this article, I am turning the reflection back on self and one’s own culture.

For years, a major company promoted its products with the tagline, “Don’t leave home without it.” The goal of the propaganda was to convince the consumer that the best way to deal with money while traveling was by using their products, originally traveler’s checks and then a credit card.

With their products you could go anywhere. I am paraphrasing their tagline to “Culture: You can’t leave home without!” The lesson that I want you to remember is that no matter where you go, your culture goes with you—for good or bad. The goal is to enable you—whether as a short-term or career missionary or as a church member connecting with a different culture at work or across the street—to use culture for good rather than having culture become a barrier in God’s service.

The starting point is to recognize that we all have a culture. One common tendency is to think that others have culture (usually seen as exotic) and we don’t. Another perception is that culture refers to particular aspects of life, usually the arts. I recently drove by a sign for a city’s “cultural district” probably referring to aspects of art, music, museums, and theater. In this mindset, a cultured person is focused on the arts of say NYC, or better yet, …

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Rural Matters: Placing Rural Church Planting Back on the Map

Small town pastors are doing big things for God’s Kingdom.

I recently introduced my daughter to the 2006 Pixar movie Cars. Sorry, if I’m ruining the movie for anyone, but it has been out since 2006, so tough. The movie follows a race car named Lightning McQueen who ends up stranded in a small town off Route 66 called Radiator Springs. It wasn’t until I was watching the movie, for what seemed like the thousandth time, that I noticed the great work Pixar put into showing how society sees these towns and how special these rural towns once were and can still be today.

The town of Radiator Springs represents the state of many rural towns today – on the verge of being a forgotten ghost town. Once a booming stop along a famous highway that connected the east to the west, now very little traffic drives through these towns due to new interstates that bypass the town or big industries moving out to larger, more central, cities.

The main character in the movie, while stuck in the small town performing community service, spends half the movie complaining about his talents being wasted working in the town, while neglecting to see the importance of doing anything to transform or restore the small, rural community.

I believe this has been the attitude of many pursuing vocational ministry. We treat rural areas like a place to get gas as we drive through, rather than a place to call home. Growing up outside Tulsa, Oklahoma, I spent most of my life church planting in smaller rural communities with my family. I can remember driving the old Route 66 highway between Tulsa and Oklahoma City, passing through run-down forgotten downtowns where people use to gather, seeing collapsing houses that once brought life into the community, and stopping at the few remaining gas stations that have survived …

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‘To the Bone’ Is Big on Anorexia and Lean on Healing

The new Netflix film seems more aspirational than instructional.

Here’s how you know when a movie is possibly a cliche: You ask your mom if she wants to watch it with you. She asks what it’s about. You say, “It’s a movie about anorexia.” She says, “Yes! I love those!” Then she says, “Wait—that sounded terrible.” You agree, but both of you laugh, because the pleasure these stories afford is complicated: Is it morbid fascination? Comforting reassurance of one’s basic wellness in the face of another’s extreme sickness? Cautionary tale? Or—in a twisted sense—instructional and aspirational?

That’s the essence of the controversy sparked by the portrayal of anorexia in To The Bone, which premiered at Sundance in January and recently released on Netflix. Both the writer/director and the actress in the starring role—Marti Noxon and Lily Collins respectively—have openly discussed their histories with anorexia, and the story is loosely based on Noxon’s personal experience with the eating disorder. Although the Los Angeles Times suggests that it’s a “relatively underdramatized subject,” anorexia dramas and documentaries abound, and To The Bone fits comfortably into the genre. Ellen’s clandestine, obsessive sit-ups in bed recall a scene in the 1981 TV film The Best Little Girl in the World, which I watched in high school health class and which probably inspired more than a few American teenagers (like me) to dabble in disordered eating.

One of the deadliest of all mental illnesses, anorexia affects 0.9 percent of Americans. More generally, disordered eating and body image challenges impact a huge portion of the population. Nearly three quarters of women ages 25–45 …

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The Rise of the Nons: Protestants Keep Ditching Denominations

Nondenominational identity has doubled in the US since 2000, Gallup finds.

Ask an American Christian what type of church they belong to, and you’re more likely than ever to hear the label nondenominational.

The proportion of Protestants in the United States who don’t identify with a specific denomination doubled between 2000 and 2016, according to a Gallup poll released this week. Now, about 1 in 6 Americans are nondenominational Christians.

The growing popularity of nondenominational identity is the result of two trends: the decline in the number of Protestants overall, as more Americans eschew any religious affiliation (becoming “the nones”), and shrinking denominations themselves.

Not only are the major mainline churches continuing to see their numbers fall, the country’s largest Protestant denomination—the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)—has lost a million members in the past 15 years.

Prior to 2000, half of all Americans belonged to a specific Protestant denomination. Now, just 30 percent do, Gallup reported.

“Churches that adhere to specific and historical denominational affiliations appear to face the biggest challenge in American Protestantism today,” the pollster wrote. “Increasingly, Christian Americans … prefer to either identify themselves simply as Christians or attend the increasing number of nondenominational churches that have no formal allegiance to a broader religious structure.”

Back in 2010, the Hartford Institute for Religion Research tallied more than 35,000 nondenominational churches in the US, comprising more than 12 million attendees. The move away from historic denominations corresponds with a swelling sense of skepticism many Americans have toward institutions overall.

The shift toward nondenominational …

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A Kairos Moment for Small Town America

Over 30 million people still live in rural areas.

When is time more than just seconds and minutes stuck end-to-end? If you’ve been around the Church for a while, you probably know the answer. As the Greeks and the authors of the Greek New Testament knew, there is time (chronos), and then there is time (kairos). The first gives us our English word chronology and basically describes the time we chart with clocks and calendars. Kairos time, on the other hand, carries the implication of time “especially fit for something.”

When it comes to rural ministry and small town church planting, we are living in a kairos moment that we in the Vineyard—and we as Christians in America—too often neglect at our own peril.

Regardless of what one thinks about our last presidential election cycle, virtually everyone admits that it illuminates a deeply polarized society. Geography stood as one of the most notable indicators of this divide. In the gear up for election day, it became increasingly obvious that rural and small town folks were residents of what Tish Harrison Warren had the courage to describe, in an August 2016 Christianity Today article, as “The America I Forgot.” Indeed, as commentators across the country demonstrated by their extreme confusion on election night, it was an America many people, from journalists to pollsters, seemed to have forgotten.

Trump’s victory further catalyzed a growing fascination among America’s urban elite (and not-so-elite) with an entire segment of America that they had never taken very seriously. Books like Robert Putnam’s Our Kids (2015) and J.D. Vance’s bestselling memoir Hillbilly Elegy (2016) became essential tour guides to a culture just as foreign to many Americans as another country. …

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Miscarriage Changed Me

How trauma and loss deepened my understanding of God’s love.

It took us an eternity to become pregnant again—or at least, that’s how it felt. Years of tests, treatments, specialists, and disappointment seemed to bog down my soul as we waited. I wrestled with God constantly, wanting to trust him and yet aching for another child.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Survey of Family Growth, 1 million married women in the United States struggle with infertility (defined as the inability to become pregnant after 12 consecutive months of unprotected sex) and 7.5 million women experience an impaired difficulty to conceive and carry a baby to term. My husband and I struggled to conceive our first child, so this journey wasn’t new to us, but we had hoped it wouldn’t be so painful the second time around. As we wrestled for over two years with secondary infertility, it profoundly affected both my mental health and our marriage.

When we finally found out I was pregnant last winter, I was overcome with joy. But as I prepared for the first ultrasound at seven weeks, something felt off. I prayed it was just my own doubts, but with approximately ten percent of known pregnancies ending in miscarriage and our history of infertility, I knew these early weeks of gestation were particularly vulnerable.

Even now, when I think about the darkened room, waiting for the ultrasound tech to say something, my body seeming to sense an impending loss, I feel grief. “Where’s the heartbeat?” I asked. But it couldn’t be found.

The baby seemed to have stopped developing, but the tech didn’t want to misspeak. We were hastily taken to a sterile room to be debriefed by a specialist. She explained there was a high chance our baby …

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Ready to Write Your Book? Here’s a Five Point Checklist

It’s time to start writing.

Writing often begins with wondering. Pen in hand, you find yourself asking…

Will people ever read what I write?
Do I have what it takes to write a book?
Why should I write when mountains of books already exist on this topic?

I call these “God nudges.” They are stirrings that emanate from outside a writer’s life—you might say from above.

After coaching countless people in their publishing careers, I’ve discovered that these questions are common to everyone who has ever felt a nudge to write.

How do you know, in your situation, if it’s time to finally write the story that’s been rattling in your bones?

I’ve developed a five point checklist to determine if you’re really ready to write your book.

Place a check by each of the following to which you answer Yes:

1. Do people keep telling you to share your story? ___

You’ve got a fresh idea or inspiring story and you’ve noticed that friends, neighbors, and strangers keep saying, “You’ve got to write that down” or “That’s a great book idea.” You need to stop making excuses and start writing.

But there’s an exception to this rule: Imagine a person tells a long-winded, rambling story with no end in sight. You’d graciously like to change the topic or excuse yourself from the conversation, but you need a gentle transition. “You should write a book,” you stammer, then slip away to the restroom or appetizer table or out the bathroom window.

“You should write a book” has become a cliché response in many conversations.

Perform an evaluation. Are the people urging you to share your story climbing down the fire escape, or are they sincere and trustworthy …

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Why Christians Should Stop Caring About So Many Causes

True transformation takes focus, not capricious compassion.

“Many people come here and take pictures,” the elder told me as he leaned on his walking stick, his slender frame swathed in heavy cloth despite the heat. “Then they go away and never help.”

This is the moment that haunts me from my recent visit to Turkana, a region in northwestern Kenya crippled by drought and sliding inexorably into widespread hunger.

I’d stepped out of a small plane into a sweltering landscape of dry riverbeds and desiccated animal bones jutting out of the earth—a place so quiet without traffic and technology that a child’s plaintive wail seemed to carry for miles. A month later, as I recall this sobering scene, the elder’s words play over it like a soundtrack, telegraphing doubt that my visit would mean anything more than a photo op.

It’s not surprising that Westerners have a reputation here for capricious compassion. But it pains me that Christians would.

If anyone should be known for not just showing up to help but for following through with real hope for suffering people, it should be followers of Christ. We are the ones commissioned by Jesus to go into the hard places, the hostile places, the ragged edges of our world, not just to proclaim the good news but to be the good news of God’s love in action.

The hunger crisis spreading across East Africa, affecting more than 20 million people, is yet another opportunity to show who we are and whom we love.

American Christians are generous when confronted with dire need. But is our goal merely to pull people back from the brink of catastrophe?

That’s not enough. We should strive for nothing less than God’s vision for his people described in Isaiah 65: “No more shall there be in it an …

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5 Passages Your Pastor Wishes You’d Stop Taking Out of Context

How we get them wrong and what church leaders can do about it.

Chris Maxwell, director of spiritual life and campus pastor at Emmanuel College in Franklin Springs, Georgia, recalls a troubling episode during his pastoral tenure in Orlando: “In March 1996 I almost died of encephalitis. A group of people came to visit me and read Matthew 7:17–18: ‘Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.’ For them, admitting I had brain damage and needed medicine was lack of faith. This was the reason I became sick and wasn't being healed. I told them, ‘If that caused my sickness I would've been sick long before.’”

John Koessler, professor and chair of pastoral studies at Moody Bible Institute, is all too familiar with scenarios like this. “I find that people tend to be one-sided in their handling of the Bible. They ‘lean into’ certain texts or truths to the exclusion of others. Some focus only on a portion of a verse. Others use one text to cancel out another.”

This isn’t surprising to most church leaders, who often see verses plucked from their homes to serve other purposes. To better understand these tricky situations, I asked several pastors to share the misused passages that make their skin crawl and how people in ministry can model healthy biblical interpretation.

Jeremiah 29:11

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

An entire cottage industry has developed around this decontextualized verse. It adorns t-shirts, knickknacks, and the walls of our churches, written in graceful, soothing script. “Having …

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Literacy, Orality, and the Web (Part Two)

What oral communication can accomplish in Bible translation projects that print communication alone cannot

Read Literacy, Orality, and the Web, Part One (How to Make an Oral Preference Society Prefer Reading).

What Scripture Communication Medium Should Come First?

Before going any further, let me say that suggesting a primarily oral society should remain in their primary oral communication situation is soft racism. People who promote this don’t realize that such a comment reveals racial bias. Some Africans interpret Western proponents of orality as “white people implying that Africans can be kept in a state of illiteracy because this is their natural and preferred state.” The goal of this article is to examine natural scripture distribution; it is about diffusion through multiple paths.

If we now understand the importance of oral scripture distribution, why do so many mission agencies still assume that printed scripture should precede oral scriptures? If they are supportive of non-print media in general, why do they still view those as secondary? There are a number of reasons.

First, it may be that print learners simply cannot conceive of how an oral medium can effectively and accurately transmit the scripture text. It is difficult for people from a print culture to believe people from an oral culture can learn and recall significant amounts of information with accuracy by just hearing it. This is one reason why literacy strategists believe reading is the only legitimate method for accessing scripture. Anything less would produce inconsistencies and inaccuracies because of memory lapses.

Literacy workers’ concern about accuracy may be well-founded if they assume verbatim retelling of a written text. However, this does not mean oral cultures are incapable of recalling important themes and concepts by hearing …

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