Jesus said: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment” (Matt 22:37-38).
In the church world we do a pretty good job of at least trying to love God with our heart and soul, but what about with our mind? Well, for starters we should note what Strong’s tells us about this Greek word, it is dianoia, and it refers to the exercise of “deep thought,” or “understanding.”
Now, lets bring it close to the purpose of this blog and ask, “What does loving God with “all our mind” look like in mission?”
To me it means that we reach beyond overused, cherry-picked Bible verses and really think about what we do in mission. In order to love God with all our minds as a part of mission we must slow down enough to think, reflect, and carefully consider what we do. Sometimes this may take the form of studying Scripture concerning some aspect of mission. Other times this might be thinking long and carefully about our behaviors and practices as we go about mission.
This seems simple enough–except that our society values action over though. We esteem “doers” instead of “thinkers. ” My mentor in mission research often talks about becoming a “reflective practitioner,” i.e. a missionary who takes time to reflect deeply on what they are doing.
I could have avoided many of the mistakes I have made in mission over the years (and in aspects of my life) if I would have slowed down enough to reflect on the situation. But it is a learned behavior, something I am still trying to learn.
One of the reasons I love the academic discipline we call missiology is because it require rigorous thinking of those who would practice it well. A good example of this comes from something we call contextualized theology. Perhaps the best way to explain is to first look at the two words separately.
At its core, contextualization is nothing more than “taking the context seriously.” We do contextualization when we take into account the various aspects of the setting in question—historic, social, cultural, religious, geopolitical—to name a few. As for theology, it comes from two Greek words theos, meaning “god” and –logia, meaning “utterances, sayings or discourse.” Therefore my simple definition of theology is “man asking questions about God.” Of course biblical theology is “man asking questions about God and finding answers in the biblical text.”
This means that contextualized theology is helping people find answers to their questions about life in the Bible. The reason I emphasize their questions is that too often Christians offer Muslims answers to questions they are not asking. So it follows that it is critical for new communities of Christ-followers in the Muslim world to develop their own theology which addresses the realities of their context—or develop contextualized theology.
Of course this must also be “biblical theology,” but that does not mean they should parrot versions of the various theologies we brought with us from the West, which were themselves developed in our particular contexts. Unless these new churches do this, they will be weak and subject to creeping nominalism because our imported answers will not speak to the questions they are asking.
One example will suffice. Which Western theological system—Reformed, Arminianism, Systematic, etc.—addresses a believer’s relationship to their ancestors? I can’t think of a single one that does. At the same time, in many parts of the world a person’s relationship to those who have gone before is one of the fundamental building blocks of worldview.
So what does this tell us? When such people come to Christ do we tell them our God has nothing to say about a matter that is of such great importance to them? We need to ask ourselves, “Does the Bible in fact say anything about ancestors?” And of course the answer is a resounding “yes.” From the numerous genealogies in Scripture to the “great cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 12, the Bible has quite a bit to say about ancestors, we in the West have simply not asked that question, therefore it is not a part of our theological systems.
It may seem a bit scary to think about new churches developing their own theology, but the only reason it scares us is we don’t have enough trust in either the power of the Word of God or the Holy Spirit sent to guide them into all truth.
One of the thrills of doing mission research is when you come across a sparkling gem from far afield; below is one of these. It is the Masai creed. If you even recognize the name of the tribe, it is because they were the most feared warriors of Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries.
“We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it. He created Man and wanted Man to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on the Earth. We have known this High God in darkness, and now we know Him in the light. God promised in the book of His word, the Bible, that He would save the world and all the nations and tribes.
We believe that God made good His promise by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left His home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, He rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.
We believe that all our sins are forgiven through Him. All who have faith in Him must be sorry for their sins, be baptised in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love and share the bread together in love, to announce the Good News to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for Him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen.”
Although this does not directly concern ministry in the Muslim world, it makes me long for the day when Muslim background believers start writing creeds of their own, expressing the deep truths of Scripture through their own cultural eyes.
Speed the day Lord! Speed that day.
Sometimes the thrill of mission research is in finding something new—like a redemptive analogy that makes the gospel clear to a previously unreached people or tribe. Other times adventure of discovering something very, very old. Some years ago Linda and I had the pleasure of visiting an ancient city, well-known as a trading port for Muslim empires. However, long before the first minaret called to prayer over that Silk Road era fortress, there was a large Christian community living in that area. You can imagine the thrill we felt when we discovered, hidden behind a stone rampart, the ancient gravestone below.
Besides being distinctly Christian, if you look closely enough you will see this tombstone is also graced with hints of Celtic Christian art, despite being more than 3,000 miles from Ireland. Of course, without far more time and resources that such a brief visit provided, I cannot answer the many questions such a discovery provokes:
Whose grave did this mark?
Were they from that city or only a trader passing through?
What year was this carved?
Why was it now hidden out of sight? (I do have some good guesses about this one
But the nature of good research is that one discovery unleashes more questions than it answers. Also, as I have said before, mission research also should invoke some of same awe and wonder we experience on Sunday mornings. Or in this case, a poem:
I confess an ancient creed,
Receiving a mercy of eons before time,
My path well-worn by many a sinner and saint.
The One I adore is before any world there was,
This name spoken before the mountains,
His fame from eternity past.
He is the dread of demons,
His face the desire of angelic hosts,
And for his mercy multitudes in darkness wait.
I too will soon join a great cloud of witnesses,
And make my bed in the sleep of death,
Bearing testimony that He is life.
Here is a short video where I give an overview of Perspectives lesson 13.
You can watch it on YouTube at http://youtu.be/ANormANoZ34
In the mind of most Christians, research and worship go together just like peanut butter and mayonnaise—not so much.
The term “research” makes people think of numbers and statistics, whereas “worship” evokes feelings and awe or wonder. Research is obviously connected to our intellect, but aren’t we called to love God with mind as well as our heart, soul, and strength? (Mark 12:30) Therefore, if research is to be properly a part of being on mission with God, then it needs to be spiritual, not just pragmatic and intellectual.
Of course that raises an important question, “how can research be spiritual in the way that worship is?” I’ve wrestled with this one for some years, trying to make sure my heart stays engaged during those times when my mind takes the lead role in my faith. There may be many ways to do this, but for me one has come to the fore, sometimes allowing the images and realities from my research to push me to my knees. An example is in order.
Some years ago I was studying interviews with church planters in various parts of the Muslim world, looking for those key insights into how God was using them. One day during that project, sitting at my desk in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, I read about a fundamentalist Muslim soldier who came to Christ when a foreign missionary had the courage to share a New Testament with him. My eyes welled-up with tears. I set my work aside, got on my knees and wept. Here research was painting a picture, showing me a miracle of God that many of my fellow Americans would find hard to believe. Worship was the only proper response.
Along this same line, worship should rise-up in our hearts anytime we encounter the amazing beauty of the gospel crossing new cultural frontiers. We should marvel everything new nations and peoples are woven into the tapestry of God’s kingdom. I guess that is one of the reasons I love to do mission research, it often evokes such wonder and awe that I can’t help but worship.
While there are many ‘practical’ arguments for doing mission research, its ability to push the soul to worship is reason enough for me.
I just read a new book by a friend and fellow mission researcher, “Ben Naja,” its called “And you will be a Blessing; Encountering People of Other Cultures and Religions.” Ben has been working with Muslims, and equipping local Christians to do likewise for many years. This book is a collaborative effort between him and an African friend who have helped thousands of African Christians start to engage in cross-cultural ministry with their Muslim neighbors. While the book was written with an African context in mind, it is completely applicable to Christians anywhere who interact with Muslims.
In the five years since we moved back to the US I have talked to lots of Christians about reaching out to Muslims here. I have only see a very few who actually did not think we should share the gospel with Muslims (or only a few who would come right out and say it). Usually people express a willingness, but they are afraid of either the Muslims themselves or of how to even start sharing with someone from such a very different religious and cultural background.
That is why I am excited about Ben’s book. While the first short chapter is building a case for sharing Christ with Muslims, the rest of the book is dead practical. It deals with issues like understanding the context of Muslim culture, communicating with and without words, and how to disciple a new believer in a home-based fellowship. The book also contains five appendices that talk about very practical matters such as “Jesus in the Quran.”
I really wish this book had been around 20 years ago when I met my first Muslim neighbor in Arkansas, sadly it did not. Now I just wish all my missions minded friends would read it and put its practical wisdom into action.
How is research supposed to relate to mission and Muslims? For that matter, how does research relate to mission at all?
If you have read the book of Acts to learn from Paul’s ministry, you have done mission research. If you have ever spent time really thinking about a biography on William Carey or Lottie Moon, you have done mission research.
At its core, mission research is learning from others. Sometimes that means drawing insights from what missionaries do or have done. Other times it is learning by simply watching the lives of the people you want to reach with the gospel. Or it can upscale all the way to being formal scholarly activity involving the study of what others have written about culture, history or religion.
Think of it like basketball. You would not know it by looking at me now, but I played hours and hours of pick-up games with my buddies as a teenager. Sure, those sweaty boyhood games were nothing like what you watch on ESPN, but in another very real way, they are still the same game. Some people play basketball for fun and to get a bit of exercise, others for trophies and big money, but they all are playing basketball. The difference is focus, intentionality, and a huge helping of giftedness thrown in on the side.
In the same way, many Christians listen to missionaries preach or read mission books simply because it is part of loving God, any “research findings” happen almost accidentally. It’s like reading a mission biography about C.T. Studd and realizing that some of his methods might work in on your next short-term missions trip.
Other people like myself do basically the same thing, only with “intentionally.” That can mean reading books on mission history looking for clues about its future. Or it might mean doing ethnographic field research on various aspects of Muslim life like I did in Central Asia. For the past few years it has caused my focus to be on the “Fruitful Practices” current missionaries in the Muslim world. But the difference between what you and I do is not in principal, but in intentionality and focus.
For me, mission research has become another way for me to contribute my talents to the expansion of God’s kingdom in the Muslim world. It’s using my God-given gifts for study and analysis to bless others who share my heart for reaching the Muslim world. Perhaps the best way to say it would be the shortest:
The Christian scholar should be as a fisherman,
Casting his nets wide and deep,
Bringing-up an abundance from riches unseen,
Nourishing those who know not the ways of the sea.