2006 October

Backyard Bible Clubs. Youth Camp. Sports ministries. If you do any of these as evangelistic outreach, I’ve got a question for you: are you taking advantage of children?

Yeah, I know- you came to faith through VBS when you were six years old. If it “worked” for you, it can’t be that bad, right?

Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that a group of Muslims come to visit your town. They’re prepared with snacks and games and crappy little crafts with Popsicle sticks. They blanket your neighborhood with fliers announcing: Games! Clowns! Snacks! Crafts! Fun!

Or say you don’t see the fliers, but you’re at the park with your kids. There you are, minding your own business, eating your Chick-fil-a picnic lunch, and said group of Muslims approach your kids with balloons and puppets and invite them to participate in their Backyard Koran Club. You look around and see veiled women hanging around the playground. Young peachfuzz-bearded men picking teams for a game of non-competitive Red-Rover. How would you feel?

My European friends have convinced me: children’s “ministries” are a dangerous thing.
The problem is that we put children in a position to be overwhelmingly influenced by us. We orchestrate situations full of “positive” peer pressure. We give gifts and Kool-Aid and ask them to give their hearts to Jesus. Is this fair? What are the long-term affects of child evangelism?

You might disagree, and quote Mark 10 (Where Jesus said, “Let the little children come unto me.”) I’m just not sure that meant “Dupe the little kids into saying the Sinner’s prayer.”

Remember youth camp? We take impressionable 13-17 yr. olds out of their familiar surroundings, and keep them in a controlled, “Christian” environment, where they are taught by super-cool counselors. They get no sleep, they eat trash, and every evening we coax an emotional response out of them through hours upon hours of pep-rallies (“We love Jesus, yes we do, we love Jesus, how ’bout you?!”), guilt-trip sermons (“Come, nail all your sins to this cross.”), and endless “Just As I Am” invitations. Is this fair? These are children! We don’t want cigarette and beer companies to advertise to them, but it’s okay if we do?

You might say, “Yeah, but we’re right! Don’t you want to see children come to faith?” Of course I do. But I want everyone who comes to faith to do so without coercion. I want a generation of born-again believers, not “I-said-the-prayer” cultural Christians. I want parents to know that we care about them and their children, whether or not they become Christians. I want parents to know what we’re teaching their children, and how, and why.

I believe the word should be taught to children. We should be telling Bible stories, sharing difficult truths, and praying with and for our children. But I think child evangelism, and it’s commonly practiced, is wrong.

I guess I probably won’t be invited to speak at any youth camps when I’m home on furlough next year…

moriuncannyvalley-5492719I live in the Uncanny Valley. No, this isn’t the name of a pseudo-luxury, prefabricated housing tract; it’s a techno-sociological theory proposed by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970. The theory basically states that a robot that looks and behaves more realistically humanlike will evoke a more positive and empathetic emotional response from the human beings that interact with it. The “valley,” then, refers to a strange thing that happens when a robot is very nearly human, but not quite; at that point, the differences between robot and human behavior become magnified and obvious to the point of being repulsive. “Rosey” from the Jetsons was cute. Haley Joel Osment in Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film Artificial Intelligence:A.I. was just freaky.

Obviously, this theory normally applies to robots. Recent uses of computer-generated imagery (CGI) in television and film, however, has brought a whole new application to the Uncanny Valley theory. Back in the seventies and eighties, the “special effects” in the original Star Wars films drew audiences in to George Lucas’ fantasy worlds. The fake “polar bear” on last week’s episode of Lost just seemed cheesy. The funny thing is that Chewbacca was obviously a guy in a furry suit, while the bear was much more realistic.

You might have guessed that the Uncanny Valley theory applies to missions, too. When we first arrive to our places of service, few of us are going to be mistaken for locals. Our clothes, our language, even our posture, give us away and can be real barriers to positive interaction with nationals. It doesn’t take long, however, for the halfway intelligent missionary to realize that he or she can do a lot to minimize some of those differences. A change of clothes, an adjustment in habits, and a closed mouth will get one much further along in terms of being accepted by people. These efforts are usually noticed and applauded by the host culture. “Look, the silly little foreigner is trying to learn our language!” “Let’s invite the Americans over for dinner and watch them squirm when we serve them snails!”

But there comes a time when we become almost national. We reach a level of language and behavior that closely resembles the local culture, but we never fully arrive. In some ways, this is actually worse for our acceptance in society. When we approach a bank teller or shop keeper they expect us to be able to communicate and understand as a native would. At that point, when we stumble over a word or reach the limits of our vocabulary, our foreignness really stands out. Little things like lazy vowel sounds and eating with one hand in your lap suddenly become jarring to nationals. We might as well be wearing a baseball cap and white tennis shoes.

For this post, I borrowed heavily from Wikipidea, which has an excellent entry on the topic. The post there says of expatriates,

“…the transition from Western European culture to the culture of the United States might put a European in the middle of the uncanny valley, whereas if he or she had experienced an Asian culture, he or she would be instead at a point in the first curve, before the uncanny valley.”

This is the sort of thing they don’t teach in missionary training. We come to the field thinking that our hard work toward contextualization will pay off, and that we’ll become at the very least acceptable outsiders. Nobody ever told me, “Just wait until you’re nearly fluent- that’s when nationals will really start to make fun of your accent.”

I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to minimize the differences between us and the people we minister to. I believe that our approach must be relevant and culturally appropriate. I just wish someone had told me about the Uncanny Valley- how frustrating it is to live there, and how hard it is to move out. I’m going to assume it’s because no one wanted to burden me with that potential discouragement, and not because so few of my colleagues ever integrate into to their host cultures…

I’ve mentioned before that our approach to ministry is essentially relational. The firmly established social structure where we live, however, has made it difficult for us to meet people and make friends. We tried walking up to strangers, consistently hanging out in the same cafes, and joining a local gym. None of these have opened any relational doors for us.

We’ve known for a long time now that people don’t like to feel like targets. We’re not to comfortable with targeting people anyway. So here’s a counter intuitive lesson we’ve learned: if you want to meet people, stop trying to meet people.

Just like the hard-to-love loners in high school that were nice enough, but so annoying no one could stand them for very long, we were trying too hard. Our focus on wanting to befriend the people around us was freaking them out. It wasn’t until we stopped trying that God brought us some significant relationships.

Of course, it isn’t enough to stop trying; we had to focus our efforts and energies somewhere else. We were a team of fairly creative and semi-artistic people anyway, so we poured ourselves into our art. Painting, writing, and photography are usually pretty solitary endeavors; but they don’t have to be. We started visiting galleries and studios, just as we had done before, but now as mostly-serious artists, not as outsiders trolling for “contacts.” We started taking art classes to improve our technique, not to try to find a captive audience to evangelize. We joined clubs and creative groups, we made arrangements to show our art and publish our work.

Guess what happened? We started meeting people. We’re making friends.

We’re moving beyond, “This is my friend from the fish stand at the market” to something more real. We’re beginning to move in circles with people with whom we have a lot in common, and our work is opening doors for spiritual conversations and open presentation of Good News. We’re being invited in to creative groups whose existence until now we only suspected. Art both shapes and reflects the culture. It’s exciting to come into contact with the people involved, and for them to welcome our participation.

Who would have guessed that the best way to meet people would be to stop trying to meet people?

These days, everyone is talking about the SBC’s recent steps (and ongoing trend?) toward narrowing parameters of cooperation. Denominational leaders are redefining what it means to be a Southern Baptist in order to “defend the faith” from liberalism. They seem to think that without them, we’d all be heretics.

Some bloggers are asking whether we’ve gone too far in restricting the parameters of who is “in” and who is “out.” Others are insisting that we haven’t gone far enough. Through all of the discussion, the boundaries are drawn and redrawn, and I get the feeling that I’m no longer welcome. I can’t help but wonder, “Is there still room for me?”

For many, it all comes down to the question of inerrancy of the scriptures. I affirm that the Bible is without error, but I also believe that many of our interpretations are in error (or at least incomplete.) Others show their allegiance to the SBC by stating their support for the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (which I signed), or by emphasizing their thankfulness for the “Conservative Resurgence.” While I agree with the doctrinal position of the “Conservative” players in the Resurgence, I believe that their “hostile takeover” tactics were unChristlike, and essentially negated the good thing they intended. I believe that we as a convention are suffering the consequences of the worldly and divisive approach both sides used in their battle for the “doctrinal purity” of the SBC. It’s true that most of us today affirm that the scriptures are without error, but many (most?) of us no longer trust our leadership. We are known for what we oppose. We are marked by division, gossip, and a need to be right. We act as though it is more important to demolish the people we disagree with instead of working to restore them.

My political views don’t follow the party line. I believe in the sanctity of all life (not just legally innocent life), so I’m against abortion and capital punishment. I do not believe that a preemptive war can ever be considered just. I believe that with our great material blessings come an obligation to help the people among us who are less fortunate (even if it’s their own fault). While many church leaders are excited about the political influence they think they might have, I think we need to be careful to retain a separation of religion and State; joining the two is only fun when you’re the favored religion.

I’m a fan of simple, organic churches. I don’t think we need professional clergy, buildings, or Sunday School programs. I don’t think “what works” is always good, nor do I think bigger is necessarily better. I believe in the autonomy of the local church, even if it means that I might have to associate with a body of believers that do things differently than I’m comfortable with.

I’m frustrated with the way money is handled in the SBC. Giving to the Cooperative Program is not, in fact, the same as giving to missions. I think that we’re going to have to make some major changes, because churches are not going to continue to pay for fancy denominational buildings or to support missionaries they don’t know.

I don’t think that theological training is the answer to all of our theological problems. I don’t care about denominational politics, or who knows who in the Convention. I disagree with the recent resolution against drinking. I think that the State Baptist “news”papers are a waste of time and money.

These are the differences that I continually run into between me and many outspoken Southern Baptists. You’ll notice that very few of the things I’ve outlined here are doctrinal. Nevertheless, these are things that we debate and discuss.

I’m not sure who gets to define the boundaries for “in” and “out.” I suppose it’s the men in positions of convention leadership and influence. I don’t think I’ve even met one of them in person, yet I get the feeling that they’re trying to get rid of me. Because of the differences I’ve listed here, they don’t want the money that they administer going to support someone like me.

My question is this: Is there room for me?