Christian material is woefully underdeveloped to address two huge frontiers of the Great Commission. One frontier is the migration of people into the cities of the world. A hundred years ago, only a minority of the world’s population lived in cities. Today, a majority live in cities. For example, in the world’s most populous nation, China, they experienced a “tipping point” a few years ago where for the first time, more people live in cities than in rural areas. The other huge missions frontier is the huge population growth of Asian people worldwide.
Both these frontiers, both these huge worldwide shifts ought to be supported by a robust theology and toolset for the Church to reach and disciple the nations. In other words, there’s a desperate need for Christian material to break out of the presumed “Western” and rural mindset. Doing so would not compromise the Gospel as some might think, but actually bring us closer to the Gospel, a Gospel that speaks to ALL hearts, not just those who resonate with a Western culture. I can’t explain this here; this link points to some thoughts in this arena.
Yet Christian material does not reflect these shifts. Christian material on discipleship and evangelism from an urban and/or Asian, group-oriented perspective are scarce. In my “hyperdiverse” city, San Francisco, I regularly engage a diversity of people on issues of world view and faith. In many situations, I dare not assume Scripture to be an authority, a Western presumption. In my urban context, it’s more important to learn how to engage people then to “present the Gospel.” To do this requires a focus on one’s integration of faith and work and worship. If Christian material were rooted better in an urban context (mind you, I’m not saying living in a city is better then those who live elsewhere) where one cannot stay in one’s spiritual cul-de-sac, but forced to reckon with people who have completely different world views, the Christian body would grow to be more compassionate, more Christ-like, and the Body would be a lot less “us vs. them” and fragmented in our approach and our identity. Even better than that perhaps is living in a context where persecution for one’s faith is the norm. As it stands, here in America we as a Church grieve the chasm between the “sacred” from the “secular.” We complain about the consumer Christian. If more Christians heeded the literal call to “make disciples of all nations,” we’d not be where we are in Western worlds.
Why is there such a scarcity of Christian material that is rooted in urban settings? Ray Bakke, urban theologian, writes “I don’t need to tell American Christians that we live in a day of large-scale Christian withdrawal from large sections of our cities.” – Raymond J. Bakke. A Theology as Big as the City (Kindle Locations 392-393). Kindle Edition. In other words, we have a scarcity of Christian material rooted in urban settings because churches for decades have migrated AWAY from urban centers. Churches often see cities as dirty and broken; a place for dissidents, and not a good place for Christian growth to occur (and definitely not a good “safe” place to raise a family). Asians are not immune to this trend. As a former pastor, I witnessed this firsthand as families moved to suburbs for the good schools. My local San Francisco paper reports on how the “American dream draws Asians to suburbs.” It’s an old Bible cliche…Civilization in the Bible began in a garden, but ends in a city. This is a jump I don’t have time to expand here. But the “New City” IS heaven; cities are on God’s heart, our ultimate dwelling place. Sure, in THAT city, there will be no more tears; all the broken parts of current cities will be gone. Regardless of where we live, as we seek the welfare of the city, we’re preparing our souls for our ultimate dwelling. Tim Keller, Eric Jacobson and others have great resources on the city and God’s Kingdom, but I rarely meet congregations where this kind of teaching is the norm.
There have been recent reversals of this trend; churches moving back into the inner core of cities. But they are the exception. And when church groups do come to cities like San Francisco, the focus is on the “dirtier inner core” or impoverished neighborhoods. At worst, Christian groups come into the City as if they’re “crossing the tracks” to do their good deed before retreating back to “safe ground.” Let’s be honest about this; all sinful people have this tendency to not want to stay in an uncomfortable place. I’m certainly like that; my engineering training can easily lead me to the lie that anything can be fixed, especially my own discomfort. What a threat to the compassion God wants to grow in my heart. Cities, because people are pressed against each other (like on mass transit) just tend to bring out a need to relate to people different than us. So what do we do? We can build our “walls” higher in the church to protect ourselves from the “dirtiness” in the city streets until we get back to our suburbs that are more “controlled” and “engineered” and “safe.” Meanwhile, resources that exist to reach the city commonly are only employed by the relative few who are “called” to the city. For the majority, there’s little to engage the mission field in one’s backyard.
To answer the second inquiry as to why there is such a scarcity of Christian material that is rooted from an Asian perspective, I refer to a blog post written by one of my favorite authors and scholars on the subject. I’m going to summarize Jackson’s points and comment on them.
Jackson reframes my inquiry this way: “Why Chinese don’t contextualize theology.”
Early in his post, Jackson says ”the truth is this––Chinese do not naturally contextualize theology for a Chinese context.” I can’t possibly break down this truth on this post. Just earlier today, I had an hours-long conversation with a Hong Kong pastor friend of mine and we touched on this subject. He noted that ministers in Hong Kong take the Western view as the normative view. Chinese are more pragmatic. My friend’s views side with a lot of reading I’ve done on the subject. There’s simply a lack of vision, a lack of bandwidth to “port” Western theology over to Eastern contexts, to imagine a more Asian, group-oriented theology. With Kingdom Rice, I’ve been pushing the envelope further in my articulation, saying there are treasures mostly left untapped that Asian culture can bring to the Kingdom. And this is precisely why I named the ministry, Kingdom Rice.
Jackson continues, “This observation is evident to anyone who has spent significant time among Chinese Christians across the country and has visited their training centers. At least among evangelical churches, one will not find a distinctly Chinese pattern of thinking about the Bible and theology. Rather, the typical theology found among Chinese Christians varies little, if any, from conservative, Western churches. In particular, I refer to emphases and expressions.”
The following headings are based on Jacksons:
Traditional Chinese Translations
Jackson says the translation forces the reader to assume a legal framework, which is more foreign to an Asian-cultured reader. I’ve long felt that popular Chinese books and resources translate the language but fail to translate the culture. Though I struggle reading Chinese myself, my experience teaching in Asia, both to lay and to seminarians, and my friendships with pastors and scholars in Asia confirm my experience.
Chinese respect authority and tradition.
Family and group come first in Asia’s group-oriented view. This should be an enormous asset to God’s Kingdom IF Lordship is sorted out before the Cross. I realize that is a loaded statement (and I’m too lazy to expand that now). From the Asian side, this emphases to me means there’s less permission to carve new roads, to innovate, to contextualize. When an Asian, group-oriented culture places family over self, the “self” that is required to do the work of contextualization gets diminished. Compound that with Asian pragmatism, and you’re left with little work done in this arena of contextualization.
Put simply, Asians are less in touch with themselves then their Western counterparts. Conversely, Asians tend to be more in touch with family and tradition, which again, can be huge assets if one’s culture is sorted in God’s Kingdom.
There’s no better or worse. The old (stupid) saying, “Wong is not wrong, white is not right” holds true. It’s a matter of knowing your own starting point culturally, then moving towards greater Lordship. Most tools to help in this discipleship process assume self is defined by the individual. This flies in the face of the Chinese “the nail that sticks out gets hammered” kind of view.
I’m just skimming the surface, but just this little bit has major ramifications to the whole of Christian living, study, worship, and more.
Lack of exegetical skill
I’ve been in rooms full of missionaries to China. I appreciate their faithfulness. But in Jackson’s words, “most missionaries are more conversant in theological doctrines than they are in how to do exegesis.” Personally, I’ve long noted a chasm between those very skilled in exegesis, and those who are on the field. I’ve long felt “if only I could help provide some of that skill to those on the field, to those in the trenches.” That’s pretty much one of my major aims with Kingdom Rice’s ministry, to help give the “goods” to those in the trenches.
In my newsletter (contact me for this. I saw things in newsletters I don’t share here publicly), I quote someone from the “trenches” a leader in Youth with a Mission who’s sat through multiple trainings I’ve led their students through. She says “Sitting in class with our missions training students I was learning things I hadn’t heard before…and it had such a deep impact. I saw students who had no words to share the Gospel before Steve’s teaching able to relate what God has done in them to a culture they never knew before.” The fruit of exegesis ought to have a direct effect on how we do ministry. I’m far from being an exegetical scholar, though my work had been well-tested among academics and missionaries alike; my aim is to take the best of whatever God’s entrusted me, and to provide that to those leading others on the field. That’s the point of the earlier quote.
To sum up why Asians lack contextualizing theology, I believe it’s directly tied to one of the greatest growth areas among Asians, and that is the area of the emotional life, the area of seeing one’s self as an individual worth being loved because of Christ. Assume the Trinity is the model – Westerners emphasize the individual at the expense of the collective; Asians emphasize the collective at the expense of the individual. How beautiful it would be if both extremes are able to help each other bring growth to each other’s growth area. But this is not just theory. We’re making a difference today; we’re carving not a “new way” but bringing back what the Gospel should always have been, a Gospel for all nations, a Gospel to reach people everywhere, suburbs, countrysides, and the cities. But as we consider the huge shifts (using Bakke terminology) in Asianization and urbanization of our planet, we need to buttress the theology to these two frontiers. I end with one of my favorite quotes from Ray Bakke:
“‘Asianization’ and urbanization are the twin engines propelling the planet into the next century… Missions is no longer geographically distant, they are culturally distant.”