Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Left or Right Mission Strategies?

Confrontation or Accommodation? 

Christianity has always had a tension between challenging the culture it finds itself in on the one hand or learning to adapt and live with it on the other. During my time in Taiwan I learned about this tension by witnessing the polar opposite mission strategies embraced by Roman Catholics and Protestants. In many ways the Roman Catholic church sought to make peace with the culture and translate teaching and practice to the Chinese culture. Early on Roman Catholic missionaries accommodated ancestor worship into their proclamation. Ancestor worship is the central practice of Chinese folk religion. One is called to make sacrifices for and to one's forbears. If you have seen the Disney film "Mulan" you may remember how the shrine to the ancestors played a prominent roll in the film. By adapting its doctrine of the saints Roman Catholics sought a way to proclaim the Gospel in the Chinese context. They accepted where Chinese people were at theologically and made accommodation for them. Most Roman Catholic churches in Taiwan have a set place where one can pray to and for their ancestors. For the sake of discussion I will call this a left handed mission strategy.

Protestant missionaries from the beginning adopted the opposite strategy and basically continue to to so today. While the reasons for this are more theological than missional, the result ended up being an effective mission strategy. When one becomes a Christian as part of a protestant congregation in Taiwan, one gives up ancestor worship. In fact, many churches have a ritual demolition of the family ancestral shrine and any household idols around the time one is baptized. While we in the secular west may be aghast at this level intensity, many Chinese see it as a natural outcome of one's coming to Jesus. Most protestant Christians in Chinese contexts accept this. The reason for this acceptance is fairly clear. There are many in Chinese cultures who find the system of ancestor worship to be oppressive. It's system of obligations is particularly hard on women. To realize that one's loved ones are ultimately in God's hands can have an effect of profound liberation for a person. So I will call this type of delineating a clear alternative to the culture a right handed mission strategy.

Winners and Losers 

Perhaps another way to look at this is to take a look at who are focusing our mission toward. When we embrace a left handed strategy that accommodates cultural trends, we are embracing those who are fine with the culture the way it is. In stark terms, it is mission to and for the "winners". When we take up a right handed strategy we are focusing on those beat up by the culture who want liberation from it. So a right handed strategy that presents an alternative to the culture is a a mission to and for the "losers." Now before we get on our moral high horse and either defend or justify ourselves, let's get both feet firmly planted on the ground and realize that Jesus ministered to both winners and losers. As we the lectionary texts from Luke are revealing to us this summer, Jesus sometimes used a left handed strategy and at others used a right handed one. The place for us to figure out how to proceed is prayer. We are called to discern, pray and to ask the Spirit to guide us how to minister to those God has placed before us. In the end most, churches have a mix of right handed and left handed strategies unique to their contexts.

Consumer Society 

The discussion about whether to adapt or provide an alternative to the culture we live in the North American context will eventually always come around to how do we deal with the fact of consumerism. In sociological terms "the consumer" is the chief archetype of our society. Do we accept this and find ways to mission using the language and practice of the culture, or do we reject it and seek to provide a clear liberating alternative? The most fascinating aspect of this discussion for me is the fact that the many of the prominent conservative churches in our country have adopted strategies that embrace cultural norms of consumerism. Rick Warren (Saddleback), Bill Hybles (Willow Creek) and Andy Stanley (North Point) have all presented mission models that accommodate consumerism in some way. In short, the right wingers are using left handed strategies. Conversely much that I read from liberal circles makes consumerism synonymous with a form of demonic possession. Shane Clayborne, Brian McLaren and others from the emerging church movement (along with many who write at the Alban Institute) have embraced notions of ministering to those beat up by consumerism or a right handed strategy.

Please be aware that I have simplified things for the sake of having a discussion. The reality will always be a bit murky. I have accommodated aspects of the dominant culture into my ministry at times, and at others I have sought to fight against it. The simple point of this is to ask us all to be in prayer so that we are being intentional about which strategy we embrace. The point of this intentionality is not effectiveness but love. It takes intention to truly show love, this is one of the primary aspects of the cross and resurrection. Without love, it matters not whether we use our right hand or left, because without love we are not in mission. May you be blessed in your service to Christ today.

 Keep the Faith,

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