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Unreached June 22, 2007

Posted by amybeth in Deep.

I’ve been reading some biographies about missionaries over the last little bit and have been pondering what it might be like to go and work with an unreached people group. In general, the first step is to simply ‘be’…to observe and to learn the language.

And then I got thinking about all the ‘unreached’ groups within our own culture…the gangs, or the punk kids, or the homeless, etc.  Do we use the same strategy?  Do we start with simple observation, immersion, non-judgemental learning to speak their language?

My impression is that more often, we insulate ourselves in our churches. To be a part of ‘those’ cultures might expose us to vulgarity, to learn ‘their’ language might require us to process irreverant comments.  How come, when its a part of a tribal nation its okay, but when its a part of our own, its not?  Are we viewing it through the lens of ‘they should know better’?

Hmm…more questions than answers this time.



1. Hamameliss - June 22, 2007

Wow, I like that thought. It makes some of the metamorphosis I have gone through in the past few years make a little more sense. I’ve felt like I have picked up more of the “modern culture” in the past few years than I intended, but on the other hand I can relate to my peers a bit better as a result.

2. Judy - June 27, 2007

Good insight…I think we tend to be too judgemental….unless you walk in someone elses shoes and experience their life you just don’t know and can’t understand

3. patti - June 28, 2007

I’m on both sides of this, I think.

I am a big proponent of learning your culture, finding ways to connect with people, giving grace for differences.

But…at the same time…”unless you walk in someone else’s shoes and experience their life you just don’t know and can’t understand”…I’m not sure about that.

I was a small-town girl who grew up in a happy family, and for the last 13 years or so, I’ve been pastoring in downtown city churches (inner-city, by some definitions) with a lot of people who have had huge struggles in their lives. There are lots of shoes I haven’t been in. And I would never pretend to understand what I haven’t been through.

BUT…I can still connect, because I try to be authentic and real, and search together with people for how we walk out God’s principles in our own lives. I don’t think connecting is always based on “I’ve-been-exactly-where-you-are” understanding; I think it’s based on authentic relationship and caring.

And now that I’ve written this out…with lots of backspacing and re-wording…it occurs to me that perhaps we agree more than I thought at first! I definitely DO think we are too judgemental at times, for what it’s worth.

4. amybeth - July 2, 2007

Interesting comments. I think I need to clarify some of the background that went into my post. From what I understand, missionaries to an unreached people group start with ethnography…which is pure observation. They live in a village and walk around with their pad of paper and a pen and simply write down what they observe, about people, interactions, dialogue…anything. They are friendly, and non-judgemental, and usually get themselves invited into homes, to ceremonies, etc. With regards to the culture itself, they have to be detectives, ferretting out the history, the ‘why’s’ behind traditions and behavior before they can allow themselves to form an opinion or make a value judgement. With language, they have to ask gazillions of questions, carefully clarifying the meaning and nuances of words until they understand not just a simple translation equivalent, but the scope of how that word/phrase is used in that culture. Only then can they begin to preach and begin to translate Scripture. Often in the course of their observation, they encounter many traditions and rituals that make them uncomfortable, that are horrifying in terms of how people are treated or the interaction with the spirit world that takes place. And yet, they cannot simply not observe and try to understand or they would not have the knowledge, the background necessary to find the analogies and metaphors necessary to speak into that culture. While there are certain aspects of the culture that missionaries may participate in, certainly the basic necessities of living (cooking, fetching water, etc) or the social niceties of greetings and interacting, I do not believe they ‘pick up’ the culture in terms of acquiring the mindset and perspective that undergirds why that culture does the things they do. They seek to understand it, not to become it. Its also not necessarily about walking in their shoes. While they can experience the limitations of resources that the people face, they can never experience the history that perpetuates fears and superstitions and thus defines that people’s worldview.

I am thus, not advocating that we ‘pick up’ our modern culture, or purposely try out certain activities and behaviors in order to be able to relate to people. But I am advocating for non-judgemental observation, a seeking to understand the ‘why’ behind behavior and beliefs before making a value call. For example, too many people will simply dismiss a prostitute or a drug dealer as evil before taking the time to hear the life story, the history full of family disfunction and pressures that led to them feeling they have no other choice. I’m not saying we should live that lifestyle to understand them…without their history it wouldn’t mean the same thing anyways. But I am saying that a refusal to associate with them, to spend time talking to them and learning about what makes them who they are…that is ignorant, and wrong. There are places we Christians just won’t go because they are dens of iniquity filled with evil people…what I am asking is if its those very places we need to go, not to participate, but to observe, to understand. Likewise, in all sectors of society, from the streets to the halls of universities, there is language being used that originates out of mindsets completely foreign to us Christians. When I talk about learning the language of the people in this culture, I’m not talking about swearing and vulgarity. I’m talking about an inquisitive search to understand what words mean to them, the worldview from which they emerge. For example, if we start talking to people about a search for truth, or the need for love, our definitions of those words as Christians differ greatly from the definitions held by the average person out there. And yet, we can get stubborn and argue that our definitions are the ‘right’ ones and they just need to see that and then they’ll understand. Instead, I’m arguing that we need to ask questions like the missionaries, to understand what words mean to those around us, to get a sense of the nuances and connotations and then seek to ‘translate’ the message of the Gospel into words/phrases that will mean something to them.

Does that help clarify where I’m coming from…what are your thoughts now?

5. Hamameliss - August 16, 2007

I think I would have to agree. There has been much about my journey in recent years that has been about externals in order to relate better to the people around me. For me a part of the voyage of discovery into modern culture was watching some of the popular movies of today. I think I should clarify that in some ways, I grew up in a very sheltered home and that much of today’s modern culture was completely foreign to me especially in high school and college. Thus, some of what I have undergone is fairly similar to missionaries overseas, because I have been to several secular universities and had to interact with people in a very stressful job. Thus, I find myself conforming a bit more to the external culture of the modern day world because I find that people around me are more likely to actually talk with me and hear my story.

Something that has influenced me in recent years was some comments made to me by a friend about modern day English and vulgarity that have caused me to think a bit about my perspective. He noted that most of our most powerful English adjectives are overused and inundate us everyday because of the influence of advertising. When was the last time you saw an advertisement proclaiming it was “mediocre” or average? He maintains that some of the popularity of vulgarity in modern culture is that in some ways vulgar epithets have become our new “adjectives” because they aren’t used in advertising and their relative misuse makes them stronger words. That the vulgarity itself is rather a search for words that adequately inforce the feelings felt.

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