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—reviewed by Larry Dinkins You wouldn’t expect a pastor of an International Church in Melbourne, Australia with a name like “Cioccolanti” (Italian for “chocolate”) to claim an inside track to the mind and worldview of Buddhists. However, his claim to an insider’s view of Buddhism is substantiated by his Thai upbringing and exposure to a very religiously diverse extended family. Besides his Thai Buddhist roots, Steve has added to that a broad education in America and Europe which allows him to address Buddhist issues from both an oriental and occidental viewpoint.
When I sit down to write a prayer letter, I often feel like I need to come up with something new and exciting to tell my supporters. After all, they are giving lots of money and praying for us, so I should have something significant to report, thereby justifying my existence. But I often have trouble figuring out what to write. Most of the work we are involved is in the category of “slow-and-steady-wins-the-race” and not in the category of “awesome-ground-breaking-pioneer-ministry-look-what-we’ve-done-now!” Thankfully, the vast majority of our supporters seem to understand that fruitfulness in ministry is a long-term, Holy Spirit wrought endeavor, not just a list of man-driven activities. Nonetheless, I would feel bad just writing, “Same as last month. Keep praying. Thanks” and then sign off. So I need to write something. It needs to be accurate, informative, interesting, and not overstate the what we are really doing. On slow months, when not much new is happening, that last one is difficult.
A number of people have asked me for apologetics resources in Thai, so I thought I would assemble a list of what is available. You’ll find that list down below but before you go get the goods, there are few things that need to be understood about apologetics in the Thai context.Apologetic Issues in Thailand are Different than in the WestApologetics resources in the English language are intended to meet the challenges to the Christian faith in the English speaking world. For various cultural, historical, and religious reasons, not all of those issues are applicable to a Thai-speaking audience and thus do not need much attention (if any) when teaching on apologetics in Thailand. Issues that the vast majority of Thai Christians are not dealing with include higher criticism, secular humanism, the historicity of Adam, the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible, atheism, and postmodernism. Those are Western issues that grew out of historical and cultural forces in the West stemming from the Enlightenment, Rationalism, and the Fundamentalist / Modernist controversy. For the most part, Thailand did not experience those movements in Western thought. To the degree to which Thailand has experienced those movements, it has only been peripheral and mostly confined to the more educated upper-classes who have lived abroad or received a Western education.Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that the issues I’ve listed above don’t matter or are not important. They are important. They do matter. But the the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible are not being called into question in Thai churches, so why mount an apologetic defense against an enemy that your listeners haven’t met (and probably won’t meet) in their context?
During the past couple months, I’ve had several long discussions in Facebook comment threads about a certain televangelist who was coming to Thailand to put on a big event in Bangkok. The brothers and sisters who commented on my posts had various different approaches, both as to their thoughts on this man and his ministry, and also in their tone and manner of discussion. Sometimes the comments were helpful and furthered meaningful discussion. But, as anyone who has spent much time on Facebook can tell you, some comments were not so helpful. But one thing became clear: the attitude you have towards others and the way you say something matter just as much as what you say.
In light of that, I found the following testimony about Asahel Nettleton’s attitude towards those with whom he differed to be rather instructive, and a good reminder. Nettleton, if you are not familiar with him, was an early nineteenth century evangelist whose Calvinistic preaching resulted in many revivals with lasting fruit as he itinerated throughout New England and the mid-atlantic states. His theology and methods came into direct conflict with those of Charles Finney and his followers. Biographers Bennet Tyler and Andrew Bonar, contemporaries of Nettleton, said this about him:
One time I was doing a Bible study in Ephesians with a Thai couple. The wife was from Bangkok and had a bachelor’s degree in accounting. The husband was from the countryside and had the equivalent of an associate’s degree in sculpture, or something along those lines. As we going through chapter 5, I pointed to a verse and asked, “What does this say about Christ and the church?” The husband looked down at his Bible briefly, then looked up and gave some general answer about Christ. I said, “Uh, that’s true. But what does THIS verse say?” He looked at the Bible again, and again gave an unrelated answer from his general knowledge. He wasn’t getting it and I didn’t know why. It was so simple. Just look at the verse. It’s right there in front of you. But, in retrospect, I was asking him to think in a way that he wasn’t use to. I was asking him to use a type of thinking that he wasn’t use to. He could definitely read but he wasn’t a literate thinker. He was an oral thinker. And I wasn’t getting through.
A few years back, Nicholas Carr wrote an article entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, arguing that the nature of reading online alters the way that people think. Reading on the internet is different than reading a printed page in that the online environment pushes us to scan, skim, and hurry through our reading material. We are impatient to get to the point quickly so that we can move on to something else. The result is that people who regularly get their information online not only have less patience but also less ability to understand sustained and detailed argumentation. Google is, in fact, making us stupid. Our ability to think and reason is being impaired. Carr’s research and insights were eye-opening and disturbing for myself and many others because we as human beings often embrace technology without realizing the effect that it is having on us. Only in retrospect do we see how our tools have changed us. And those changes are not always good. Because the advent of the Internet is near enough to us in history for many people to remember what it was like without it, Carr’s article created a sense of sorrow for what we are losing in a digital age. Namely, the ability to think. However, there also is another technological shift that dramatically altered our thinking ability. But nobody talks about it. Nobody knows. Nobody remembers. Except perhaps Walter Ong.
In my previous posts (part 1, part 2), I talked about why long-term missionaries should not minister through translation, and why some missionaries fail to learn the local language. This post will focus on what missionaries can do if they want to learn the language well for long-term ministry effectiveness (and for their own mental, emotional, and spiritual health).
New Missionaries, Just Do Language Study. Period.
Above all else, new missionaries must resist the temptation to take on formal ministry responsibilities too quickly. By all means, hang out with your neighbors and share the Gospel as you are able, but avoid running the church’s English program or preaching on a regular basis. Above all, prioritize language early on. For the first year, just study the language. That’s it. Seriously. After that, get a tutor or some other local language helper to help you study part-time. After a year of full-time language study, you can start to do some ministry but there is still a long way to go. The second and third years on the field will probably focus heavily on language study as well, even as you start to lead Bible studies, run kids clubs, and pray with people in the local language.
In my first post, I gave a number of reasons why doing long-term ministry through translation is a bad idea. Most missionaries would agree with me in principle, but in reality some of them have a low proficiency in the local language after years of being on the field. Why does this happen?
Sometimes there is the temptation to over-spiritualize God’s ability to work in spite of weakness. Many will say, “My language isn’t very good, but God will use me anyhow.” There’s a lot of truth in that statement, and I would encourage new missionaries and short-termers do their best with what they’ve got, and to trust the results to God. But if you are saying that same thing after being on the field for 10 years, there may be a problem.
God does work supernaturally in many ways and on many occasions, but the fact of the matter is that God usually uses natural means to accomplish his will. We can’t count on Pentecost happening everyday. God is sovereign but He still expects us to use the means and resources that he’s given us in order to carry out His Sovereign Will. That means many long hours and years of language study, both formal and informal.
I love the Gospel. And I want to see any missionary loves the Gospel succeed in what they do. But it saddens me when I hear about missionaries who have a lot to offer but are held back by poor language skills. I am not talking about new missionaries who are just starting their language study. I am talking about missionaries who have been on the field for YEARS.In this first post (see part 2, part 3), I want to explain why this is a problem. It should go without saying that missionaries not being able to speak the local language is a problem but there seem to be churches back home and mission leaders on the field who do not help missionaries to give sufficiently high priority to language study, and therefore handicap their long-term effectiveness.
I have just finished four orality (Simply the Story) workshops in the Thai language in Khon Kaen, Bangkok, and with Thai/tribals in the Chiang Mai area. This is the fourth year that we have done such training with the Thai and these patterns continue to emerge:
Orality and the Need for Bible Storytelling in Thailand
1. Thai at their core are oral learners and although education is widespread, the majority after school do not use what they have learned and often end up semi-literate or even functionally non-literate. It may be true that most all who come to Christ have been influenced at some point by printed material or tracts, but it is the relational dimension of hearing personal testimonies/witnessing that influences them the most.
One would think that Americans are fairly literate group of people. But unfortunately, many are not readers, nor even critical thinkers. That’s not to say people aren’t smart but just that they don’t process and learn primarily through the printed word. I’ve included below a fascinating summary of the literacy rate in the United States (source). The implications for evangelism and discipleship both in the West and the Majority World are staggering. For more info about oral strategies for sharing the Gospel, see this page on the Simply the Story website.
What would you guess the literacy rate is in the USA? The published literacy rate for the USA is 98%. Interestingly beside that rate, there is a note saying, "85% functionally literate." Humm? I wonder. What does "98% literate" mean then?
If you are going on short-term mission trip for the first time, it can be overwhelming to think about the amount of money that you need to raise. How do you go about asking people for money?…. oh, and prayer too, of course! The purpose of this post is to provide a quick start guide to writing prayer / support letters for those going on short-term (or not so short-term) missions trips.
First, we need to remember that don’t write prayer letters just because we need money. Even if we were independently wealthy and could pay our own way five times over, we would still want to write prayer letters to people because a mission trip is a spiritual endeavor. A prayer letter is an opportunity for you to invite people who know you to be involved in what you are doing and in what God is doing in another part of the world.
One of the great strengths of Thai culture is the high value placed on maintaining the peace. Social harmony is very important to Thai people. You don’t get upset at bad drivers or pushy salesmen. You don’t have an argument in public. You avoid saying things that would embarrass other people or make them feel bad. In many ways, this value on maintaining social harmony and good relationships makes Thailand a wonderful place to live.
But there is also a downside. Feelings get hurt and people never forgive each other. Injustice, error, and corruption run rampant and are swept under the rug. Leaders at all levels abuse their power and no one says anything. Sin is winked at and everyone pretends that everything is okay when they know it isn’t. The need for holiness and reconciliation is one the great challenges facing the Thai church today.When the Prophet Comes to Town...
Into the midst of this cultural milieu come the traveling prophets. Teachers like Joyce Meyer and Cindy Jacobs parachute in to Thailand and receive huge venues to speak to the Thai church. They are big names in many evangelical and charismatic circles in America but are relatively unknown in Thailand. But they quickly become known as their big show event is promoted broadly in the small Christian community in Thailand. It is big. It is exciting. And it is “Christian.”
I have to commend the folks at Chick Tracts for making a good effort to produce a contextualized tract for Buddhist Thailand. If you are not familiar with Chick Tracts, they are a brand of cartoon tracts that are (in)famous in American evangelicalism (and fundamentalism?) for their very direct nature. They are engaging little tracts that draw you in, keep you reading, and usually end up with the main character being cast into hell after watching a “This Was Your Life” movie before God’s judgment throne. The best way to describe Chick Tracts is “in-your-face.” In the Chick tract, “The Tycoon,” (read here), a wealthy Thai Buddhist businessman is commended for his large donations to the temple. Periodically through his life, Christians try to tell him the Gospel but don’t get very far because they are quickly ejected from his presence, or he himself ridicules them. He dies in a car wreck and is condemned before God’s judgment throne.Is this tract contextualized well for Thai Buddhists?
reviewed by Karl Dahlfred
In "Telling God’s Stories with Power: Biblical Storytelling in Oral Cultures,” Paul Koehler identifies and presents a solution to a problem that continues to plague many missionaries and national Christians worldwide. In short, traditional modes of Gospel communication in many so-called developing nations don’t seem to be working. Bible schools are churning out graduates and these graduates are preaching and teaching the Gospel but people are tuning them out. Converts are few. Discipleship and church growth are stunted. What’s gone wrong?
As my wife explained to a long-time friend how we need to get our support back up before returning to Thailand, a puzzled look came over her face. “Don’t they pay you a salary?” Actually, they don’t! The idea that missionaries get paid a salary just like an employee at any other company is one of the biggest misconceptions about missionary support that I’ve run into. And I know that my wife and I are not the only ones who’ve encountered it.
Unlike NGOs who apply for grants to fund their operations and pay salaries, missionary organizations generally don’t have those funding sources available to them. So where do missionaries get their money? In this post, I want to briefly explain the three major ways that missionaries are funded. I hope that this will be a help for those interested in becoming missionaries, for those who wonder how missionaries get their money, and for missionaries who want to help their friends and supporters understand their circumstances.
There are some missionaries who don’t need any external financial support from churches or individuals. Some of these self-funded missionaries go to the field when they are older and have retirement savings to live on. Others may have served in the military for twenty and have a government pension to live on. Others are bivocational missionaries who have regular secular employment in the country where they serve. The school where they teach or the business they run provide ample income for them to live and minister. Within this category, we might add those missionaries who are partially self-funded. They have an internal source of income that contributes to, but does not provide fully, for all of their needs. So, they still need traditional missionary support in addition to whatever pension or local salary they draw from.
There are some church denominations who fully fund all missionaries who are accepted to work under their denominational mission board. The biggest of these is the Southern Baptist Convention, although the Christian and Missionary Alliance and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church use the same type of pooling system. On the plus side, missionaries who get their money this way don’t have to be concerned about raising or maintaining a certain level of financial support. On the down side, there is sometimes less personal connection and commitment between local churches and individual missionaries. And, more significantly, if the denominational mission board needs to make budget cuts, they may eliminate funding for your position, or for your entire field of service. Under this system, there is still occasion for missionaries to need funding for exceptional needs above and beyond what is in their normal budget. However, regular living and ministry expenses are covered by the denomination.
Individual & Church Funded Missionaries
The majority of missionaries rely upon the generous donations of individuals and churches to make up their budget for living and ministry costs. Whether they are working under their denominational mission board or an independent or inter-denominational mission organization, it is up the missionaries themselves to find their own support. This generally involves contacting individuals, families, and churches to see if they want to partner with them in prayer and finances. In the American context, some missionaries are quite forward and will solicit money directly, asking you to consider a gift of $50, $100, or more on a monthly basis. Others merely present their ministry, ask for prayer, make their needs known, and leave it up to the individual/church and God. The best, or most biblical way to go about support raising is a huge topic in itself but it will suffice for now to note that the majority of missionaries cannot do what they do without the voluntary financial support of local churches and individual believers.
Transparency in Finances
The question of missionary finances can be mystifying at times, for all involved. Churches want to know, “Does this missionary really need money? How much? How will the money be used? Are they doing a ministry that we want to support? How do we ask this missionary about finances without seeming too nosy?” Missionaries want to know, “How interested is this church in supporting with us? Is there any rhyme or reason behind how much they give or don’t give? How can I be upfront with my financial needs without seeming like a mercenary?” Supporters (and potential supporters) want to know, “Does this missionary need my support? Will my contribution really make a difference? Or will it just go into some organizational blackhole somewhere?” Not everybody has the same questions about missionary finances but regardless of where someone stands, missionaries and those who support them should be brave enough to ask good questions and openly communicate about finances as needed. Personally, I do not like to seem like a salesman. But at the same time I know there are people who are interested in what my family and I need as missionaries and want to help us if they are able. But they are not going to know unless I tell them. The most helpful guideline that I’ve heard regarding communicating about money is, “Share about finances commensurate with interest.”
Dependent on God’s Provision
There are pluses and minuses of each model of missionary support and many missionaries, at one time or another, wonder if the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. But what type of support is best for a given missionary (and his family) will depend upon one’s home church and sending organization. At the end of the day, however, all missionaries are dependent upon God to provide the resources that they need to do what God has called them to do. My wife and I are thankful for the many churches and individuals that provide our support and trust God to raise up new supporters at the right time when current supporters are no longer able to give or when needs increase.“God's work done in God's way will never lack God's supply.” - J. Hudson Taylor
I’ve recently been studying various passages of 1 and 2 Corinthians to better help me understand Paul’s theology of preaching. One passage that has particularly struck me is 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:5 for in it Paul argues that the message of Christ crucified (that is, the content) and preaching (that is, the form) go hand in hand – that they cannot be divided. Indeed, in this passage Paul actually argues for preaching.
In 1 Cor. 1:17 Paul is continuing to address the issue of divisions in the Corinthian church, by minimising his role of baptising, and stating that Christ’s commission to him was to “preach the gospel.” However, for Paul it matters how the gospel is proclaimed. Therefore, he refuses to preach with “eloquent wisdom” (ESV). Literally the Greek of this phrase is “the wisdom of a word,” and refers to the use of Greco-Roman rhetoric. (This was a particular form of oration popularised by Cicero and Quintillian, in which the aim of a speech was to “persuade an audience, the end is to persuade by speech” (Cicero, On Invention 1.6), that is, to create belief. To do this an orator would so adapt and craft his message (content, style and delivery), that it would bring about the desired end with a given audience. Therefore, Greco-Roman rhetoric is a form of speech or proclamation. It is a form that Paul rejects because it would render the cross of Christ void (1:17), since a person’s faith would rest on human skill in oration rather than on the Spirit’s power (2:4-5).
At the U.S. Center for World Missions a group of us mission trainers were asked to brain storm concerning our understanding of an "ideal" cross-cultural church planter. They encouraged us to go ahead and dream, so we listed most all of the skills, character traits and qualities that would make for a successful church planter. Only when this target was clearly defined did we take on the task of designing a training program to ensure our desired result. Recently I've been reflecting on how this same process can be applied to preaching. Clearly defining what you want to happen in the life of your listener by the time the sermon ends (and beyond) will hugely shape how one constructs and delivers a sermon. The typical response I received at the end of my sermons in Thailand was, "Di mak, Ajarn" (Good sermon, Teacher). Although gratifying, I never knew just what they were taking away from my forty minutes of preaching. Now hopefully older and wiser, I am shooting for a more clearly defined target.
A lot of ink (and pixels) have been spilled talking about the incredible impact that short term missions are making. However, that conclusion is based almost entirely on the perceptions of those who went on the trip. And the impact in question is often the effect that the trip had on those who went, not those on the receiving end. It is fantastic that so many people are blessed by going on short-term missions but are the people whom they went to serve getting blessed as well?
In a disturbing, yet eye opening article, David Livermore ("American or American't? A critical analysis of western training to the world", EMQ, Oct. 2004; Vol 40. No. 4. [pp. 458-456]) writes about a study that he did, “comparing North American pastors descriptions of their experiences training cross-culturally with the way national pastors and leaders described those same experiences.”
I recently read a rather provocatively titled blog post, "Dear Missionary, Please Stop Sending Prayer Letters. Sincerely, The 21st Century”. The article was a bit over the top but does raise a valid question that many missionaries and their supporters have been wondering in recent years: In the age of email and social media, should missionaries start sending their prayer letters by email only? Isn't it a waste of paper and money to send out old fashioned hard copy prayer letters? Well, maybe. But maybe not.
Every once in a while, I get an email from a supporter asking me to stop sending them the hard copy of their prayer letter because they already get it through email. I am happy to oblige and inform our mission organization to take such-and-such supporter off the list. I don't want to send people stuff they don't want. However, as I see it, different people want things different ways.