Talking about Biblical Monotheism — A Few Suggestions

Previously, I suggested what I think is a more biblical perspective of monotheism (compared to conventional ways of thinking about the subject). In the last post, I applied these ideas to apologetics.

God on FacebookIn this post, I suggest a few specific applications. Biblical monotheism should alter the way we talk with unbelievers. We should emphasize the following points. Continue reading

Proclaim God. Don’t Prove Him.

In the first post of this series, I suggested that many people might settle for a sub-biblical view of monotheism. My second post summarized the way that ancient Jews conceived of the one true God’s “divine identity.”

Now, I want to talk about application. In an upcoming post, I’ll suggest ideas for contextualizing the gospel for animists. Today, I will address apologetics or “pre-evangelism.” Continue reading

“Who” is the One True God?

Today, we dive into the deep end of the theological pool.

At first, it would appear that monotheism is a rather straightforward doctrine: there is only one god. Period. As I suggested in the last post, this way of thinking may be a bit too simplistic for anyone’s good.

In fact, contemporary scholars have demonstrated significant differences between many modern notions of monotheism and that of ancient Israel. Continue reading

Are We Preaching Biblical Monotheism?

One finger

There are significant problems with the way we often think about and apply doctrine of monotheism. In my experience, I find many people have a sub-biblical understanding of monotheism. All the Bible has to say is rooted in this fact: there is only one true God.

If we misunderstand the biblical meaning of monotheism, what else might we get wrong?

Continue reading

There are no “Church Planting Movements” in the Bible

Are our missionary methods “biblical” or do they more reflect the values of our own cultures?

One of the most influential ideas in missions over the past 15 years goes by the name “Church Planting Movements” (CPMs). In one form or another, CPM-theory has shaped the face of missions around the world.

imageTherefore, I have just published two articles in Global Missiology that examine CPM theory. In addition, David Garrison submitted his own response to my comments. Garrison is the man who literally wrote the book on CPMs, called “Church Planting Movements.”

Here are the titles and a few questions I explore in my two articles.


Are you ever examined the passages used to support CPM theory within their original context?

Would Paul have passed a CPM assessment?

In the process, I try to provide an exegesis of the 7 so-called CPMs in the book of Acts. Here is an excerpt from my introduction:

“In recent years, missionaries have discussed and strategized ways to catalyze “church planting movements” (CPMs) around the world. However, many people have challenged mission practices that are oriented on CPM-theory. Both sides of the debate appeal to Scripture to support their arguments. Indeed, CPM theorists implicitly and explicitly contend that CPMs are found in the Bible itself. This article examines and contests any such claim.

This article makes a simple argument: there are no “church planting movements” in the Bible. Although someone might regard this as a “negative” thesis, the aim of the essay is quite constructive. It is utterly critical that certain notions and associations be set aside if we are to develop biblically faithful and strategically wise missiology. Of course, there is much to commend in CPM literature. However, we cannot simply draw out what is good from a CPM theory without examining related ideas, such as its use of Scripture. When applying some aspect of CPM missiology, we may unwittingly assume ways of thinking or interpreting the Bible that are counterproductive. Therefore, this essay tries to help readers discern theory from theology.”

This leads to my second article….


Have you considered how a missionary’s own culture influences his or her strategies?

Is there any biblical precedent to expect a large response from “full Gentiles” (those without familiarity with Jewish beliefs)?

Here is an excerpt from my introduction:

“How precisely does culture influence ministry methods? The question is multi-layered. In a missionary setting, the relationship between culture and strategy becomes even more complicated. At one level, Christian practice should stem from a sound interpretation of the Bible. Yet, ministry does not happen in a vacuum. Global missions brings people from diverse backgrounds together in a cross-cultural setting. Mission strategies are constantly shaped by at least three different cultures––the missionary’s home culture, the local culture in which he or she ministers, and the biblical culture(s). Of course, people may not be conscious of this fact.

Therefore, it is important that we intentionally consider how culture shapes mission strategy and practice. Given the vast breadth of the topic, a helpful approach would be to examine a particular philosophy of ministry that is popular among missionaries around the world. In this way, we can avoid abstraction. Also, our analysis will be relevant for a greater number of people.

This article highlights three specific ways that culture contributes to the evolution of a missionary strategy. As a case study, I will examine the cultural influences behind “church planting movements” (CPMs). This study first considers how CPM practitioners understand culture’s influence on Paul’s missionary efforts. The second section identifies a number of cultural assumptions affecting the application of the CPM paradigm. Third, I give one explanation why the model survives despite a lack of biblical precedent. There are strong forces within missionary subculture that have enabled CPM theory to evolve into a popular ministry model. Finally, I conclude by offering a few practical suggestions that will help us resist the rapid spread of syncretism within contemporary mission strategy.”


David Garrison wrote a reply to my first essay. His article is called “Church Planting Movements Are Consistent with the Teachings & Practices of the New Testament: A Response to Jackson Wu”

What do you think?

Leave your comments and pass along these articles to others. We need to continue the conversation in order to make sure we use biblical faithful strategies.

Why and how to talk about “face” in China

Why and how might the mianzi/lian distinction shape our conversations with Chinese Christians and non-Christians?

In my previous post, I explained the difference between those two words, both of which can be translated “face.” In this post, I’ll touch on a few reasons why it can be helpful to keep in mind these two ways of talking about “face.” In addition, I will suggest a few ideas about how to talk about this verbal and conceptual distinction.

au pair face chinaLove requires mianzi and lian

“Face” is fundamental not simply for human relationships but to love itself.

My prior post began to make that point clear. Now, I’d like us to consider just a few passages.

1 Peter 2:17, “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”

Rom 12:9–10, “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.”

Rom 13:7–8, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

Of course, one should not exaggerate the point, as I find people tend to do. Giving people mianzi doesn’t necessarily mean we are “people pleasing” in a negative sense. Likewise, we don’t give people “face” for just any reason.

“Face” (whether mianzi or lian) is a broad term about honor, respect, and social value. Accordingly, how we use these words will vary and require flexibility corresponding to the situation.

How does this influence conversations?

Because the distinction between lian and mianzi is subtle, we have to consider how this insight applies to our ministry. Let me be clear –– one would not depend on it in order to make or break a theological argument. Rather, it is useful for communication if one carefully accounts for the specific dynamics in particular conversations. In other words, we should not expect to apply this insight the same way in all our interactions with Chinese friends.

1. Contrast Via Usage

First of all, the speaker can subtly utilize the distinction simply by his or her usage (without specifically making a big deal of it). That is, every time a person talks about sinners’ chasing after face, he or she can use the word mianzi. When talking about God’s honor or reputation, Christians could use lian. While not being quite so direct in making the contrast, our choice of words creates a verbal distinction to contrast good and bad face.

2. Include Adjectives

gaining and losing face

Second, I would suggest adding certain adjectives to magnify the force of the distinction. Accordingly, we can explain that people are constantly settling for a superficial kind of face (肤浅的面子). Or perhaps, we might say “outward/external mianzi” (外在的面子).

On the other hand, one could speak more positively about how Christ gives us “real face” (真正的脸). Similarly, you could express the fact that Christians get face before God: 我们在神眼中有脸. Various adaptions could me made to speak of mianzi (with a neutral or negative ring) and lian (with a positive connotation).

3. Explain More

Finally, if you have a few minutes, it does help do offer a fuller, more explicit explanation about how you are contrasting mianzi and lian. I must warn you that you WILL hear the two objections I mentioned above. Guaranteed. Yet, if you are patient, give examples, and explain why you are speaking in this way, then most Chinese people will set down their concerns. Of course, some never will.

At the very minimum, the verbal contrast can act as a very helpful explanatory device, even it takes a little explaining on the front it. Once a person “gets it,” it is far easier for them to remember and internalize many key ideas related to the gospel and Christian theology.

The Human Problem: “丢脸争面”

Lian and mianzi are help people grasp the core human problem –– sin.

As I have written elsewhere, one phrase I commonly use with great effect is diu lian zheng mian (丢脸争面). However, let me clarify that I wouldn’t just recommend walking up to someone with this little made up phrase and expect people to know what you mean. 丢脸争面 functions similarly to a lot of other Chinese idioms or chengyu (成语). At first, it’s meaning is not overtly apparent but once you grasp the back-story, it is a powerful memory device that sticks with the average Chinese. It uses four characters, contains a conception contrast, utilizes a slight rhyme, and utilizes two actions that every Chinese person understands.

Saving God's Face: A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation through Honor and Shame (EMS Dissertation Series)In short, humanity “has lost lian before God” (…在神面前丢脸了). In order to compensate for our lack of lian, we strive after mianzi (. . . 为弥补我们脸的缺乏而且争夺面子). That is, we want our friend groups, our boss, our coworkers and various others to give us mianzi. This gives us the sense of security and belonging that we as sinners intuitively know we lack because we have made God “lose face” before a watching world.

In Saving God’s Face, I also offer a way of understanding what Christ accomplished both for God and for the nations. Christ saves God’s face (. . . 挽回神的脸). In addition, God through Christ “restores our face” (恢复我们的脸).

“Glory imputation” is explicit, not implicit, in Scripture. Hence, Jesus prays “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one” (John 17:22). In effect, we share Christ’s face. Therefore, we can be unified and not compete for the kind of transient world that the world offers.

There are not short cuts to genuine contextualization. Thinking and communicating cross-culturally can be a messy process. Be patient and don’t be afraid to experiment a bit.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment and share your experiences.


* Previously, I wrote a few posts that explain how to talk about honor and shame in Chinese. To see those posts, click here and here.

Theological Education in Honor-Shame Cultures

Have you ever wondered how honor and shame might influence the way we do theological education? Whether we offer formal or informal training, we cannot ignore the worldview of those we train.Orality Journal Cover Sept 2014I just found out that my latest article has been published in the September issue of Orality Journal. It is titled, “Theological Education in Honor-Shame Cultures: Why Worldview Matters for Oral Learners.

I originally wrote it with oral cultures in mind, but I made sure that it would be applicable to other honor-shame (H/S) cultures as well. The truth is that ALL cultures have elements of an honor-shame perspective (including western culture).

The following quote gets at one of the reasons I wrote the essay:

“If missionaries want to reach oral learners, they must be willing to lose face within the evangelical subculture. They will resist the relativistic tendency to tell the biblical story and objectify theology only from within their own cultural view. One’s worldview has implicit assumptions that shape his or her “implicit gospel.” An “implicit gospel” is the message people hear as a result of the way a speaker, consciously or unconsciously, frames a gospel presentation.”

Here is a broad outline of the subjects I address:

I. Contextualization Answers “Why?”

In this section, I try to move us past conventional (though important) questions about content (“What do we teach?”) and method (“How do we teach our message”?).

Here is a quote:

“We address worldviews by asking “why” questions. Worldview questions involve our rationale (Why do we believe this?) and heart (Why is this important?). We need to consider a number of more basic issues before asking, “What stories should we tell?” (information) or “How do we tell them?” (technique). “Why” concerns understanding; thus, it determines and shapes application (i.e. what? how?).”

II.  Why Oral (H/S) Learners Want “Face”

This part of the essay notes a few common features of an H/S perspective and show how H/S shape the biblical narrative.

Since H/S concerns worldview, I state the following:

“How do we contextualize theological education for oral learners? Contextualization requires a transformation of perspective (i.e. worldview). It is more than a methodology to translate cultural ideas. We get ahead of ourselves when we focus on good doctrine (“what?”) and storying (“how?) yet neglect to consider how worldview influences the story we tell.”

III. Honor-Shame Frame the Gospel

This section is only a brief summary of a chapter I wrote for a forthcoming book being produced by the International Orality Network. I am rather excited for that chapter to be published because, in it, I argue that honor and shame are inherent to the gospel, a part of the built-in framework without which there is no biblical gospel.

IV. Theological Education for Oral (H/S) Learners

This last part of the essay suggests seven applications for doing theological education/training in an honor-shame context.

I’d love to hear what applications you would add.

Explaining “Face” Using Lian and Mianzi

Both in Saving God’s Face and on this blog, I have highlighted a slight distinction between the two Chinese words for “face”–– lian (脸) and mianzi (面子). Do Chinese people understand this? Is this distinction important? Does is matter when it comes to evangelism and explaining theological ideas?

As soon as you distinguish lian and mianzi in conversation, you will often find that Chinese listeners don’t always understand or agree with this distinction. What are we to make of this?

chinese-face-mianzi(By the way, this post is also relevant for people who don’t speak Chinese. In other languages, one will inevitably find that key terms could have multiple translations yet each word carries its own subtle connotations.)

Mianzi versus Lian

First of all, I want to reiterate what is this difference between lian and mianzi. In Saving God’s Face, I document various Chinese writers (e.g. anthropologists, linguists, etc.) who have made this observation. The distinction is rooted in the Han language and thus is easier to explain in northern areas where Cantonese has had less of an influence on people’s daily use of language.

In short, mianzi is more superficial in nature, referring to one’s reputation in a broad sense. Movie stars and singers have mianzi. When a students scores well on a test or is publicly praised, he or she gets mianzi. By contrast, lian has the capacity to carry moral connotations, having reference to a person’s character. While not everyone has mianzi (as in fame), people are born with lian (in the sense of human worth).

Lian is a type of mianzi; yet, mianzi is not necessarily lian. So, one could use the terms interchangeably; however, if someone specifically wanted to talk about character (i.e. “moral” face), one would use lian rather than mianzi.

“Face” is a Moral Issue

In conversation, I will make this distinction (for purposes I’ll make clear in a second). I routinely hear one of two objections. First, someone might say, “Mianzi and lian mean the same thing.” Or, second, I’ll hear, “But mianzi has a negative connotation in China. So, why do you talk about God and Christians getting lian?” It usually takes a few minutes to answer these questions, but 9 times out of 10, the person I’m speaking with will get the point and set aside their objection.

How do we answer these questions?

(1) To begin, I simply try to be clear about what I’m actually claiming. So, I state my comments above about mianzi and lian having overlap yet lian having the ability to carry moral overtones.

(2) Then, I pose questions that give evidence of this claim.

For example, every Chinese person knows the answer to the question, “Do you want lian?” (你要脸吗?). The answer is simply “Yes. Of course.” If one person were to say about another person, “He does not want lian”, that would be an insult. The speaker effectively would be saying that this person does not care about being a good person, having good character.

mianzi mirrorTherefore, if it were actually true that lian and mianzi were indistinguishable and that they had a negative meaning, then saying “He doesn’t want lian” wouldn’t be an insult. In fact, it would be very appropriate to say, “I don’t want lian.”

We could go about this from another direction. While mianzi quite often conveys a negative idea (e.g. being proud), everyone recognizes that giving mianzi is fundamentally a moral obligation within one’s relationships.

Thus, if a child were unwilling to give mianzi to his parents, then everyone would regard that child as disrespectful and unloving. In order to establish and maintain the most basic of social relationships, people must give mianzi (e.g. respect, praise, complements, etc.).

In addition, a number of idiom and set phrases use lian in a way that carries moral overtones. For instance, 撕破脸皮 (sī pò liǎn pí) means “to give no consideration for other people’s feelings.”

Conceptually, many other expressions demonstrate that Chinese clearly see things like face, shame, and honor in moral terms. Thus, if someone “does not have a sense of shame” (bu zhi lian chi, 不知廉耻), he or she is considered an immoral person or someone who lacks moral sensibilities. You can find many more expressions that are helpful in making the connection between honor/shame/face and morality or virtue.

After a little thought, Chinese grasp the point. Whether they are conscious of it or not, they intuitively distinguish mianzi and lian in one manner or another.

** In the next post, I’ll mention a few practical suggestions about how and why to use the mianzi/lian distinction in conversation.

Honor and Shame across Generations in China

How are honor and shame expressed differently across generations in China?

Someone recently emailed me asking this question. They wondered how “modernity” and “postmodernity” might impact honor/shame dynamics in Chinese society.
This post offers just a few brief answers.

People in imperial China during silk productio... Continue reading

“Face” videos now on Youku

For those who work with Chinese people, you can now watch, share, and download the Chinese versions of my recent videos about how we can use face to share the gospel.

Click the Chinese name for the Youku link.
Click the English name for the English version posted on this blog

你要脸吗? (Do you want “face”?)

神如何追求脸?  (How does God seek “face”? )