Leadership Lessons from the Party?

People often overlook a key feature of honor-same societies. Honor-shame cultures are inherently collectivistic in orientation.

Have you ever thought about how people lead others in a collectivistic context?

Over at Inside Story, you’ll find an excerpt from a recent book by Kerry Brown called The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China.

What I found interesting is how he describes the way one must demonstrate leadership within a collectivist society like China. The final lines of the excerpt capture the key idea very well.

“If modern China does have a strongman, it is the Communist Party itself. An individual trying to muscle in on this would be high-risk, and face huge opposition. Look what happened to Bo Xilai when he was accused of serving his own ambitions rather than those of the party.

The important thing to understand about Xi is that he is at the heart of a leadership that has a collective purpose that arises from the demands of party unity. It is hard to see how else Xi and his team would be able to prosecute the anti-corruption purge that has been going on since early 2013, extending into the heart of some of the key institutions of power in China, from the military to government to the party itself. In this context, the party looks increasingly like the Catholic Church – an organisation that tries to be less a vehicle of specific interests and objectives and more a cultural/social/ideological entity – an entity that demands belief of some sort from its adherents and pursues a broad spiritual vision (in this case, a vision of a “rich, strong, powerful country”).

We shouldn’t underestimate the powers that Xi is exercising, but if we overestimate them then we are also making a mistake. Xi is no Godfather; he is the faithful servant of the party. As long as he continues to be so, his position will be secure. But if ever he tried to assert his own networks and interests over those of the party then there would be no nice protocol about how he would be dealt with. His felling would be as brutal as that meted out to Bo Xilai. This is the great secret of modern China. Individual political leaders are not the key. The institution of the party is. And the people who serve this better are the ones, in the end, who succeed.”

What do you think? Politics aside, what implications might collectivism have for leadership, especially in the church?

Can the church learn something from the Party?

I know some will cringe at the question, but let’s be humble for a second and just do some self-reflection.

Might our conceptions of church leadership be a bit to individualistic? How many churches are led by a lone, strong armed individual? While this model is popular in the West, it is biblical? Does this way of leading even make sense in a collectivist church?

Here are a few of my questions––

  • How might we need to adjust the way we teach pastoral leadership?
  • How might mission leaders adjust the way they lead, especially in non-Western contexts?
  • Do those we lead feel they are a part of a Body, the Church? Or, do they feel like they are merely following the preferences and prerogative of a local leader/pastor?

For those interested, I’ve touched on the subject a bit in an article I wrote for Global Missiology called “Authority in a Collectivist Church.”

Don’t Adamize the Gospel

Where do you start when sharing the gospel?

The beginning of a story has disproportionate influence on the effect that story has on the listener. It introduces the context, the main characters, key categories of thinking as well as the conflict, which the story will resolve.

I suggest that traditional gospel presentations begin at the wrong place. As a result, we often already lost at the starting line.

This post introduces a series that will not only explain the problem mentioned above; it will offer a solution.

STARTING LINE Continue reading

Five More Ideas for Crafting Stories among UPGs

In a previous post, I suggested 10 ideas for crafting stories among unreached people groups (UPGs). Here are a few more.

Chinese old womanStart with the human family

Within traditional cultures, family is central to daily life, moral decisions, and sense of identity. Many people discuss the fact that God is “Father” and that his people are brothers and sisters; however, two points can get overlooked.

  • First, from the beginning God created a human family. This is the fundamental identity of “humanity” (cf. Acts 17:28–29).
  • Second, conversion entails gaining and entering into a larger (human) family. One does not merely “leave” his or her birth family.

Highlight new creation

So many people groups understand the importance of the concrete, physical world (i.e. nature, farming, disease, land, labor, etc.). These people are sensitive to the reality of corruption in the world.

The world needs restoration, not simply individuals.

By emphasizing the fact that God will make a new heaven and new earth, people gain a holistic view of salvation. The concrete world matters.

Address the “curse” motif

Throughout the ancient world as in many UPG cultures, the themes of “curse” and “blessing” loom large in the social consciousness. By surveying the Bible, one finds this imagery is also closely tied theologically to honor and shame.

In Genesis 12, God promises to use Abraham to bless all nations and so reverse the curse (cf. Galatians 3).

caravaggio-thomasMake resurrection central

Surprisingly, the resurrection is grossly under emphasized in common “gospel presentations.” I am referring to the resurrection of both Jesus and his people. Even within highly developed formal declarations, major evangelical theologians literally have forgotten to mention Christ’s resurrection (cf. The Cambridge Declaration).

Death is relevant to all cultures. It is good news to hear that Christ defeats death and that we too will gain physical bodies.

Explain the practical effects of salvation

People want to know why our gospel message practically matters. Similarly, many traditional cultures see a close relationship between “religion” and “ethics.” People want to know that God will actually transform people to do good works.

We are not only rescued from the penalty of sin; we are saved from the power of sin (cf. Rom 6:17; Eph 2:10). This is possible because of the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:4ff).

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10 Ideas for Crafting the Biblical Story among UPGs

ad-orality.mStorytelling often is a key component of ministry among many Unreached People Groups (UPGs). Various organizations, such as the International Orality Network, have given significant attention to developing strategies to reach oral learners.

This sort of ministry is about more than simply telling true stories in an interesting way. How we tell the biblical story and the themes we discuss shape the “DNA” and worldview of the people who hear and receive the gospel.

These UPGs are largely collectivistic, honor-shame cultures. Therefore, a few key questions must be considered.

  • How do we contextualize this message among UPGs whose cultures are so unlike those in the West?
  • Also, how can our stories reflect biblical theology and not simply systematic theology?

In what follows, I give ten suggestions for crafting the biblical story in a more contextualized way. Recall that the goal of contextualization is two-fold. Our message should be biblically faithful and cultural meaningful.

1. Start with the group, moving from the nation to the individual.

Typically, evangelistic presentations begin with individuals. They not only stress how Adam and Eve first sinned, traditional presentations focus on the individual hearing the message. We should tell the story in view of Gen 11 (complemented by Gen 12, where God promises to bless all nations). Perhaps then people might people hear something about the fall of nations and the sins that plague communities.

2. Highlight sin and evil as shame, loss of face, and the disintegration of the group.

Conventional explanations of sin almost exclusively use legal metaphors. Sin is described as “breaking God’s law.” However, the Bible often presents sin as “dishonoring” God resulting not only in shame but broken relationships with God and others. UPGs are highly sensitive to these themes.

3. Address monotheism as kingship.

Biblically speaking, monotheism fundamentally concerns kingship, not simply the number of “gods” that do or do not exist. This is especially prominent in Isaiah and Psalms. Among UPGs, people need to understand how their view of God (or of many “gods”) influences their understanding of authority and ultimate allegiance. God is not only powerful. He is the king of all nations.

4. Make Israel a “minority group”.

In many respects, Israel can rightly be seen as a minority group among the nations (cf. Deut 4:27; 7:6–9; 26:5; Ezek 12:16). Foreigners often oppressed them, whether Egypt, Babylon, or the Romans. Naturally, this context creates a mixture of despair, hostility, compromise and fierce exclusion and inwardness. UPGs can thus appreciate the ancient Jewish longing for rescue and restoration.

5. Explain God’s faithfulness to keep promises to set the world right.

In collectivistic cultures, relationships typically have a greater impact on one’s life and behavior than the concept of law. Trust and loyalty are prized virtues. In addition, many UPGs have suffered varying degrees of hardship, discord, or mistreatment such that there is a general desires for wrongs to be set right.

6. Start with identity (“who?”), then “actions (“what”).

UPGs understand that honor and shame derive from a variety of factors, including one’s identity, name, gender and relationships. Although all people are tempted to assess their worth based on “what” they do, this is not the only measure that one might use. Thus, the ancient Jews boasted in their membership in Israel, claiming to be Abraham’s children.

7. Highlight salvation into community with a mission.

Israel was chosen for the sake of blessing the world that Abraham would have a family consisting of all nations. In the same way, UPGs need to know what salvation means. An individual is not simply saved out of a group. They belong to a new community and have a mission. We are saved for something, not simple from something.

8. Address sacrifice as honor and debt payment.

The practice of making sacrifices to God (or gods) can have many layers of significance. Sacrifices are often regarded as gifts, expressions of worship, or a method of atonement. Another set of meanings is common to both the Bible and various UPG groups. Namely, one can present sacrifice as a means of expressing honor to God and of paying a debt.

9. Make a bigger deal of sacred space.

Many UPGs recognize the importance of sacred places, such as land, altars, and sanctuary-types structures. This feature of their culture agrees with the worldview of those in the Bible. As a result, people can better understand biblical distinctions between holiness and impurity as well as their implications.

10. Explain the significance of symbols.

The ancient world is similar to many in UPG contexts in that people appreciate the significance of symbolism. Not only do various symbols constitute common ways of perceiving and talking about the world, symbols also have the potential for abuse, leading to pride and exclusion.

Unleashing Gospel StoryFor those interested, I have touched on this subject previously. Mission Frontiers also dedicated an entire issue to the topic in Nov/Dec 2013 (click on the picture).


Must we have “a shot of heresy”?

Consider this quote about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

“[Bonhoeffer] had once told a student that every sermon must contain ‘a shot of heresy,’ meaning that to express the truth, we must sometimes overstate something or say something in a way that will sound heretical––though it must certainly not be heretical.”

–– Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, 364.

What do you think about this quote?

Inasmuch as it has truth, what does it mean for

  • evangelism?
  • contextualization?
  • missiology in general?



The Logic of Biblical Application (Part 3)

Does it matter what method we use when trying to find the application of a biblical text? Yes, it does….


In this post, I explain why we cannot be casual as to how to think about and look for application.

In Part One of the series, I suggested a more fully biblical meaning of “application” than one often hears. The application of a text concerns one’s total response––our head, heart, and hands–– not simply our actions. In Part Two, I offered a method by which one can discern the application of a Bible passage.

I began to explain why the sequence of the questions matters as well. The four questions (in order) included:

head heart hands

1. How do the passage HONOR God?

2. How does it affect our HEADS? (i.e. our thinking)

3. How does it affect our HEARTS? (i.e. emotions, desires)

4. How does it affect our HANDS? (i.e. hands)

Is this method really any better than other approaches? For example, a common tool that people use is called SPECKA.

S = Sin (Is there a sin to confess?)

P = Promise (Is there a promise from God?)

E = Example (Is there an example to follow?)

C = Commands (Are there commands to obey?)

K = Knowledge (What does this passage teach us about God? ourselves? others?)

A = Accountability (Where do we need accountability?)

I am not a fan of SPECKA nor many other similar sets of questions. I think the 4 H- questions above (honor, head, heart, hands) are better. I’ll explain.

The Biblical Logic of Application Questions

These four questions are not simply the product of my own random preference. I suggest three reasons for using these 4 questions rather than others.

1. Basic Logic of Life

As I mentioned in the last post, the four questions follow the natural and necessary order of all human actions. Every single things we do follows the same sequence––we first have a thought in the brain, which then spurs some sort of emotion or desire. Accordingly, we make the decision to take one course of action over others. Everything from going to the bathroom to getting married follows this order,…even if it’s quick and unconscious.

greatest commandment

2. Biblical Commandments

Recall what Jesus said were the two greatest commandments. The greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, strength, and mind. The second one is to love your neighbor as yourself. Break down those two commands. Here are some observations.

  • The primary command is LOVE THE LORD.
  • The rest of the greatest commandment simply tells us how to love the Lord. In other words, it explains the various facets of life in which we are to love the Lord.
  • The second command is…well, second. It follows from the first.

What does this imply for us when it comes to looking for the application of a text?

  • Biblical application should be a response of love to God. Thus, our first question slow us down to contemplate why God should be honored. How does this passage reveal about God that glorifies or HONORS him? Of all the questions, this first one is the one I think people tend to skip the most. People don’t see this as an “application” question because they mistake the true nature of biblical obedience.
  • The second, third, and fourth questions simply unpack the proper response to God’s glory. Essentially, Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all of our head, heart, and hands.
  • The final question should be the final question. Our actions of love toward others should flow from our loving God with our heads and hearts. When we love God, we will love people; yet, loving people does not necessarily imply we love God.


3. Balanced Application

We all have certain tendencies that favor one sort of application over another. Some people tend to be in the heads a lot. Consequently, they don’t often think through some of the practical points of action that they should take. Others are super pragmatic and concerned simply with the bottom line––”what am I actually supposed to do?” Unfortunately, they give little thought to the roots that produce godly actions.

Our personal preference for one type of application leads to an unbalanced Christian life.

By asking these four questions, we guard ourselves from such extremes hinder full growth. They guide us to find far more balance in our application. Someone inclined to thing long on theological implications will have to think through the behaviors that may need adjustment (or reinforcement). Others will be slowed down so that they gain wisdom and better motivation for their actions.

I urge you to try using these four applications in your our study and ministry. Try it consistently for a month or so. I suspect you will discover that many passages are far more relevant to your life than you might have expected. Additionally, we will learn to respond with more of our lives. I’d love to hear what you find.

A Simple Approach to Applying Scripture (Part 2)

In the last post, I highlighted the tendency to reduce “application” merely to “actions.” In fact, biblical application involves our head, heart, and hands.

Teaching Biblical Obedience

Today, I suggest an easy to use method whereby we can apply any Scripture passage, even if it doesn’t tell us some action to do (or not to do). In this post, I’ll give a summary explanation of the method.

Later, I’ll further explain why these points are not only less arbitrary than other approaches; in addition, we have Scriptural warrant for using this sequence of questions. There is a distinct logic here. There are advantages to asking these questions. That discussion however will come in part 3 of the series.

We can ask four questions.

The sequence of questions matters. Each one can be remembered with a key word beginning with the letter H. As with the method the interpretation I introduced previously, so here there are some elements may be counter intuitive yet important nevertheless. For example, consider the first question.

1. How does the text HONOR God?

This question is not about how we should honor God; rather, we’re asking how the passage we are reading reveals thus honors God. How do the verses themselves attempt to show how special God is?

As 1 Cor. 10:31 reminds us, all we do should be done for the glory of God. God is the main character in every Biblical passage. Therefore, our lead question should not be, “How should I apply this verse?” Instead, we first ask, “How does this passage honor God?” By starting here, our obedience becomes a response to God––an expression of who God is and what He has done. There is no genuine obedience to God that is not rooted in and reflective of His glory.

If we only had one question to ask of these four, then this first one is most important. Rightly perceiving God’s worth can naturally produce godly responses in His children in ways we may not even be aware of. Honestly, we have to remind ourselves, “What does it matter if we conform to some standard but without love for God in our hearts?”

2. How should it affect our HEAD?

The next three questions have a positive and negative side.

product_permalinkThis second question concerns our thoughts. Positively, what should we know and believe? Negatively, what should I not think or believe? Truth matters. So many of the world’s ills come from not knowing and believing the truth. One certainly can’t love what can’t be apprehended to some measure in the mind. I didn’t say we have to have complete comprehension; however, we do need some degree of understanding. Imagine if I told you, “All people must love D&#kAe in order to s^73mcQ.” You would have no idea what I mean, to ay nothing of loving and doing something.

Of course, our “head” is just the beginning. I find a tendency in people to throw the baby out with the bath water. Because head knowledge is not sufficient to produce a godly life, people then start to demur or minimize head knowledge. Knowledge is for various kinds of obedient response. Obedience to truth is far more God-glorifying that compliance borne out of ignorance or even wrong beliefs. No doubt this way of thinking about knowledge has led to much anti-intellectualism (and its cousin “anti-theologicalism”). Knowledge is necessary, even if it is not sufficient.

A helpful book on the subject is John Piper’s Think.


3. How should it affect our HEART?

This third question relates to our desires, will, and affections. Positively, what should we feel and want? Negatively, what sin does this expose in my heart?

Many are unaware that the Bible commands us to have and not have certain emotions. I recently heard one Christian woman say that we have the right to have any emotion we want because they are ours. First of all, this is faulty logic––I don’t have the right to possess drugs simply because they are mine. Second, this sentiment is in direct contradiction with Scripture. For examples, consider the following verses:

Phil 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”

Eph 4:26, 31, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger … Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.”

Rom 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”

Luke 6:35, “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.”

Col 3:15, “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.”

Each of these verses commands some sort of emotional and volitional response. God commands our emotions (like joy) just as he does our actions.

Do we take this seriously in our discipleship and personal application?

4. How should it affect our HANDS?

This last question is easy enough to understand. Positively, what actions should I do? Negatively, what should I not do?

However, one reason it’s so hard to actually obey with our actions is because we neglect the previous three questions. We don’t get a clear view of God’s glory such that our minds are changed and our hearts moved to spur us to act in a Christ-like manner.

So Now What?

Try using these questions in you personal devotions and in your Bible study groups.

Slow yourself down and take each question in order.

Remember the head, heart, and hands questions have both positive and negative aspects. The application implied by some texts is not always obvious.

Let me know whether you get a bit more out of your Scripture reading.

In a coming post, I’ll explain the biblical and theological logic behind these questions.

What is “Application”?

A lot of books talk about interpretation and specific ways of obey the Bible. However, there are not many (if any) books that teach people how to apply any given text to one’s life.

I think it is because people assume everyone understands the meaning of “application.” It seems obvious to us. In fact, I find few Christians actually do have a holistic, biblical understanding of application.

obey-writtenon-handMost people think “application” merely refers to what we do.

Continue reading

The Church is a Gospel Issue

Is the church fundamentally collection of individuals OR a single entity?

Another way of asking the question is this: Does the Bible have a collectivistic or a individualistic perspective of the church?

Check out the video above and let me know what you think. I did not want my accent in the video so I asked a foreigner (a non-Chinese person) to narrate. Leave your comments below. Continue reading