When is it appropriate to appropriate? Why appropriation is bad. (Part 1)

Cultural Appropriation has made the news again. Nuseir Yassin runs the popular video log Nas Daily. He recently made the news (herehere, and here) when he offered a tattoo course by Whang-Od on his Nas Academy. Whang-Od is a traditional tattoo artist from the Philippine province of Kalinga who was honoured by the Philippine government with the Dangal na Haraya in 2018. The controversy started when Whang-Od’s grandniece called the course a scam. It turns out that Nuseir didn’t follow the proper procedures in making the deal with Whang-Od. According to Dr. Nestor Castro, 

“Whang-od is not just an individual artist but she is also a member of the Butbut Tribe of Kalinga. Her skill on the art of traditional tattooing is derived from the indigenous knowledge of generations of Kalinga ancestors. Thus, this indigenous knowledge is collectively owned (although it may be individually practiced) by the Butbut. Thus, the consent of the members of the Butbut is necessary if this knowledge is to be shared to outsiders. Getting the permission of one individual is not enough.” [Click here to read the entire post].

Apart from this, the agreement also doesn’t conform to Philippine laws on the rights of indigenous peoples. In the end, Cultural appropriation of this type is inappropriate because it is the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society. The issue is culture or people’s right to be the gatekeepers of their own cultural wealth, whether that means protecting that wealth from other’s exploitations, or benefitting themselves as the owners of that cultural wealth.

Virgilio G. Enriquez, whose Pagbabangong-Dangal: Indigenous Psychology and Cultural Empowerment is from the Philippine context, presents six phases of cultural domination to which “indigenous psychology and culture have been subjected” throughout the world. Included in the stages are:

1. Denial and Withdrawal, where the “colonizers outrightly reject the very existence of what they perceive as an inferior culture.” This inferiority includes language, sport, food, law, and religion. “As the dominant culture denies the existence and worth of the indigenous culture, it also attempts to replace it with its own.”

2. Desecration and Destruction, where the “oppressive culture attempts to destroy whatever vestiges are left” of the indigenous culture. “Clearly, as the dominant culture atemts to destroy element s of the supposedly inferior culture, it tries to institutionalize and strengthen its own.”

3. Denigration and Marginalization, where the indigenous is labeled, giving the impression that it is inferior or damaged. This includes terms like Juan Tamad, quack doctor, ningas kugon, Filipino time, and talangka mentality as well as inaccurate portrayals of Filipinos in artwork depicting historical events, each of which is a negative stereotype of what it means to be Filipino.

4. Redefinition and Token Utilization, where the indigenous is “redefined and recast into the colonial mold.” Thus all indigenous meaning attached to the element is lost and it is not only completely redefined in a new context but also claimed by that new context as one of its own. Enriquez uses the Manila Galleon as an example. Here we have Filipino ingenuity in shipbuilding being redefined and claimed by the Spanish as one of their own. Enriquez also includes a discussion of what appears to be the token usage of “indigenous psychological texts” by Western-trained practitioners. It seems that they are being used not because of their value as psychological tools but because they merely make the client more at ease in an unfamiliar setting. 

5. Transformation and Mainstreaming, appears to be similar to Stage 4 only intensified. Here Enriquez focuses on the word hiyang, that at one time was considered nonsensical but is now seen as highlighting “personal differences” in therapeutic settings. Enriquez applies this to what happens in the doctor’s office, the kinds of food we eat, and folk-understandings of colors, shapes, textures, and sounds. “Once the prejudgment that the indigenous concept is merely superstitious or even useless has been proven wrong, the concept is reluctantly used but redefined according to the colonial mindset.”

6. Commercialization and Commodification, is where the real legitimacy of the indigenous is recognized by the colonizer. This can lead to one of two options, according to Enriquez. The first is “transforming and mainstreaming,” where “complete recognition and respect” is given by the colonizer to the indigenous and the two are mutually beneficial. The second option is where the indigenous culture’s knowledge and heritage are “exploited and commercialized.” Enriquez says that option #1 is rarely taken. He goes on to discuss the exploitation of indigenous genetics, both plant and human.

Enriquez proposes a counter-framework he calls “Decolonization, Counterdomination, and Empowerment” in order to guide in the recovery of what has been lost through colonialism. His model involves blending “both the modern and traditional cultural systems.” Key to his approach is what he calls indigenization from within, a traditional values-based approach that sees the indigenous as the main actor rather than the outsider. This internal orientation is essential to beginning decolonization because it puts the indigenous firmly in the driver’s seat. Enriquez identifies four aspects to indigenization from within, namely the “identification of key concepts from the indigenous culture,” the “semantic and lexical elaboration of these concepts,” the systematization and articulation of a theoretical framework, and applying and using this framework in the field. This process combines ideas and practices that are not only appropriate for the culture but also valid scientifically. So while one may conduct an interview in order to gather data, one is also free to conduct that interview in a culturally appropriate and relevant way.

Thus, by most accounts, appropriation is something that is bad but can be remedied. In our next post we will talk about a situation where appropriation is not only good, but is also the right thing to do.

Feedback is always welcome.

Sharing is what friends do.

Image by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash.

“I wonder who planted these trees?” Understanding our own defaults, biases, & assumptions.

Each one of us has defaults, biases, and assumptions. That is a reality. These defaults shape the way we see and understand the world. I remember a SEATS class I held on a small island in the east side of the Philippines. We were discussing Jesus’ famous illustration of the lily of the fields. The students were reporting after some group work on what they thought the illustration meant and I was struck by one thing: Interpretation depends not only on linguistic context but also on cultural context. A “lily” in the Philippines grows in the water. You may call them them lily pads or water lilies. The lily Jesus was talking about is different because it grows in the fields. There was a lot of discussion about this.

What is my default? My mind defaults to Saskatchewan. I wasn’t born here, I don’t live here (other than temporarily because of COVID-19) but I did spend my formative years here. I guess that’s what makes it my default. So how does this default manifest? In maps. When I look at a map my mind automatically assumes that the topography around the various map points is similar to Saskatchewan. If you have never been you need to visit sometime. Saskatchewan is an incredibly beautiful place, with vast boreal forests, rushing rivers, magnificent valleys, and living skies. But in spite of all of these things, Saskatchewan is known for being like one thing — a billiard table. It’s flat. There are few trees, at least in the south. When you arrive at in intersection on the highway you can expect to see nothing beyond two roads converging. When we were kids we spent some time planting trees for use as shelterbelts to keep the winds from blowing crops away.

Sometimes we don’t realise our biases. I didn’t realise my bias about geography until I moved to British Columbia in the early 1990s. Eva and I were moving from Saskatchewan to BC and I remember driving down Highway 1 into Langley, BC. The Highway is lined with beautiful, large trees — forests actually. I remember thinking to myself, “Somebody must have spent a lot of time planting these trees.”

It was odd that I assumed they were planted because I had driven through the bush before in several provinces (and even in other countries). I even dreamed of living in the bush at one time. But for some reason this was different. In my mind, these trees were planted. I didn’t realise those were my thoughts until a few months passed and it all of a sudden hit me — these trees were natural! No one planted them. In fact people spent lots of time and effort to cut them down!

It got me thinking about other assumptions that I have about life. Growing up in Saskatchewan told me that the noon meal is called “dinner” and the evening meal is called “supper.” I must admit that years of living in other places has me saying “lunch” and “dinner” but that’s not the way I grew up.

Of course the only way to figure out what your assumptions and biases are is to interact with others or travel to new places but this process is essential for ensuring that we can accurately and fairly present Jesus’ truths to the world.

Do you have any idea what your assumptions and biases are?

Feedback is always welcome.

Sharing is what friends do.

Oh no, Canada: Reflections on Canada on Canada Day

Reflection is good for the soul because it causes us to look back on events that we normally view on default and look at them with new eyes. Canada Day is one of these things, especially in light of a recent push to reconcile history with the past. Even using the term “default” is actually problematic because what may be default thinking for me is different for someone else. The history that I read may be different from the history someone else reads. My understanding of the past is also almost certainly different from the actual past.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified the residential school system as a form of cultural genocide. What we are beginning to realise is that some form of physical genocide may also have been happening. Certainly the past was a lot more dangerous than the present, with diseases like TB and the influenza pandemic of 1918 taking many lives, but there are also documented cases of abuse and death at the very hands of those entrusted with the care of these young First Nations children. What makes things worse is that it doesn’t seem to be merely a government issue (and governments do tend to be animal-like), but also a church issue. This is because churches were an integral part of the Residential School system.

Because of these issues there have been calls to rethink Canada Day. After all, why celebrate the country when the country is built on such shameful actions that has made some many mistakes? Some communities are cancelling Canada Day celebrations, while others are planning alternative events to help incorporate victims of Residential Schools into Canada’s story.

So what is the answer? I think it lies in the concepts of Truth, reconciliation, and repentance.

Truth. This is the debate between history and the past (that I have discussed elsewhere). In a nutshell, history is “texts” about the past from a certain perspective. Texts can include writing of course but can also include any aspect of society (citation) including statues, memorials, and events like Canada Day. The past is the actual events that have happened and are being interpreted when doing history. History changes all the time as new perspectives create new interpretations but the past remains the same.

Reconciliation, or restoring relationships, is supposed to be a major part of the church. After all, God has given the church the “ministry of reconciliation.” Relationships need to be restored people and God but relationships between people and other people also need restoration. The church has emphasised the first aspect throughout the years — and in many ways this emphasis may have led to the residential school disaster by ignoring God’s command to love our neighbour as we love ourselves — but hasn’t worked as hard on the restoration of interpersonal relationships. We haven’t been as good at this part as we could have been.

“What about forgiveness?” some may ask. Forgiveness does need to happen, as Matt Stovall, writing from a First Nations’ perspective, points out in his great FB post on this. However, forgiveness works best when it is coupled with repentance, which means the church, as the offending party, needs to repent and ask forgiveness.

So what needs to be reflected upon this Canada Day? Where does reconciliation need to happen? Where does truth need to be reevaluated? How can I ask forgiveness?

On Canada Day, let’s reflect on Canada and repent of our sins. Our eyes are finally opening to the our ugly past. How will we make a better future? Listen to someone’s stories of their residential experience. Read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report. Read Dr. Peter Bryce’s 1907 Report on the Indian schools of Manitoba and the North-West Territories. Read about residential schools, reconciliation and the experience of Indigenous peoples.

On Canada Day, let’s reflect on the church and repent of our sins. It’s quite simple. For church insiders there is a wide range of church types and theologies, that are unknown and even meaningless to church outsiders. The specific churches involved in the Residential School System cannot be separated in people’s minds from the idea of “church.” As I have said elsewhere, “even if we weren’t physically present during these atrocities, we are still complicit in them because people bearing Jesus’ name did these things. Don’t we also bear Jesus name?” So as churches we need to seek ways to ask forgiveness. We need to reflect on the theologies that we hold that led to the whole Residential School system. We need to find ways to connect with First Nations People. We need to reflect on what repentance looks like for you and me.

On Canada Day, let’s reflect on Truth and repent of the untruths and half-truths we have believed instead. I have written elsewhere on truth. Suffice it to say, none of us has a complete understanding of absolute truth. Don’t get me wrong— I do believe in absolute truth but at best I can say we are approaching absolute truth. That means that part of the way forward includes reflecting on the truths that I know and how those truths coincide with the truths that others know and changing our truths so the future is better than the past.

Feedback is always welcome!

Image by Derek Thomson on Unsplash.

Of monuments and unmarked graves: Is it right to commemorate those responsible for the residential school system while ignoring its victims?

There have been many calls over the past years to either remove statues/honours or preserve them. Most recently in Canada these include people connected to the Indian Residential School System, including statues of Sir John A. MacDonald, the university named after Egerton Ryerson, and the honorary degree given to Bishop John O’Grady by the University of British Columbia. Those on social media who oppose removing memorials see them as a part of history that shouldn’t be changed.

How can we navigate issues like this? One good place to start is by understanding the difference between the Past and History — and no, they aren’t the same thing.

The events of the Past are unchangeable. The past rolls on continuously and inexorably. But there is no DVR or VHS for the past. The only thing that can be changed is the future. As Jose Rizal said, “Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinangalingan ay hindi makakarating sa paroroonan.” [“Whoever doesn’t know how to look to where they came from will not arrive where they are going.”]

History, on the other hand, is different from the Past. History is the interpretation of the events of the past. Because it is interpretation it is subject to change and reassessment.

Now let’s apply these ideas to statues. Is a statue the past or is it history? It’s history because it is the commemoration of a person deemed significant in the past. As Charlottetown, PEI, Coun. Greg Rivard says, “I don’t think removing a statue erases any history. A statue is symbolic of something, and I don’t think right now that the statue is symbolic of the right things.”

What about a grave? Is a grave the past or is it history? Graves are the past. This is because in most cases, actual people are buried in a grave. There are of course many types of grave. There are marked graves, complete with gravestone and epitaph. There are commemorative graves — for example the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier — where the person buried within is unknown but is representative all those who died for their countries but remain unidentified. Then there are mass graves or unmarked graves. Mass graves generally hold the bodies of those who have died in a tragedy.

Now what about when the victims of those memorialised and commemorated with statues are buried in unmarked graves? In May 2021, the unmarked graves of 215 First Nations children, whose deaths were undocumented, were discovered on the grounds of a former Residential School in Kamloops, BC. It doesn’t seem right to continue to commemorate or memorialise those responsible for the residential school system when these children have been abandoned and forgotten does it?

But it is one thing for this to be socially reprehensible. We also need to ask what the Bible says about stuff like this. I can think of two ideas in the Bible that apply here.

The Bible has a high regard for children:

Psalm 127:3 says, “Children are an inheritance from the Lord. They are a reward from him.”

Jesus had a high regard for children, even when society seemingly didn’t. We see this a couple of times, including Mark 10:13-16 that says, “Some people brought little children to Jesus to have him hold them. But the disciples told the people not to do that. When Jesus saw this, he became irritated. He told them, “Don’t stop the children from coming to me. Children like these are part of God’s kingdom. I can guarantee this truth: Whoever doesn’t receive God’s kingdom as a little child receives it will never enter it.” Jesus put his arms around the children and blessed them by placing his hands on them.”

Matthew 18:2-5 says, “I can guarantee this truth: Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a child like this in my name welcomes me.”

Caring for widows, orphans, and foreigners is important to God:

James 1:27 says, “Pure, unstained religion, according to God our Father, is to take care of orphans and widows when they suffer and to remain uncorrupted by this world.”

The Bible even has harsh words for those who don’t treat children appropriately:

“These little ones believe in me. It would be best for the person who causes one of them to lose faith to be drowned in the sea with a large stone hung around his neck” (Matthew 18:6).

A millstone around the neck certainly isn’t commemoration is it?

Feedback is always welcome!

Image by NeONBRAND on Unsplash.

Is it possible to sin in the Name of Jesus?

Shocking news out of Kamloops. A graveyard containing the bodies of 215 first nations youngsters was discovered on the site of a residential school. What makes things worse is that the school in question was run by people who bear the name of Jesus.

I should clarify that while the news is shocking for the general Canadian population, First Nations peoples are intimately acquainted with stories like this.

For those unaware, residential schools were a part of Canada’s Aboriginal policy. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report on Canada’s Residential Schools says it this way:

“For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as ‘cultural genocide.’

“Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.

“In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.”

What makes the Residential school narrative especially troubling is the deep participation of the church — those who bear Jesus’ name — in the whole mess. It causes a guy like me, who identifies as a Jesus follower and who is into theology and mission, to ask what went wrong?

Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin, of one of the key advocates of residential schools, wrote in 1880 about the purpose of residential schools:

“To become civilized they should be taken with the consent of their parents & made to lead a life different from their parents and cause them to forget the customs, habits & language of their ancestors.”

Unfortunately the history of missions is full of stories like this.

What is odd is that the Bible is very clear when it comes to culture and faith. Revelation 5:9 and 7:9 both speak of people from every nation, tribe, people, and language being a part of God’s kingdom. What does that mean in practical terms? When we bear the name of Jesus we attempt to have people meet him on their own terms, using their own language, in their own cultural context, in their own place. And when people from every nation, tribe, people, and language get to heaven their uniqueness is celebrated!

The rest of the New Testament is a study in contextualization as people from various cultures and places found ways — through the guidance of the Holy Spirit — to embed Jesus into their own contexts.[1]

I will make a bold statement: If your theology states that someone needs to abandon their own cultural identity — and to subsequently adopt a new cultural identity — in order for them to follow Christ, then your theology has no connection to Jesus.

Having said all of that, even if we weren’t physically present during these atrocities, we are still complicit in them because people bearing Jesus’ name did these things. Don’t we also bear Jesus name?

“I pray Lord that I would see where I am wrong in the things I do today. Forgive me for those things I have done in your name that misrepresent who you are. Lord heal our land.”

Image by Leesa Epp.

1. See Dean Flemming’s Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission for more on this.

I Claim this place in the name of …

New Chinese passport map of disputed area.

New Chinese passport. The dotted line in the lower right corner shows the disputed area that China is claiming.

Have you ever thought about the idea of laying claim. I remember as a child looking at pictures of early European explorers visiting “new” lands and, after planting a cross or a flag, claiming that place in the name of the king (or queen or whoever). Now before you get offended remember that I share both European and First Nations blood 🙂

Recently you may have read one of the following articles regarding China’s new passports. Apparently the show a map that includes disputed portions of the “South China Sea” as being a part of China. As you can guess, various countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and the USA have made their opinions known. That’s because they also have claims in the area. It is a problem that has been brewing over many years but has recently come to a head. Time will tell how this will be resolved.

I began to think about the church and about missions. Do we lay claim to things that don’t belong to us? I wonder what people in the 10/40 Window think about all the maps of their countries that have been distributed over the years? I wonder what “Manila Ben” or whoever Saddleback named their target audience thinks when s/he sees the various effigies of who they are and how to “reach” them?

The concept of “claiming” implies concepts like good and bad, right and wrong, good and evil. Those doing the claiming always come out on the good side, while those who are claimed are always on the wrong side. But is this really the way missions works? Can any of us claim to be perfectly and totally connected to God? Aren’t we all on a journey?

Are we making unfair claims upon the people of the world? Do we have any other choice? Do those people then have the right to make a similar claim upon us?

What do you think?

Cultural Dependency & Systematic Theology: At Odds in the Search for Emancipation?

A lot of my work involves finding solutions for economic problems. Quite often I am that solution (at least on a short-term basis). But we haven’t found a long-term solution yet. We do teach on Capacity Building at SEATS but some things I have been reading lately have made me wonder if we are on the wrong track. Recently I have been thinking about the following questions and ideas:

If cultural & economic dependency are linked (as per Ali Mazrui), what does that say for teaching systematic theology cross-culturally? Since theology defines church culture, must it then be developed by those within the culture so as to not contribute to cultural dependency? Is it just adding to the problem? Is developing Asian Theology then the key to eliminating economic dependency in Asian churches?

These questions came as a result of reading my Dad’s Master of Education thesis from 1990. Kind of makes me wish I had read it earlier. Referencing Mazrui, Dad makes the statement “that cultural autonomy can be achieved through a strategy of domestication, diversification, and counter-penetration.”

Examples of this strategy (with comments) as applied to my cultural setting might include:

1. Use local language. SEATS training is conducted in a blending of English and Tagalog so perhaps we are going in the right direction here.

2. Connect to other Asian churches/cultures. SEATS itself is cross0-cultural but we haven’t been able to really link up Filipinos with other Asian church groups at this level. This will allow Asians to have more voices in the conversation than simply westerners.

3. Diffuse Filipino values into the mission. This, as pointed out in the thesis, is already on the way to being accomplished since there are a large number of Filipinos in Canada and Filipino churches working with the BGC Canada. Early in our career we even had a Filipino director of Global Ministries. His influence was definitely felt in our movement, even though he later moved on to other things. SEATS itself has a completely Filipino board. One idea would be to allow other Asian board members to help fill out the conversation and bring balance.

In your opinion, what is the best answer to this problem?

The Church, the World, and the Kingdom of God

My favourite theological motif is derived from the story of the Loving Father (also known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son). It is in fact a story about the world, which is synonymous with the family of God. The story is about a Father with two sons. One son wanders off in search of his own joy in life (but ends up realizing that true joy only lies in his father’s household). The other stays at home and faithfully works for his father (but ends up developing a non-loving attitude toward his sibling). The father is very interested in both the return of his “lost” son, as well as the proper attitude of this other son.

This is a picture of God and his relationship with the world. Some people of the world have wandered off in search for joy. Many return to God. Others are safe in the church but sometimes end up having a dim view of those who are not yet there.

It reminds me of something I read from David Fitch over at Reclaiming the Mission. He made a statement about in March 2010 that has stuck in my head. Here it is:

“There is no dividing line between the church & the world. The church may precede the world today, yet it is only living today what the world itself is ultimately called to in the future. The church in essence bleeds into the world ever calling it to its true destiny. As a foretaste of the renewal of all creation, the church cannot be discontinuous with creation. It cannot be discontinuous with the world because the church is in the process of becoming that very world renewed in Christ. Neither can it merely blend into the world for then all Mission & renewal is lost. Its presence will be in, among & for the world even as it will be distinct from the world. This is what it means to take on the incarnational nature of Christ. It is this very incarnational nature that requires the church to be a discerning community which at times both refuses conformity with the world while at other times joining in (with what God is already at work doing).”

This resonates a lot with me because it is where I see the church’s role in the world right now. We can’t transform something if we are not involved in it. Note that the very concept of transformation implies that there is not a wholesale accommodation to the world, just a participation in what God is doing to enact that transformation.

I just have a nagging question: What is the relationship between the church and the Kingdom of God? David points out that the church is a “foretaste of the renewal of all creation.” But if it is a “foretaste,” it can’t be the final product. In the following sentence we read, “the church is in the process of becoming that very world renewed in Christ.” Is it the church that is becoming the world renewed in Christ or is the renewed world the kingdom spoken of in Revelation 11:15 – “The kingdom of the world has become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will rule as king forever and ever.”

I guess what it comes down to is this: Is it ok for me to work at building the church or should I instead work at building the kingdom? Or is to do one to do the other as well?

What is my White Picket Fence & Church with a Steeple?

I have been living in a culture that is not my own for almost 11 years. From the beginning, my wife and I resolved not only to follow God’s call to this place but to do so without imposing our passport-culture’s baggage in our host culture.

You see, when I was in high-school I saw part of a movie on TV that was based upon James Michener’s Hawaii. I now realise that the book and movie were based upon Michener’s own misunderstandings of the issues of cross-cultural workers and how they related to locals. However, the story of a missionary who isn’t willing to pass the baton to the locals when the time comes has stuck with me since then. Stories also abound of how people bringing God’s message of Good News also brought with them their own cultures and forced locals to wear clothes, build churches with nice steeples and white picket fences around them.
When my wife and I arrived here, we resolved to leave the cultural baggage behind, and instead just bring the message of God’s love.
Easier said than done.
I recently realised that I am a cultural imperialist! Of course, my version of imperialism doesn’t include clothing and white picket fences. It does, however, include an innate belief that the way I do things is better than the way things are done here. When people do things differently than I would and problems arise I have an immediate solution: Simply start doing things my way and all your problems will be solved! After all, isn’t that what transformation is all about?
If my goal as an agent of transformation is not to transform culture then what is it? My wife’s words were apropos: “You are here to glorify God.”
The realised that the problem is that I am assuming that transformation means that all must embrace my culture. Rather I should assume that all must embrace my God and let the culture sort itself out.
What is your white picket fence and church with a steeple?

How is God at work outside the church?

For the past few days I have been musing about the question “What is God doing in the world?” Ed Stetzer and others (here & here) have been writing about it on the Missional SyncBlog. The background of the question is a concept that is gaining momentum in the church based upon the role of the Church in the world and the role of God. For many years we in the church have thought that the church has a mission in the world. While there is no real problem with this there a little confusion seemed to develop along the way as to who was ultimately responsible for seeing this vision to fruition. Recently, as we began to ponder the work and mission of God, we realised that it is in fact God who is working in the world and we in the church must join him in his mission to the world. So that leads us to the question above as to what exactly God is doing in the world, more particularly, apart from the church? Meaning, what things to we need to look for as we try to let God set the agenda rather than we ourselves setting the agenda? More to the point, is God saving people outside of the church as well?

Then it came to me. Perhaps the most well-known verse in the Bible can help us understand how God is at work in the world. John 3:16 says, “God loved the world in this way: he sent his only Son so that whoever believes in him will not die but will have life that lasts for ever.”

There seems to be two things that we learn from this verse:

1. God is actively involved in loving the world.
2. God active love of the world is shown to the world in a very specific way: through Jesus.

What are the implications of this?

1. God’s love for the world does not appear to hinge upon the world’s love for him.
2. Jesus is essential to this display and experience of love.
3. The church, as Christ’s body, must then actively showing God’s love to the world.
4. Wherever we go, whomever we meet, whatever we experience, we must remember that God is in love with that place, that person, us. Asking the question, “What/Who is God loving here?” will go a long way towards us understanding his work in the world. The Parable of the Family (Luke 15:11-32)

If we think of an example we can think of the parable of the loving father. God, of course, is the father, and he loves his children regardless of whether they stay with him or not. Much has been made of the fact that “while he was still a long way from home his father saw him, and his heart went out to him; he ran and hugged his son and kissed him.” (v20) For the father, the son has never really left. He knows and waits for the day he will return. The Father also loves his older son saying, “you are always with me, and everything that belongs to me is yours.”

The so-called prodigal son is one of those kids he loves. Who is the prodigal? He represents those who have chosen their own way over God’s way – even those who are the most offensive and hateful in our eyes.

The Father also loves the older son. Who is the older son? The older brother could be described as those who are in the kingdom but who are not appreciative of what the Father’s love means for them and for the world. They enjoy the fact that they are working hard for God but appear to be unwilling to enjoy their relationship with the Father nor to want to share the blessings with others.

The key is that the prodigal son has to return to his father’s house in order to be received by the Father. The irony is that the older son doesn’t really appreciate his own situation: he doesn’t enjoy his position in the household and he doesn’t let anyone else enjoy the goodness of the father’s home either.

So, how does this relate to the church?

First of all it is important to see that God loves everyone, both inside and outside the church. He loves those who give their lives to him. He loves those who have chosen following him as a career-path. He loves those who are seeking to destroy the church. He loves those who haven’t yet heard about him. He loves those who have chosen to live their lives in opposition to him. He loves corrupt politicians. He loves abusive parents. He loves prisoners, criminals, gang members, hockey moms, blue-collar workers, management, employees, unions, scabs, parents, teens, kids, teachers, administrators, predators, stalkers, etc. If God loves these people then we need to join him on his mission of loving them. If I want to know where God is working in the world I just need to find someone whom the world doesn’t love and start loving them.

Of course we can’t equate the love God has for the world with his condoning the practices of the world. Certainly God created everything good, but we, in our sinful state, have turned the good into the bad. We (& the world) must return to God in order to receive the benefit of salvation. God’s promise to us is that creation will not have to groan anymore as he restores everything to its original holiness.

How then does it inform us as to what God’s work is outside the church?

Without Jesus, there is no salvation. The Bible also says that unless we repent, we will not be able to share in the salvation Jesus gives. But, the Bible is also clear that God does love the world. The church as Christ’s body is the representation of God’s love in the world and is tasked with showing that love to the world.