Strangers on Your Doorstep, Part 3b

This post, which is a follow-up to my previous post, starts with a stolen anecdote.  (Like preachers, I take my best anecdotes from others.)

Celia King, the Service-Learning Director at Malone, spoke in chapel the other day and explained how she once came across a big pile of clothes at an orphanage in China.  And when I say big, I don’t mean big, as in 5-loads-of-laundry big.  I mean big, as in somewhere between the size of a Ford Econoline Van and a fire truck.  And speaking of fires, one of the orphans, under the instructions of the orphanage leaders, was busy torching this emergency-vehicle-sized-pile of clothes.

So, what was going on here?

It seems that a good number of kind-hearted folks had decided to help out the orphanage, so they organized a pretty efficient system for getting clothes to this orphanage.

The problem was that they were so efficient that the orphanage was soon flooded with far more clothes than they needed.  The clothes piled up.  Did I mention it was a big pile?  The big pile drew rats.  Rats, as I understand, are not good for orphanages.  So they periodically had to torch the delivery-truck-sized piles of clothes that piled up.

Celia pointed out that it is great to try to help out when we see a problem, but sometimes we jump in without fully knowing the situation.

I would also point out that Americans are particularly susceptible to this problem, because we are shaped by a culture that is task-oriented.  Since the colonial era, Americans like to fix things and accomplish tasks.  We have built train systems, we have put a man on the moon, we have invented the Post-It Note, and we do more piles of laundry per capita than anyone in the world.  Even the Dutch.  (Or at least this was true in 1937).  Millions of American schoolchildren have been inspired by Abraham Lincoln, who famously told the nation, “Git ‘er Done!” (OK, that wasn’t really from Abraham Lincoln, who was much more eloquent in his public speeches, but I still think it could have been Abraham Lincoln at the age of 19 as he hauled flatboats down the Mississippi River).

For instance, if Karen refugees suddenly arrived on the doorstep of our church, like they did in that Baptist church in upstate New York, (see my previous post) I imagine that many kind-hearted church members would jump right in to find them clothes, arrange transportation, set up English classes and get them to driving instructors.  That would demonstrate a great level of compassion.

But would our churches know the best way to deliver these services to them?  Would our churches know whether the Karen needed Bible instruction?  Would our churches need to give them tips on reaching out to their unchurched Karen neighbors? Would our churches know what spiritual issues are most pressing to their community?

Maybe, maybe not.  Actually, probably not.

In addition to the desire to help, then, it is critical that we slow down, engage in conversation and listen.  Especially in cross-cultural situations.  For instance, if we were working with Karen refugees in our churches and wondering if they needed Bible instruction, we might learn through a discussion with a Karen leader that their great-great-great-great grandparents became Christians in the 1840s.  We might also learn that their family had been reading the Bible, in the Karen language, since that time.  So do they need Bible instruction?  They might, they might not.  They might want some theological education.  But they might not.  They might want English language instruction.  But maybe only some of them.  We would have to listen to them to find out.

The best missionaries and missionary thinkers in history understood this.  Do our churches?  Is listening built into the way we do our ministries?  I hope so.

Strangers on Your Doorstep, Part 3a: Upstate New York

Most of you who are regular attenders at evangelical churches probably have a Sunday morning routine that is similar to many others.  You go to Sunday school, you drink coffee, and you catch up on the week with fellow congregants.  You go to worship and sing praise choruses or hymns. You scan the bulletin for other activities you may be involved in:  small groups, outreach projects, the choir practice.  You listen to a decent sermon and hope the pastor is done by noon so you can beat the Presbyterians to the Olive Garden.

It is a pattern that carries its own joys and frustrations.  Over the years, a few people leave and enter the picture.  The worship and church projects may change somewhat.  But you see God at work and there may be a certain comfort in the familiarity of the overall pattern.

So let us suppose that one Sunday morning, 75-100 Asians walk into your church, unannounced.  Most of them cannot speak English.  They are of all ages and they do not look to have much income.  Their leader tells you that they are from Myanmar.  They are refugees who have just been moved to the United States.  And they want to start attending your church (attendance of about 150-200) because your church is Baptist and they, too, are Baptists.

What do you do?  Well, you know, you’d have to try to accommodate them, wouldn’t you?  I mean, it’s a church and you have all those Bible admonitions to deal with.  You can’t really ignore 75 new people standing around in your foyer, can you?

Karen youth in upstate New York at a baptismal ceremony

But how would you accommodate them?  Just let them sit in church?  Do you stick their children into your Sunday Schools?  And what happens in the weeks ahead?  Do you teach them all English?  Do they need assistance with clothes, transportation, or finding jobs?  How much do they need to know about Christianity?  Will you have to set up separate classes for the adults?  Separate worship?  The deeper you go, the more questions that arise.

I love this story.

I love this story for a couple of reasons.  First, it is not hypothetical.  It happened a few years ago to a Baptist church in upstate New York.  (I got the story second-hand, so some of the details may not be exactly accurate, but I believe the fundamental points are sound).

I also love this story because it shows an unanticipated way that God is at work.  Sometimes, He pushes people out of their comfort zone.   I’m OK with that.  Especially if I’m not the one who is made uncomfortable.

I also love this story because it repeats the George Boardman story in a different form.  These refugees were from the Karen people of Myanmar, which is sometimes also known as Burma.  Their ancestors became Christians about 170 years ago after a small delegation of Karen arrived on Boardman’s doorstep.

This New York church, collectively, faced similar sort of challenges that George Boardman did.  They suddenly had a ministry on their hands that they did not seek or anticipate.  They weren’t asked to go out and preach in a jungle, but they were asked to adjust their patterns of ministry.  Sunday mornings would not be the same.  Their plans for the future had to change.  Those adjustments aren’t usually easy to make.

Most evangelical Christians have not been hit with anything quite like this in their church.  And you may feel pretty comfortable in thinking that it is pretty rare.

Don’t be so sure.

Broadly speaking, this story results from a powerful trend that has swept the world in the last several decades.  This trend is the remarkable growth of world Christianity, which is the embodiment of Christianity among diverse culture groups around the world.

World Christianity is not only growing.  It is coming to the United States.  Thousands of churches have already found themselves reacting to the arrival of Christian immigrants who have, in some way, forged connections to their ministries. Your church might be confronted with something very similar someday.   How will evangelical churches respond?   It is, I think, an important question.