Strangers on Your Doorstep, Part 4b: Faithfulness as a church body

In my previous post I told the story of changes that took place at Long Beach Friends Church.  I wrote that I thought this was a church that responded faithfully to God’s direction.  The key here, I think, is what it means to respond faithfully.  I’m not deeply knowledgeable about this congregation, but I would draw the following conclusions from what I observe:

1) Prayer.  One of the most important things prayer does is change us.  It looks to me like the prayer meeting in 1979 helped make the congregation more sensitive, willing and aware to respond when an opportunity landed on their doorstep.  Without prayer, we are often dull and insensitive to what God may be doing around us.

2) The local/global nexus.  Instead of thinking the grass might be greener in another neighborhood, the church became increasingly willing to respond to the people in their own neighborhood.  But that local response was also possible because the congregation believed that the Christian faith had a global dimension to it.  Some Americans and some American Christians aren’t quite so willing to welcome and interact with immigrants, who may not seem like they are one of “us.”

3) Shifting identity.  Long Beach Friends has now been in existence for more than a century.  It is still a Friends congregation, with the same core Christian faith it held a century ago.  However, its ethnic and racial identity is quite different.  Its ministries are multiethnic.  Its elders are multiethnic.  It has adjusted its worship, with services in different languages but also a combined ethnic worship service.  And I’m sure that other adjustments have had to be made as the second generation of immigrant children has grown up in American culture.  In shifting ethnic or cultural situations, then, faithfulness means that a body will need to be willing to incorporate new leadership into the institution.  A lot of conversations and a lot of listening will have to take place.

4) Unexpected Developments.  How many members of the Long Beach Friends Church in 1952 could have predicted what their church looks like today?   There is a wider message here for the church in America.  How many American Christians in 1952 could have predicted what the worldwide church looks like today?  White Americans (or even white Americans and Europeans) are now a definite minority in the worldwide church.  Among other things, that means that those of us from the white American demographic may not always get to set the terms for the church and its ministry.  If we insist on setting the terms…..well, then what?  On the other hand, if we listen, come alongside others, listen, and adjust…well, then what?



Strangers on Your Doorstep, Part 4a: The Long Beach Friends Church

In 1979, the Long Beach Friends Church looked to be on its last legs.  This church, which had been formed ninety years earlier, had once thrived with a membership in the hundreds.  By the late 1970s, though, worship attendance was closer to a couple dozen and it had no children’s Sunday school program to speak of.

Mother’s Day at Long Beach Friends in the 1940s

This happens to churches sometimes, for a variety of reasons.  For the Long Beach Friends, the biggest factor seemed to be that many long-time members had moved away.  We Americans are a restless lot, and this has been no less true of southern California.  As residents came and left Long Beach, the demographics of the city shifted, with Asian and Hispanic immigrants making up a larger percentage of the population by the 1970s.

Members of the church wondered whether or not they would have to “lay down the meeting.”  (Translation for the non-Quakers among you:  closing down the church).  The church held a prayer meeting.  Through that meeting they decided that God was telling them that He still had a purpose for that church, which might mean some sort of ministry in their community.  They decided they would not lay it down.

Very shortly afterward – it may have been the next Sunday morning–four Khmer men (immigrants from Cambodia) stopped in front of the building.  They were looking at the cross and wondering if the building were a church.  One of the women from the church invited them in to their Sunday Bible study.  The one man of the four who could speak a little English told the class they had been in the United States for just a few months.  They wanted a church where they could raise their children as Christians.  Somewhere, in a winding odyssey that had taken them from their villages in Cambodia, to refugee camps in Thailand, to southern California, they had adopted the Christian faith.

The Long Beach Friends Church now found itself on a different sort of odyssey.  The children’s program, of course, suddenly took on new life.  But the existing members also discovered that they had been pushed into unfamiliar territory.  They decided they needed to round up clothes, toys and transportation for the new immigrants.  They had to learn Cambodian customs.  They had to figure out how to hold worship and conduct ministries in a couple of different languages. And they had to learn the ropes of the medical, welfare, housing, interpreter and the refugee systems.

Today, Long Beach Friends is a thriving multiethnic church.  You should check out their website.   The church has worship services, Bible studies, and ministries in English, Khmer, Spanish and Korean. They have an inner city ministry, community dinners, programs for children, and a sports ministry.  Nobody talks about “laying down the meeting.”

Of course, the church must have had its conflicts, tensions, challenges and difficulties along the way.  I don’t know any of those details, but I know these things happen in every church, family, school, business and, needless to say, long-term cross-cultural ministry.  The key is not sinlessness but faithfulness.  That prayer meeting in 1979 demonstrated a desire by the small congregation to discern what God had called them to and then to be faithful to that call. And so did the search by the Khmer men to find a church in this strange new land.

More on this in my next post.

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.

Strangers on Your Doorstep, Part 2b: George Boardman and the Problem of Complexity

George Boardman dying while watching Karen Christians getting baptized. That makes him an evangelical hero doesn’t it? Or does it?

And now it is time to address the question I posed in my previous post.  Was George Boardman a jerk?

Not any more than I am.

Of course, that doesn’t really answer the question, because I just might be a pretty big jerk myself.  Or I might not be.  Or I might be a jerk sometimes but not at other times.  You can ask my wife and kids about that, but I’d prefer you not.

The reality is that missionaries, including “Boardman of Burma” were actually a lot like the rest of us.  They may have been faithful Christians and deeply dedicated to their ministry, but they also had their flaws and blindspots.  They should not be divided into simplistic categories of heroes and jerks.

Why didn’t Boardman respond immediately to the Karen inquirers?  The real answer requires a more complicated consideration of his personality and the cultural situation he was in. This kind of explanation, quite frankly, doesn’t fit well into the limited space of the typical blog.  If I could accurately categorize him as either a jerk or a hero, I’d be able to explain it all right here.  But I can’t. He and his situation were more complex than that.   So you’ll have to read my book for a more complete exploration of those issues.

And since you may not like that answer, I’ll give you a shorter one:  Boardman could not predict the future.  He had invested himself in the Buddhist Burman people in the city, not this uncivilized nomadic group of Karen people in the jungle.  It was a big step for him to let go of his plans.  To do so would mean he would have to stop trying to control things according to terms he had laid out for his ministry.  He would have to go off to the jungle to operate by the terms of Karen culture.  That would not be easy for any of us to do.

Or how about this:  an even shorter answer, and one that is probably better because it has depths of meaning to it, comes from Randall Forbes’ great comment on my previous post.  Boardman sounds like Jonah.  Ponder what that means.  There are a lot of layers to that short book of the Bible.

Now, if you are an evangelical Christian, you are probably drawing a spiritual lesson from this story.  And if you are an American, you are individualistic, which means you are applying the lesson to your own personal situation.  You probably recognize that there have been times in your life when you had plans laid out a certain way and God came along and presented something different to you, which was difficult in the short run, but much better in the long run.  Great.  I’m glad you drew that lesson without me even having to point it out to you.  Well done.

But if you are an evangelical Christian and an American and individualistic, it is also quite possible that you did not naturally respond to a story like this by thinking about the larger social structures and cultural influences that influence our thinking.  So here, free of charge, is a larger point that deals with social structures and cultural influences that influence our thinking:  the very question that I posed, “Was Boardman a hero or a jerk,” reflects a common and pervasive way of thinking in American culture that runs into tension with good biblical theology.

And what does this common and pervasive way of thinking have to do with Disney princesses, you may ask.  Then again, you may not ask that question.  But I’m bringing it up in my next post this weekend.


Strangers on Your Doorstep — Part 2a: Was George Boardman a hero or a jerk?

It’s time to insert a little evangelical history into the doorstep theme.  The question for today is whether George Boardman was a hero or a jerk.

OK, I admit that as far as historical controversies go, it’s not quite as engrossing as “Did slavery cause the Civil War?” or “What if Spartacus had a Piper Cub?”  In fact, I’m pretty sure that most of the readers of this blog don’t even know who George Boardman was.

If you are part of the small population that is familiar with old evangelical missionary stories (a group I estimate it to be about as big as the fan base of the Fort Wayne Tin Caps) you might remember “Boardman of Burma” as a Baptist missionary who brought the Gospel to the Karen people of Burma in 1828.  Several decades ago, within this American evangelical subculture, Boardman was a hero.

Here’s how people sometimes write about missionary heroes.  The man who wrote a biography of Boardman in 1940 said he was “the human instrument used of God to initiate (the) transformation” of “the Karen people from a despised, down-trodden, backward race to a people with a prominent and honorable position in Burma.”  (“Backward race?”  Ouch.  But I’ll save the subject of paternalism in missionary histories for another time.)

But there is another side.  When I was working on my book, I had students in my missions history class read drafts of my chapters.  George Boardman appears quite a bit in my first chapter.  I remember one student read my account of Boardman and got rather annoyed.  She thought he was a “jerk.”

So here’s the story, at least how I tell it (sort of) in my book.  George and Sarah Boardman had arrived in the city of Tavoy in Burma in 1828 to work among the Buddhist Burman people.  One day, several individuals from a people group called the Karen showed up on their doorstep, asking about Christianity.  They had an oral tradition that said that one day foreigners would arrive in their land with a book, from which they would learn about God.  Would George Boardman come with them back to their village to teach them about Christianity?  Boardman said that this was very interesting and yes, he’d probably have to do that sometime.

(Actually, I don’t know what his exact words were to the Karen, because nobody was there with a video camera.  Plus, they had to translate the Karen questions into Burmese, which were then translated into English.  Boardman’s reply in English was then translated back into Burmese, which was then translated back into Karen.  Missionary conversations took a lot longer back in the Olden Times).

Anyway, the Karen delegation left and came back a few weeks later asking if he could come preach in the jungle.  Boardman said something to the effect that this was very interesting and yes, he’d probably have to do that sometime.  They left and another group of Karen came a few days later and asked if he would come bring the Gospel to their people.  Boardman said that this was very interesting and yes, he’d probably have to do that sometime.  After another group came, Boardman said that sometime he would have to go with them into the jungle because, yes, this was very interesting.

You get the idea.   At least twelve different delegations of Karen arrived at George Boardman’s doorstep at different times.  At least eight different times they asked if Boardman would come out to evangelize their villages.  Boardman finally did his evangelical duty and went off to the jungle only after he had been badgered all of these times – nine months after the first group had arrived.  And here we see why my student was annoyed.  What was his deal, anyway?  Here are these people literally on the doorstep of this missionary, asking Boardman if he would come to preach to them.  And he doesn’t respond.

Some people would say the question is irrelevant because they believe the attempt to convert somebody to another religious faith involves coercion or imposition that violates some sort of ethical principle.  Evangelicals and many other kinds of Christians, however, believe that God’s mission to redeem the world involves the spread of the Gospel.  And so, if a missionary has a group of people at his doorstep begging him to come preach to them, that missionary really ought to jump at this opportunity.  Boardman didn’t jump so much as he was dragged, rather reluctantly, into the jungle.

So, from the evangelical way of thinking, we have the question:  hero or jerk?

I’ll give my response on Thursday.

Strangers on Your Doorstep, Part 1: South Bend, Indiana, 1995

A number of years ago when I was in graduate school at Notre Dame, I answered the doorbell and discovered four Asian young adults on my doorstep.  They told me they were from Indonesia.  Three of them were about to start college at Purdue.  The fourth, a young woman, was about to start at Notre Dame.  The problem was that the dorms would not open for another week and she had no place to stay.  Her companions were going to head back to Purdue within the hour.  She had our name and address because my wife, Elisa, coordinated a program in our church for international students.  Could she possibly stay with us?

Well, now.

Many readers of this blog are probably kind, warm-hearted, compassionate people who would not hesitate to open their home to someone in need.  I, however, am not such a good person.  In unexpected and uncertain social situations, I freeze up and worry about what might go wrong.  I once took the MMPI psychological test and reviewed the bar-graph results with a psychologist who would help me interpret them.  One bar towered above the rest of the bars in the row, like the Eiffel Tower looming over old apartment buildings of Paris.  This particular bar measured Harm-Avoidance.  Interpretation:  I am a Big Chicken.  (The psychologist, who was a kind soul, did not use these exact words, but I could see what was what).

Anyway, that day in South Bend I found myself turning over a question I could not remember considering before:  What am I supposed to do with the Indonesians?  I invited the four students in and stalled in my response while I mentally whipped through my options.  Unfortunately, the situation seemed like some sort of New Testament parable.  As a Christian, I realized, I was probably supposed to warmly tell the young stranger she was welcome to stay with us and then carry her bags up to our guestroom.  But the Big Chicken in me provoked all sorts of worrisome possibilities.  Maybe she would teach my daughters to smoke pot.  Maybe she would rip our bedsheets, leave dirty dishes stacked in the sink and monopolize the TV.  Maybe she was going to invite her friends in at night for loud, exotic Indonesian college-student parties.  Maybe this whole thing was an elaborate plot to steal all the valuable electronics in our house (a computer and a VCR).  Maybe…. maybe…. well, the scenario I couldn’t imagine seemed the worst of all.

What to do?  It was important to discuss major decisions with Elisa, but she was not at home and the three Purdue students were about to leave.  I briefly considered eliciting advice from my daughters.  The oldest, Karin, was pretty sensible.  She was, however, entering the second grade.  No, I probably should not go that route.  I was on my own.  And so I decided:  yes, she could stay with us.

End of story:  The young woman stayed, the Purdue students left, Elisa came home a couple of hours later and because she is a better person than me, she immediately welcomed the young woman with warmth and compassion.  That stranger on our doorstep, Sari, stayed with us for about ten days and turned out to be an amazingly fun and delightful young woman.  Over the next couple of years, we invited her over to our house many times.  Sari became a good friend and proved to be a true blessing to everyone in the family.  In hindsight, I can only imagine the anxieties she had that day on the doorstep in South Bend, anxieties which rightfully would have been far, far greater than mine.

We would never have been blessed that way, however, if we had not been missionaries in Kenya for six years. First of all, Sari would never have had our name in her pocket if Elisa had not started the international student ministry at our church.  Elisa did this because we ourselves were once strangers in a different culture.  Grateful for how a veteran missionary couple, Jim and Joan Harding, welcomed us and eased our transition to a very different place, we thought it would be good to do something similar when we moved back to Indiana.  Second, missionaries are not necessarily instinctively more compassionate than others.  They are made up of the same stuff as ordinary Christians are.  But my missionary experience put me in places where I had to adjust to unexpected scenarios, where I had to consider the possibility that the Holy Spirit arranged surprising situations, and where I had to face my own flaws and limitations if I were going to do this missionary thing.  I began to see that sometimes I am called to find out whether or not the grace of God is bigger than the Big Chicken within.

But here is the take-away:  with the growth of world Christianity, many American Christians will find themselves in similarly unexpected situations in the decades to come.  In fact, many already have.