Listening to the Lost

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Deprogramming myself from often good, but largely program and doctrine-driven churches, I am discovering the joy of becoming a part of a mission-driven community. Most of my church experience and church planting training has been thoroughly Western and attractional–relying on plans, time lines, informational meetings, monologue preaching and teaching, Bible-studies, book studies, evangelistic events, etc. In fact, some of my most transforming church experiences up to this point have been self-initiated community groups that revolve around the internal mission of mortification of sin (see article).

One of the primary missional influences that has kept my head above programs, looking for people and cultures, has been cross-cultural ministry in a variety of places, most recently in Southeast Asia. It was through the adopting the unreached Shan people that I was forced to put my Anthropology degree to practice. In Asia we conducted prayer walks, interviews, and strategy meetings all with the aim of understanding what it means to be Shan. How do the Shan eat/work/worship/relate across generations and gender? Who is in charge of a village? What difference does it make? What are these necklaces that all the children wear? What does it mean to sleep at the temple?

Our questions moved from general to specific, as we learned more about Shan culture. The aim of our ethnographic research was to produce a body of information that could help inform church planting strategies in N. Thailand and Burma. One of the results was Surehope. One of the most effective ways to know our”target audience” was to ask them questions…something that we really arent good at in the West. Instead, Christians assume a defensive posture, making conversations doctrinal battles or apologetic arguments. Ethnographic research forces us to take a more humble path, the path of learning from those we hope “to reach.”

By asking questions from concern and genuine interest, we will travel much further and faster in our relationships. But first, we have to be convinced that we have something to learn from others, especially from those who don’t believe as we do. Our biblical anthropology–all men are created in God’s image–should convince us of that, but only the Spirit of God can convict us of subtle self-righteousness in viewing non-Christians as projects to complete, not persons to love. Jesus, of course, is the ultimate example…at the well, in the garden, in the temple…he constantly asked questions from love and for life. Through attentive conversation and questions, Jesus lovingly related to others eventually leading many into new, restored living.

Jesus-like church planters and disciples will ask lots of questions and listen to the answers. Francis Schaeffer once said something to the effect of: “Give me an hour with an unbeliever and I will listen for the first 55 minutes and then in the last five minutes I will have something to say.”

Listen to the lost and you will learn. Love the lost with that understanding and often you will see life.