Sunday, January 31, 2010

where does it itch?

I recently read an account concerning an anthropologist interviewing some tribal leaders concerning their feelings towards the local missionaries.  Although the tribe valued tolerance, understanding and patience, the anthropologist coaxed them into politely revealing a mild critique.  They said, "the missionaries scratch where we do not itch."

Reading that made me recoil as I remembered my first sermon.  I had finished my first year of Bible college and was all hopped up on Schaeffer and worldview stuff.  It was some kind of drivel about existentialism.  Not that it is not an important topic or that Schaeffer was not a brilliant philosopher-evangelist.  It was a great sermon for a crowd of philosophically washed up college students who were ready to sacrifice truth for experience.  The problem is that I preached that sermon about 100 miles from Mount Airy, better known as "Mayberry."

I am in good company concerning this mistake.  This was a lesson learned the hard way in the animistic world.  Missionaries were interested in answering the typical questions about "where do we go when we die?" when the people were concerned with the reaction the ancestors and spirits would have if they turned to Christ.  Eventually missionaries learned that they were asking different questions.  As they answered the questions at hand, they began to see people commit to their message.

A common mistake people make in interfaith evangelism is to read a classic description of a religion.  They take the high version of the religion, build an apologetic against that, and try it on some hapless victim.  The problem is that few, if any, people practice the textbook definition of their religion.  Part of the problem is that there is more than on "text book".  Would someone assuming traditional catholic doctrine be able to build an effective presentation to witness to you?  How many branches of Christianity are there?  Take just one of those branches and then look for an adherent who is a textbook adherent.  Good luck.  Most people practice popularized forms and folk forms of their respective religions.  We need to listen long enough to understand who we are talking to.

Scratching where people itch requires sacrificing our prepackaged theologies, strategies, and CPM plans, in order to listen and build relationships.  I am amazed how patient Jesus was when he took time to answer the interruption concerning an inheritance and two brothers {Luke 12}.  Not only did he listen, but he shifted his teaching for the day.  We could learn something here.

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