Must Counter-Cult Lay Apologists Also Become Cross-Cultural Missiologists?

I posted the following comment (with a typo corrected) to a post titled “Cross-Cultural Hermeneutics Course Aims: Why Are They Missing Elsewhere?” at John Morehead’s blog today at 12:59 p.m. (U.S. Eastern Time):

John,You wrote: “These goals represent those common in missiology. To what extent do we see them desired, emphasized and utilized among American evangelicals working in the area of new religions and alternative spiritualities in the West? I don’t see much of it. Why is this the case?”

I would suggest that it could be because either (a) the case has yet to be made that new religions and alternative spiritualities possess “cultures” of their own to a degree sufficient to make such methodological goals applicable to the task of evangelizing them, or (b) the case actually has been made, but has either not been adequately disseminated or sufficiently grasped by the community that is actively reaching out to those groups. I think most would agree that our general culture is riddled with sub-cultures, and that these sub-cultures generally display traits that separate them from other sub-cultures within the broader culture of our society. Furthermore, I have found in my reading of books that may be classified as part of the “counter-cult” genre at least some awareness of the various “cultural” features of new religions and alternative spiritualities. For example, if one studies Jehovah’s Witnesses for even a modest length of time it’s difficult to avoid knowing that the Watchtower Society defines “knowing God” as “taking in knowledge about God,” and “faith” as “exercising faith” in a manner that is tantamount to, or at least feeds directly into, a system of works-righteousness. And some counter-cult literature takes pains to point this out. While it may be possible to object to the way those ministries respond to this awareness, and while they may not think of it as the kind of “cultural difference” that missiologists deal with, at least they’ve exhibited an awareness of this difference in the use of language, and have taken it into account in their evangelistic approaches.

Now I would be the last person to minimize the importance of the field of cross-cultural hermeneutics. But I would also be the last person to insist that its findings are applicable everywhere and in all cases to reaching new religions and alternative spiritualities. Instead I would ask, to what extent must we become expert in cross-cultural methodologies in order to adequately communicate the Gospel to, say, to our next-door neighbor who happens to be a Mormon–especially when the level of culture we already share (and thus the number of tools for communication at are disposal) by virtue of being early-21st century Americans is probably greater than the differences that separate our religious “cultures?”

The significance of this question for me is enhanced when I read Dr. Priest’s “cognitive” point A.5: “understanding of communication theory and of those elements of culture related to interpersonal interaction and to the communicative task (e.g. body language, symbols, media of communication, interaction styles, etc.).” I have enough formal training in communication theory (at the undergrad level) to know that much of what is taught under this heading academically has been commonly known and studied informally by millions (especially salespeople) since time immemorial. It’s not that learning about it in an academic setting would be useless–in fact, I would encourage more people to pursue it, since it can even be of some help to those who already possess such knowledge more intuitively. But I think we should at least give credit to those who’ve been doing hard work of evangelizing members of new religions face-to-face for years now when they’re obviously able to read non-verbal communication signals from other members of their own broader culture. Most of the ones I’ve worked with have demonstrated mastery of those basic techniques.

You also wrote:

“Why does missiology seem to have lofty aims in its understanding and methodology but they seem sorely lacking in apologetic approaches? Should we not aspire to these worthy aims?”

The short answer to these questions would be: for centuries apologetics has traditionally been practiced as a department of Systematic Theology, rather than as a department of evangelism and missions studies, which is a fairly new animal in the Christian academy. The early counter-cult authors did not create this situation. It was simply they way they found things when they began to ply their trades.

The longer answer involves understanding how academic specialization has affected Christian biblical and theological studies.

One thing I learned in pursuit of my M.A. in Biblical Studies at the Wheaton College Graduate School is that due to its multi-disciplinary nature the study of Evangelism and Missions has tended to orbit a different galactic cluster than have the other academic specializations of Biblical Studies, Systematic Theology, and Biblical Archaeology. Even in areas where Evangelism and Missions studies seem to overlap with other specializations, the differences are pronounced. For example: Systematic Theology studies Church History primarily trace the development of doctrine. Evangelism and Missions studies it for things like the history spiritual revivals.

Thus one problem that I believe has developed as academic specialization increased–quite ironically!–is that in the pursuit of all things cross-cultural, missiology has developed its own unique theological sub-culture (complete with its own vocabulary, its own canon of scholarly literature, its own shibboleths, etc.) that sometimes makes it difficult for those from the other specializations to understand what they’re trying to say. The constellations of thought in the missiologists’s night sky are thus so different that those who are more accustomed to viewing constellations of thoughts as a systematic theologian don’t always fully understand their
descriptions. One of the few points-of-contact other specializations have with missiologists is the relatively new area of philosophical hermeneutics (which didn’t really come into its own until the 20th century), which helps their discipline to overlap somewhat with that of (and thus become somewhat more accessible to) Biblical Studies and Systematics.

It’s not that this chasm is unbridgeable, and in fact it seems to be narrowing as missiologists begin to carry their missiological inferences into the realms of theological conclusions (which sometimes causes feathers to fly!). And perhaps this is only the natural state of a relatively new discipline as its incubation period (and consequent relative isolation from other disciplines) comes to an end. But if bridging the chasm is challenging enough for the academic community, how much more is it for the lay apologetics community?

I think patience is called for here. While it’s true that some in the counter-cult community are simply curmudgeons who need lessons in tact, I don’t think the problem will be solved (especially for that personality type!) by sending them off packing to courses in cross-cultural communication. Instead, I think that the fruits of missiological study must be patiently shared with those in other theological disciplines, those in ministry, and with the church in general, because in my opinion only as those fruits become accessible to the church, and are accepted by the church as compatible with Scripture, can we expect them to be acted on by those in the church, including those doing the work of apologists for the faith.


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