Friday, July 19, 2013

Church-planting movements and my questions about culture

A Wind in The House of Islam

Recently I had the opportunity to hear a presentation by David Garrison. It was a small group so I was able to corner him with some of my big questions, ones I struggle with every time another ethnography project comes along.

More than a decade ago Garrison wrote a book called Church Planting Movements. It sent a lot of ripples through frontier mission world. Although he definitely came out with a model (the basis for many of the models frontier mission agencies are using today) he built it on pretty solid phenomenological research. That's a fancy way of saying he's thinking descriptively, not prescriptively. Lots of stories, lots of case studies... then look for the patterns that emerge, after. He basically "reverse engineered" the movements he found and looked for best practices. Plenty of people responded negatively though, and some accused him of developing a formula and saying it would work anywhere. I don't think that's what he meant to do, but it came across that way, especially in the hands of folks looking for a "silver bullet."  

Now Garrison is writing another book about these movements, with similar methodology, and this time focusing on movements to Christ taking place in the Muslim world. According to Garrison, though hundreds of formerly Christian people groups turned to Islam in the first 1300 years after Muhammad, we only find one or two movements in the other direction during that time - a movement of Muslims becoming followers of Jesus. All along there have been individual conversions, but not growing, reproducing movements.

This though, has now changed. From 1980 to 2000 there were eight movements like that around the world. Since 2000 he's been able to document about 70! Continuing research suggests the number of these movements is growing. This is historically unprecedented, and a lot of people in the circles I move in are pretty excited about it.

Garrison defines a movement to Christ as being voluntary (not a matter of coercion) and involving at least 1,000 baptized believers and/or 100 churches within a ten-year period. And for this research, he's been careful to confirm that these churches were made up of people from Muslim backgrounds, not animistic or Christian elements within a Muslim culture or country.

Movements, Models, and Diversity

With my background in cultural research, my ears perked up a bit as he explained that his title, A Wind in the House of Islam, alludes to a global "house" with nine rooms, the nine major affinity blocks - I realized he wasn't talking about cookie-cutter movements that all had to look the same.

"Nine Rooms in the House of Islam"
I think this a healthy step back from what Stone described as "essentialism," (see previous post) which would lead Christians to think Muslims are all alike and that there may be some common strategic key to reaching them.

Garrison says on the book website,
"Though Muslims everywhere share many common bonds... Muslims are by no means a monolithic culture. Muslims vary widely in their culture. From West Africa to Central Asia to Indonesia, Islamic cultural practices are as diverse as the people themselves.”
"For this reason, we have chosen to examine what is happening in the Muslim world with special respect to each of those distinct cultural regions or affinity blocs. These nine regions share mutual history, languages, geography and intertwining ethnicity. By examining movements within each of these distinct cultural zones, we are better able to understand how God is uniquely at work within each one.”
After hearing Garrison's presentation, I introduced myself and told him I was trying to figure out how cultural differences, cultural understanding, and cultural training might fit into the church-planting, disciple-making movement models currently being adopted by more and more mission agencies and Christians working cross-culturally (CPM/DMM). He was aware of some of the ethnographic work I've been part of and did not seem to see a conflict at all.

But he did make this distinction:

The now traditional model for incarnational missions focused heavily on training and sending out foreign missionaries to the least reached places, where they attempted to contextualize their message and their way of life out of love for the people in their host culture and in hopes of being able to say, "follow me as I follow Christ." The end goal, though maybe seldom realized, has been to reach those who will reach others; to work oneself out of a job and gracefully exit as the church or ministry becomes self-sustaining.

The new models place much less emphasis on the role of missionary, but work to empower and encourage highly reproducible local leadership from the get-go. It doesn't work like magic, but if it works at all, the problem of missionary contextualization quickly fades away in favor of indigenization (which I am pretty sure nobody disputes is much more effective; and it's the goal of the incarnational/contextualizers, too).

Cultural training, cultural understanding, are still crucial, Garrison told me. "Keep doing it!!" he urged when I asked flat out. If an outsider is involved in the movement at all, he or she will need that cultural savvy to establish credibility. And probably to navigate the issues that arise, though they may be - perhaps always have been - out of our control. Just because we're not putting so many eggs in the incarnational basket doesn't mean we don't need to appreciate cultural dynamics, he said. They still play a significant part.

This was helpful, but I still don't "get it." I need to ponder these things more, I think. I am not entirely convinced that what I've been taught - and what I've taught - about the importance of culture meshes with the CPM models. I'm trying to figure out what we need to rethink and revise, at least in teaching culture to folks who have fully embraced CPM models and assumptions. And off I go to Germany to teach it one more time with a colleague asking the same questions. Please pray for breakthrough in our thinking on these questions.

Another thing I'm trying to keep in mind is Matthew Stone's warning in Reaching Muslims with Love and Logic against cultural determinism - itself a form of essentialism, it seems. May our research never become dogmatic and directive, assuming that people always do what their culture tells them to.
"Muslims are not products of cultural factories; Arabs are not all the same. Understanding someone's culture is tremendously helpful in understanding that individual, but I shy away from embracing cultural determinism that glosses over differences and can, in its worse form, view individuals as merely an expression of culture."


Eric D said...

Marti, I'm with you on all your hesitations, and I work with a ministries who's entire goal is to find people groups (unreached) that need CPMs (as we like to say).

My concern comes from someone trained in church history (historical theology). As you say, "According to Garrison, though hundreds of formerly Christian people groups turned to Islam in the first 1300 years after Muhammad, we only find one or two movements in the other direction during that time."

My concern is our interpretation of history. The problem arises when we use histories (books) as the data to understand the past, but through the lens our modern theological and social bias. Espeically since most of these histories are from a secular theory. Let me unpack this:

When we claim a "group" was formally Christian, we do that on the grounds of a historical record (summarized in a book) that tells us they were. Often though, we don't have an understanding of how pervasive the faith was in the people's culture. If record of how pervasive it was is available, mission people usually don't know where to look, or to even look. I can show you many cultures we perceive to be historically Christian where personal devotion was extremely rare. Usually though, our knowledge of the far past is often broad and sweeping.

Now, when we say that a group, "Turned to Islam", this is often misunderstood. When a historian says a group became a different religion, it is usually in political terms. And, when we say a group did not "return to Christianity" this is also political.

The claim now is that something historic is happening: people in Muslim groups are turning to Christianity. But, how do we know there were no "movements" to Christ in a Muslim people group 1,000 years ago? The knowledge of such certainly would not be published and definitely not instantly available as modern technology has made it today.

We have to be careful not to equate a historic political moving away from Christianity with our modern personal-choice understanding of a movement to Christianity. These are two totally different aspects.

Marti said...

That's helpful, Eric. Thanks for writing. BTW, Garrison didn't get through very much of his presentation since the room included a disproportionate number of highly educated professors and mission leaders who raised a lot of questions and objections. They questioned his methods and data both in terms of the historical survey and the current one. Garrison said he welcomed it - especially since his book, though fairly well publicized, is only halfway written. He's hoping those who think he's wrong will help him set as much as he can straight before it goes to press.

Can we agree that all kinds of people who would have checked the "Christian" box have changed their identity to a Muslim one, over the centuries? When, in some places, Christianity was weak and ineffective and becoming a Muslim could have meant reciting the shahada and no longer having to pay taxes, it's hardly a conversion of the heart. You look at future generations though, and you see some of them have an unquestioning commitment to their Muslim faith/identity. Can we know how "Christian" their ancestors were?

Maybe what's misleading is to compare today's movements of Muslims following Jesus with yesterday's "Christians" becoming Muslims. Apples and oranges?

I know when I teach history (usually for Perspectives classes) I struggle with the tendency to glibly overlay modern ideas about religion, identity, etc. onto ancient events, forcing them to fit into some kind of model. I'm trying to watch out for that. Sometimes accuracy and clarity are opposed. (And clarity sells better.)

In some cases the evidence for historic people movements is slim. I've studied a bit about the Keriats, for example, a Turkic tribe that became "Christian" and were described in historic records 200 years later as being Christians. There's record of their Christian activities in the Mongol courts. A matter of identity only? Of the heart?

When we try to count who's Christian and who's "practicing" or "really" a Christian, even today, we see researchers having to make some hard choices. Do we count all who consider themselves Christian? Do we decide that true Christians are those on the rolls of certain churches and not found in others?

All in all, these things are messy. I get nervous when I'm working with people who say or seem to think they're not.

Eric D said...

Great insight Marti!

The why question always intrigues me more. Why would someone write about a trend? Why would someone recognize a trend?

I have an issue of a popular missions magazine sitting on my desk, "A Historic Wind is Blowing in the House of Islam." Talk about a loaded statement. What do we mean by "historic" and "wind"? Maybe this is the media-saturated world we live in now where a phenomena can't just be, it has to be "historic."

Maybe I'm to academic, but I thought "historic" related to history, and history was something we studied after it happend. As my advisor and church history prof used to say, "I can't tell you what's significant now, give it 100 or so years."