Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Being Interesting 04 - The Excluded Middle

There is a classic missions article from Paul Hiebert called, "The Flaw of the Excluded Middle," that I think has some real value for Westerners. In our Western mindset, we have categories for things that are transcendent and we have categories for things that are empirical. Religion speaks to one, and Science speaks to the other, and never the twain shall meet.

But in much of the world, along with having these two categories, there is also a middle category. Many peoples of the world still believe actively in ghosts, evil spirits, and in supernatural explanations for things we would explain scientifically. When a missionary from the West is approached by a tribal African to use prayer to heal their child's disease, the missionary often doesn't know what to do. The end result is that many Christian converts in non-Western nations still consult witch doctors to help with a number of pragmatic things, because the missionaries will either have no response, or will deny the existence of whatever the convert feels is a threat or problem. (There are no ghosts...the sickness isn't because of a spirit...etc.)

I'll quote a couple of paragraphs from Hiebert about this middle area of experience:
On the middle level, a holistic theology includes a theology of God in human history: in the affairs of nations, of peoples and of individuals. This must include a theology of divine guidance, provision and healing; of ancestors, spirits and invisible powers of this world; and of suffering, misfortune and death.
On this level, some sections of the church have turned to doctrines of saints as intermediaries between God and humans. Others have turned to doctrines of the Holy Spirit to show God's active involvement in the events of human history. It is no coincidence that many of the most successful missions have provided some form of Christian answer to middle level questions.
I think most of us ministering to Westerners don't have any people actively worried about displeasing the ghosts of their ancestors (unless you are ministering to Glenn Beck--ha!). But there is something to be said for reflecting on what the middle areas are in our culture.

We tend to talk about God entirely in theological terms. When we speak about history, if its biblical history, we see God hard at work. If it's U.S. History, we have no paradigm for how to speak about the involvement of God in any of what we're doing.

But I do think it makes for good sermons when we speak about God at work in our time, in our lives, and in our communities of faith. In your sermons, don't separate the "theological" from the "practical". Theology, if it is done right, ought to affect everything else. If Jesus is Lord, then he is Lord of all parts of our lives. If God is not at work in our churches, then what are we doing anyway? Let's embrace a worldview that God is active now, and not just in the ancient past or in the distant future. I've found that people feel really empowered when you as a leader will stand up and boldly proclaim the actions of God in the world, and envision what else God can do in your own setting through your own hands. If that isn't relevant, then what is?

Incidentally, Patrick of Ireland was great at ministering to the middle area. There is an old Irish prayer for just about every aspect of a person's life, from getting up, to working, to eating, to laying down at night. If you've never had a look at the Carmina Gadelica--a collection of old Irish religious prayers and poetry, it is worth your time (and it's cheap on Kindle!).

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