by Ronald T. Michener
Actions really do speak louder than words—especially for first-term missionaries tongue-tied with learning a new language and adapting to a culture.
Actions really do speak louder than words—especially for first-term missionaries tongue-tied with learning a new language and adapting to a culture. When we first arrived in Belgium in 1994, we could not speak a bit of French, and we understood little of the culture. Yet we knew that to survive we needed to become learners. Like many first-term missionaries, we experienced role deprivation. We were used to preaching and teaching regularly in the States, but we understood that when we set foot on foreign soil, our previous ideas of “doing ministry” would radically change.
Our ministries would only develop if we first presented ourselves as learners. If we as teachers acted as credible learners, then we would still have a ministry from the start—even with an inadequate tongue. We became the ones asking questions rather than providing answers. We intentionally placed ourselves in positions to learn from others in life’s most basic subjects and tried to model a Christian learning posture. This intense learning and modeling time helped us prioritize relating with our local French-speaking church community above our own needs. These formative first years were crucial for laying the attitudinal foundation of our ongoing ministry in training internationals in postmodern Europe.
As teachers, pastors, missionaries and church leaders in the US, Europe or wherever we serve, do we actively seek to model learning behavior with those we teach, shepherd and lead? In recent years, seminaries have been very interested in the subject of learning by mentoring and much literature has been published on it. True mentoring necessitates modeling life’s disciplines to others in some form. Therefore, we ought to mentor by purposefully modeling learning behavior as well. How can we expect the people we are leading to be effective, gracious learners if we ourselves do not exemplify this posture before them?
The discipline of learning from others even in our roles as teachers is especially relevant in a postmodern age that emphasizes community-based decision making over unequivocal authoritarian control. As David Dockery notes, “In order for the new postmodern generations to consider the plausibility of Christianity, they must be convinced of its authenticity, as well as its community-building characteristics, before they will hear its truth claims” (1997, 17). We can model and practice such authenticity if we intentionally take a learning posture in our teaching. Henry H. Knight’s analysis of evangelical theology in view of postmodernism also lends support to this:
In postmodernism the autonomous individual of the Enlightenment is being supplanted by a more holistic vision of humanity, emphasizing relationality and cooperation. Instead of the individual being prior to the community, the community is prior to the individual; participation in the community with its network of practices and relationships is what constitutes the personhood of the individual. (1997, 53)
Let’s reflect on the submission principle in Ephesians 5:21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” We often apply this principle passively. For instance, we choose to submit to one another in response to a conflict in which we finally yield ourselves to another’s preference or relinquish our right to be right. Instead, we should consider proactively applying this principle, looking for opportunities to submit to others.
Jesus himself modeled proactive submissive actions before his disciples: in his relationship to the Father, his willingness to be baptized by John, and his washing of the disciples’ feet. Jesus thereby not only demonstrated his heart of service, he effectively mentored and taught through real life illustrations.
Even in the classroom we can model Jesus’ example by valuing our students’ or parishioners’ views. We should encourage mutual exchange of perspectives with those we are teaching and mentoring. We can openly acknowledge our limitations and seek responses from our students.
When we moved to Belgium, our need to learn the French language compelled us to seek opportunities to yield to others. We met with some willing folk in our church every Friday afternoon to practice our newly discovered vocabulary, asking them to correct and teach us. We asked dozens of questions about culture, the church and life in Belgium.
Before I preached my first sermon in French, it was helpful to manuscript it, read it aloud before these friends and again invite correction. This became a mutual teaching and learning opportunity. I used my studies and training to prepare and discuss content from Scripture, while these believers helped me with language nuances, pronunciation and inflections. They became partners with me in the process of this teaching event for the entire congregation.
Taking a learning posture in teaching/mentoring relationships demonstrates the value of community-based knowledge for personal development. The danger of mentoring, for the postmodern, involves relying too much on one person for spiritual authority. It both limits and hinders one’s perspective and blinds discernment. Thus, this mentoring paradigm of “modeling learning behavior” can prevent the modernist tendency of over-dependence in mentoring.
Unfortunately, taking a learning posture with others is often viewed as a weakness instead of a strength. But if we want to teach others to understand and absorb biblical truths into their thoughts and lives, we must present them incarnationally. Postmoderns are crying out for authenticity in life, not simply a well-ordered presentation of theological propositions. Authentic living requires that we admit our shortcomings and place ourselves in situations where we ask questions and learn from those we are teaching. Thus, we model humility and the value of community-based instruction, another strength in the postmodern context (Grenz 1993, 147-162).1
I have tried to model this attitudinal learning behavior in the theology classroom as well. I often ask students to express their perspectives on controversial issues. At times I strongly disagree with their responses. But rather than immediately dismissing them, I first try to validate before the class their latent concerns behind the spoken answer (far-fetched as it might seem). I also try to acknowledge other writers or thinkers who share their view. Then, I ask questions or offer other possible responses to help students see a different perspective. Often I offer my personal position last.
Sometimes the students help refine my thinking or sharpen the way I have discussed the issue. When they bring up ideas that I have not considered at all, I try to acknowledge this publicly and thank them for helping me. This way they can see that I am also willing to learn from them.
This approach has been especially helpful in a cross-cultural setting. Students feel valued and understand they have something to contribute, while they are also challenged to see a perspective that may better fit with their own evangelical faith.
Several Russian and Ukrainian students at our seminary told me how they valued a teaching environment where their views were appreciated and could be openly expressed. Our teaching style in western Europe differs significantly from the abusive authoritarian structures of their past academic training. They appreciate the opportunity to engage in a mutually respectful dialogue with a professor.
When I taught a course at an international seminary in the Netherlands, a Romanian student asked if I could present the Eastern Orthodox view on a certain theological issue. I had to admit that with my training and background in Western theological traditions, I had not considered this. I was not equipped to present such a perspective. This student had graciously and respectfully pointed out this weakness in my teaching, for many students from Eastern Europe could have benefited from such knowledge. I promised him and others that when I returned the following year, I would expand my horizons and consider the Eastern Orthodox perspective so relevant for their cultural context and background. My admission allowed the students to observe my weaknesses and to see that I am still a learner. I believe I was able to teach them something through this experience.
The use of the imagination is another area that needs development for teaching in a postmodern mission context. By the term “imagination,” I am resisting rationalist assumptions that limit imagination to fantasy.2 Instead, I am referring to the mind’s capacity to create images not immediately present to the senses. This includes “both the world of the imaginary and recalcitrant aspects of the real world…” (Green 1989, 66). The imagination is a basic tool for interpreting the world around us. For example, when we read a novel, its people, places and voices are not attainable through our senses. Certainly, we use our sense of sight to see the text itself. But the sounds, smells and climate of the room in which we are reading, along with our personal background and current state of mind, all contribute to how we interpret the pictures and events in the story. All these factors influence our mind’s ability to re-create images.
We often teach through well-reasoned discourse and a logically presented outline without appealing to the imagination. In view of postmodern perspectives, we must help those we are teaching to both develop and re-create images and stories as they study the Bible and theology. Mark Shaw, a missionary in Kenya, has modeled this through his imaginative storytelling approach for teaching theology in his book, Doing Theology with Huck and Jim (1993). Shaw first tells a modern day parable related to the doctrine he will discuss (i.e., Scripture, the Trinity or Creation). Then, he offers some theological explanations while analyzing the parable. In this approach, Shaw attempts to “appeal to the imagination without sacrificing the propositional statements from which orthodox theology has historically been fashioned” (11).
Scripture is largely written in poetry, parable and narrative to convey theological truth. As missionaries, preachers and teachers, it is our task to creatively re-create images in theological truths and present them full of life to our learning community, lest they become merely logical constructs. Alister McGrath lends support to this:
Definitions are closed off and imprison people in formulas; images are open-ended and invite their hearers to imagine them and be captured by them. We must avoid sounding like theological dictionaries and instead be able to appeal to the imaginations of those to whom we speak.” (1993, 195)
As missionaries, educators in the seminary or church, how we present theological thought is essential. To build a high regard for the relevance of theological studies within the postmodern church context, we must relate to people using word pictures and vocabulary they can internalize. Otherwise, doctrinal assertions will be seen as only abstractions separated from the reality of life and emotion. Using drama and story can help provide visual and emotive images to help internalize Christian truths and the theological significance of Scripture.
In the theological classroom in a cross-cultural setting, creative role-playing can help illustrate the relevance of various doctrines. I play the average Joe with contrasting beliefs who comes in off the street. Students have an opportunity to discuss the reasons for their beliefs while talking with me and their peers. This gives me a non-traditional opportunity for teaching, and their responses and questions give me insight into their cultural assumptions.
Effective historical/grammatical exegesis entails doing the best job we can at re-creating and bringing to life a text encased in history. The more we can help create the picture of that text, the better our students and parishioners will learn to understand and apply it. Since metaphor plays such a significant role in Scripture, it seems fitting to communicate scriptural truths by means of imagination through metaphor, story, parable and role-playing.
I have made two suggestions, one attitudinal, the other methodological, for teaching in a postmodern mission context. Modeling learning behavior can help first-term missionaries overcome role deprivations when they think they must put ministry on hold while learning the language and culture. As teachers, pastors and church leaders in any context, this kind of attitudinal modeling will also help us modify our current approaches to ministry, teaching and training. If we combine a humble learning posture with creative story-telling and role-playing, we will be more successful in our efforts to train leaders and make disciples in today’s postmodern context.
1. Grenz (1993) submits that “community” is integral for epistemology and personal identity, and is central to the Bible’s message.
2. See Hauerwas and Kenneson (1992). The authors argue for the necessity of a “Christian imagination” in contrast to a violent world that fails to see things as they “really” are. In this regard, the imagination is critical to the claims Christians make about God.
Dockery, David S. 1997. “The Challenge of Postmodernism,” in The Challenge of Postmodernism: An Evangelical Engagement, ed. David S. Dockery. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.
Green, Garrett. 1989. Imagining God: Theology and the Religious Imagination. San Francisco: Harper and Row.
Grenz, Stanley. 1993. Revisioning Evangelical Theology: A Fresh Agenda For the 21st Century. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Hauerwas, Stanley and Philip D. Kenneson. 1992. “Jesus and/as the Non-Violent Imagination of the Church.” Pro Ecclesia, 1 (1): 87.
Knight, Henry H. III. 1997. A Future For Truth. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
McGrath, Alister. 1993. Intellectuals Don’t Need God & Other Modern Myths. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
Shaw, Mark. 1993. Doing Theology with Huck and Jim. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
TEACHING TIPS FOR FIRST-TERM MISSIONARIES
- Find something that you need to learn from those you will be teaching. Ask them to teach you about their language, culture or other areas of interest. Use a language barrier as a relational bridge. If you do this with humility, you will already be teaching.
- Validate the concerns of your students, even if you believe their answers are wrong.
- Be willing to say to your students, “I don’t know, but let’s find out.”
- Publicly praise your students when they help you change your mind or add to your knowledge.
- Ask students for feedback on your teaching. Be willing to make changes to your style. In some cultures, soliciting feedback may need to be done anonymously.
- Ask lots of questions—don’t simply lecture and provide solutions. Good questions stimulate the imagination. A properly worded question can often lead the student to the best answers.
- Allow plenty of time for questions and discussion. Straight lecture without reflection may totally ignore particular cultural needs and questions.
- Tell a story or play a role to communicate a biblical truth.
ATTITUDE CHECKS FOR FIRST-TERM MISSIONARIES
- Are you feeling unimportant and deprived of your normal roles? Remember, you are ministering by your willingness to learn a language and culture from others. Your patience and steadfastness in learning teaches volumes.
- Are you eager to be corrected when learning a new culture and language? This is never easy, but can be a tremendous example for a teaching ministry. Good teachers are constantly willing to receive correction and make changes.
- Give yourself a pride check. Build relationships with your students by participating in the learning process, rather than billing yourself as the ultimate authority.
Ronald T. Michener is associate professor of Systematic Theology at Evangelische Theologische Faculteit in Leuven, Belgium.
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