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The Audacity of Hype…and Humility

by Gary Corwin

With all due respect to politicians and members of the mission community, isn’t exaggeration and truth-shading something to be avoided?

With all due respect to politicians and members of the mission community, isn’t exaggeration and truth-shading something to be avoided? Shouldn’t “straight talk” be more than a slogan? Shouldn’t it be something we truly strive for? It has troubled me for years to see too many examples of just the opposite—not only from politicians (from whom one has unfortunately come to expect it), but from mission leaders and organizations as well. The hubris evident in the predictions and pronouncements concerning the year 2000, for example, was breathtaking. We should know better—and do better.

“Evangelistically speaking” has been a euphemism for exaggerated ministry results for as long as I can remember. So it’s nothing new. But isn’t it something of which we should be ashamed, rather than something we laugh about? Shouldn’t our words and our claims have the ring of truth about them all the time? Truth abuse takes many forms, but two of the most common ones evident in mission circles are these: First, they consist in what is not said—although what is not said is often of vital importance. Or, second, they consist of false impressions that the communicator intentionally seeks to leave with the reader or listener. This, of course, is done without actually stating anything false—just leaving the impression that something false is true. These phenomena are really quite sad, but there is no getting around their existence.

I almost cringe when I hear of groups launching new marketing plans, expanding public relations departments, or engaging in “branding” exercises. While each of these may have its place, these and similar activities are also breeding grounds for the professionalization of falsehood. Whatever happened to just being ourselves and being faithful to our values? We need to speak the truth in love, yes, but also in fact. When did simply doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God (Mic. 6:8) cease being enough? If that is all the Lord requires of us, why is the massaging and packaging of truth necessary for others?

But these are not the only places where shaded truth emerges in the mission enterprise. It exists all the way from rank-and-file missionary prayer letters to the most articulately argued missiology. It’s too discouraging to our donors, we surmise, to burden them with the real struggles we may be facing. Things like loneliness, uncertainty about what to do next, and feelings of depression are not the stuff of missionary heroes. Besides, our partners support us in order to see certain things accomplished, and they want to hear how that’s happening, not the hindrances we’re dealing with. This is particularly so, we conclude, when those hindrances may reflect personal or professional inadequacy on our part. But in doing so, are we not declaring how unimportant we really think prayer is?

At the other end of the spectrum, missiologists sometimes advance theories as facts and simply assert that God is doing a new thing. Or, they set up “straw man” arguments to bolster their cases in realms in which they are not confident that they can win the argument on its merits. A prime case in point is the debate in recent years that has gone on about contextualization in Muslim contexts. Some have asserted or implied that watershed differences exist over cultural issues, when in fact those differences are primarily theological in nature. The reality is that pretty much everyone agrees that a Muslim who becomes a follower of Christ shouldn’t have to cease being a good cultural Algerian, Nigerian, or Indonesian of whatever ethnicity into which he or she was born. The person does not have to be “extracted” from his or her roots or claim the title “Christian” in the cultural sense in which the term is often equated with perverted Western lifestyles. The individual can continue to honor his or her family and heritage, and do the things that members of his or her society do, up to a point. And that point is reached when doing something communicates falsehood about who Jesus is and what faith in him means.
Falsehood is hyped when the issue is treated as if there are only two choices—extraction or remaining a good Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist. The fact is that the issue is a complex one. While there is an almost universal commitment to avoiding extraction and keeping new believers functioning in their home societies, there is a continuum of understanding as to where lines must be drawn in order to maintain faithfulness to Christ and the gospel. To paint the issue otherwise is to engage in a misleading reductionism, an effort that has the appearance of being intentionally confusing in order to gain acceptability for one’s views.

Can you count the number of times you have seen this kind of reductionism played out in mission and church circles? My guess is that it is more often than you would like to acknowledge. What is the antidote to the hype habit? It would appear that only the audacity of humility, and a recommitment to straight talk, will do.

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Gary Corwin is associate editor of EMQ and staff missiologist with the international office of Serving in Mission (SIM).

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