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I was doing my best in the gym, but I could feel all the young, muscular guys judging me.

“Look at that fat old man. See how he’s let himself go!” Of course, if I had started where they are, all sleek and trim, then my current sorry state would indeed have been a regression. However, knowing where I had started from, I actually felt I was making progress. The question is one of trajectory – am I fitter than I was six months ago?

And so the point is this – you can’t judge snapshot of a person, you have to judge them according to their trajectory, according to their story . And this is especially true cross-culturally.

Imagine a man in your church is known to have two wives. You would expect to condemn him. Indeed, if he had started with one wife and now had two, then this would be moral regression. He is going the wrong way! However, if he had started with Islam’s permitted four wives, and because of his faith in Jesus now had only two, then this is progress. No?

The same is true of the contextualization journey of our churches. A snapshot of a meeting may tell you that “50% of the contributions and responsibility seemed to be carried by foreigners, and 50% by local believers.” On its own, this information is neither good nor bad. The important question is, in which direction is it going? If you started the church with 100% foreigners, then 50-50 is good progress towards planting an indigenous church. But if the church had been locally-led and 50-50 is a regression, then this is worrying. Contextualization is a trajectory – is there more local responsibility this year than last?

Even the qualifications for elders in Titus seem to be more about trajectory than about having arrived. “No longer drunk, no longer violent…” Titus 1.7. These were newly-converted pagans, and Paul seemed to appoint elders pretty quickly. Realistically, Paul was not looking for a certain standard of godliness, but rather a certain trajectory of godliness. The difference is important.

As Westerners, we tend to view things in terms of universal standards or principles. We de-contextualize and consider a thing on its own merits – justice is impartial. In the East, context is key; a person cannot be isolated from their story… they are part of their environment and their environment is part of them.

In one piece of research, Japanese and American students were shown a picture of a fish in a tank. In the foreground the fish, in the background sea-weed, stones, bubbles etc. They were then shown subtle variations on this picture. In some variations, the background remained the same but the fish in the foreground was changed (facing right instead of left, spots instead of stripes). In others, the fish in the foreground stayed the same, but the background was varied (number of seaweed strands, position of stones, etc.). The American students noticed the changes to the foreground, but were oblivious to background changes. The Japanese students, conversely, noticed the background variation. Most tellingly, when asked what they had seen, the American students began their responses “A large fish” and the Japanese students, “A fish-tank…” (Nisbett, Richard E.. The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently – and Why (Hodder & Stoughton: 2003) Kindle Location 1180.)

This study, and others like it, demonstrates differences in perception. Westerners see the world atomistically, they “zoom in” to the object; in this case the fish. Easterners see the world holistically. Their perception is “field-dependent”, meaning that the individual object is not significant; what is significant is its identity in context – the fish tank.

James tells us to be quick to listen and slow to speak. When it comes to ethical issues, discipleship, church contextualization, or the spotting and appointing of leaders, we need to be looking at trajectory. If the grace of God is at work in someone, they will be moving from Sin towards Heaven. The powerful should not judge the powerless according to the standards of their privilege, just like the guys in the gym should not judge me according to the standards of their fitness.

“Each one will give an account” is a surprisingly individualist saying in the collectivist New Testament world. Each one will give an account according to God’s grace at work in them, according to where they come from, according to their journey. Friends, let’s learn to take cognizance of trajectory.

Andy M

Andy M

Andy is involved with cross-cultural church planting in the Middle East. Connect on Twitter.
Andy M

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