How long have you been involved in missions, and how did you get involved?
I’ve been involved in full-time Christian ministry since 1997, but my involvement in missions began before that – in high school. As a new Christian, I attended a small church that offered a mission education program for the youth girls. At some point, the leader of this group actually invited me to be a part of it. I resisted because I didn’t want to be the only boy in the group, but she insisted that it was okay and that it would be good for me.
The next few years, I became immersed in stories of missionaries serving around the world, memorizing Scripture related to missions, and reading biographies. On the monthly basis, we would participate in “mission actions” – small, local service projects designed to meet needs and glorify Christ.
Over time, the Lord used this to bend my heart towards service and missions. Then at a national convention for the “all girls except me” missions education organization, I sensed a definite call from God to cross-cultural missions. I didn’t at all know what it would look like, but I surrendered to the calling and began to pursue obedience to it. My first international excursions were several month-long trips to France working among North African Muslims. Met my wife on the first of these. Gradually, missions became a greater and greater emphasis for me and my professional ministry started shifting more and more that direction. From youth ministry to international college pastor to church planter among diaspora peoples.
Who is the primary focus of your mission efforts?
I lead a mission team and network of ministries that are all more or less focused on reaching out to diaspora peoples. The work has begun in the Chicago area (USA) but is venturing out more and more as we follow the natural networks of the diaspora communities with which we work. Trinity International Baptist Mission is the name of our organization. We often describe it as part-church, part-church planting mission agency. But we are fully committed to reaching all nations with the hope and wholeness of Jesus Christ. Personally, I have a huge heart for Hindu peoples living in diaspora and have fallen deeply in love with Nepalis especially. My personal, day-to-day field work is among them.
What style of contextualized worship services do you lead in your ministry, and what are the fundamental differences between this format and typical American Protestant worship services?
Generally speaking, a typical American protestant church seeks to engage the sense of hearing (through preaching, singing, readings, and prayers) and taste (through the Lord’s supper). Sight also is engaged but this is often less intentional (a cross at the front, a few flowers or fake trees, perhaps a slide show). We’ve taken sight further in creating a number of important visual elements intended to promote reflection, meditation, and worship. Also, we engage the sense of smell through the use of incense. In terms of touch, we seek to often engage people in full, physical response during the bible teaching times. Very often, our congregants are intentionally caught up into the story. They put on make-shift costumes, hold props, and act out the story.
American visitors tend to also quickly notice the use of Sanskrit Mantras in our worship. The chanting catches them off guard and sometimes offends them. However, all of the mantras have been carefully conceived so that they faithfully express a Biblical worldview while also capturing the beauty of the art form.
What type of visual symbols or objects do you use in worship? How are these related to the worshipers' home cultures or religious background, and how are they new or different? What are their roles in worship?
There really are a lot, and we’re not where I want us to be yet. My hope is that one day, a person could simply sit in our worship room and be discipled – just by looking around. I draw some of this inspiration from visiting Roman Catholic cathedrals. I love the way stain glass, paintings, and more were used to communicate stories and theology to people. Hindu temples seek to do this as well. It makes sense.
There are also examples of special occasions in which different kinds of visual symbols/objects are used. At Dashain, we distribute... rice grains [that are] dyed red. During the week of the festival, our people will mix the rice with water or yogurt to create a paste that they will apply to younger family members’ foreheads as a symbol of blessing. The symbol has been used in Nepal for a long time, but we have reinterpreted it in a Christocentric way. The red represents the blood of Christ and the rice grains the seed of our faith in Christ. When applying the “tikka” to someone, we have created a Sanskrit mantra version of the Fruit of the Spirit. Basically, praying that through faith in Christ, the fruit of the Spirit will grow in the life of the person. There is more to it, but perhaps you get the general idea.
Namkaran. This is a baby-naming ceremony. I will not get into all the details, but want to share just one. I began the ceremony by creating a kind of “rangoli” or “yantra” on the floor where the ceremony was to take place. This is a geometric design made with rice flour. I basically drop the flour from my hand in intersecting lines to create a large image. The image itself points north, south, east, west, nw, sw, ne, se (“every direction”). At the end of each line another design is created of either a purna kalash (full water pot) or a flower. Actual water pots and plates of rice are then placed on each line end. As I create the design, I explain that God is omnipresent. That the Bible teaches that we cannot go anywhere where He is not. I explain that the water pots, flowers, and rice remind us that God desires to bless those who trust in him. Now, this message is especially powerful to diaspora peoples who feel scattered and alone.
Do you see contextualized visual art of any kind as having a role in the life, worship and faith of nonwestern believers? If so, how?
In your opinion, can contextualization of visual art, music, etc., lead to a fragmentation within the body of Christ? Why or why not?
I want to put it differently. I don’t believe that contextualization leads to fragmentation. I think poor theology and weak Biblical understanding does. I think the division happens when Christians fail to recognize that unity in Christ doesn’t require external conformity. A certain level of theological conformity is needed, yes. At TIBM, we hold up the Lausanne Covenant as a sufficient ground for unifying and partnering in the body of Christ. However, to demand that we all dress the same, eat the same, listen to the same music, pray in the same way, etc – this goes well beyond the Scripture. I suppose that there are those who are into contextualization who are unapologetically and intentionally very divisive, but I don’t know any of them. My experience has always been in the opposite direction. None of the believers in my contextualized fellowship have any trouble calling our “non-contextualized” counterparts fellow Christ-followers. Going the other direction, however, is a very different story.
Do you see contextualized visual arts being utilized currently among missionaries, or by indigenous believers anywhere worldwide? What is your opinion of what you've heard or seen?
Yes, but much more must be done. Historically, we’ve encouraged Christian musicians and speakers, but not visual artists. This must be done more. Creativity is a gift from our Creator and we must fan it into flame in the Church. I think we also have to be careful to pursue contextualization in this. I have a book on my shelf that supposedly presents a visual life of Christ contextualized for a Hindu audience. However, the artist was clearly trained in the West and influenced by Picasso. I had the opportunity to meet one of the cross-cultural workers who put the book together who confirmed these suspicions. Consequently, the imagery doesn’t really resonate with South Asians.