Today was our only full day in Bangkok, and I’ll first mention a couple highlights.
1. I rode on an elephant today (!!!) and became besties with another named One Pin (above photo). What we have is deeper than just friendship. It’s an “elephrenship”. Also, go Royals.
2. I ate all sorts of new foods today, including, but not limited to: duck tongue and skin, lobster head, butterfly pea jelly, kiwi juice and peppered ostrich, which was my personal favorite.
3. The architecture here is largely based around trees, hedges and shrubs – which I love. The greenery tends to influence design, and not the other way around. Maybe it’s the drastically changing seasons KC experiences, but this is a rarity back home.
I want to spend a little bonus time on the third point as I see it pertaining to cross-cultural ministry and the gospel.
Today we spent about 5 hours at the Bangkok Rose Garden, and there were dozens of buildings that had been built around a pre-existing tree. One was growing up through the middle of a roof. Another tree was growing up out of the street and cars were simply expected to go around it. And even when it wasn’t there before the Garden was, the whoever designed the layout utilized hedges and shrubs to partition the entire complex into smaller spaces.
Instead of clearing out branches and tree trunks out and building a structure in its place, the architects use what nature has already provided to frame their design.
In Bangkok, nature often dictates design.
Which seems directly oppositional to how most of the United States tends to operate. We clear the land, lay a concrete foundation, and execute the design the way it was drawn up in studio.
In America, design often dictates nature.
I say all this because I wonder if Christians, in an effort to live out Matthew 28 and spread the Good News “to the ends of the earth” have often done the dictating in other cultures.
When we present the gospel to another culture – with its own histories, stories, faiths and traditions – do we allow space for the message of God to partner with the host culture? Or do we step in with our own methods, bulldoze the “nature” that already exists so we can implement our own pre-conceived design?
What if there was a way to recognize the ways God is already at work, and let those things help dictate our method instead?
I think about when Paul is in Athens (Acts 17). He is walking around the Areopagus taking inventory on the different gods the Athenians are worshipping. He sees one idol with the inscription, “To an Unknown God.”
Paul sees this and decided to reason with the people concerning this “Unknown God”. The Athenians were scholars and thinkers and philosophers who “spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas”. So Paul met them in the conversation they were already having by referencing the way they were already worshiping.
Paul allowed the culture of Athens determine his method of sharing Christ with them.
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. (Acts 17:22, 23 NIV)
I’m talking about cultural sensitivity, yes, but that’s not all I’m talking about. I’m asking us to consider whether there are ways to point at the culture we are engaging, recognize where God is already working, and partner with those methods rather than enforcing our own.
In Bangkok, Buddhism is the official religion. I am traveling to Myanmar tomorrow, and Buddhism is the most practiced there as well. The central idea of Buddhism is achieving enlightenment – complete awareness based on examination and exploration of the present moment. And I wonder…
Can we recognize God in Buddhism?
And when/if we can, do we believe that our methods are flexible enough that we can partner with the host culture instead of imposing our own design?
Do not mishear me: I am not advocating for a flexible gospel. The goal does not change. I’m advocating for flexible methods. Methods that utilize the pre-existing nature of the culture in the design rather than the opposite.
Instead of bringing God to Myanmar, maybe we should be asking how we can partner with the ways God is already at work. When I show up tomorrow, God will already be there. When my seminary first started visiting Yangon, God was already there. And when Adoniram Judson visited Myanmar in 1813, God was already there.
And he was, and is, and always will be at work.
That’s my primary takeaway from my day in Bangkok as we prepare to travel to Yangon tomorrow afternoon. Can’t wait to discover where God is already working over the next few days.