Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Walking the Tight-rope

Written by: on March 22, 2018

“It’s like a tightrope,” David said.

“What do you mean?” our son asked.

It was late at night, but our eight-year old boy was wrestling with deep theological issues, and rather than feeling hassled or harried by these late night forays into questions about biblical contradictions, my husband secretly enjoyed the mental exercise of trying to explain the great mysteries of our faith to a kid who had a gift of doubt and smarts beyond his years.

This particular conversation might have been around the person of Jesus—was he a human or God? Or maybe it was about faith and works. It could’ve been about the sovereignty of God vs. free will. Honestly, the boy wore me out with his intellect long before he could even spell the word “intellect” and he could sniff out fake from mile away. He liked church and all, but he wasn’t about to be taken in by a religion that just didn’t make sense.

My husband patiently elaborated on his analogy.

“A tightrope has to be anchored on two opposite sides. If either side collapses, or even just leans in a little, then the tight-rope would not be able to support the tight-rope walker. Our faith is like a tightrope, hanging tightly to two seemingly opposite ideas. If either one of those ideas collapses, then our faith no longer has anything to stand on. We can’t try to make these two things agree, we have to hold them both in tension with each other. But when we do that, then the rope can support a lot of weight…even an elephant!”

Ross Douthat, the author of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, agrees with my husband’s characterization of the Christian faith. In fact, he considers paradox to be one of the defining features of Christian orthodoxy. He writes, “what distinguishes orthodoxy from heresy…is a commitment to mystery and paradox.”[1] When we start forcing either/or situations rather than accepting the both/and teaching of the Bible, we set ourselves up for heresy.

Douthat then looks closely at four of these heresies. The first heresy is one that truncates the full Gospel understanding of Christ to provide a “consistent, streamlined, and non-contradictory Jesus.”[2] The Prosperity Gospel heresy, which is described as “skipping on to Easter…without lingering at the foot of the cross,”[3] surrenders the theology of suffering to the promise of the abundant life. The God Within Heresy tries to reconcile “God’s immanence with His transcendence…His seemingly human attributes (love, compassion, mercy; justice, anger, vengeance) with His impassable Otherness.”[4] And finally, the heresy of nationalism leaves the Christian faith “too weak to play the kind of positive role it has often played in our public life.”[5]

One reviewer quipped, “Douthat could have argued for orthodoxy by telling us less about good religion’s social utility and more about its truth.”[6] I did find myself wishing that the conclusion had been more robust, particularly in relation to the value of mystery and paradox to orthodoxy. Instead, he offers another paradox that might play a role in the recovery of Christianity in the US. He calls it “the postmodern opportunity: the possibility that the very trends that have seemingly undone institutional Christianity could ultimately renew it.”[7] One of the movements that is capitalizing on the “postmodern opportunity” is the emergent church, which “answers the deracination of contemporary life with a faith that meets seekers where they are,”[8] a concept that sounds a bit like what Hunter would call, “faithful presence.”[9]

As I study missionary sustainability and effectiveness, I can’t help that notice that the heresies that have, according to Douthat “weakened” American Christianity have often been exported by missionaries. The witness and effectiveness of American missionaries has also been compromised by an unwillingness to recognize how vital mystery and paradox are to orthodoxy.

Many US missionary sending agencies are denominationally based, and they want their missionaries to work within their own denomination, even when abroad. For example, a dispensationalist church will refuse to let their missionary engage in a faith community that is charismatic. Instead of embracing the local denomination, the missionary will “import” their denomination into the country. And missionaries do this becausethey think they are protecting “orthodoxy.” They are so convinced of their own denominational biases, that they confalte orthodoxy (or dogma) with doctrine. The fail to realize that the mystery of God is not found in one denominational stream or the other, but in both.

In addition, this desire to import one’s own denomination can end up creating more problems than it solves. Good contextualization, the type that does not result in syncretism (or what Douthat identifies as “Accommodation” in the US context) requires an openness to the mystery of a God that could be seen, understood, and manifest through different means in different places. One study, about the failure of some missionary churches in Zimbabwe said, ““Those who have been responsible for the propagation of the Christian Gospel in Zimbabwe have not shown sufficient awareness of the need for an encounter between the Christian religion and the cosmology of the peoples outside of European cultures and tradition. It is the lack that has made Christianity either alien or superficial or both”[10]

[1] Ross Gregory Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, 2013. 10.

[2] Douthat. 153

[3] Douthat, Bad Religion. 204.

[4] Douthat. 219.

[5] Douthat. 274.

[6] Anderson, Ryan T. “The Church of What’s Happening Now.(Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics)(Book Review).” Claremont Review of Books 12, no. 4 (2012): 87.

[7] Douthat 278.

[8] Douthat. 279.

[9] James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[10] David Mushayavanhu and Graham A. Duncan, “The_spiritual_weakness_of_chur.Pdf,” Verbum et Ecclesia 35, no. 1 (January 2014): 6.

About the Author

Jennifer Williamson

Jenn Williamson is a wife and mother of two adult sons. Before moving to France in 2010, she was the women's pastor at Life Center Foursquare Church in Spokane, WA. As a missionary with Greater Europe Mission, she is involved in church planting and mentoring emerging leaders. Jenn benefitted from French mentors during her transition to the field, and recognizes that cross-cultural ministry success depends on being well integrated into the host culture. Academic research into missionary sustainability and cultural adaptation confirmed her own experience and gave her the vision to create Elan, an organization aimed at helping missionaries transition to the field in France through the participation of French partners.

8 responses to “Walking the Tight-rope”

  1. Very educational post once again Jenn! I love how you educate me on modern missionary practices and how your heart always comes through. My favorite line of your post was…”When we start forcing either/or situations rather than accepting the both/and teaching of the Bible, we set ourselves up for heresy.” I loved the tightrope analogy and I couldn’t agree more that we need to hold the both/and together especially on things that our finite minds can’t comprehend.

    • Jennifer Williamson says:

      Really true, Jake! Our minds are finite, and when we forget that, we will resist the mystery of God. I’m so glad we have a God who, though beyond human comprehansion, has found ways to reveal Godself to us in the person of Jesus Christ and through the scriptures. But I also love that this God surpasses our understanding and remains somewhat mysterious.

  2. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Jenn,

    I love the fact you exposed a shortcoming of sending agencies when they use their denominational biases to hinder the context of the local mission. I have witnessed the “gringos” refusing to allow the very people they are trying to reach a seat at the decision making table, all in the context of protecting doctrine. Seems to me, one main goal of foreign missions should be to equip the field to one day lead their own ministry. Would you agree?

    • Jennifer Williamson says:

      I’d actually go a step further. I think mission agencies need to equip their missionaries to let the locals lead from the get-go. We need to stop doing ministry FOR or TO and do ministry WITH. I’m almost coming to the conclusion that a foreign missionary should never plant a church, but instead, simply make disciples of Jesus, and when one of those disciples is seen to be gifted as a pastor or apostle, then accompany that person to plant the church. I’ve seen too many churches planted by missionaries who fully intend to “pass the reigns” to a local eventually–but this transition either never happens or rarely happens well. Why? Because the foreigner has planted something that (intentionally or not) has DNA that is foreign to the nationals, and even if they LIKE it, they can’t maintain it over the long haul, and it eventually implodes.

  3. M Webb says:

    Thanks for the “tightrope” analogy, nice! What a blessed young boy with such Godly parents! PTL.
    Mission is messy. I noticed the same denominational challenges when we were in Botswana, Zambia, and Afghanistan. I appreciate your conclusion on Douthat when you said, “Good contextualization, requires an openness to the mystery of a God that could be seen, understood, and manifest through different means in different places.” We have many “Zim” friends from our mission to Africa. Zimbabwe has many challenges, but we found a strong Christian presence in many who had fled to Botswana to find work, sell crafts, and support their families at home. Compared to what they face, we do not have it so bad in the U.S. I think.
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

  4. Jenn,

    Perhaps our quest to market our faith and prioritize seeker sensitivity is partially to blame for the weaknesses of Western Christianity. If paradox is one of the defining features of Christian orthodoxy, but we dumb down the Gospel to make it palatable to the masses, we are really offering a truncated Gospel.

    • Jennifer Williamson says:

      I hadn’t thought of it in terms of “dumbing down”–because those who do compromise the paradox often do it using highly intellectual language. But sometimes it is the smartest people (like my son) who struggle the most with the idea of paradox.

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