“We benefit so much from the unique perspectives of people from other cultures. I’ve thought of this process of learning from others as similar to the process of trying a new ethnic cuisine. It probably will taste strange at first. But if you are open to learn new flavors, you might find it enriches your life.” — Bryan Bishop, author, Boundless
This month at the Patheos Book Club, we’re featuring the new book Boundless: What Global Expressions of Faith Teach Us About Following Jesus, by Bryan Bishop. In his many travels as a researcher for Youth With A Mission, Bishop discovered a startling phenomenon: hidden movements of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others who are experiencing and following Jesus outside the boundaries of traditional Western Christianity. Through colorful firsthand accounts, Bishop explains how these fresh expressions of faith can revitalize our own.
Here, the author shares how his multi-cultural experiences abroad have transformed his understanding of what it looks like to follow Christ.
You discuss varieties of Christian expression in your book. Were there any practices that you found particularly inspiring?
It’s hard to pick just one. I went to a Native American worship circle. We discussed a Bible story and then we passed a rock around the circle. As each person held the rock, they could share whatever they wanted from their week, without interruption, before handing the rock to the person next to them. I liked the emphasis on equality in the circle and on each person having the opportunity to contribute. I also felt inspired by my visit to a Christ-centered yoga session. The woman leading the group talked about being rooted and grounded in Christ, and when I was struggling to balance on one hand and one knee, she mentioned how there are four corners on the hand and how to use my hand to stabilize myself. Somehow the woman’s words about being humbly rooted in Christ and this physical battle for balance combined to bring this lesson home in a way that has really stuck with me. It was a body-soul-mind revelation. I was often inspired to use my body more in worship and prayer, whether through visiting a messianic Jewish fellowship that incorporated congregational dance, or participating in Coptic bowing in prayer—similar to the format Muslims use–or watching Native Americans dance in a powwow. It really does invigorate faith to incorporate the body.
In what ways do you think these different types of Christians add to the faith as a whole? What might you say to those who are uncomfortable when confronted with non-traditional Christianity?
We benefit so much from the unique perspectives of people from other cultures. For example, one Western man I met who had spent many years in Bangladesh said he was struck by how the believers he knew from a Muslim background saw Jesus first as a man and then as divine. He said by contrast, he saw Jesus as mostly spiritual. For him, being around these Muslim-background followers of Jesus “put the dust back onto Jesus.” For those who are uncomfortable, I think it’s quite reasonable to feel that way. I would just encourage the person to find out, are these believers Bible-focused, and are they Jesus-centered? If so, what might they have to teach me? I’ve thought of this process of learning from other cultures as similar to the process of trying a new ethnic cuisine. It probably will taste strange at first. But if you are open to learn new flavors, you might find it enriches your life.
In some cultures, the word “Christian” can have negative connotations. Why is this? Are there ways for Western Christians to combat these perceptions?
It’s true that in many parts of the world, including the Western parts, people misunderstand the faith that surrounds Jesus. According to people I met who have spent decades in Muslim countries, many Muslims might recognize that there are good Christians, like Mother Teresa, but they would also associate Christianity with Western culture in general, which contains immorality, immodesty, drug abuse, political agendas they might not like, etc. For example, one newspaper in the Middle East referred to the “Christian holiday of Halloween.” For many Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Native Americans, to become a Christian means to abandon their whole cultural heritage and join the European/American culture. Similarly, in Western countries, surveys by the Barna Group, Pew Research and others show that many young people also hold negative attitudes about Christianity, associating it with narrow mindedness and a certain political persuasion.
In many ways, my whole book Boundless addresses this problem. To sum up, I think if we aren’t motivated by embarrassment of Jesus but rather by a desire to honor our heritage or convey a more accurate picture of Jesus, I think the Bible gives us freedom not to use the label “Christian” and instead come up with something else. We can also invite people to gather around the Bible, include anyone who wants to move closer to Jesus, redeem “pagan” cultural practices, just as our own Christmas holiday has been redeemed from pagan roots, and learn from the truths God has revealed to other cultures. These principles can provide doorways to Jesus whether the culture is Hindu or heavy-metal.
In chapter 14, you give a picture of many different types of faith in one city. How can Christians connect with other types of believers in their own neighborhood?
It probably starts by praying for them, and allowing God to show you how to be the answer to your prayers. You can visit their places of worship. I’ve found the people at mosques and temples very polite and welcoming. You can invite your neighbors over for a meal. I think if you genuinely have the attitude of a learner, you will form bridges of trust. Find out what they ate for breakfast when they grew up. What do they do at a wedding? What do they like about their community? What would make it better for them? I just came back from a trip to England where I visited an Anglican church and on the Sunday I visited they were hosting a meal for their Christian and Muslim neighbors. I sat at a table that included four bearded men from the local mosque. Around the tables, people talked about how long they had lived in the community and what might make it better. The facilitator took note of comments from each table and said the organizers of this gathering would see if the group could start working together on some of the ideas. One suggestion involved planning a fun day for families, because many people in the community work long hours and don’t have much time off. I imagined what it could look like to see Muslim women with their heads covered working with Christian moms to arrange games for kids to play at a holiday event. As we get to know each other, we find areas of common interest.
You began your mission work with Youth With A Mission (YWAM). How did this prepare you to write this book?
I probably wouldn’t have blundered into these ideas if not for my YWAM work. In 1998, it was at a YWAM meeting that I met a man who was working with Muslims in Asia in a way that rocked my world. He had such biblical reasons for what he was doing that I began to see that even after all my years of mission work, I had missed the cultural diversity in the Bible, all the way from Abram to Paul. Also, when I set out to see these new expressions of faith in Jesus for myself, my years as a mission researcher opened doors for me into places most people would not be allowed to go. I’m very grateful to God for leading me to YWAM and for giving me the experiences I’ve had.
Boundless does a wonderful job describing very different cultural settings. Were there any that you had a particularly hard time summarizing? Any stories or details that you wanted to include but couldn’t?
I cut out many of my favorite stories. The editing was painful. Two of those stories stand out in particular. I visited a man who grew up Hindu in an Indian-background family in Africa, became a Christian there, went to India on a short-term outreach, became convicted that he had abandoned his cultural heritage, started a long process of exploring how to follow Jesus as a culturally-Hindu person, and eventually felt called to become a full-time worker for Jesus, doing that in the Hindu style as a sanyasi, who wears the orange robes. I met him at a Christ-centered ashram in India. He has a fascinating story, and he had a lot of great things to say, but I couldn’t make it fit into Boundless. Another story was about a pastor in California who left a thriving church of 1,000 because he wanted to find a better way to bring the purposes of God into the parts of his community that wouldn’t come to a church. He ended up getting a job at a casino and he had inspiring encounters with people he met. I’m thinking of turning his story into an e-book that I’ll offer for free on my blog (bryanbishop.net).
On page 11 you describe how a group of Muslims comes to Christ and a Christian group near by “wanted to teach the Muslim believers how to follow Christian teaching properly.” Was this an attitude you ran into a lot? What would you say to those who believe there is a “proper” way to follow Christ?
Yes, I have encountered this attitude, and one place in particular was Bangladesh where the man who showed me around, Cal, was facing some opposition from a group that didn’t like the approach taken by one of Cal’s friends, Tripon, a leader of a Christ-centered jamaat, a Muslim-style fellowship group. I want to make it clear that I’m sympathetic with those who want to make sure that people don’t abandon the essentials of biblical faith in an effort to become culturally relevant. It’s important to know that Muslim-background believers are moving toward the place where they see Jesus not just as a prophet but as God incarnate. Similarly, it’s significant to know that the goal for Yeshu Bakhtas, or Hindu-background believers, is not to worship Jesus as one of many gods, but to worship Jesus alone. I had those concerns myself when I started my journey, and I’m happy to report that I found mostly solid theology in the groups I visited. In general, to people who have these concerns, I would say that if a group of people gathers around the Bible, desiring to do what it says, and if they move increasingly toward a place where Jesus is at the center of their lives, we can trust the Holy Spirit to convict them about error and reveal truth to them, just as He does in our own lives. Often what we think of as the “proper” way to follow Christ involves our own cultural biases. I think there’s a place for outside instruction or even correction by knowledgeable believers, but it’s so dangerous that it should be carefully done. It can stifle the working of the Spirit in a group. I’d rather see a group learn for themselves what the Bible says about how to live, even if they get things slightly wrong and later fix it, than simply accept the “proper” teaching of Christians from another culture.
For more on Boundless — and to read an excerpt — visit the Patheos Book Club here.