*IPG—”Insert People Group. “
Who are the neighbors you want to reach for Christ?
In my previous nineteen posts,1 I have used ethnographic research findings from the “Know Thy Hui Neighbor” course to introduce China’s Hui people. In this twentieth and final installment, I want to show how the methodology used to create the training can impact more than just the Hui; it can be extended to all unreached people groups (UPGs), societies, and sub-groups. I want to introduce ethnography as a way of seeing, hearing, and meeting your unreached neighbors with the gospel—whoever they are.
What Is a Missional Ethnography?
Technical terms overwhelm many of us, so think of ethnography as the sum of its two parts. The first part is “ethno-“ so it’s about an ethnicity—a nation or people group and their culture. The ending is “-graphy” which means it’s a research-based description. Ethnography overlaps with anthropology and might incorporate elements from any of the social sciences. While an ethnography may take many shapes and sizes, KTHN is unique in its emphasis on history, placing demographic, religious, and anthropological findings in the arc of their historical origins. However, what makes an ethnography missional is its designed purpose: reaching the researched people for Christ. Expressed in those terms, who wouldn’t want a research-based description of the people group they’re trying to reach?
Benefits to Our Ministry
Shorter Language- and Culture-Learning Time
When we first encountered ministry among the Hui back in 2009, we met workers who had spent years toiling among the Hui with hardly anything to show for it—not even a Hui friend willing to read the Bible. Success and failure were both a mystery at the time. Jimmy went left, and Johnny went right. Both trusted God to direct their steps, but both were walking blind. Since we started tracking with people through ethnographic training, we’ve seen a change. Newcomers become active in ministry within one or two years of arriving, even before they finish their mandatory two-year language and enculturation period. They know how to engage meaningfully with the Hui and what pitfalls to avoid.
More Purposeful Partnerships
One challenge in pioneer ministries is that we are often working in sensitive fields where religion, politics, and culture intermingle in a volatile cocktail. Furthermore, romantic notions about this type of ministry attract mavericks. The refrain of Judges reverberated through our early years on the field: “In those days, Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” Unfortunately, we have seen too many teams forced out of their fields due to the mistakes of enthusiastic workers who just want to “have a go.” Ministry should rarely be done in a vacuum. No matter how pioneering the work is, there is always some lesson we can glean from the past.
Since we started harvesting insights from those who have gone before us, workers across the spectrum of denominations and agencies have found ways to learn, plan, and coordinate their efforts together. We’ve seen colleagues change course to avoid pitfalls they had been blind to, and we’ve seen fellowship and friendship blossom between workers who previously lived and worked in isolation from one another.
More Fruitful Friendships
Within a few short years of integrating ethnography into our ministry training, we saw small groups of Hui gathering to worship Jesus. Some gathered with us, some with workers from other organizations, and some in entirely local fellowships where only the leader had any contact with a Christian worker. We no longer wondered why Jimmy had a bunch of Hui friends and Johnny didn’t. We had the tools to analyze what we saw and shaped our ministries accordingly.
Benefits for Your Ministry
When Lesslie Newbigin returned to the UK after forty years in India, he could hardly recognize his own country. The country that sent him as a missionary had itself transformed from a veneer of cultural Christianity to a post-Christian society. In response, he applied missional paradigms to thinking “reflexively” about the gospel in Western Culture.2 His impact is still being felt across many church planting initiatives and mission fields that see cross-cultural mission as the R&D (research and development) department of the global church.
If that’s the case, R&D done on the mission field can and should impact the global church. That includes your home church and mine.
In my decade serving cross-culturally, I’ve watched with amazement as my home country’s culture underwent seismic shifts. I also watch with frustration as other UPGs remain unreached and the churches among them fail to thrive. Is anybody else out there spending the time to conduct deep missiological research and basing their strategies on such research?
I wonder if an ethnographic method like the one used among the Hui can help connect with other unreached people groups, subgroups, and sub-societies in the post-Christian West and everywhere that the church struggles to engage.
If you’re serious about researching your unreached neighbors, you might take one of the ethnography courses offered by some seminaries and mission training centers. Or you could look for graduates of such courses to recruit to your ministry team. If you’re still testing the waters, there’s no harm wading in the shallow end with some basic field research.
Field research starts with making cultural observations: watching, listening, and asking questions. Maybe you’ll use surveys or formal interviews, or maybe you’ll take a more organic relational approach. You might start with a small, brief study based on James Sire’s eight basic worldview questions.3 As you progress, you can change the way you ask, expand the scope, or zoom in to explore one facet of their worldview in depth.
Observations need interpretation, but it’s not a linear process. You’ll need to keep going back to test the meanings you attach to what you observe. When you find a gospel theme that seems to resonate, test it among the people. Observe how it goes, reflect, and delve deeper into the hidden treasures in the gospel and the culture of the human image of God across from you.
Before you start to worry about how long you’ll have to give up your ministry to do this research, realize that this kind of research will put you right in the midst of the people you want to reach. It will slow you down so you listen before you speak, and that will help you speak words that people listen to.
Who are the neighbors you want to reach for Christ?
- See “From the Middle East to the Middle Kingdom,” https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/series-index/from-the-middle-east-to-the-middle-kingdom/ and “Know Thy Hui Neighbor,” https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/series-index/know-thy-hui-neighbor/.
- Lesslie Newbigin, (1988). Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture. (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Eerdmans, 1988). https://www.amazon.com/Foolishness-Greeks-Gospel-Western-Culture/dp/0802801765/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
- James Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog. 6th Ed. (Downers Grove, IL, USA, IVP Academic, 2020). Find Sire’s list of questions at https://www.christianity.com/theology/other-religions-beliefs/8-questions-every-worldview-must-answer.html.
Image credit: Julie Ma.
Julie Ma (pseudonym) is a graduate of Sydney Missionary and Bible College (SMBC) and a member of the Angelina Noble Centre for women in cross-cultural missions research. She left her home in Australia over a decade ago to serve Hui Chinese Muslims alongside her Chinese husband. After all these years overseas, …View Full Bio
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