Blind Spot

I had the extraordinary privilege of attending the Lausanne Movement’s Cape Town 2010, a gathering of 5,000 evangelical Christians that was arguably the most representative gathering in church history. Not anything like perfectly representative—no Çatholic or Orthodox, and most of the Chinese delegates got stopped at the airport by their government—but probably closer than any other meeting in modern times. (Was Nicea representative? I don’t know.) Each country had a committee that chose their own participants, and the numbers from each country reflected the best statistics available for how many evangelical Christians live in that country. About two thirds of the participants were from the non-Western world.

The practical impact was that the vitality and optimism of the worldwide church shone through everywhere. Any time I turned to my neighbor and asked, “Who are you?” I got a fascinating story, a glimpse into a world very different from my own. It often revealed amazing achievements that nobody in the western world knows anything about. An English friend of mine, Ian Buchanan, commented how encouraging he found it, in contrast to the shrinking church environment in which he lives. Personally, I loved being outside of the success and celebrity filter that rules everything in America. You will not get rich or famous preaching in Sri Lanka. You are more likely to get arrested. But what happens in Sri Lanka is every bit as important as what happens in Los Angeles.

The planning process for Cape Town 2010 involved representatives from every region of the world. Those who held forth from the platform were a broad range of nationalities and regions—with a wide representation from Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

And yet—and yet—the presentations were heavily flavored by a modern western sensibility. The program was not really multicultural, despite the good and sincere efforts of the planners to include everybody in the process.

Why? It’s a classic case of a blind spot. The western leaders, while trying hard to be inclusive, didn’t see how their presumptions and assumptions skewed the process.

For example, precision. The program was deeply planned. Everybody who spoke had to develop a script long before the event. Time limits were precise, and a huge countdown clock faced the podium showing how much time was left. That kind of planning was necessary to fit everything in—not only speakers but testimonies, music, dance, drama, video clips and break-out discussions. The program was always interesting, flooding us with information—too much, in some people’s estimation—and stimulating all the senses. It was a fantastic program, but it was a western program with global participation. If there had been an Africa Day, or a Latin America Day, they might have provided the same content but with a very different look and feel. There was no part of the program where an African could really feel at home. Believe me, there are no countdown clocks in African meetings!

Another factor was language. All presentations were in English, with simultaneous (headset) translation into seven other languages. The choice of English was dictated by the limitations of the translators. They could translate into Russian from English (for example), but probably not from Arabic or Spanish into Russian. Everybody had to start from English, unless you had a huge cast of shifting translators. The only other alternative would be parallel translation from the podium. That takes twice as long, and by the time it gets from Spanish to English to Russian, you’ve lost a lot of versimilitude. The planners had good reason for not choosing this option. However, watching Latin American and African speakers struggle their way through English scripts, you knew something important got lost. A fiery Latino speaker is a very different creature than a Latino struggling through an English script with a thick and almost impenetrable accent. I know what the Latin Americans would have preferred. Take twice as long!

These two factors alone—precision and language—meant that the program remained what its planners hoped to avoid. It was a western production inviting global participation. The global participants were grateful for the invitation, but they were guests at somebody else’s party. They were not necessarily able to be themselves. And that was a great loss at the core of the conference’s purpose.

Blind spots happen whenever we communicate across cultures. Planning a conference is a small and simple thing, compared to combating poverty, disease or ignorance, or trying to communicate a message. We never see our assumptions. Of course a clean and well-planned event is desirable to everybody! Of course translation should be conducted in the most time-efficient way possible! Of course more is better! Of course we should ignore or correct superstitious thinking! Of course we need accountability according to our reporting systems! Of course, of course.

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18 Responses to “Blind Spot”

  1. John H. Armstrong Says:

    Thank you Tim for a magnificent missional reflection. You are charitable, even though I fear some will think otherwise. And your insights are fresh and important. I hope this blog gets a wide readership. I celebrate the good of Cape Town but believe the “big events” are themselves Western. We need new strategies where we serve and are served, not where we create the agenda and run things by our cultural norms.

  2. Tom Smith Says:

    Thanks for this good reflection on blind spots.

  3. Brian K Says:

    I can’t help but wonder if the event itself is not rooted in modern western sensibilities.

  4. chosenrebel Says:

    Excellent post Tim. I was disappointed that I couldn’t go but this brief post gave me something important from the conference and for that I am grateful. Blindspots are inevitable I suppose, but one day, one day, the whole family purchased by the blood will celebrate together. Now that will be a day!

  5. elderj Says:

    I’m so grateful for these reflections. I too was there and shared the same concerns and observations. Thank you for your words. My sense is that the western church has not learned how to be a minority, even though it is

  6. Jenny Says:

    I would add a huge blind spot.

    As you stated, there were no Catholic or Orthodox represented. What a sad comment on the state of evangelical Christianity. Over one billion people on earth are Catholic or Orthodox, and not a single representative from either of these ancient faith traditions. It simply perpetuates the myth that Catholics and Orthodox are not Christian. Very sad indeed from people who should know better.

    • timstafford Says:

      Your comment isn’t quite right. There were contingents of observers from both Roman Catholic and Orthodox communities, as well as from the World Council of Churches. However, the congress was forthrightly for evangelicals. There was no suggestion that others were somehow inferior, just a clear sense of identity.

  7. Jenny Says:

    Your comment said “Not anything like perfectly representative—no Çatholic or Orthodox,” so I assumed that there were no Catholic or Orthodox representatives there. It’s nice to know they were at least invited to observe. As time goes on I see the lines between Catholic and Evangelical protestantism blurring as the myths behind what people erroneously believe the Catholic Church teaches and what it actually does teach are exposed.

  8. Cody C. Lorance Says:

    Thanks for your post, Tim. I hear what you are saying. Actually, I’ve been hearing this from several people, including some of the leaders. However, what has struck me is that I haven’t heard this criticism (about it being a Western production) from non-Westerners. I keep hearing Western Christians complain on behalf of Africans, Latin Americans, Asians, etc. But, I haven’t been hearing in from the Africans, Latin Americans and Asians themselves.

    It doesn’t mean I don’t see your point. However, the most consistent feedback I’ve heard from non-Western believers has been overwhelmingly positive. Recently, I had a conversation with a Lausanne leader in which we wondered if Western Christians might be in danger of a new kind of paternalism — criticizing on behalf of our non-Western brothers and sisters.

    And what is to be done with all of the non-Western Christians leaders who had direct influence on planning the program itself? Or what about some of our Asian brothers and sisters who love structure and are very uncomfortable without it. Or why doesn’t your article reflect the fact that India is the largest English-speaking nation in the world? There is another lens from which to view the issues you’ve raised and it is too simplistic to see the time and translation issues as merely Western preferences.

    My related post can be found here http://codylorance.blogspot.com/2010/11/my-top-3-complaints-about-cape-town.html

    Blessings!

    • timstafford Says:

      Thanks, Cody… The criticisms I reported came from non-westerners who participated in the planning process. And they were quite strong. See my article in Christianity Today for some quotes.

      Three possible reasons you haven’t heard such critiques. One is, not everybody felt the same way. Some people and cultures were more comfortable than others. (Indians, for example, had no problem with the language, as you note.) Second, many non-westerners are too polite to offer direct criticism. We westerners broadcast our complaints freely, but that’s not a universal approach. That’s one reason partnerships are so difficult. We communicate differently.

      Third, the conference was a success! The issues I raised were real, but they didn’t wreck it. Almost everyone I talked to was enthusiastic.

      I think you missed my point. I wasn’t saying that westerners insisted on their way. My point is that we don’t even know that we have a way. We have blind spots, all of us. It would have been the same if Africans or Chinese had taken the lead in planning. (Though the blind spots would have been different.) It’s extremely difficult to forge genuinely equal partnerships because we don’t necessarily know what the issues are.

      • chosenrebel Says:

        Tim,
        Spot on. All cultures have blindspots. All cultures both reveal and obscure portions of the greatness of the gospel. That’s why we need each other.

        I am sure that there are things about the gospel that my western grid obscures or inhibits me from seeing. But I am also sure that my eastern European brothers, and my African brother, and my Indian brothers also have spectacles that discolor or block out certain rays or facets of the gospel.

        Lausanne conferences and other conferences like it can’t overcome all of these barriers, but each one uncovers more. And that is good. It helps us to become the bride that Jesus purchased.

      • timstafford Says:

        Amen. Among other things, conferences like Lausanne help us understand how fabulously diverse we are. And that diversity includes our blind spots. It’s very hard to be genuine in our partnership, and the more closely we come together, the more we will see our differences. It won’t all be fun! Ignorance may bliss, but true marriages find their joy through struggle.

      • Cody C. Lorance Says:

        I appreciate your clarification, Tim as well as the CT article – helpful. Still, I guess I just feel very disheartened by the complaining. Some of those I heard doing so seem to be suggesting that there was a conspiracy to silence non-Westerners.

        I don’t know. I went in with a heart of trust. Trusting God to superintend the proceedings. Trusting the leadership to genuinely be seeking the will of God. I believe mistakes were made – many, many indeed. But too much criticism has been aimed at the “leaders.” All the participants are leaders. We were all contributing to the fallenness to the event. Instead of complaining, why aren’t we confessing and committing ourselves to Christ and each other?

        I am not often at a loss for words, but when I read about the Cape Town Complaining, I simply don’t know how to articulate the feeling I have. It is like pain, sadness. Like we’re missing something huge.

      • timstafford Says:

        I guess I’m not tuned in to the complaining. I haven’t heard it.

        But if it’s there, I’m with you. This was a wonderful conference, and I have a world of respect for the people who brought it together. It was full of joy and good will. Let’s learn from the mistakes, but be thankful for the reality we experienced in Cape Town.

  9. Cody C. Lorance Says:

    Also, on Catholic and Orthodox participation, I appreciate the spirit with which this comment has been made. However, it isn’t true that no Catholics or Orthodox representatives were present. As Jenny pointed out, they were indeed present as official observers and even were given a platform to speak in dialog sessions — which is more that most people were given.

    At the end of the day, I believe it is important to remember that Lausanne 3 didn’t set out to be a gathering of all Christians. The Lausanne Covenant was the unifying document that formed the basis for inviting participants. The suggestion of inviting Catholic and Orthodox believers to be participants seems to be tantamount to throwing out the Lausanne Covenant as a confession of faith. I understand that some may want to do that, but I don’t. Not for the Lausanne Movement.

    Anyway, I have more in my mind, but have to run.

    Really, blessings to you!

    • timstafford Says:

      Very well put. Evangelicals are a confessional grouping of Christians, as are Catholics and Orthodox. We can appreciate each other and fellowship together without dissolving our distinctives.

  10. Teeming Diversity « Timstafford's Blog Says:

    […] written about Cape Town 2010 in an earlier posting (here) and also on Christianity Today’s Liveblog (here). Now my feature article for CT is […]

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