Ministering in the Midst of a Refugee Crisis: How the Local Church Can Respond

Ministering in the Midst of a Refugee Crisis:

Here’s a link to the paper I recently presented at the Evangelical Missiological Society. It is mainly a detailed biblical theology of sojourner/stranger in the Bible and then provides guidelines for how churches can think more biblically about the refugee crisis and respond appropriately. I wrote it to bring more theological precision to much of what is already out there on this topic.

Local Church Ministry in the Midst of a Refugee Crisis

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More Anthropology for the Real World

It’s great when the rubber meets the road, when theory aids understanding of reality.  Applied anthropology aims for just such an application – how can anthropology help solve real world problems?  I’m in the field of higher education and readily see application for anthropology to speak into everyday issues in the classroom.  Allow me to give a few examples.

I taught at a school in the U.S. that has a growing population of international students.  This school is known for its excellent academics and does indeed provide a fairly well rounded education.  However, cultural issues sneak into the classroom in ways not readily detected by even the finest faculty.  I was in my office one day, a Thursday in fact, when a student came in during a lunch break to talk.  She was nearing the end of a one week intensive class that meets Monday through Friday from about 8-5 every day.  Here it was Thursday afternoon and the student expressed concern to me for some of her classmates.  The professor had designed the class to be highly interactive which was unusual for this school.  In fact, 70% of the student’s grade was dependent on active class discussion, giving one’s own ideas and opinions, and even challenging other classmates in their opinions.  Each time a student would speak up, the professor would mark down the participation to factor in to the final grade.  There was only one problem.  The class had a number of Asian students who had said nothing at all and this student was worried for their grade.  What was the problem here?

I told the student that some Asian cultures have different values in the education process.  In these cultures, it is extremely rude for a student to speak without being called on and a student would never fathom to challenge the professor, give his or her own opinion, or argue openly with classmates.  Yet, this is exactly what the students were asked to do in order to earn a high grade.  Yes, the students were aware that such a system was “normal” in the U.S.  Yet, their cultural background was so strong that they could not physically bring themselves to speak out in class.

The student who had visited me in my office quickly went back to try and catch the professor before afternoon class began.  She kindly explained to him why she thought the Asian students had not spoken the entire week.  Thankfully, the professor (who had noticed this lack of participation as well) was extremely gracious for this insight, and felt embarrassed for putting the Asian students in this predicament.  Over the next day and a half, he called on the students and attempted to make a safe place in the classroom for them to participate in a more acceptable manner.  It turned out that they had excellent insight from their perspective, just that they did not have a culturally appropriate means to convey their knowledge.

The most ironic thing in the whole scenario is that this professor is himself multi-cultural and has even written extensively on inter-racial and intercultural issues, though just from a small segment of American values.  He is a genuinely wonderful man and very humble.  My point is that culture is a tricky thing, and we are totally blind to so many facets of it.  What we deem as normal and natural, especially when it comes to education and classroom performance, is totally taboo and unacceptable in another cultural system.

I currently teach in SE Asia and serve as a sort of advisor in a college that has just launched an American Degree Transfer Program.  Students do two years of college here, and then can transfer into a US university, where they will earn their degree.  I’m excited for the program because I get a chance to help students transition from the Asian education system to the US system.  It has saddened me over the years to hear of top-notch Asian students – the best and brightest in their home countries – flounder in US systems simply because of unknown cultural differences on both sides.  These students are robbed of their opportunity to contribute and excel and much frustration could be avoided with a simple training program designed to introduce students to US education (which do actually exist at many schools), but also to train US professors! to help Asian students overcome cultural issues.

So here we have a great application for anthropology.  What are the inherent values present in education systems from different cultures and what difficulties will these systems present when they cross cultures?  How can we create a classroom that has room for every student that gives each the opportunity to showcase their knowledge in an appropriate way?  Whatever subject you teach or study, find an anthropologist and ask for insight into these issues because they are extremely common in the real world.

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Immigration and Cultural Identity – Applied Anthropology

My dissertation has recently become available in electronic format.  If you are interested in how immigration impacts understanding, production, and expression of cultural identity, you should have a look.  Here is a summary:

This dissertation explores how urbanization and immigration affect the worldview and cultural identity of immigrants. Chapter 1 introduces the dissertation and presents the research problem. The chapter also defines key terms, gives the author’s background, sets limitations and delimitations, and overviews research methods employed in the writing of this dissertation.

Chapter 2 provides a literature review, synthesis, and analysis of works in the fields of urban anthropology, orality studies, and church planting.

Chapter 3 explores the relationship of immigration and cultural identity. The chapter discusses ways in which urban areas encourage or limit cultural production of residents and how immigrants respond to those pressures as they express their cultural identity. The chapter concludes with an analysis of three models of assimilation likely to be found in urban contexts.

Chapter 4 presents the oral worldview, including the nature of oral cognition, oral community, and methods of oral communication. After describing primary oral cultures, the chapter discusses the introduction of literacy to an oral people and the effects of residual orality.

Chapter 5 draws together research presented in chapters 2 through 4 and discusses a grounded approach for identifying and reaching ethnic groups in the city. The first section presents methods to conduct ethnographic research so church planters can understand the specific dynamics in their communities. The second section discusses issues germane to reaching ethnic groups in the city including mono or multi-ethnic church, orality issues, critical contextualization, strategies for ministering in the three assimilation models presented in chapter 3, and the need for church partnerships.

Chapter 6 concludes the dissertation by summarizing key points from each chapter. The chapter also describes the application of the dissertation to urban settings outside of North America and discusses the need for further research on related topics beyond the scope of this dissertation.

The Interface of Urbanization and Orality in North American Immigration

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Anthropology for the Real World

For whatever reason, it is very difficult to understand what other people do at their jobs.  Ask a chemist at the pharmaceutical company what he does and he replies, “Oh, I synthesize proteins.”  Ok, but what does that mean?  We who undertake our own work (hopefully) understand what we do because we walk through it ourselves.  It is sometimes difficult to explain what is natural to us to someone from a different background.  Anthropology isn’t chemistry but it can be just as confusing for others to understand.  There are so many sub-fields that anthropologists themselves may not understand what others in their field even do!

What is Applied Anthropology?

In this post, I want to tackle what is called Applied Anthropology.  What is it?  Simply, using anthropological methods and theories to solve real world, every day problems.  Ok, but what does that mean?  I learn best through stories so here is an example from my own life that shows how anthropology can actually help real people!

The Problem – Getting a Job

My city is home to a large number of refugees from many countries in the world.  An apartment complex near my home is populated by around 70 families that have come from Nepal.  I have worked with these Nepalese for several years now, trying to learn the dynamics of refugee life in America.  During the course of my research and interaction with the refugees I came to realize that the most important issue in their lives was finding a job.  In order to secure a job in the U.S., they needed to know English.  Many of the refugees were attending various ESL classes in town through governmental and private agencies.  However, even as the refugees’ English abilities improved, they still had trouble finding a job.

Here is where applied anthropology comes in.  I asked the question, “What are the reasons these refugees are having trouble finding jobs?”  As I was doing my ethnographic research through interviews and observations, I learned a number of important cultural traits of these refugees that directly related to their difficulty in finding a job in the U.S.

First, Nepalese come from a collectivist culture.  The refugees I worked with were not comfortable thinking about themselves as individuals making their own way in the U.S.  Their family unit and extended network took precedence over their own goals.  Younger members of the family who had better English skills were having difficulty fulfilling the role of primary provider for their family.  Their dads were suffering role deprivation as they sat at home feeling helpless to provide for their family while they learned English.

Next, these refugees were indirect communicators.  Simple yes and no answers seemed too harsh.  They would often answer as they wanted their culture to be perceived even if that was not their individual reality.  At times, the answer to every question seemed to be “yes” even when I knew the person had a different view they were not expressing. Suspicion arose with those not familiar with indirect communication.

Finally, many of the refugees were soft spoken and reserved.  Speaking loudly was a sign of rudeness and aggression.  Eye contact is not viewed as essential in Nepali culture so many folks would appear disinterested or shy when I talked to them.  The reality was they were listening and engaged, just not making the eye contact that communicates interest in U.S. culture.

Anthropology Applied

These three cultural traits – collectivism, indirect communication, and reservedness – are all highly valued in Nepali culture.  These three traits are seen as weakness and viewed with suspicion in U.S. culture.  Hence the difficulty for the refugees to show employers they were good fits for the job.  The solution?  I used what I learned through anthropological research to offer resume building and interview workshops aimed at addressing these three specific cultural tendencies.

The refugees were not doing a sufficient job of “marketing” themselves in their resumes and job interviews.  Remember, in Nepali culture it is rude to talk about yourself, tell others why you are the perfect fit for the job, how your skills are needed, and how you as an individual can contribute to the goals of the company you want to work for.  In the workshops, we role played and helped the refugees to talk about their strengths and how their specific contributions would benefit their prospective employer.  We practiced speaking more boldly and in the active voice.  We rehearsed answering questions directly, clearly, and quickly.  We reassured the refugees it is ok to disagree with someone and then communicate that disagreement in an acceptable way.

Finally, we printed a stack of resumes for each attendant at the workshop.  We were proud to hand twenty resumes to the first refugee and wish him well in his job hunt.  Only, we were horrified at what happened next.  The person took his valuable resumes and tightly rolled them so they would fit in a pocket!  How was he to know that in the U.S. we place so much value on silly things like how thick your resume paper is and what condition it is in when you give it to your employer!  Back to the printer and another lesson learned!


I hope this little story shows how basic anthropology and cultural research can be applied to a real life problem – helping refugees get jobs in the U.S.  That’s what applied anthropology does.  A little interaction and research showed me the specific cultural traits I needed to address.  The ironic thing is that the very traits that are esteemed in Nepali culture are viewed poorly in our culture.  These resume and interview workshops were hopefully one small step to welcome and prepare these wonderful Nepalese to be productive members of our society.  That is anthropology applied.

If you are interested in reading a short ethnography of the Nepali refugees mentioned in this post, I have linked the document below.

nepali ethnography

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Short-term, Team Based Ethnographic Research

Ethnographic Research – Long or Short Term Approach?

Traditional ethnographic research takes a long time, but the time is necessary for an accurate and in depth understanding of the culture or phenomenon under observation.  When an anthropologist embarks on a research project in a totally new area, a year of language study is often needed before detailed ethnographic research can begin.  Fieldwork often lasts 2 or more years.  Such longer term approaches to ethnographic research are crucial for accurate understandings of culture.  These published ethnographies have been the basis for many of the major theories that have arisen in cultural anthropology over the last 150 years.

While there is tremendous value to the long term approach to research, there are instances when a short term model can produce accurate and helpful results.  For example, anthropologists are more readily hired as consultants by companies looking for specific and focused research on a particular aspect of society.  Other times, an anthropologist may be employed to give a general overview of a culture with specific findings and suggested strategies for doing business in the area.

I’ve been involved with several of these short term ethnographic research projects.  In some instances I was the sole researcher.  In other instances I was part of a team commissioned to research and report on some culture or aspect of culture.  I’ve found that the short-term, team approach to ethnographic research can be a very helpful, time efficient means of understanding a culture.  Look at it this way – one researcher can spend two months in an area and put in about 400 hours of research.  A team of eight can spend less than a week in an area and put in the same number of man hours.  In this post, I want to give a brief overview of two approaches to the team based research method, along with pros and cons of each.

Team-Based Categorical Model

In this model, each member of a team is tasked with focusing on a specific cultural category or domain to research during the trip.  For example, one  member may focus all her research on the linguistic aspects of the people.  Another may research the family structures.  Yet another will tackle religion and myth in the culture.  The team can be formed according to each individual’s strength or background with the assigned category.

Each person has a specific focus and as the days progress, the research/informant base builds.  The most helpful research is often done several days into the trip as the researcher has had a few days to build a general knowledge of the people and has been introduced to knowledgeable informants in the area.  Each researcher also has an ear and eye open to informants with knowledge in other cultural categories.  Nightly team debriefing sessions afford opportunity to share contacts with other members of the research team.  For example, I might be researching linguistics but come across a local business owner.  I ask the owner for contact information that I can share with my teammate who is researching the local economy.


That each member of the team only has to focus on one cultural category means the category can be intensively researched without distraction.  It is surprising how much information can be found on one topic in a week’s time.  Furthermore, team members can share contacts so members save time by not having to always set out with a blank slate.  Finally, the ethnographic write up comes together more seamlessly because each team member only has to write up their one cultural category.  Each small paper can be combined to form the more comprehensive ethnography.


The major concern is that each team member has the ability to understand and ask the right questions related to their topic of inquiry.  If all members do not have formal anthropological training, several team training sessions prior to the research trip can help.  However, the research will be more accurate when members have the proper background and training.

Team-Based Geographical Model

This model works better in an urban setting.  The geographical model was used by my team on a recent trip to London.  We split our larger team into groups of two or three.  We had four groups and each was assigned a borough in London.  In this model, each team or individual returns to the same geographic location every day.  The geographic model allows a large area to be covered in a short time, providing a general picture of the city to those requesting the research.

In my case, each small team was tasked with locating as many different people groups living in the borough as possible.  Secondarily, we were to find out basic information about each people group such as immigration history, religion, community leaders, and businesses owned by those from that people group.  We were able to discover a basic understanding of the cultural dynamics in each borough, use of space and power by dominant and minority groups, and weave together a larger understanding of immigration in London by comparing research from the four boroughs.


In a large city like London, the geographic model can provide a basic overview of the city.  Specific information about each sub-geographic area helps one understand local and neighborhood dynamics as well as determine if certain themes are prominent in the city as a whole or are confined to certain people groups or neighborhoods.


This model does not allow for the more in depth research that the category specific model allows for.  There simply is not enough time to dig deeply into each people group.  Additionally, the final write up can be somewhat difficult to compile by the lead researcher.  The task can be made easier by requiring the same format to be used by each team when doing their write up.  For example, should each team’s write up be categorized by neighborhood within the borough, listing people groups found locally?  Or should the write up be categorized by people group, and then list the geographic locations they reside in under the group.  The answer depends on what the one requesting the research is using the research for.  Advanced planning in necessary for the write up to be helpful and organized.


In conclusion, the short-term, team based model for ethnographic research can be an effective means of research.  Man hours are multiplied and if the team is compiled and trained properly, a lot of good research can be done in a short amount of time.  The two models, category specific and geography specific each have their value and limitations.  If you are a business owner, church, missionary, school administrator, ect., consider employing an anthropologist to conduct short term, team based research for you.

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Philosophy and Methodology of Missions – How do you get where you’d like to go?

Professor David Sills likes to say, “Your theology drives your ecclesiology” and “your philosophy drives your methodology.”  When you think about it, those statements make sense.  How you define what a church is will influence how you go about planting one.  If you believe that Christians are called to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, your methods will lead to that end.  I’m not a marketing genius but I know that a pastor and missionary’s philosphy of missions is crucial.  If you don’t have an end goal, you likely will not have an action plan.  Without an action plan, you will likely blunder along and not really get anywhere.  You don’t need to have every detail planned before you start, but it is helpful to have at least a general framework in place to guide you.  Click on the link below to read my philosophy and methodology of missions.  Consider writing down your own when you are finished – you’d be suprised how difficult it is if you’ve not thought through your philosophy before.  It’s worth the effort though, and you might actually see your ministry impove as you put your philosophy into action!

Personal Missions Philosophy and Methodology

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Understanding Rituals for Missional Purpose

Western Christians tend to be afraid of rituals, even anti-ritual.  Rituals often bring to mind images of idolatry and magic, head hunting and cannibalism.  In reality, people use rituals continually.  Every culture has a ritualistic script for greeting one another, whether it be a smile and a handshake, a bow, or a simple “Hi, how are you?”  Rituals range from simple greetings to profoundly deep ceremonies.  Rituals give content and meaning to things that are too deep for words.  They point to realities greater than themselves.

To read more about rituals, their function in society, and how they can be used to communicate the gospel, click on the link below.

Understanding Rituals for Missional Purpose

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