Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 11 (2020)

An Interview with Mission Resource Network’s Dan Bouchelle, Mark Hooper, Andy Johnson, and David Allen

Chris Flanders

1. Chris Flanders: Describe how MRN1 came upon the honor-shame paradigm.

Dan Bouchelle: Multiple sources. We were introduced to Werner Mischke’s Global Gospel,2 which we then dove into headlong. Several of us have been following various leaders in the honor-shame community on social media and reading their articles and some books. The 3D Gospel book was a good resource.3 Our teams in southeast Asia have struggled more than in Africa, and it has been at least in part because of honor-shame dynamics we didn’t adequately prepare them for. My son Seth also introduced some of this thinking to me from his training at ACU and experience with GCMI.4 Mark Hooper had his own sources and has been speaking into this for some time as well.

Mark Hooper: I was introduced to the honor-shame discussion by reading Mischke’s book and then being encouraged to attend the 2017 Honor-Shame Conference5 at Wheaton in Chicago. It resonated so much with me, having lived in Asia and focused for decades on reaching Asians with the Gospel. We had known by experience of the “saving face” culture of eastern Asia, but the breadth of honor-shame culture, and having language to discuss it, was an “aha” moment for us.

For me, that “aha” moment involved reading Mischke’s book, The Global Gospel. Through it, we discovered the breadth of honor language. His “taxonomy of honor/shame words in the Bible” in chapter 2 was enlightening. Almost suddenly, I could see honor themes in many stories in the Bible I had not seen before. This also gave me a paradigm to better understand words and meaning in conversations I was having with leaders in honor/shame cultures. The veil was lifted, so to speak, on how I should be “reading between the lines,” of what was being said. It made communication much easier, with less awkward moments. We Americans are not accustomed to working that hard to understand the context of words. We prefer matter of fact or blunt communication without regard to honor or shame. Truth is more important to us.

Andy Johnson: I first encountered the honor-shame conversation when reading Muller’s book, Honor and Shame.6 At the time, I was a missions minister overseeing workers in both China and the near east, so it was a very timely resource to help me grow in my understanding of what the workers I oversaw were encountering.

David Allen: Living in Asian cultures for 41 years that have honor and shame as the pivotal values has impacted my worldview. I don’t know how MRN originally came upon the honor-shame paradigm, but can comment that it has been a relief for me to join an organization where everyone understands the importance of the paradigm and makes it an integral part of training and strategy.

2. CF: What about these two books (The Global Gospel, Honor and Shame) was particularly helpful or provocative?

MH: One of Mischke’s most noteworthy contributions to my honor/shame understanding was the honor-shame status reversal as a motif in the Bible. Seeing this done by God in story after story—for example, Adam, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Hosea, Peter, Paul, and even Jesus—showed me a “depth” of the gospel I had not yet seen but had longed for in my soul. Explaining the gospel in Asia in Western terms of guilt and forgiveness seemed inadequate and irrelevant most of the time. Now, with honor-shame language, I can grasp and explain a depth of the gospel that previously was hidden to my understanding, and is much more relevant to those in honor/shame cultures.

3. CF: Can you give an example from your work as a missionary or any other specific examples in your work at MRN as to how you’ve seen this?

MH: For example, when I was living in India, conversations often were very indirect, to my frustration. I would ask probing questions requiring opinions or matters of judgement, like, “How was the lesson Raja presented?” However, I hardly ever got a frank answer. I would only hear positive replies that saved the face of Raja or the person answering the question. Honor, and avoiding shame, veiled the honesty and critical assessment that I sought.

4. CF: How was this different from the way(s) you had previously thought about and equipped others for mission?

DB: I’m not the best person to answer this. However, one of the underdeveloped aspects of DMM [Disciple-Making Movements7] is the claim that missionaries don’t have to do contextualization in DMM because the people coming to Christ will do that as the outside catalysts facilitate discovering. However, the outsiders are selecting scriptures, and they do that from a guilt-innocence frame that doesn’t connect well in honor-shame cultures. There are several issues here. (1) Missionaries have to explain why they are present. They have to contextualize their presence. (2) When missionaries build enough relationships to introduce aspects of the gospel through texts or stories, they have to select the stories or texts, which is a contextual decision based on their understanding of the gospel, the target culture, and how they intersect. If they don’t understand a holistic gospel, they will drive everything back to guilt/innocence and miss honor/shame. I’m not sure we’ve addressed this adequately in our training, but at least our workers have a language and introduction into a broader understanding of the gospel now. But, the basic frame people grow up with is incredibly resilient.

MH: The honor-shame dialogue brought another dimension to our culture and worldview training of long-term workers. It gave specific language to talking about worldview in honor-shame cultures where we previously spoke generically about perspective and values of a culture. It gives new impetus to the discussion of what is “good news” to the unreached peoples. This may be part of the reason many cultures have been resistant to the gospel; they have been approached by Westerners from a guilt-innocence and love paradigm rather than an honor paradigm.Therefore, they have yet to see the “good news” of Jesus in a way that is appealing to them.

DA: As one who grew up in the Asian culture, I initially saw the world through this lens. When I moved to the US at 16, I had to learn how to meld my Asian worldview with my American worldview. I don’t know if I ever arrived at fully understanding either worldview!

5. CF: What was the most difficult part of either understanding, accepting, or utilizing this new way of thinking?

DB: For most of us it is hard to really understand and operate as if the guilt gospel is not the norm and the honor gospel is a secondary adaptation or prelude to the real gospel of guilt removal.

CF: Indeed, this is a very strong and consistent part of the Western theological framework. Can you provide a bit more context to this? How have you heard or, in your own work, explained the gospel in this way?

DB: I’ve seen issues of honor-shame treated as onboarding issues that are of interest to the target people, but then a need to shift the subject to the “real gospel” which is guilt-innocence. This came out when I pressed on how is the Jesus story good news in your context and there was little to no reflection on such a question. The gospel was assumed to be guilt-innocence and everything else was prelude.

MH: The notion that there might be another way of understanding the Bible was a bit hard for some Western thinkers. Trying to see biblical context through the honor-shame, communal lens rather than our Western guilt-innocence, individualistic lens was challenging. But when the light bulb comes on, there is depth of understanding in familiar stories of the Bible that has never been seen before.

CF: Mark, this is an incredibly perceptive comment. Why do you think this is, given that in many ways missionaries are often quick to contextualize for cultural appropriateness?

MH: Because most Western missionaries have “blind spots” in their biblical interpretation. Western theology has emphasized the guilt-forgiveness aspect of the gospel in our predominantly penal substitution soteriology. This goes hand in hand with our individualistic notion that salvation is a personal, rather than a communal matter. That, and the notion that Western Christendom culture is “superior” to that of other cultures, explicitly or implicitly communicated, has led to these blind spots. The contextualization of the gospel often done by missionaries is wrapping the same gift in a different box. What if what was really needed was a different gift altogether that was included in the gospel of Jesus, but not on the missionary’s radar?

AJ: Thinking again from a local church perspective, equipping lay members to understand honor/shame as more than an interesting sidebar or something that’s good for the “other” but not for them has proven quite a challenge. However, when small pockets of people commit to the time to dive more deeply into reflection and Scripture, it definitely proves useful for the local church as well as the workers they oversee. The hardest part is finding the pockets of people willing to work!

DA: An intellectual understanding of the honor-shame paradigm is insufficient. Honor/shame plays out far differently in a Buddhist culture than it does in a Muslim culture. And, again, it plays out very differently in the Hindu culture. Even within cultures, the paradigm plays out differently among the varied social casts and economic classes. Additionally, just as cultural norms are fluid and always changing, so is the application of the honor-shame paradigm. Just 100 years ago, a Korean servant legally could be killed by his owner for any form of disrespect. Today, there are laws to protect the poor class. Nevertheless, the principles of honor and shame still are the core values of Korean society; they just play out differently in “social games.” Therefore, it is quite challenging to accurately utilize the honor-shame paradigm because it is so complex and nuanced in each context.

6. CF: In what ways have you integrated honor, shame, and associated ideas (e.g., face, patronage) into your equipping and training?

DB: I’m not the person to answer this. But, I know we have all of our candidates read The Global Gospel, and they get some training on it.

MH: We have incorporated honor-shame ideas into our training in every aspect. Obviously, the cultural dimension was expanded to introduce the idea. But also, strategic planning has been altered a bit to allow for leadership to develop appropriately in these contexts. For example, leaders (both outside leaders and inside leaders) are being trained to take a posture as brokers for the ultimate patron (God/Christ) rather than being in the role of patron themselves. This may seem like a slight nuance, but it is huge in multiplying disciples and training leaders.

CF: Actually, this seems hugely important! How has this helped those training leaders?

MH: Actually taking a broker posture keeps humility in the equation for every leader at all levels, including the Westerner (outside catalyst). If God is the true patron, the missionary (outside catalyst) or the inside leader cannot be the agent of transformation and multiplication. Only God can. And if we are totally reliant on the patronage of God, prayers change and increase. Also, there is a deeper reliance on how God is speaking through Scripture and not on other people’s interpretation of Scripture. A discovery process takes shape in leaders and disciples, rather than the transfer of Western interpretation. This is where true contextualization takes place.

AJ: For the sending church preparing to launch workers into an honor-shame culture, it’s important to include this conversation in their preparation to launch. Understanding the ways in which the gospel appeals to those yet to encounter Jesus decreases the distance between the senders and their soon-to-be brothers and sisters. Oddly enough, when they understand some of the ways they are looking at the world in very different ways, that new realization of their differences at the core level paradoxically leads to greater identification.

7. CF: How have you seen this new way of thinking connecting with non-Westerners in your training and work? Among leaders? Among non-believers?

DB: I served as the coach for one Asian missionary a few years ago and kept pressing him to discover how the gospel was good news for his Buddhist background context. He talked to lots of missionaries in his area and, none of them seemed to understand the question. They gave Western answers. It was a slow and challenging process to help him discover ways to lead discovery in an honor-shame dynamic.

CF: What do you think it was that finally helped this missionary move to a new place of understanding?

DB: Reading Global Gospel and 3D Gospel along with coaching on how the gospel is good news in SE Asia.

MH: While mentoring national leaders in gospel movement practices, this issue of wrapping the good news of Jesus in an honor/shame context was enlightening. I was surprised that these leaders, living in an honor/shame context, knew the gospel only from a Western context. They had not thought about making the gospel more relevant to their culture but were stuck in presenting a foreign gospel to their peers. An Indian leader said, “We should have known this earlier. Then we wouldn’t be in a position of having to unteach so many misunderstandings of church and the gospel to our people.” Christianity had remained foreign in his context because it was never presented in an honor and communal dialogue in which the people lived (and the Bible was written), but only in guilt and individualism. Of course, there are many truths still present in a Western guilt and individualistic gospel, but another perspective must be seen for people of different cultures and worldviews.

CF: Mark, two reactions that I’ve noticed among non-Western leaders and believers are: (1) Can we really think like this? (with the hope and excitement that the answer is yes!) and (2) Why didn’t you tell us this earlier? This Indian leader sounds like reaction #2. Have you seen these reactions often?

MH: Very often. Reaction #1 is usually expressing an unspoken sentiment that “we should be able to interpret scripture ourselves, but we are afraid of dishonoring the Western missionaries who taught us Western theology.” Reaction #2 happens openly. One elderly man, with tears in his eyes, said, “I have been teaching my neighbors about forgiveness of sins when they didn’t feel that they had individual sin. But that is what we learned from the missionary. Now, I will tell them to honor the true God and He will take away your shame and restore your honor.”

8. CF: Has the honor-shame paradigm helped you as North American Christians to understand the Bible, God, or salvation better?

MH: Absolutely! I have been able to see meaning in biblical stories that I have never seen before. It has brought new perspective to me about how we are in relationship with God, as clients of a patron God who wants our honor in return, and subsequently gives us honor that is undeserved.

CF: Do any stand out? And could you note briefly how this paradigm helps you understand those stories better?

MH: In Mark 2, the story of the paralytic healed after his friends let him down through the roof in front of Jesus, the first thing Jesus says to the paralytic is “Son, your sins are forgiven.” I have always heard and thought, “Of course. He needed his sins forgiven first, since that is his larger spiritual need, rather than just being healed physically.” However, now I see the deeper meaning of Jesus restoring his honor. By Jesus announcing his sins have been forgiven, he was counteracting the shame the man felt in a society that believed that his lameness was punishment for sins personally or of his family. Jesus says basically, “You are no longer in shame! I restore your honor just as you are!” And to prove he could restore this man’s honor which was lost in society, he healed him physically. This same scenario is played out in the sinful woman washing Jesus’s feet at Simon’s house in Luke 7. An honor-shame lens helps me see the deeper meaning in stories like this.

DA: Reading the bible with an honor-shame worldview opens up a new world. Common stories like the prodigal son take on new meaning as we understand the centrality of the loving father in the story. These honor-shame cultures are far closer to the first century Mediterranian society than is any Western society today. Any missionary not using discovery or inductive bible study methods with honor-shame cultures will miss out on a depth of meaning that a first time honor-shame reader will immediately recognize.

DB: It has vastly broadened out what I understand salvation to be and what all we are saved from and for. We can’t really talk about a holistic gospel that touches all of life if we are stuck with an individualistic guilt gospel. I think the barrier between the white church and the churches of people of color in the US is largely a product of a truncated understanding of gospel.

CF: This sounds quite profound. Werner Mischke, the author of The Global Gospel, which you noted earlier, has written for this issue about how honor and shame issues are at the core of a biblical notion of reconciliation and identity as the church, the New Creation. If what you say is true, then this is likely just as important a theological lens for us in North America as it is those in the rest of the world. Would you agree? Could you elaborate at all?

DB: People of color, especially African-Americans, hear the gospel from a place of marginalization and respond more to the power of the gospel to overcome oppressive powers. Slavery and Jim Crow and ongoing racial issues make them more community oriented and less focused on individual accomplishment versus community advancement. Their preaching is rooted more in Christus Victor and Glory or Honor restored. There is a long tradition here. White churches focus on individual piety with little awareness of systemic justice. African American churches are keenly aware of systemic issues and the need for liberation. Individual piety can be seen as more of a luxury they are not afforded within a context of oppression.

9. CF: Do you think there is a place for teaching this in North American churches? Why? How?

DB: Absolutely, if we want to have any hope of becoming multicultural (not just multiracial). We can’t become holistic disciples with a partial gospel.

MH: Yes! We have often understood that our sins are forgiven, but have not known what to do with our ongoing shame. I haven’t fully understood how my shame has been dealt with in the gospel of Christ. I still struggle with this understanding, but the meaning of the good news is deepening for me. I know this is true for many other American Christians.

AJ: Definitely. It both broadens and deepens our understanding of what the Christ has done for us. It also is imperative for churches sending workers into honor-shame cultures to grow in their understanding of why the gospel is good news to the people to whom they are sending new workers.

DA: Of course. First, because our North American churches are becoming more diverse and we need to learn how to better communicate the gospel to our changing communities. Second, because an honor-shame reading of Scripture helps us to better understand and translate the meaning of the text in its original time and place.

CF: Some have noted that we’ve made a sort of cultural shift where shame has a greater part in contemporary society (see Andy Crouch’s 2015 article in CT, “The Return of Shame”).8 Do you also note this and do you think developing a greater understanding of honor-shame issues could help the church here?

MH: I believe so. Especially in our Church of Christ tribe. We have long embraced forgiveness, yet continued to carry the shame of our brokenness. We have not given full grace to ourselves as God has revealed through Jesus Christ. We have not allowed ourselves to possess the fullness of the gospel. This may be changing for the better, or at least needs to do so.

10. CF: If someone wanted to learn more about the honor-shame paradigm or learn how to use it in training or evangelism, what would be your recommendations?

DB: I usually tell people to read The Global Gospel and 3D Gospel and then say, “Let’s talk.” They rarely do. White church people assume our understanding is the norm despite our lack of impact. We are going to have to hurt and fail more before we learn well.

MH: I recommend reading Mischke’s book and subscribing to the Honor-Shame blog.9 I also imagine a program of having churches enter into small group discussions around these topics for better Christian community understanding. I am not sure what that would look like (a curriculum or sermon series?) but the topic must be introduced and discussed in today’s churches if we are going to stay relevant in today’s world.

AJ: I would add Muller’s book to the reading list. I also encourage people to work to become friends—not just acquaintances—with the Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists with whom they work or live on the block. The honor-shame conversation is ultimately about people, God’s children. You really need to actually get to know some of them to understand its true importance.

DA: The books listed above are excellent. I would add that if one is to be a trainer in evangelism for the honor-shame context, book learning is not enough. The trainer should first live in that context before teaching it. Just reading a book about Thai values does not give one a deep or thorough understanding of Thai values and motivations.

CF: Have you read the honor-shame paraphrases (reviewed in this issue of Missio Dei)? Perhaps these could serve as a helpful tool to generate an honor-shame-patronage conversation among English-speaking Westerners? Thoughts?

MH: Having read the paraphrase of Esther, I would highly recommend Westerners read these in small groups or classes to discuss the honor-shame perspective in Scripture. The Esther story seemed to come more alive as people’s motives and feelings were revealed in honor-shame language not found in more literal English translations. I believe Jayson Georges and his team are making a valuable contribution to our understanding the Word of God in its original contexts through these paraphrase projects.

11. CF: What final words would you give readers of Missio Dei about honor-shame?

MH: The honor-shame perspective is worth exploring for every Christian for these primary reasons:

  1. It provides a modern reader insights into Scripture we do not always see or appreciate.
  2. It enables Christians to talk more on a heart level and read-between-the-lines in conversation with people from honor-shame dominated cultures.
  3. It enables understanding and communication of the Gospel of Jesus in a deeper, more relevant way that is more appealing to honor-shame cultures and even younger people in Western, post-Christian society.

AJ: As I write this in June of 2020, conversations (and sometimes shouting matches) about fear, prejudice, exclusion, and segregation dominate social media and news outlets. Most of us fear what we do not know; loving the “other” is scary and hard to do. Listening, learning, and getting to know those not like us is the way to begin to overcome that fear. Doing the work to have a robust understanding of honor-shame dynamics won’t eradicate racism or elitism or your fear of those unlike you. It might, however, move each of us one step closer to understanding what it means to be a part of God’s diverse family spread across the globe as well as down the street, and that is a good thing.

Chris Flanders is associate professor of Missions at Abilene Christian University, where he has been teaching since 2005. His PhD in Intercultural Studies is from Fuller Theological Seminary. For nine years, Chris served as the director of the Halber Institute for Missions at ACU. Prior to his time at ACU, Chris spent a total of eleven years in Thailand, working in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. He serves on the leadership team of the Honor-Shame Network and actively writes and researches in the areas of face and facework theory and the anthropology of honor and shame. His dissertation on face in the Thai context received the American Society of Missiology distinguished dissertation award in 2011. He is the author of About Face: Rethinking Face for 21st Century Mission (Wipf & Stock, 2011) and edited Devoted to Christ: Missiological Reflections in Honor of Sherwood Lingenfelter (Wipf & Stock, 2019) and (with Werner Mischke) Honor, Shame, and the Gospel: Reframing our Message and Ministry (2020).

Dan Bouchelle has served as the President of Missions Resource Network (http://mrnet.org) since August of 2010. Before joining MRN, he served as the senior minister of the Central Church of Christ in Amarillo, Texas, for nine years and ministered for thirteen years with churches in Norman, Oklahoma, and Abilene, Texas. Dan has also served on the board of trustees for Great Cities Missions, Christian Relief Fund, and several local non-profit ministries. Dan holds a BS from the University of Houston–Clear Lake, and a MA, MDiv, and DMin from Abilene Christian University. He has spoken for numerous churches, colleges, lectureships, workshops and seminars around the USA and on six continents. Dan has published several articles and has written three books: The Gospel Unleashed (College Press, 2005), The Gospel Unhindered (College Press, 2005), and Ruth/Esther: When God Seems Absent (Hillcrest Press, 2001). You can reach him at dan.bouchelle@mrnet.org.

Andy Johnson served with his family for a dozen years in Burkina Faso, where he was privileged to see God begin a gospel movement among the Dagara people. Having returned to the States, he first served as a missions pastor in central Alabama before making the move to MRN. He is now the director of missionary care as well as the prayer coordinator for MRN. You can reach him at andy.johnson@mrnet.org.

David Allen is a third generation missionary who was born and raised in South Korea. After moving to the US at the age of 16, he attended Texas A&M University, eventually becoming a computer engineer. He also holds an MS in biblical studies from ACU. David and his wife Michelle answered God’s call to the mission field in 1994 and went to northern Thailand, where they served as church planters for twenty-five years. The Allens returned to the US in 2018. David now works as a consultant for MRN. His interests include coffee, grilling steaks, and craft beer. You can contact David at allentown07@gmail.com.

Mark Hooper and his wife, Debbie, live in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area where Mark serves with MRN. They were missionaries in Mumbai, India, and have trained and prepared others to serve in mission fields for over twenty-five years. Their two children and spouses have served as missionaries in Asia as well. Mark holds a PhD in cultural anthropology from Mumbai University and continues to be involved in research and learning where cultural norms and religiosity intersect. You can contact Mark at mark.hooper@mrnet.org.

1 Mission Resource Network, https://www.mrnet.org.

2 Werner Mischke, The Global Gospel: Achieving Missional Impact in Our Multicultural World (Scotsdale, AZ: Mission ONE, 2015).

3 Jayson Georges, The 3D Gospel: Ministry in Guilt, Shame, and Fear Cultures (n.p.: Timē Press, 2014).

4 Global City Mission Initiative, https://globalcitymission.org.

5 Honor-Shame Conference, https://honorshame-conference.com.

6 Roland Muller, Honor and Shame: Unlocking the Door (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2001).

7 See Jerry Trousdale, Miraculous Movements (Nashville: Thomas Nelson: 2012); David Watson and Paul Watson, Contagious Disciple Making: Leading Others on a Journey of Discovery (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2014).

8 Andy Crouch, “The Return of Shame,” Christianity Today, March 10, 2015, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2015/march/andy-crouch-gospel-in-age-of-public-shame.html.