When we use words carelessly, we discredit how radical the work of God really is
The night before Christmas may have caused sugar plums to dance in some heads. The close of the latest charity fund-raising season, however, has left the buzz-word transformation rattling around in mine. Nearly every glossy appeal I skimmed through before the holidays promised that someone or something would be transformed, if only I donated the required amount. Really?
Now don’t get me wrong: I know from experience that many charities do make a profound difference. They are worth giving to. I work for one and I believe passionately in what we do. But can we really describe the change our work results in as transformation? Sometimes I can almost hear the voice of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride saying, “I’m not sure that word really means what you think it means.”
Education makes a huge difference in a child’s life. Micro-lending programs have significant impact on communities. Conversion to Christianity certainly brings major change. But change and transformation, although related in meaning, are not synonymous.
Another word for transformation is metamorphosis. What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word metamorphosis? If you’re like everyone I’ve ever asked, it’s the process whereby a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. The caterpillar doesn’t just make some changes like shedding a few legs and growing some wings. It forms a cocoon within which it secretes an enzyme that digests its flesh and breaks it down at the cellular level, turning it into an organic soup. Not the most pleasant image, I must say. Then the ingredients of the soup re-form into a completely new organism and a butterfly emerges from the cocoon. It’s the same species, but a fundamentally new and different organism.
That’s transformation. Transformation means being completely and totally undone at our most elemental level and then re-formed into something new. What is transformed is no longer what it once was, although something of the previous reality and identity carries through. There is continuity, yet also radical discontinuity.
The biblical metaphor of this undoing and re-forming is the kernel of wheat which, unless it falls to the ground and dies (i.e. ceases to exist as a kernel of wheat) will never become a shaft of wheat which bears fruit exponentially. And this metaphor, of course, speaks of a reality which is at the very core of Christian faith: death and resurrection. In the death of Christ, life as we know it now is completely and totally undone. In his resurrection new life emerges, no longer what it once was because it has gone through a total and fundamental change – it has been transformed.
To be undone and re-formed
What does it mean for a person to be completely and totally undone and re-formed? What does it mean for a family or a community to experience this? I’m only beginning to imagine what that degree of change entails. But what I do know is that it is far more radical than whatever improvements come through education, economic development, health projects, or even shifts in religious affiliation, as important as those improvements may be.
In fact, one of the questions that haunts me in our own work is the degree to which apparent improvements can reinforce the elemental values, beliefs and structures which stand in the way of actual transformation. If our efforts in education, economic development or even evangelism, discipleship and church planting, only end up increasing the comfort, wealth, longevity and power of our present reality, will we have served the cause of good or of evil? At the risk of pushing the metaphor to the breaking point, a smarter, wealthier, stronger caterpillar, even a caterpillar which can fly, is still only a caterpillar, it’s not a butterfly.
The Christian mission “industry” is driven by measurables. We want to know we are making a difference. But do we have the right metrics? Are we evaluating success based on whether a caterpillar has wings, or whether it is becoming a butterfly? Are we factoring into our plans, our methods, our metrics and our fund-raising the kind of radical undoing and re-forming which is essential to true transformation?
Imagine the annual report from your favourite Christian charity describing how successful they have been at helping people, families and communities become the equivalent of the organic soup in a cocoon or the dead kernel of wheat in the ground! What glossy graphics would illustrate the “progress”? Would you be motivated to give so the work could continue? Would you be drawn to become more personally engaged in the process? Would the agency likely be successful in a grant application to a foundation or government?
A personal story
Heidi, a young woman from our church, recently spent 6 months in a small coastal village in the Philippines. Some of the people she came to know and love there told her that before they “came to know Jesus” they were unkind, rude, cruel and trapped in addictions. As she tells the story, Heidi’s eyes light up and she shakes her head: “I can’t even picture them like that! Now they are so humble, generous, wise, gentle, servant-hearted and completely free from addiction. It’s as if we are talking about completely different people.” In a sense, perhaps we are. Heidi saw how micro-loans and college sponsorships are helping to improve the conditions in which villagers live. That’s change. But she also saw how God is transforming people at the very core of who they are. And she is experiencing that power in her own life now in new ways as well. That’s transformation.
Now please don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting that we go back to the old dichotomist way of thinking which prioritizes preaching, prayer and Bible study over all other work in Christian mission. What I’m emphasizing is that transformation is about more than just some improvement in conditions. Transformation is something that happens at the core of who we are as individuals and communities.
It is right that we invest our skills, technology, experience and wisdom in efforts to improve the quality of our shared life together. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be loving our neighbour, would we? And we can’t love God without loving our neighbour in tangible, practical ways.
The challenge is to do and describe our work in such a way that whatever changes result from it, they point to the deeper and more elemental change, the undoing and re-forming, that is true transformation. If our work is to be Christian, it needs to open up the possibility of being undone and re-formed in the death and resurrection of Christ, so that we can enter into the transformed fullness of life which God intends.
We could start by being more careful with our words. Sure, it sounds more exciting to say that a child’s life was transformed than to simply say things changed or improved somewhat. But if our words and work are to be effective, we need to mean what we say and say what we mean. If the life of the child or community was not completely undone and re-formed, let’s not pretend it was. Let’s be honest and talk about what improved, while holding out hope for the transformation that can still come.
Greg Reader is a Learning and Development Specialist with International Teams Canada. He has over 30 years’ experience working with International Teams in Europe, the Philippines and Canada. Greg presently provides leadership to “The Forge” internship, and training support to teams. He is pursuing post-graduate research on the role of the local church in transformational development. He and his wife Helen currently live in Hamilton ON with their two children, Eryn and Daniel.