Missions Misunderstood

Posted November 17th, 2006 by E. Goodman

I hate buzzwords. One that is widely used in ministry is “relational.” What does that mean? I’ve heard people that do surveys and questionnaires describe their ministries as “relational.” Does a brief encounter on the street count as a relationship? Why does everyone feel the need to talk about relationships, even if they don’t (or can’t) build and maintain any?

Our team has a relational approach to ministry. We really think that God can use authentic relationships to build the kingdom here in Western Europe. We focus on our relationships with God, one another, and with nationals. Through these friendships, we can show the good news that we consistently share with the people that God brings to us. For us, relationships are the context for discipleship.

Our relational approach isn’t some attempt at relevance, or us trying to makes Jesus cool. For us, real relationships are what’s been lacking in our own spiritual journeys. We’re tired of shallow (“How are you? Fine, thanks. You?”) interactions that gloss over our struggles and only end up making us feel more isolated. We’re relational because it’s what we need. We know the power of the Gospel through our relationships with God. We know the Truth of scripture through our relationship to it. We know love through truly loving relationships.

Of course, some object to the idea of “relational ministry.” It’s too limiting, some say. Others contest that efforts toward building relationships with non-seekers would be better spent on those people who are “closer” to salvation. The problem with only building relationships with people who we see moving closer to faith is that the relationship is then conditional and motivated by results. It’s like the car salesman who’s your best friend until he realizes you aren’t really going to buy a car today.

Another reason people are skeptical about relational church planting is that we don’t have any great models of the transition from “friendships” to “churches.” So you’ve got a group (or a couple of groups) of friends. How do you lead those people to faith, and how can they then learn to be a body of believers?

I’ll let you know how it works out for us.

By the way, our team’s favorite passage of scripture that talks about relationships is Romans, chapter 12. On the subject of love, Paul writes: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” v.15

Filed under:Relationships Posted November 5th, 2006 by E. Goodman

I’ve posted about this before, but I’ve been hearing and reading a lot about “contextualization”of the gospel. If you’ve every read my blog before, you likely know that I believe that we the church should do all that we can to minimize the cultural differences that hinder the communication of love and truth to the people around us. If that’s what you mean by “contextualization,” then call me a “contextualizer.” The more foreign we are, the more foreign our message will seem. Context is important.

The other day I spoke with a friend who was concerned after reading my post “The Uncanny Valley.” This friend thought that I might be too caught up in trying to make Christianity “hip” or “cool.” I clarified my opinion for him, and we agreed that “contextualization” in the sense of trying to make Jesus seem “cool” is really a bad idea. The reason it’s bad is simple: we’re not cool. Especially this friend I was talking to.

There is a difference, then, between cultural translation of the message, and assuming the cultural appropriateness of a model or practice of the faith.

That’s the problem with models of church or ministry or evangelism; they’re only good during the life of the cultural context for which they were designed (and usually, not even that long.) The rate of change is so great these days; subcultures and population segments are moving “targets” (forgive me for using the word). I believe we should model (insofar as we’re able) what life in Christ might look like in our cultural setting, but we’ve got to remember that the best people to decide what church might look like in any given culture are the people of that culture.

I have been targeted by many Christians. Churches tailor their programs to meet my needs without bothering to ask what they are. Bible study resources are written for my demographic in order to help my walk. Evangelism experts call me ineffective, and blame it on my laziness for not going, my fear for not being bold enough, or my ignorance for not figuring out the “5 Simple Steps to Effective Soul-Winning.” I identify with the people most of you call “targets” and “contacts.”

If you’re comfortable with your current expression of your faith, good for you. I’m not; but please don’t think I’m asking you for help with that. Stop trying to make church relevant to me. Teach me what the Bible says about church, and get out of my way. My friends and family will wrestle with the cultural implications. Teach me what you understand to be God’s directive concerning leadership, worship, gifts, and service; leave it to us and the Spirit to work out the practice. Train me in truth, but don’t expect me to look, act, dress, talk, or think like you.

Thank you.

Filed under:Culture, Definitions, Planting Posted October 29th, 2006 by E. Goodman

Backyard Bible Clubs. Youth Camp. Sports ministries. If you do any of these as evangelistic outreach, I’ve got a question for you: are you taking advantage of children?

Yeah, I know- you came to faith through VBS when you were six years old. If it “worked” for you, it can’t be that bad, right?

Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that a group of Muslims come to visit your town. They’re prepared with snacks and games and crappy little crafts with Popsicle sticks. They blanket your neighborhood with fliers announcing: Games! Clowns! Snacks! Crafts! Fun!

Or say you don’t see the fliers, but you’re at the park with your kids. There you are, minding your own business, eating your Chick-fil-a picnic lunch, and said group of Muslims approach your kids with balloons and puppets and invite them to participate in their Backyard Koran Club. You look around and see veiled women hanging around the playground. Young peachfuzz-bearded men picking teams for a game of non-competitive Red-Rover. How would you feel?

My European friends have convinced me: children’s “ministries” are a dangerous thing.
The problem is that we put children in a position to be overwhelmingly influenced by us. We orchestrate situations full of “positive” peer pressure. We give gifts and Kool-Aid and ask them to give their hearts to Jesus. Is this fair? What are the long-term affects of child evangelism?

You might disagree, and quote Mark 10 (Where Jesus said, “Let the little children come unto me.”) I’m just not sure that meant “Dupe the little kids into saying the Sinner’s prayer.”

Remember youth camp? We take impressionable 13-17 yr. olds out of their familiar surroundings, and keep them in a controlled, “Christian” environment, where they are taught by super-cool counselors. They get no sleep, they eat trash, and every evening we coax an emotional response out of them through hours upon hours of pep-rallies (“We love Jesus, yes we do, we love Jesus, how ’bout you?!”), guilt-trip sermons (“Come, nail all your sins to this cross.”), and endless “Just As I Am” invitations. Is this fair? These are children! We don’t want cigarette and beer companies to advertise to them, but it’s okay if we do?

You might say, “Yeah, but we’re right! Don’t you want to see children come to faith?” Of course I do. But I want everyone who comes to faith to do so without coercion. I want a generation of born-again believers, not “I-said-the-prayer” cultural Christians. I want parents to know that we care about them and their children, whether or not they become Christians. I want parents to know what we’re teaching their children, and how, and why.

I believe the word should be taught to children. We should be telling Bible stories, sharing difficult truths, and praying with and for our children. But I think child evangelism, and it’s commonly practiced, is wrong.

I guess I probably won’t be invited to speak at any youth camps when I’m home on furlough next year…

Filed under:Evangelism, Subculture Posted October 26th, 2006 by E. Goodman

moriuncannyvalley-5492719I live in the Uncanny Valley. No, this isn’t the name of a pseudo-luxury, prefabricated housing tract; it’s a techno-sociological theory proposed by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970. The theory basically states that a robot that looks and behaves more realistically humanlike will evoke a more positive and empathetic emotional response from the human beings that interact with it. The “valley,” then, refers to a strange thing that happens when a robot is very nearly human, but not quite; at that point, the differences between robot and human behavior become magnified and obvious to the point of being repulsive. “Rosey” from the Jetsons was cute. Haley Joel Osment in Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film Artificial Intelligence:A.I. was just freaky.

Obviously, this theory normally applies to robots. Recent uses of computer-generated imagery (CGI) in television and film, however, has brought a whole new application to the Uncanny Valley theory. Back in the seventies and eighties, the “special effects” in the original Star Wars films drew audiences in to George Lucas’ fantasy worlds. The fake “polar bear” on last week’s episode of Lost just seemed cheesy. The funny thing is that Chewbacca was obviously a guy in a furry suit, while the bear was much more realistic.

You might have guessed that the Uncanny Valley theory applies to missions, too. When we first arrive to our places of service, few of us are going to be mistaken for locals. Our clothes, our language, even our posture, give us away and can be real barriers to positive interaction with nationals. It doesn’t take long, however, for the halfway intelligent missionary to realize that he or she can do a lot to minimize some of those differences. A change of clothes, an adjustment in habits, and a closed mouth will get one much further along in terms of being accepted by people. These efforts are usually noticed and applauded by the host culture. “Look, the silly little foreigner is trying to learn our language!” “Let’s invite the Americans over for dinner and watch them squirm when we serve them snails!”

But there comes a time when we become almost national. We reach a level of language and behavior that closely resembles the local culture, but we never fully arrive. In some ways, this is actually worse for our acceptance in society. When we approach a bank teller or shop keeper they expect us to be able to communicate and understand as a native would. At that point, when we stumble over a word or reach the limits of our vocabulary, our foreignness really stands out. Little things like lazy vowel sounds and eating with one hand in your lap suddenly become jarring to nationals. We might as well be wearing a baseball cap and white tennis shoes.

For this post, I borrowed heavily from Wikipidea, which has an excellent entry on the topic. The post there says of expatriates,

“…the transition from Western European culture to the culture of the United States might put a European in the middle of the uncanny valley, whereas if he or she had experienced an Asian culture, he or she would be instead at a point in the first curve, before the uncanny valley.”

This is the sort of thing they don’t teach in missionary training. We come to the field thinking that our hard work toward contextualization will pay off, and that we’ll become at the very least acceptable outsiders. Nobody ever told me, “Just wait until you’re nearly fluent- that’s when nationals will really start to make fun of your accent.”

I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to minimize the differences between us and the people we minister to. I believe that our approach must be relevant and culturally appropriate. I just wish someone had told me about the Uncanny Valley- how frustrating it is to live there, and how hard it is to move out. I’m going to assume it’s because no one wanted to burden me with that potential discouragement, and not because so few of my colleagues ever integrate into to their host cultures…

Filed under:Culture, Missions Posted October 17th, 2006 by E. Goodman

I’ve mentioned before that our approach to ministry is essentially relational. The firmly established social structure where we live, however, has made it difficult for us to meet people and make friends. We tried walking up to strangers, consistently hanging out in the same cafes, and joining a local gym. None of these have opened any relational doors for us.

We’ve known for a long time now that people don’t like to feel like targets. We’re not to comfortable with targeting people anyway. So here’s a counter intuitive lesson we’ve learned: if you want to meet people, stop trying to meet people.

Just like the hard-to-love loners in high school that were nice enough, but so annoying no one could stand them for very long, we were trying too hard. Our focus on wanting to befriend the people around us was freaking them out. It wasn’t until we stopped trying that God brought us some significant relationships.

Of course, it isn’t enough to stop trying; we had to focus our efforts and energies somewhere else. We were a team of fairly creative and semi-artistic people anyway, so we poured ourselves into our art. Painting, writing, and photography are usually pretty solitary endeavors; but they don’t have to be. We started visiting galleries and studios, just as we had done before, but now as mostly-serious artists, not as outsiders trolling for “contacts.” We started taking art classes to improve our technique, not to try to find a captive audience to evangelize. We joined clubs and creative groups, we made arrangements to show our art and publish our work.

Guess what happened? We started meeting people. We’re making friends.

We’re moving beyond, “This is my friend from the fish stand at the market” to something more real. We’re beginning to move in circles with people with whom we have a lot in common, and our work is opening doors for spiritual conversations and open presentation of Good News. We’re being invited in to creative groups whose existence until now we only suspected. Art both shapes and reflects the culture. It’s exciting to come into contact with the people involved, and for them to welcome our participation.

Who would have guessed that the best way to meet people would be to stop trying to meet people?

Filed under:Art, Relationships Posted October 2nd, 2006 by E. Goodman

These days, everyone is talking about the SBC’s recent steps (and ongoing trend?) toward narrowing parameters of cooperation. Denominational leaders are redefining what it means to be a Southern Baptist in order to “defend the faith” from liberalism. They seem to think that without them, we’d all be heretics.

Some bloggers are asking whether we’ve gone too far in restricting the parameters of who is “in” and who is “out.” Others are insisting that we haven’t gone far enough. Through all of the discussion, the boundaries are drawn and redrawn, and I get the feeling that I’m no longer welcome. I can’t help but wonder, “Is there still room for me?”

For many, it all comes down to the question of inerrancy of the scriptures. I affirm that the Bible is without error, but I also believe that many of our interpretations are in error (or at least incomplete.) Others show their allegiance to the SBC by stating their support for the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (which I signed), or by emphasizing their thankfulness for the “Conservative Resurgence.” While I agree with the doctrinal position of the “Conservative” players in the Resurgence, I believe that their “hostile takeover” tactics were unChristlike, and essentially negated the good thing they intended. I believe that we as a convention are suffering the consequences of the worldly and divisive approach both sides used in their battle for the “doctrinal purity” of the SBC. It’s true that most of us today affirm that the scriptures are without error, but many (most?) of us no longer trust our leadership. We are known for what we oppose. We are marked by division, gossip, and a need to be right. We act as though it is more important to demolish the people we disagree with instead of working to restore them.

My political views don’t follow the party line. I believe in the sanctity of all life (not just legally innocent life), so I’m against abortion and capital punishment. I do not believe that a preemptive war can ever be considered just. I believe that with our great material blessings come an obligation to help the people among us who are less fortunate (even if it’s their own fault). While many church leaders are excited about the political influence they think they might have, I think we need to be careful to retain a separation of religion and State; joining the two is only fun when you’re the favored religion.

I’m a fan of simple, organic churches. I don’t think we need professional clergy, buildings, or Sunday School programs. I don’t think “what works” is always good, nor do I think bigger is necessarily better. I believe in the autonomy of the local church, even if it means that I might have to associate with a body of believers that do things differently than I’m comfortable with.

I’m frustrated with the way money is handled in the SBC. Giving to the Cooperative Program is not, in fact, the same as giving to missions. I think that we’re going to have to make some major changes, because churches are not going to continue to pay for fancy denominational buildings or to support missionaries they don’t know.

I don’t think that theological training is the answer to all of our theological problems. I don’t care about denominational politics, or who knows who in the Convention. I disagree with the recent resolution against drinking. I think that the State Baptist “news”papers are a waste of time and money.

These are the differences that I continually run into between me and many outspoken Southern Baptists. You’ll notice that very few of the things I’ve outlined here are doctrinal. Nevertheless, these are things that we debate and discuss.

I’m not sure who gets to define the boundaries for “in” and “out.” I suppose it’s the men in positions of convention leadership and influence. I don’t think I’ve even met one of them in person, yet I get the feeling that they’re trying to get rid of me. Because of the differences I’ve listed here, they don’t want the money that they administer going to support someone like me.

My question is this: Is there room for me?

Posted September 21st, 2006 by E. Goodman

That’s right, of the U.S. of A. The way I see it, an anonymous blogger has just as good a chance as anyone these days. I’m not sure if I’d run as a Democrat or a Republican; I may even start a new party. My platform will be “I’m not a politician,” and my strategy is “cut the crap.”

For starters, I’d refuse to play political word games. “Tax cuts,” for example, is a really bad way to say “collect less taxes.” Also, when Hillary Clinton accuses me of “tax cuts that go to help the wealthiest 2% of Americans, I’ll show her the math- taxes are charged in the form of percentages. Because the wealthy people pay a whole lot in taxes, lowering them will “help” them more than, say the welfare recipients that don’t pay any.

Criminals are not all the same. Violent criminals should be punished, but more effort should be made to rehabilitate criminals such as drug dealers and users, prostitutes, and people who commit fraud. Besides, if we really want to punish them, we should make them go to school and work 9-5 jobs on construction crews.

And then there’s gun control. I hate guns. People that play with guns are creepy. But setting stricter gun control laws (background checks, waiting periods, taxes, requiring licenses and locks, etc.) is really ridiculous. Criminals don’t buy their guns at Wal-Mart. They either steal them or buy them from a guy named Skeezy who stands on the corner all day in a puffy jacket. (Skeezy, by the way, isn’t disposed to conducting background checks or paying taxes. )

I’d bring home nearly all of our troops, and make the U.S. military in charge of protecting our borders, ports, and resources. Isn’t that what they’re for anyway? Defense? I’d put military air marshals on every plane, and I’d put lots of money into cyber-, psych-, mech- and other non-lethal types of warfare.

I’d ask Americans to tighten their belt buckles. It seems that every U.S. president has resisted doing this, but for the sake of our economy, our resources, and our health, we need to spend, drive, and eat less. “We’re in this together!” reminds my favorite WWII propaganda poster. Scaling back voluntarily would help balance our trade deficits, and unify our people. When more money stays in the country, we do better. Collect less taxes from those who really cut back as an incentive, and we might get right-side up in our national debt.

I would increase the base salary for public school teachers and administration, and start a government placement program for student teachers. The only way we’re going to get good teachers in our rougher schools is to pay them well. Oh, and to require them to do some time teaching in rough districts before we grant them their teaching certificates.

Health care seems like it would be the easiest. Require all employers to cover their employees regardless of the hours they work, and collect less taxes from those small business that can’t otherwise afford it.

Okay, so I’ve solved all the world’s problems. Any questions?
Vote for me!

Filed under:Politics, Reflections Posted September 20th, 2006 by E. Goodman

We read church planting books, we go to seminars, and we study models, strategies, and formulas. We are driven by statistics of measurable lostness, reached-ness, and saturation. We calculate number of personnel, availability of resources, and total cost involved.

When it comes to missions, as with the rest of Christianity, we’ve tried to make a science of what is essentially (and necessarily), an art.

According to the unquestionably reliable Wikipedia,

Art: “…is the product or process of the effective application of a body of knowledge, most often using a set of skills…”

Science: “…is an attempt to explain the complexities of nature in a common, known and replicateable way.”

While I’m not entirely certain that “replicateble” is even a word, I am convinced that the scientification (also not a word) of missions is the main factor that keeps us from knowing and participating fully in what God is doing around the world.

Most of the great artists in the world started as apprentices to great artists, not to great art teachers. Art lessons begin with philosophy; the master instills in his student a vision of why he creates, and then goes on to share how he creates. But a student will never be considered himself an artist so long as he is content to only copy the master’s work. No, he’s got to take what he’s learned and use it to express his own creativity, applying the master’s wisdom while creating a work that is uniquely his.

Discipleship cannot be taught in a classroom. Reading a good book by a proven and experienced church planter is not enough. We need mentors. We need current practicing disciple-makers to be teaching and leading others as they make disciples.

If I could have a conversation with someone of the IMB’s Board of Trustees, this (among other things) is what I’d say. We need to radically rethink our approach to training and equipping disciple-makers. The bar has been set way too low. It isn’t enough to have a seminary degree or to have signed the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. We need to be mentored. We need leaders who are currently in the thick of cross-cultural ministry to guide us in wisdom and that long-lost art of missions.

Until we have such a network of relationships, we will not be able to guarantee the theological integrity of our work. We will continue to be criticized by seminary professors and denominational politicians. We will remain on the sidelines of what God is doing around the world because we are debating the science of Christianity and mission while the artists are being used to build the Kingdom.

Filed under:Missions, Planting, Training Posted September 15th, 2006 by E. Goodman

In my last post, Welcome to the Big Show, I tried to stress the importance of making ministry as personal as possible by keeping events small and culturally appropriate. Still, there is something I’d like to add:

I’m not against big events because they don’t “work.” Many people have come to faith in Christ through crusades and circus-tent revivals. Pizza parties and sports camps and choir performances have all been used in evangelistic endeavors. But I wonder how often we think about what affect the medium might have on the message.

I’ve posted about this before, but is there a difference between sharing one’s faith through a gospel music concert and sharing it over dinner in someone’s home? Might the message be inadvertently changed by the means of presentation? Maybe it depends on the cultural context. If the message is preached with a bad accent, or with an aggressive tone, or using some cheap gimmick, is it the same message?

I believe that God is sovereign. He also gives us the responsibility of instructing others in the Truth. What if a generation of believers came to faith through Peer-pressure summer camps, “Judgement House” Halloween parties, and “Thanks you, I see that hand” invitations? Would we have any reason to be concerned about their understanding of the gospel?

Filed under:Communication, Evangelism Posted September 12th, 2006 by E. Goodman

A key element to many (most?) church planting strategies is what I call “The Draw.” The Draw is an attempt to attract and engage people, usually in the form of some sort of event. A concert, a game, some kind of activity for the kids… anything to gather people so that interaction can occur. I’ve heard of church planters talk about organizing sports tournaments, throwing pizza parties, and bringing in a group of mimes to perform in the town square.

Events can be pretty expensive, and usually require a lot of hard work to put together. Add to that the governmental bureaucracy found in most Western European countries, and putting together an event can take over your life.

Unfortunatley, we waste a lot of time, money, and energy on events that seem like a good idea. They might even attract masses of people. But what then? Preach the Gospel over the sound system and call it good? Hold an Altar Call? Most of the time, big events fail to get us any closer to a personal interaction with lost people that door-to-door cold calls. Five hundred people come to your Sandi Patty concert. Maybe you get their names and contact info. What next, “Spamming for Jesus?”

And now, dear reader, you are likely anticipating a diatribe of disparaging remarks about events and those who organize them. You know: “What’s wrong with you people, don’t you know that mimes are scary?” or “Bringing in a group of High Schoolers to perform a series of offensively trite “Christian”skits in the mall is lame.”

But not this time, reader. I’ve learned that there are better ways to challenge the tactics of my coworkers than spouting off, “What on God’s green earth made you think it was a good idea to pass out ‘Jesus Hearts You‘ yo-yos on the Metro or bring in Kirk Cameron to autograph copies of Left Behind DVDs?”

No, this time, I’m going to be affirming. Today I offer encouragement.

Events aren’t always a good idea, but they aren’t always bad, either. I understand that you’re desperate to meet people with whom you can share the gospel. I understand how hard it is to break into the existing social structure, especially when you’re a professional missionary with poor social skills. Believe me, I know.

Why not try to keep events small and personal? Instead of renting out a concert hall, try your living room (or better yet, someone else’s?) Instead of shelling out the big bucks to bring in Mercy Me, why not invite a local musician? Events can be great tools for building relationships that extend into local social structures. Throw a party, and invite a friend to invite his friends. There’s power in the interaction of a lost person with a believer. It’s easier to love people from close-up.

How about doing everything you can to avoid the “bait and switch?” Don’t put together a movie night that is actually a presentation of the Jesus film. If any of the people you invite have actually seen a real movie, they’re either going to question your taste in movies, or feel totally deceived. Don’t call it “open discussion,” “free to all,” or “Family Fun Night,” if it isn’t any of those things.

We’re learning the importance of getting involved in activities that are already going on in the community. If you go to a movie with national friends, you could have a great opportunity to pick out Truth from the film and talk about it over coffee afterward. Through this we’re finding that our host culture is full of Truth and wisdom and indirect references to the Creator. Tapping into that really goes a long way toward presenting the Gospel not just as “We have a message for you and your people,” but as “Hey, look, we’re part of a Divine Conspiracy, in which God is using all of creation to call you to Himself.”

The Draw is good, just be sure we’re doing it on the right level. I say, keep up the events. Let’s just be sure that we keep things as real, honest, and personal as possible.

Filed under:Uncategorized