Missions Misunderstood

Posted December 21st, 2005 by E. Goodman

I think the best way to handle the tough call of whether a person is saved or not is to not try to answer it. “Judge not, lest you be judged” is usually quoted by judgemental people as they pass judgement on someone. “I’m not judging you,” they like to say, “God is.” But I read where Jesus tells us that we’re going to be surprised when we get to heaven at who isn’t there that we expected to be and who is that we were sure would never make it. Again, there is not salvation outside Christ. But who are we to know the heart of a person? I believe in the fruit of the Holy Spirit, but I’ve met a whole lot of really good Mormon folks who are trapped in works and religion, and don’t know Jesus.

So how does this translate into missions? Well, if we stopped counting the number of salvations (or baptisms), and instead focused on disciple-making, it really wouldn’t matter where someone was spiritually. Our task, then, would be to take people in whom God is working from wherever they are to maturity in Christ. Salvation would happen somewhere along the way, but as a matter between each individual and God Himself, it might not happen according to our schedule. This way, we don’t change our focus between pre-salvation “evangelism” and post-salvation “discipleship.”

In preaching only an evangelistic message, we inadvertantly change the message itself. We present a Christianity that is about saying a prayer, asking Jesus into our hearts, or even repentence. Salvation is not the goal, it is the beginning! A relationship with Jesus is one that radically canges every aspect of our lives. Why would we present a simplified, reproducible message that avoids talking about the fullness and beauty (and indeed, difficulties) of living as redeemed people in a fallen world?

Filed under:Uncategorized Posted December 21st, 2005 by E. Goodman

Maybe it’s our affinity for convenience that has led us to settle for marketing-campaign dissemination of information over the long-term disciple-making relationships Jesus modeled with His disciples. But discipleship is not sharing information, public discourse, or debate. It has little to do with the materials we have available, and is not quick and easy. Discipleship is a relationship. In fact, the Good News is a relationship. The gospel itself is a relationship, and relationship is the context through which it must be shared.

The way I see it, Christians have been intrepreting the “Great Commission” to be a call to evengelism, and they’ve been responding to that call by doing missions and going on mission trips. These are usually intentional forays into the world, where Christians leave the comfort and safety of their subculture in order to take the gospel to lost people. They prepare a “program” and memorize their gospel presentations. They put together skits and songs. They collect cotton balls and toungue depressors for craft time. They raise money.

The mission trip mindset is one that I’m less and less comfortable with. It’s all about a “come see” event that often resorts to bait-and-switch tactics in order to share our message. I’ve seen people use clowns and puppets, music, sports, even food to get people to come and hear. When I participated in the Summer Missions program at Gano Street Baptist Mission Center in Houston, Texas, I had the opportunity to really help people in need. I remember really trying to learn Spanish so that I could communicate with the people in the neighborhood. We drove a big truck through the slums distribuiting day-old bread that hed been donated. All we had to do was drive slowly and shout out “Pan!” The Spanish word for bread had people running to the truck for something to eat. We gave out clothing to people who need it. There was a huge clothes closet at the mission center, and I was always overwhelmed by people’s gratitude as they left with new clothes to wear to work and school. We played with children during the day so their parents wouldn’t have to leave them alone while they went off to work. In reality, it was glorified babysitting, but we did it because we wanted to love the people of Houston. We really did love the people we were ministering to, but sometime during every act of service we required that the people listen to a presentation of the gospel. For them, it was a hoop they had to jump through in order to receive the help they needed. For them, prayer time was waiting for the “Amen” so they could rush home and fill their stomachs, brush their teeth, or put on their new clothes. We thought we were sharing Jesus. Looking back, I think we were probably standing in His way.

“Let your light so shine before men,” the verse goes, “that they might see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” As I think about it, Gano Street Mission Canter, and many like it around the world have done tremendous work in selflessly ministering to people in need. They’ve done it in Jesus’s name. I just wish they didn’t always feel this need to tack the sermon on to the service. I think that selflessness and altruism and brotherly love are all supernatural things- not natural to humans but a result of God’s intervention. Our good works are evidence of God’s work in our lives, and that incarnational “picture” of Jesus really doesn’t require that we add the caption “This selfless act brought to you by Jesus.” I’m not saying that we souldn’t be quick to mention His name, nor that we sould leave any ambiguity as to why we do the things that we do. I’m just saying that “it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance.”

A group of volunteers once came to a major European city on a mission trip. They had prepared a series of dramatic skits that they hoped would allow them to share the gospel with nationals despite the language barrier. You might be familiar with the skits; each portrayed sin as the problem and Jesus as the answer. One used a cardboard box to show how sin can trap us; another showed how people often ignore Jesus throughout their daily routine. Several had actors pantomime smoking and drinking in an attempt at depicting the depravity of unbelievers. You might imagine how the drama troupe was received. Without some cultural and linguistic translation, the Gospel was not communicated. Worst of all, the good news message was somehow changed from “Jesus is Life” to “God hates people who smoke and drink.” For the European audience, it was hardly good news. While they did make the volunteers feel good about their efforts, the trite and cheesy skits only served to reinforce the perception of Christianity as irrelevant and powerless.

Filed under:Uncategorized Posted December 21st, 2005 by E. Goodman

I recognize that there are some problems with “obedience as the strategy.” There are real questions of trust and control. Allowing the Holy Spirit to run our strategy would require us to trust each person with hearing and understanding God’s call on their life. We might not have control over where we send people. Plus, how do we decide where the money goes if we let God lead? And how would we measure results? Even worse, there would be no subjective way to rate performance. “84% obedient- try to work on that before you fall into the 70s- that calls for probation, you know.” We would have to trust the individual to maintain such a close personal fellowship with God that he or she knows what God wants for them and does it. We’d need to spend less time training our folks about church planting movements and more time teaching them who they are in Christ. We would have to put added emphasis on accountability, where our obedience actually could be measured within the context of relationship. But what a lot of work that would be! Better to make an across-the-board rule against drinking than to trust missionaries to make the right decisions regarding such cultural issues. Would that we had such an organization that associates were hired and fired based on personal accountability and pastoral guidance instead of projected personnel needs and rule book violations.

We depend on the terms “lostness,” “unreached,” and “the Task” to provide a standard by which we can measure our success. They were invented by strategists to help us get a handle on what we’re doing, and to assure the people back home that we’re making progress. We recently received a strategy report from the home office, in which our leadership outlined our strategy for the coming year. Basically, it stated that our organization needs X number of missionaries on the field in order to “finish the task.” They looked at the number of “unreached” people groups and decided that if we placed missionaries from our organization among those peoples, our job would be done. This plan was passed by the board and sent on to our leadership in the field. But this is a case of the performer dictating the standard by which his own performance should be measured. By sending out brochures and flyers and promotional videos, we teach people that success is possible and tangible and just around the corner. This works well to show that we are professionals who know what we’re doing. We’re in control, and you can trust us to use your donations well. But it is essentially a human-centered plan. We seem to have forgotten that God sometimes moves in mysterious ways.

Filed under:Uncategorized Posted December 21st, 2005 by E. Goodman

I believe that “lostness” is a dangerous motivation for missions, but so too is the common concept of our “passion.” I remember the first time we spoke in a church after our appointment with the International Board. I asked the pastor what he thought his church needed to hear from us as we shared about the exciting things God was doing around the world. His response was, “Son, just let them see your passion.” Since that time, I’ve seen the word become a vital part of the missionary’s vocabulary. “Passion,” once a word closely associated with carnality, is now used as definitive proof of one’s calling. (“I can tell you’re called to missions- we can just sense your passion for the lost.”) But what about our passion for God Himself? Can we safely replace our First Love with a passion to do His job for Him?

If we allow our “heart for the unreached” to guide us, what happens on a day where we just don’t feel much passion? Not to say that God can’t give us passion, or even use that to place His very call on our life to full-time service. But as a motivation for our work, human emotions can be pretty unsteady. Desire, love, compassion, and guilt are all emotions that come and go. It seems that a heart sensitive to the will of the Spirit of God would be much more dependable than a heart for a people group. Such a motive then frees us from the pressures of human-centered plans. Instead of asking God, “Give me a heart for this person,” or “Help me to reach this people group,” we would ask Him, “Please guide me in this conversation,” again allowing Him to dictate the strategy and the audience.

When we first arrived in Western Europe, our passion for ministry was quickly replaced by fear and frustration; obviously, neither were from God. I know that people are people wherever you go, but these people seemed so… so… foreign. They were totally oblivious to the people around them, customer service was a joke, and they bought food in the grocery stores that looked just as it did when it was alive. They seemed backward and stubborn and worst of all, they didn’t seem to appreciate that we had left the comforts of suburban California to come share with them the most imortant thing they could ever hear. I’m not sure passion even made it past the airport.

What if God’s missionary calling isn’t to a people group or a job or a position, but to an ongoing, total step-by-step obedience to Him? If that were the case, the “Unfinished Task” isn’t finishable at all. Could it be that our task is not to reach the unreached for God, but to be obedient to Him as He reaches them? The difference is more than semantic. The task, then, would be to remain so plugged in to Him, so in tune with His Holy Spirit, that we would go wherever we are called and do whatever we are led to do. Instead of limiting the number of missionaries we’ll send to Africa, we could post every job request and let God call His workers to where He’s working. What if, rather than sending any and all willing persons to the mission field, we closely examined God’s call on their life and how he has equipped them to fill that role? Then God would determine the strategy. We wouldn’t have people who don’t really know what God wants for them going to China just because that’s what we tell them to do. We wouldn’t have people focusing on the Muslim world just because there aren’t any churches, and no missionaries to India just because they felt sorry for the people starving there. We need to be careful that we don’t get ahead of God in our zeal for what we think He’s doing.

Filed under:Uncategorized Posted December 5th, 2005 by E. Goodman

We need to understand that there is more than just a language barrier between us and the people to whom we minister. Cultural differences make relating to others very difficult- first, we need to recognize our own culture, then we need to learn a lot about theirs, and then we can begin to understand what translation would involve. Think of Lottie Moon, a great missionary to China in the 1800s. She recognized that her typically American way of being direct and confrontational was offensive to the Chinese. No one would listen to her message because they were offended by her delivery of it. Lottie, realizing the necessity of relevance, immersed herself in the culture. She gave up her western clothes and started dressing like the Chinese. She learned the language- not just enough to get by, but well enough that her accent no longer distracted her Chinese friends from what she was trying to say. For some reason, we see it clearly in the cases of the heroes of international missions, but we are blind to the cultural differences around us. Out of fear or pride we retreat from the world and create our own cultures and subcultures. Within these circles, it takes no time at all for us to lose the ability to relate to those around us.

Filed under:Uncategorized Posted December 5th, 2005 by E. Goodman

We spend our efforts trying to convince those around us of the existence of God, when we ought to be searching for effective ways to communicate our relationship to Him. This is only possible through relationship. We know that communication is more than words, and that’s why God’s design makes use of personal human interaction for the communication of the Good News.

The context of the gospel is -must be, personal relationships. God did not send the Word in the form of a tract or a circus-tent revival, because the means affects the message. God sent His son, Jesus, not to give the Good News, but to be the Good News. The essence of the message is not that people can go to heaven, or even that they can receive the free gift of forgiveness; it is that a relationship with God is possible through the person of Jesus. Our human relationships, though they are just shadowy reflections of the holy relationship, establish a framework for us to understand how God relates to us, His creatures. He is indeed a personal God, concerned with every aspect of our lives and actively involved in our personal histories. He knows us intimately, and He so desires that we would know Him, that He has provided the Way for it to be possible.

Though it doesn’t always make the most sense, God chooses to share His plan for redemption through people. Because they are selfish, disobedient, and proud, Humans really aren’t the most efficient or dependable media available. It would be easier for Him to reveal Himself through a massive international press conference, or through internet spam. But these impersonal means lack the key to effective communication of the gospel: relationship. Linguists have for centuries tried to translate certain abstract concepts from one culture into another that has no framework for understanding such a thought. Explaining the concept of patriotism to a person without a country, family to an orphan, or grace to a Mormon would all prove to be difficult- even impossible- apart from a personal interaction by which you could complete the definition through a demonstration of such things.

When Paul (Saul at the time) had an encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, Jesus sent him to meet Ananias and be discipled. Jesus did the convincing and saving, but did not separate it from the context of relationship. So we see that God uses human relationships in the salvation process, as an illustration of His relationship with us. Despite the great value our societies place on independence, and individualism, Human interconnectedness is a beautiful thing. Human relationships, even the natural ones, have built-in accountability, teaching, fellowship, service, and love.

Filed under:Uncategorized Posted December 5th, 2005 by E. Goodman

The fundamental problem with “unfinished Task” strategy is that it substitutes evangelism for the Great Commission idea of discipleship. Evangelism is not the same thing as Missions. In fact, there are many good and well-respected mission sending agencies that have built strategies and missiologies around a profound misunderstanding of the missionary task. Somewhere along the way, we mistook “reaching” people for making disciples. Disciple making requires acute cultural awareness and mature faith in Christ. In order to obediently share our faith with people of a culture different from our own, we must become experts in that culture. We must learn the language to understand the worldview, and only then will we be able to culturally translate the message of the good news. But this takes time and energy. Instead, we are content to pass out tracts and Jesus films, and remain ignorant of how culturally irrelevant we are. According to Jesus’ words in Matthew 28.18-20, our task is more than evangelization. It is to make disciples, and that requires us to abandon our human-centered strategies and walk in total dependence on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, going where He leads, in His timing.

Maybe it’s our affinity for convenience that has led us to settle for marketing-campaign dissemination of information over the long-term disciple-making relationships Jesus modeled with His disciples. But discipleship is not sharing information, public discourse, or debate. It has little to do with the materials we have available, and is not quick and easy. Discipleship is a relationship. In fact, the Good News is a relationship. The gospel itself is a relationship, and relationship is the context through which it must be shared.

Filed under:Uncategorized Posted December 5th, 2005 by E. Goodman

It wasn’t long ago that Dr. Henry Blackaby was our “It” guy. His wildly popular book and Bible study giude Expereincing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God, was a huge seller for Lifeway, and the SBC was happy to push it as the answer for Sunday School, small groups, discipleship, youth groups, and anyone else willing to give 10 weeks and $19.95. Some people criticized the study’s theology, others were repelled by the Law and Order-esque niche market spinoffs, such as, Experiencing God Day by Day, Experiencing God: Eddie Bauer Edition, and E to the G: Fo’ Shizzle. Despite the commercialization of it all, I think the basic idea is a good one: we should find where God is working and join Him there.

We need to “go where God is working.” But what does that mean? In Western Europe, people are slow to come to know the Lord, and few churches have been planted. Is this an indication that we ought to leave? Pull out of France, and move everyone to China, where the good news is spreading like wildfire? Should we determine our calling by looking at the results? It is impossible to measure the extent to which God is working in the hearts and lives of Western Europeans. Only God knows that. Our measure of where God is working must be the calling that he has placed on our lives. Has God called me to Italy or Spain? Then my responsibility is to stay here until I hear otherwise from Him; as difficult as it might be, whether I see “results” or not. It is a dangerous thing to get ahead of God and assume we know what He’s doing and how He’s going to do it. It is a powerful thing to be behind God, following Him every step of the way as He uses us to take His message of Life to all the people in the world.

The whole “10/40 Window”/”Final Frontier” mentality has essentially led us to look around the world, find where God isn’t working, and start something for Him there. “There are no churches in Yokelville,” we reason, “so let’s send a career family and two ISCers.” Now I understand that it’s hard for us to even know if God is working unless we’re there to see it, but God is certainly working in those places to which He is calling us. Perhaps His direction is a better guide than statistics.

Filed under:Uncategorized Posted December 5th, 2005 by E. Goodman

When we first started dialoguing with the IMB about becoming career missionaries, they really drove home the fact that we needed to be sure of our calling. We were asked to describe the occasion of our individual call to missions, and then we were to relay a time when that call was affirmed. We had to write out the experience. We had to answer questions about it. Some of us were asked to clarify the language of our call. To be hired by the Board, you have to be called. Why all the emphasis on calling?

Someone without a clear sense of calling won’t last on the field, they say. The Missionary in Residence shared about the importance of his call. “During those really tough times,” he said, “your call is all you have to hang on to.” The message is that the Board is going to great lengths to be sure you are called, so that they can support you and make it possible for you to follow it. Through all of this checking and double-checking of calls, it is never suggested that there might be some callings that fit in the Board’s strategy and others that don’t.

Although it is clear that the IMB goes through seasons of different emphasis, they have never said, “We’re a 10/40 window only Missions Sending Agency.” They continue to identify themselves as a global sending organization. “All the peoples of the world” they say. And so, knowing that my wife and I felt called to Western Europe, they hired us. Without giving us a heads up on the fact that we would not enjoy the Board’s fullest support, they sent us to Spain, apparently hoping that God would change our hearts and ask to be transferred to a “real” mission field like the China, “The Muslim World” or India.

I understand that an organization such as ours must have some corporate direction. As an agency, we need to be, at least at some level, unified in our strategy and vision. The IMB has a responsibility to send people that represent our convention’s churches. But our organization does not take a popular vote to decide its strategy. We rightfully allow our people in the field to be experts in their respective cultures and ministries. All the while, our massive promotional efforts work to educate Southern Baptists about missions and about the organization itself.

Filed under:Uncategorized Posted December 5th, 2005 by E. Goodman

Part of what we do as missionaries is “mobilization,” educating people back home about what we do in order that God might by our stories call some to the field. But in an effort to recruit more workers, many have taken to using “lostness” statistics in order to guilt the willing into overseas service. I’ve often heard about how few missionaries there are, and how many more we need in order to “complete the task.” But whose job is it to call believers to missions? Have we changed the Lord’s directive in Matthew 9:37 from “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” to “Tell the Lord we’re sending out workers?” We mustn’t forget that while “The harvest is plentiful” and “the workers are few,” we are instructed to “ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

If there is a shortage of workers on the field, it can only be for one of two reasons. 1) The sin of those who have been called but refuse to go, or 2) God is not calling the masses of missionaries we think necessary to do His will. While I’m certain there are disobedient believers out there who are ignoring God’s call to international service, it seems very like our God to “thin out the army” so that He might do with a select few what we consider only to be possible with four times as many. (It sounds vaguely similar to Gideon’s story.) I also believe that as we dare to depend on human-centered strategies, God is allowing us to fail on our own terms, in order that we might be reminded of our total dependence on Him.

Besides the number of missionaries, we might also need to abandon our expectations for how God might use His workers. Another major problem we’re facing, according to my colleagues, is that while the number of “short-term” workers continues to climb, relatively few are signing on for career service. But such a shift in the modes of service reflects a generational change. Just a few years ago, the model for missions was a married couple and their five children moving to Zimbabwe and living in a mud hut until retirement or death, whichever came first. But today, the greater part of the world’s population lives in an urban setting, and a career for this generation of young professionals may only last five years. Young people today are a date book people rather than a checkbook people. They will sooner give a few years of their lives in service than give a few hundred dollars to a faceless corporation that has little accountability as to how it spends that money. We should not see this change as a threat, but as a new way of doing our work, allowing our strategy to be dictated by God’s calling on individual lives.

Filed under:Uncategorized