Missions Misunderstood

Posted August 19th, 2007 by E. Goodman

Lately it seems that everyone I talk to is tired of church. Some are actively involved- teaching Sunday School, attending Bible Studies, even leading worship. Others have given up church altogether, opting instead for isolated and lonely personal ministries outside any organized body of believers.

These people are not where they need to be, but not because they are in sin. They aren’t rebellious or angry. They are discouraged because the church as they know it looks nothing like the community of faith that we read about in the scriptures.

Churches are all about programs, events, and activities. You’re a twenty-something married couple? Thirty and single? We have a program for you. Mothers of Preschoolers. Parents of Teens. Businessmen breakfasts, Scrapbooking, Golf, Church-league softball. The more you do, the holier you are. If we haven’t seen you in a while, we question your spiritual maturity.

Church leaders desperate to grow their congregations don’t know the people already in the pews. The gospel has become an invitation to church, and discipleship an altar-call. Why doesn’t anyone ever say, “Wow, they must be doing something wrong for God to be cursing them with all those people in attendance.”?

The result of the programs- and numbers-focus is a growing number of people who are churched-out. These are faithful people who have taught the Bible studies, led the mission trips, given their money, and visited the visitors. They know what goes into each big campaign (and how little comes out), and they don’t have it in them to “put-on” another one. Now they are finished. Many drop out altogether because they don’t see an alternative.

Maybe your mega-church should start a program for them.

Filed under:Church, Ministry Posted August 9th, 2007 by E. Goodman

It occurs to me that much of our missionary efforts today are carried out as though God wasn’t on the field.

God doesn’t “send” us. He calls us to join Him. There’s a difference. If we think that we’re doing something great for God, or that He (or the “nations”) needs us in any way, we think too highly of ourselves.

Consider the terminology we use: “Reaching the nations for Christ.” “Finishing the Task.” “Building the Kingdom.” “Engaging people.” Because we haven’t been careful to explain what they originally meant, these trite phrases have helped shape a human-centered missiology among many believers.

Few missions strategies include something like, “Get involved in the community and wait for God to bring us the people in whom He is already working.”

Instead, we have people canvassing neighborhoods in search of anyone who will listen, and broad (and generic) “Sowing of the gospel.” It’s as though we were afraid that the God who called us to the field has left us to search blindly for what He might do.

Why do we view the role of the missionary as perpetually active (“reaching,” “evangelizing,” “sharing,” etc.) and rarely passive (“being given the opportunity,” “being used,” “being led”)?

Filed under:Missiology, Misunderstood Posted July 30th, 2007 by E. Goodman

Get a hobby.

This is my advice for Christians everywhere, and especially those who are intentional about living out their faith in culture. For some reason, many believers act as though time spent doing anything other than witnessing and studying the Bible is time wasted. But those same people have an extremely difficult time relating to and interacting with nonbelievers. I say, get a hobby.

Think of all the people in your town, and all that those people are into. Shopping (malls, garage sales, eBay). Collecting (stamps, Beanie Babies, cars, antiques). Projects (art, crafts, home renovations, fund raisers). Sports (golf, softball, leagues and pick-up games). Clubs (book clubs, crafts, support groups). Video games. Blogging. Tattoos.

These “hobbies” are much more than that. These are the activities that define the people who participate in them. They spend lots of time and money on their hobbies, and they aren’t alone. Even the most solitary of activities can foster a real sense of community among the people who participate. These are affinity groups.

To speak into- to influence- an affinity group, you’ve got to do more than just know about whatever it is they do. Mac users have some sort of internal radar that can identify a PC user from a mile away. Scrapbookers can find stories and memories in what you’ve thrown out as garbage. Civil War “reinactors, ” well, they’re a breed unto themselves. But if you aren’t in, you’re out.

These groups have their unique cultures, languages, and moral codes. If you had a hobby, you might be able to be a Light among other enthusiasts. You might be able to show fellow Lord of the Rings fans the Truth behind their favorite epic tale. You could have the opportunity to share Christ as your motivation for volunteering, giving, or playing. Perhaps you might find yourself in the middle of a group of people who enjoy great fellowship and never run out of things to talk about.

Or, you could read a book about how to engage lost people.

Filed under:Evangelism, Hobbies Posted July 20th, 2007 by E. Goodman

Missions- (mishuh ns) -noun: 1. a group of persons sent by a church to carry on religious work, esp. evangelization in foreign lands, and often to establish schools, hospitals, etc. 2. missionary duty or work 3. organized missionary work or activities in any country or region 4. a church or a region dependent on a larger church or denomination 5. a series of special religious services for increasing religious devotion and converting unbelievers: to preach a mission 5. an assigned or self-imposed duty or task; calling; vocation 6. a sending or being sent for some duty or purpose 7. those sent

I’m starting to realize that the greatest problem facing Christian missions today is not money, not manpower, not strategy, and not even the physical and spiritual opposition to our work. The problem with missions is that we don’t know what it is. The concept, the very definition of the word, is interpreted and applied by so many people in so many ways, I think we’ve lost the plot.

To the world, missions is church people feeding the poor and building church buildings. To the casual churchgoer, missions are those trips the youth group takes every summer. To the volunteer missionary missions is sacrificing time and hard-earned money to travel to a distant place to conduct sports camps and backyard Bible clubs. To the long-term and career missionary- well… they obviously have no idea what it is.

For the sake of my calling and work, I’m going to work on defining the ministry and role of the missionary.

Filed under:Missiology, Missions, Misunderstood Posted July 15th, 2007 by E. Goodman

So I’ve had a couple of inquiries about the “new” “trend“(it’s really neither, but more on that later) away from full-time, professional missionaries and toward volunteer and short-term mission endeavors. I’ve made no secret of my own discomfort with being a professional missionary, so some of my readers ask if I’m excited by the potential shift toward an alternative that might facilitate broader involvement.

I’m not.

What I do is not something you can do on a week-long visit to the Old World, no matter how many language-courses-on-tape you’ve listened through. The cultural immersion required for relational and incarnational ministry is a long-term investment. I believe in the short-term involvement of volunteers, and I expect divine appointments through which God can affect tremendous change, but I believe that hit-and-run evangelism will not communicate the gospel to Western European peoples better than sharing life with people over time. We need both long and short-term people on the mission field in order to be effective in contextually-appropriate ministry. I’m not special, but I’m here.

With that said, people (especially those who support me) need to realize that I’m not doing what I do so that they don’t have to. Sending money to me (through my organization, of course) is not what you get to do instead of being a missionary yourself. The Commission is not one you can or should hire out, and I’m not your stand-in. In fact, if you give to missions for any reason other than obedience to God, please stop. We don’t need your money.

A missions organization asking about the “trend” toward volunteers is like a travel agency asking about the “trend” of customers using the internet to make travel arrangements. The democratization of missions activities means that the professionals no longer have a corner on the market. We need to take extra measures to spell out the benefit (relevance?) of career missions. If people don’t see the point, or see better way (say, missional expatiratism, or incarnational immigration?), of course they’re going to pursue it.

Heck, if we’ve got professional missionaries wondering about the validity of professional missions, maybe we’re not doing a very good job of rationalizing our system.

Filed under:Finances, Missions, Trends Posted July 7th, 2007 by E. Goodman

The Gospel. The “Message.” The “Good News.” Whatever you want to call it, it is considered the basic information of evangelism. Most people agree that whatever it is, it’s surely a good thing to share with people, and many believe that it’s even better to take to those people who have not heard it before. Christians talk about it and practice passing it on. Most would say that it is the core of the Christian faith. The problem, in my opinion, is that few of us really agree on what the gospel is and why it’s so important.

To me, the gospel is God’s story. It is the summary of who God is and how He normally interacts with people. It is the knowledge that evokes our response to salvation. But to me, the gospel is much more than information. It is a person. Life in Him is beautiful and terrible at once. It has a power and a profundity that goes beyond just the notion. I believe it must be experienced to be believed.

This means that despite what our training, evangelistic materials, and denominational leaders say, the gospel is not always “Good News.” Sure, in the grand scheme of things, the fact that God made a way to relationship with Him through Jesus is good news indeed. But for many people, the gospel isn’t “Good News” at all. For them, it is bad news; that they might not have everything figured out, that all that they’ve struggled to accumulate and achieve is worthless.

The gospel is not, in my opinion, the “minimum” that must be believed in order for someone to be saved. It is not a set of principles, concepts, laws, or “truths.” The gospel does not save, it is only a description of the possibility of salvation. It is not something that we can ever finish sharing; there is no end to mark the completeness of it’s presentation.

So the questions remain: “What is the gospel?” and “Are we talking about the same thing? In an age where we’ve reduced our faith to an objective soundbite summary of supposedly life-changing information, what are we talking about?

What’s the gospel to you?

Posted June 24th, 2007 by E. Goodman

Controversial documentary filmmaker Michael Moore is publicizing “Sicko,” his new movie about health care in the United States. During his appearance on the daytime talk show “The View,” Moore commented that because Jesus taught us to take care of the widows, orphans, and needy among us, perhaps we should start referring to universal health care (“socialized medicine”) as “Christianized medicine.”

It seems like a lot of believers I know are against public health care. I think that it’s a shame that people living in the United States (working people, at that!) can’t afford to go to the doctor when they’re sick. I find it odd that believers who don’t have a problem lobbying for the government to ban the things they’re against (homosexual marriage, abortion) would be opposed to government doing something that Christians should be in favor of (paying for the care of sick people).

Posted June 18th, 2007 by E. Goodman

I’ve always been taught to do what Jesus would do. So much so, that the question of “what” Jesus would do completely eclipsed the concept of “why.” Jesus was selfless and always put other people’s needs before His own. He spent time in public with people who were known as sinners and drunks. Jesus kept the law, turned the other cheek, and kicked the capitalists out of the temple. Why did He do these things?

“What?” is the question of the obedient. “What do you want me to do?” “What is right?” “What does the Bible say?” It is vital that we know the “what,” but for the past couple of years, it’s the “why” that’s haunted me.

“Why?” is the rebel’s question. It implies conditional obedience pending personal approval. That’s why frustrated parents answer “why?” with “Because I said so!” Leaders answer it with “Because I’m the boss.” People who are interested in maintaining the status quo consider “why?” to be disrespectful and insubordinate.

“Why?” threatens the authority of a leader (especially if he doesn’t know the answer!) Addressing it can be difficult, time-consuming, and can reveal shortcomings and inconsistencies. Nevertheless, “why?” is a question we should be asking, because the power is in the “why.”

Asking why is how we come to know God in a personal way. We don’t really know Him until we begin to understand why He does what He does.

Once we start asking “why,” we shouldn’t ever stop. Too often, we settle on a reason or explanation and never revisit the question. We accept a logical and well-presented argument and move on. This is why people in the pew believe that we should do missions will bring Jesus back and why people on the field buy into the lie that anyone’s eternity depends on missionaries. Questioning “why” protects us from legalism, complacency, and meaningless tradition.

Why not ask “why?”

Filed under:Missions, Misunderstood, Philosophy, Theology Posted June 4th, 2007 by E. Goodman

Sometimes when I talk to people about missional/relational ministry and church planting (you know, as opposed to program-oriented, attractional, subculture growth), and what my work here in Western Europe looks like, they are left with the question:

“So you get paid to hang out with people and drink coffee?”

“Yes,” I reply. “Actually, I do.”

But you’ve got to know that spending time with nationals is really quite difficult. First there’s the fact that the language they are speaking is not the language you grew up speaking, but instead something you decided to try to learn well into adulthood. Understanding requires effort. For me that usually means physical fatigue, which isn’t so conducive to cross-cultural communication in a smoke-filled bar at two o’clock in the morning.

And then there’s the awkward question of what to talk about. Movies? Sports? The weather? It’s hard to find commonalities across cultures. You could go the easy route and bring up politics, but that doesn’t always end well, as you might imagine. I usually end up going through my well-rehearsed routine of lame jokes and feigned interest in European Football.

So then I’m left with questions. For some reason, the inevitable lull in a conversation always freaks me out so that I turn into Larry King with the badly planned Q&A. I panic, and my mind can’t think of any questions that require more than a yes or no answer. I repeat the same question but reworded to prove that I didn’t understand the answer the first three times. My life is one of those awkward scenes from any of Ben Stiller’s movies.

But I’ve been through training. I should know better. My default should be to take an active listening posture and to delicately repeat the last three words of any of my friend’s comments and nod knowingly but so as to avoid the appearance of agreement. I want to show that I’m interested while remaining ambiguous about what he’s actually saying so as not to agree with something I disagree with. My face is trained to show utter fascination with whatever my friend is saying. I’d never want to let on that a boring person is, might be, you know, boring.

So sure, maybe I have the dream job- “throwing parties and telling stories.” But it’s really quite difficult, as you can see. Now, If I could only figure out what to do on vacation…

Filed under:Communication, Ministry Posted June 2nd, 2007 by E. Goodman

The longer I’m on the field, the more out-of-touch I become with my home culture. I suppose this is natural, but it can make communication with people back home difficult, to say the least. Take my blog, for example. The misunderstanding seems to get worse the harder I try to clarify my thoughts and opinions. This is especially apparent with the arrival of partners from the States. The other day I had a conversation with a new arrival that was, um, disjointed to say the least. He asked about my favorite Christian music. I don’t have any. He asked about several church planting conferences he had been to. I hadn’t even heard of a single one. He asked if I knew any of the (according to him, at least) movers and shakers in Christian circles in the States. I tried to play the name-drop game too, but I don’t really know anyone who’s someone. (No offense if you’re someone I know.) I haven’t read the latest Christian bestseller (I can’t even name one), and I don’t care about what Al Mohler thinks about anything.

My friend was surprised that the things that were important to him weren’t important to me. For him, it wasn’t okay that I wasn’t up on all the latest Christian news. He (seriously!) doubted my spiritual maturity because I thought that MyPraize or GodTube were good ideas. He questioned my understanding of scripture because I’m not enamored with Mike Huckabee (who is apparently the only presidential candidate a Christian should vote for).

Back home there are training programs to help teach Christians how to interact with lost people. I need one to help me learn how to relate to church people.

Why is it that church people are some of the most difficult people of all? Where everyone else gives you the benefit of the doubt, leave it to the religious folks to point out every flaw. Lost people call you “different,” saved people call you a heretic. I don’t understand that. I don’t understand why the same Christians who cop out of rational debates with nonchristians by using blind faith arguments insist on using logic to prove their points in conversations with fellow believers. I don’t understand how God’s people back home can claim to love people, but ignore the lost and fight with the saved.

Why is it that I regularly have commenters who attack me? How could anyone chastise me for sharing what God is teaching me with an admonition (“Don’t bite the hand that feeds you!” “You don’t know how good you have it!”)? I’m not complaining here. I can take criticism and disagreement. I can admit that I’m not always (hardly ever?) right. I just don’t understand why do so many Christians consider those they disagree with (in knee-jerk reaction) to be enemies?

Maybe I just don’t get Christians.

Filed under:Reflections, Uncategorized