Missions Misunderstood

Posted May 28th, 2007 by E. Goodman

Many of our partners come to Western Europe to work alongside us and are overwhelmed by the sin that they see practiced and even glorified in these cultures. Entire segments of the population find their identity in the sin that characterizes their lives. For many of our co-workers, it can be overwhelming to see such blatant disregard for all things that pertain to holiness. Recently, one volunteer commented, “Back home, people at least have the decency to try to hide what they’re doing!”

Many well-intentioned church planters and evangelists become so distracted by the sin around them, that they lose sight of the people. Their message changes from “Good news! There is hope in Jesus!” to the familiar “Bad news! You’re going to hell, sinner!” Of course, they’re right. Sin separates us from the Creator. Repentance is the vital response to salvation. I can see how it could be tempting to focus on preaching against sin.

But lost people don’t need to stop sinning. They need Jesus. In fact, without Jesus, lost people are incapable of curbing their appetites for sin. They are slaves to it. At best, they could learn to exchange the unacceptable sin in their lives for the hidden, “hey, nobody’s perfect” kind that is more acceptable in Christian circles. Sin is in our nature. It is the jail cell we’re all born into. The only escape is new life in Christ.

Besides, even if unbelievers could (they can’t) modify their behavior to match (outwardly, at least) a lifestyle becoming of a Christian, it wouldn’t matter. Not sinning doesn’t get us any closer to salvation. Why then, would we ever focus on people’s sin? Why would we exchange the message of redemption for one of condemnation? Why would we act as though it was our job to convict people of sin?

Filed under:People, Sin, The Gospel Posted May 25th, 2007 by E. Goodman

You’ve heard stories about missionaries suffering through difficult living conditions. You know that nearly all of them struggle through the processes of language learning and culture shock. Some have been ridiculed for their nationality, others have are persecuted for what they believe. Few would complain about these trials; after all, they signed up for this job, right?

You know who didn’t sign up for the job? The children of missionaries. Missionary kids go through everything their parents do (and usually more), but they don’t always have the choice of opting out of “suffering for Jesus.” Their parents may do it all the time, but nobody takes MKs seriously when they play the “It’s God’s will” card.

Many missionary kids go to sub-standard schools where they are teased and humiliated in languages that they don’t understand. They have a hard time relating to their peers and many end up being socially inept as the result. They are emotionally traumatized by ongoing identity crises and constantly feeling like they don’t belong. More than we’d like to admit end up resenting their parents and the God who called them to the field.

Is it okay that a missionary’s children suffer for the sake of his calling? I don’t know.

I believe that if God calls a person to missions, He will also, in some fashion, call their spouse and children. I’m not sure how it all works, but I figure that God knew when He called me what sort of family I would one day have.

MKs are amazing. They are almost always mature for their age, and wiser than they should be. Most know the reality of the unseen spiritual activity all around them, and are therefore more spiritually aware than “normal” folks would be. They, being constant outsiders, develop compassion for outsiders and a servant’s attitude for those in need. MKs usually grow up to be great missionaries. I think we should talk about them more than we do.

Posted May 19th, 2007 by E. Goodman

Since the demise of the short-sleeve pastel “missionary shirt” (you know- the one with two pockets on the breast and two at the waist), the button-down Oxford shirt with casual chinos has been the uniform of missionaries around the world. Some people like to spice it up a bit with an embroidered logo. Others dress it up with a shiny belt and pinstriped shirt. More than a few dress it down with hiking boots (or white sneakers) and a baseball cap. The outfit would seem to be the perfect attire for any situation that a missionary might find himself in.

Should missionaries dress like the people to whom they are ministering?

As foreigners, we will always be different from the people around us. But if some of those differences can be minimized by changing our shirts, shouldn’t we do it? When the bright, colorful sneakers with the white tube socks come walking up, most European nationals check out. What if dressing the part makes our message and transformed lives seem a little less foreign? I’m not talking about allowing missionaries to dress provocatively or immodestly (both concepts extremely relative, by the way) in the name of contextualization. By writing this post, I’m not refusing to submit to the authority of IMB leadership. I have nothing against my Dockers-wearing colleagues. I’m not a liberal.

I’m just asking.

In some cases, it seems clear that adopting the traditional style of dress is a necessary part of incarnation and cultural integration. Wearing robes, dashikis, mu?umu?us, burqas, and whatever they call those barber-smocks that Pakistanis wear, all seem like the price of admission into the culture for missionaries. But those are all cases where the people wear more clothing than we typically do in the States. What about those cases where it is the custom of the nationals to wear a loincloth or less?

What if dressing like the nationals means wearing Hugo Boss, Prada, or Dolce & Gabanna? In Western Europe, fitting in can be expensive. What if dressing appropriately for the cultural context means having to upgrade from Old Navy to Burberry?

Filed under:Clothing, Culture, Missions Posted May 14th, 2007 by E. Goodman

Not so long ago, internet chat rooms were mostly populated by perverts and turbonerds. The current generation of young adults, however, has moved into the neighborhood and changed the rules. They’ve never known life without computers. For them, meeting people online is a normal part of life. They have real and meaningful relationships with people that they only know virtually.

Why not plant online churches as part of our global missions efforts? I’m not talking about evangelistic websites, comment-thread debaters, or hordes of E-vangelists copying and pasting Bible verses into site guestbooks. I mean commissioning real missionaries to engage unbelieving people in every corner of the earth through the internet. I believe that real churches could be planted through virtual efforts that mirror our real work on the field. Contextually appropriate gospel presentations. Relational discipleship that is both practical and biblical. Indigenous worship among communities of committed believers.

All it would take is a little training of committed cybernauts and some time. “Virtual Partners” could start to see their MySpace, Facebook, and Flickr pages as platforms to engaging online social circles. Blogs and message boards are great forums for the exchange of ideas and sowing of the gospel. Affinity-based websites are visited by people from all around the world. Social networking sites make it easier than ever for people to connect.

Some might assert that the anonymity of the internet makes true intimacy impossible. That may have been true in an analog age, but these days, people welcome the anonymity as security to share their most personal thoughts. Others might be concerned that comment threads on public blogs and boards are a poor place to have meaningful conversation because there’s so much room for misunderstanding. This isn’t so much a problem for lifelong internauts. They are adept at concise, meaningful (to them and their kind) conversations in multiple ongoing and overlapping encounters.

Globalization has made English (well, a form of English) the common language of the world wide web. That makes initial contact with different people pretty easy. Why not have partners start their ministries by finding a national to teach them the language of the focus people group? People group research would take on new meaning if the source material was a member of the people group in question.

I’m working on a couple new job requests. I’m looking for some new people to be full members of our team who only come and visit a couple times a year. They’ll go through orientation, learn language, and build relationships with people here through the internet (without quitting their day jobs). If you’re interested, send me an email.

Filed under:Internet, Planting Posted April 27th, 2007 by E. Goodman

In the U.S., our supporters tell us that being a missionary is the highest calling. They say that moving overseas to plant churches is of eternal significance. To them, missions is telling people about Jesus. That’s what they ask about when we talk: How many people have become Christians? How many churches have you planted? They see missions as a spiritual endeavor with spiritual effects.

Here in Western Europe, if I were to tell people that I’m a missionary, they’d ask me why I’m not in Africa or India passing out food to starving children. They’d assume that I’m a bleeding heart who wants to build schools and educate people about HIV. To them, missions is about meeting physical needs out of a spiritual motivation.

Two different understandings of missions. The goal of the first is to change people; the aim of the second is to enrich them. I’ve decided to be the second type of missionary.

I’m not buying into the idea that we can separate out the spiritual needs from the physical ones, or that it’s okay to focus on one and ignore the other. I don’t think a preaching a sermon is better than giving diapers to a poor mother. I think that passing out water to thirsty people is good evangelism, even if the bottles don’t have tracts attached.

Don’t get me wrong. Making people’s live better doesn’t just mean passing out coats and blankets. It means boldly speaking truth in every conversation. It means teaching, encouraging, challenging, giving, and serving. I believe that God can use me to bless people to repentance.

As goals, “change” and “enrichment” make for very different approaches to missions.

Filed under:Missions, Strategy Posted March 28th, 2007 by E. Goodman

I appreciate all the encouraging notes and comments I’ve received during my unplanned blog silence the last couple of weeks (months?). I’m sure I’ve lost some readers by not posting in a while; after all, who wants to keep up with a blog that is never updated? If you’re still watching this space, thank you.

A couple of months ago, I experienced something that has never happened to me. I sat down in front of the computer intending to write another soul-searching, thought-provoking post (thought-provoking for me, anyway), and the strangest thing happened: nothing. I couldn’t write. For some reason, everything that I wanted to write seemed boring, redundant, petty, annoying, worthless, or just silly.

My newfound writer’s block may have been due, in part anyway, to several conversations I had with readers. One was asking for my advice on starting his own blog. “How should I do it if I don’t want mine to be as focused on denominational politics as yours?” he asked. That got me thinking; Is my blog about denominational politics? That’s certainly not what I ever intended!

Another faithful reader told me that lately my posts had been lacking the “edge” that he had originally found so attractive. “I used to love when you’d really let people have it on your blog!” he said. I’ve never wanted my blog to be that, ever. I’m not trying to sling accusations or publicly challenge anyone about anything. This guy obviously hadn’t perused the comments sections of any of my posts; if he had, he would have seen what an inept debater I am.

The most interesting comment I’ve received lately about my blog was from a new reader who told me that he had stayed up all night one night reading every post I had ever written. “You kind of repeat yourself a lot.” he said. “Your posts are good, but you seem to be saying the same thing over and over.” I tried not to point out that his two-sentence comment was itself redundant.

The thing that bothered me about his comment was that I agree with him. What’s the point of writing once a week about how uncomfortable I am as a missionary, and how much I think the people in the churches back home misunderstand me? Why fill the (virtual) pages of a blog with complaints and things that only serve to discourage those within my organization?

So until I come up with something worth writing, I won’t be posting here. Thank you for reading, and for participating in the discussion.

Filed under:Blogging, Missions Posted February 2nd, 2007 by E. Goodman

A key element of our missiology is our understanding of what heavenly worship will look like. This will affect the degree to which we value the individual cultures of the nations. It seems that most of us tend toward one of two extremes. Of course, I simplify here for the sake of discussion.

  • Multi-cultural Church: A people group’s culture is of eternal significance in that the unique attributes were built into it by God and that He is glorified by an expression of faith and worship through that cultural lens. In other words, people can and should be discipled within their own culture because God wants to be worshiped by different people in their different ways. In missions, these are the folks who go to great lengths to learn their people group’s language and customs, and make efforts to blend into the culture in order to minimize the differences between them and the people. Most of the questions about what the church should look like are left to be answered by new believers.
  • A-cultural Church: There is a biblically-mandated “culture of the church” that runs contrary to the culture of the world. A people group’s culture is therefore not something that should be respected, as most of it needs to be “taken off” upon salvation. In missions, these “a-cultural church” church planters tend to worry less about losing their American accent or living like the nationals, and rely more on the power of objective truth of the gospel as they share it with people who are different from them.

I’m sure that you find your own opinion somewhere in-between the “multi-cultural church” and “a-cultural church” positions. Nearly all of us would say that a church should be indigenous- that it should be contextually appropriate to the culture. People should not have to learn English or wear western clothing in order to hear and understand the gospel. When it comes to “the nations,” most would lean toward the “multi-cultural” understanding of the universal church.

On the other hand, we understand that the church is necessarily marked by a distinct “Kingdom culture” that often conflicts with societal norms. Equality, unity, compassion, discipline- the culture and values of the church make it stand out from the world. We cannot be judgmental, controlling, greedy, bitter, or materialistic, no matter how ingrained these vices may be in our culture. Jesus sums up the “culture of the kingdom” with a lot of His, “You’ve heard it said… but I say…” comments. The church’s culture is not natural to sinful humanity. It is counter-cultural.

So we see that we need some good balance of indigenous and Kingdom cultures in the churches we plant. Consider, however, the West. Whenever the conversation turns to church planting in a postmodern, post-Christian context, people seem to run to the “a-cultural” extreme of the argument. “You can’t be postmodern and a Christian” some would say. “They cannot use words that we consider to be profane,” they say. “They must dress appropriately” they think, and “if they’re ashamed to call it a church, than it isn’t a church.” (These, by the way, are near quotes of what I’ve heard missionary colleagues and supporters back home say whenever I try to discuss what the indigenous church might look like in Western Europe.)

In Revelation 7, John recounts the vision God gave him of multitudes worshiping Jesus. The countless hoards of people, John writes, were “from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. ” For many of us, that same vision is what drives us today, together with the desire to be part of what God has said is certain to happen. We want to see the diversity of God’s children unified in worship. But not everyone sees the value and beauty of culture, especially when it comes to missions in a culture that seems near to our own.

I believe that the indigenous church in Western Europe, made up of mature, faithful believers, will look very different from the traditional churches that can be found here today. I believe that a follower of Christ in this culture will think very differently about gender roles in the church, alcohol use, experience of real supernatural activity, and celebration of worship, fellowship, and community than most of the churches that send me. I think that’s okay, because to me, culture counts. It’s the “language” we use to understand and relate to the world around us, and it allows us to worship God in a way that is real and meaningful to us.

Filed under:Culture, Missiology, Planting Posted January 28th, 2007 by E. Goodman

In keeping with my complete inability to leave well enough alone, I’d like to illustrate the point of my last post. Some of you will be surprised to learn that there was, in fact, a point to my last post.

“Church planting movement” is the term we’ve adopted to describe a phenomena in which many, many churches are sort of spontaneously planted and those churches quickly turn and plant other church-planting churches. In many ways, a CPM is like a storm (or an earthquake, or a drought, or any other “act of God”), in that it is something only God can do. We cannot cause a CPM to happen any more than we can cause a tidal wave or instigate a hurricane.

It makes no sense, then, to set as our goal something that we cannot do. Yes, I’ve heard about the importance of having a “God-sized” vision, but a vision and a goal are not the same thing. To continue with the illustration:

We can prepare for a storm. When the weatherman warns us and the sky turns dark, people run to the store and buy water, plastic, duct tape, and granola bars. This is how many of us “prepare” for a movement of God, CPM or otherwise. We get a hint that God is working somewhere, and we rush to get ready. We write requests for volunteers and we notify the prayer networks that we’re going to need extra coverage. We put unresponsive people on the back burner and concentrate our energy where the action is. The problem, in my opinion, is that rushing to facilitate a CPM is not the kind of strategy that called people should depend on.

Why not? Because only God knows when and where He’s going to make it rain, and whether it will be a slight drizzle or a torrential downpour. I think that’s why he called me to Western Europe well in advance of whatever it is He’s going to do. This wasn’t a “priority” area for the IMB. There were places with more “strategic significance” and higher “concentrations of lostness.” But He know what He was doing, and I trusted Him, even though I haven’t seen the results I’d hoped for.

Which brings me to another type of readiness that we should consider. It’s the long-term, not a cloud in the sky, “wait for it… wait for it…” sort of approach. It is modeled for us by Noah in Genesis 6-8. When people saw this old man building a giant boat in the middle of the desert I’m sure they called it insanity. I think we should apply it to missions, and call it “nonstrategic obedience.”

God gave Noah a vision of the deadly waters that would flood the earth. That was something only God could do. Noah’s goal, then, was not to create a storm, but to build the boat. His goal was a big boat full of the people and animals God told him to take inside. His strategy was to build the boat exactly according to God’s detailed instructions.

Church Planting Movements are a vision, not a goal. Proclaiming the gospel, teaching people to obey, living as incarnational witnesses- these are goals. Our strategies need to get us to these goals. Focusing on Church planting movements distracts us from doing the things God has instructed us to do because we assume that we know how God wants to take us to the vision He’s given us. We start to see our goals as means. We should make disciples because God told us to, not so that we can facilitate a greater movement.

Getting ahead of ourselves (and God, if it were possible) is pretty common for us. We love people in order to share the gospel with them, and we share the gospel with them in order to plant a church. We plant a church in order to start a CPM, and we do that in order to “finish the task” and glorify God (and bring Jesus back). I say, let’s let go of all the “next things” that we think may happen. Let’s focus our attention on who God has brought us today. Let’s obey regardless of whether a CPM starts or not. It would be like building an ark whether the floodwaters came or not.

Now I’m left with the question of the vision. Are we sure that God told us that He was going to start church planting movements all around the world? How long do you suppose Noah would have worked on the ark without seeing evidence that God was getting ready to bring the storm? How long will our people (trusting the vision as it’s been cast by our organization) continue to pursue a church planting movement before they should start to question that vision? If it’s from God, we should never give up. If it’s just a good idea, we should change course immediately.

Filed under:Missiology, Missions, Planting, Strategy Posted January 25th, 2007 by E. Goodman

Our regional (and organization-wide) mission and strategy is to “facilitate a Church Planting movement among people groups and/or population segments greater than 100,000 people and less than 2% evangelized. In past posts, I’ve taken issue with the definitions of “people groups” and “evangelized,” and I’ve voiced my confusion over the seemingly random numbers that guide our strategic decisions.

My question today is this: where are the church planting movements?

Church planting movement (CPM) is a term the refers to those instances in which multiple church-planting churches are planted among a people group. Such an occurrence would certainly be an act of Almighty God, and would transcend any program or campaign that we could initiate. This is how it happened in certain parts of Asia fifteen years ago.

Eleven years have passed since the CPM strategy was adopted by the board. Faithful men and women have poured their lives into the people to whom they’ve been called. They have been trained, equipped, led, encouraged, and prayed for. They have learned language(s), adapted to culture, and made efforts to partner with other Great Commission Christians in an effort to facilitate a CPM. Despite all their efforts, the IMB’s missionaries to Western Europe have not yet seen such a movement.

Where are the CPMs?

Everyone seems to have a theory as to why we haven’t been effective at fulfilling this vision. “We don’t pray enough,” many have said, or “we’ve gone about it the wrong way.” Some have suggested that we haven’t cooperated enough, others say we’ve cooperated too much. I’ve heard our current situation blamed on poor language skill, not enough “broad seed sowing,” and sin.

These theories are usually followed up with solutions. A book to read. A model to study. A formula to follow. We need to fast, pray, repent, work harder, or bring over more personnel. “If we only had 50,000 more people praying, then we’d see a CPM.”

I refuse to believe that the reason we aren’t seeing Church Planting Movements is that we just haven’t gotten it right yet. I’m tired of seeing good, faithful people feel pressure to produce something that is totally out of their control. We have people on the field that feel like complete failures because they haven’t seen God re-create what He did in Asia, and it weighs heavily on them. It’s time to re-evaluate our strategy and goals.

Filed under:Missions, Misunderstood, Planting, Strategy Posted January 23rd, 2007 by E. Goodman

I had a great conversation the other day with a colleague about prayer. As missionaries, we know that prayer is vital to our work, and consider raising prayer support a major part of our work. I think that if you asked any of us on the field how many people we wanted praying for us, most of us would say, “As many as possible!”

But our conversation got me thinking about prayer in our missions endeavors. We say that prayer is important, but why is it important? We say that we need all the prayer support that we can get, but what does that mean?

I recently read an article about Church Planting Movements. In it, the author outlined the “12 reasons we aren’t seeing church planting movements in Western Europe.” At the top of the list was “lack of prayer.” If we had more prayer, he reasoned, we might really see God move.

So how many people do we need to pray, and how often? Where do we get the idea that more praying is better? Yes, I know that the purpose of prayer is to change our mind, not God’s,
but why is it better to have five thousand people praying than to have five hundred? Where do we get the idea that more is better?