For many would-be ministers, missionaries, and church planters, a full-time, paid position is not going to happen. Some might intentionally reject the paid-clergy model. Others might just not be able to raise the kind of funding that would allow them to quit their day jobs. Either way, lots of ministers are looking for ways to support themselves.

Here’s the problem, though- your Bible College degree in Religion and your seminary-conferred M.Div. may have prepared you for professional ministry, but business? Not so much. Your years of church work and missions haven’t exactly provided you with a lot of “marketable skills.”

Or have they?

In my last post, I pointed you to Apartment Life, a company that arranges free housing for believers who will commit to building a sense of community among tenants. I mentioned that community development would be a great platform for church planters and incarnational ministry. Beyond the creative access platforms they provide, however, Apartment Life offers us something else: An example.

What do you have to offer that people in your community might find valuable, important, or worthwhile? How about your leadership abilities? You’re a whiz at sensing needs and developing a plan to meet them. You can communicate clearly and motivate people to change their behavior. Integrity is important to you. You’re good with money (yours and other people’s), you believe in accountability, honesty, hard work, and sacrifice. You know how to gather and build community. You know right from wrong, and you know how to encourage people to do what’s right.

You have valuable skills! Why not use them to interact with unbelievers in a natural and beneficial way?

Frank Daly went from being a priest in the Catholic Church to being chief ethics officer at Northrop Grumman, a southern California defense contractor. Instead of waiting for people to come into his church to confess their sins, he went to them.

In fact, lots of companies are hiring ethics officers.  Many are setting up internal ethics hotlines, and others are outsourcing ethics counseling to independent services. Business are willing to invest lots of money to fight theft, corporate espionage, fraud, and lawsuits. Ethics officers make themselves available to counsel employees who might face an ethical dilemma. Identities and confessions are kept confidential, but eventually provide the business with reports on potential trouble spots that need to be addressed and recommend ways the business can keep things on the up and up.

Most businesses work to retain customers and clients- something you do every day by listening, teaching, encouraging, and meeting needs. Why not offer those services to a local coffee shop? Your community-building efforts could translate into regular customers and same-store sales, for the business. Apartment complexes, high school and college campuses, even local businesses, all benefit from a sense of community. Best of all, your services would provide you with a platform to build relationships with unbelievers and impact your city.

You’ve put together a thousand posters, flyers, and t-shirts. How many local businesses can’t afford to hire professional graphic design and branding services? craigslist is full of requests for charity fund-raisers, after-school tutors, or campaign managers. You could do those jobs in your sleep!

I’m not suggesting that we sell ethics, community development, or even pastoral care. I am saying that there are real-world applications for your skills and knowledge. Something like ethics counseling, community development, or  might provide a great part-time job for a church planter or a great free ministry your church can provide for your community.

Christians need to start thinking like missionaries. You can lead the way by putting your marketable skills into practice for something outside the church.

Previously: Impractical Worship

Megachurches don’t just happen. And they’re certainly not the inevitable result of God’s blessing. They are the results of decisions throughout the lifetime of a church. Say a church plant starts out with three couples meeting in a living room. That’s six people meeting regularly to worship God and be a local expression of His body. Say that group, through evangelism, transfer, or gimmickry, grows to two dozen. Twenty-four people can fill a living room. Add kids or guests, and the space is full, right?

Most churches that find themselves in this situation do what makes sense; they find a bigger place to meet. They rent a theater, they meet in a public school, they lease a storefront. This move brings a new set of challenges- the bigger space makes it harder to hear, so the growing  young church buys a sound system. As more people come, the church introduces a video projector (in case anyone doesn’t remember the words to “Lord I Lift Your Name On High,” and to show the scripture text for all those who forgot to bring their Bibles.) Staff members are hired to keep up with all of the people. Bylaws are written.

The church grows, filling the space, and is faced with another decision. Naturally, they embark on a building program to raise money to buy some land in the suburbs and build a multi-use facility. This, of course, requires an upgraded sound system, an increase in staff, facilities maintenance, the Disneyfication of the children’s ministry area, and a logo for each of the church’s ministry programs. Then come the satellite campuses, video venues, and nationwide franchise networks.

A series of decisions, each seeming quite sensible, that solve the “problems”that a church might face. But what if a church, at any point along this path, chooses otherwise? What if a church deliberately decides not to rent a bigger space? What if they refuse to go into debt? What if they wait to raise up leadership from within? What if they intentionally do the counterintuitive, impractical thing every step of the way?

The Impractical Church doesn’t build a building. Ever. Instead, it meets wherever its people live- in their homes, hangouts, restaurants, parks, pubs, libraries, break rooms, basements, parking garages, and empty church buildings of dying congregations. They don’t pay to rent these spaces- they hardly even have to ask to use them. These are the spaces they move in every day. By paying taxes, punching time cards, and spending time and money, they’ve earned the right to use them. They find favor with the people who manage and own the spaces.

They show up to the same neighborhood coffee shop every day for two years. They’ve taken spiritual responsibility for the others who use the space. They’re on a first name basis with the owners. They start to meet one-on-one in the corner. Next as a small group during a time when business is slow. Maybe a waiter gets involved. Soon, the manager is turning down the music so the group can hear one another. Next thing you know, the group is offered keys to the back door and invited to stay after hours so they can have some privacy.

Call it the Friendly Takeover.

The public nature of their meetings challenge the church to apply their faith to their everyday lives. They’re forced to be the Church in context of the local community. Their small size insures that they remain personal, relational, and free of the overhead that burdens other churches. This church is sustainable and truly local. It is indigenous to the neighborhood. They manage growth by planting more of these churches, each interconnected and accountable, but with its own leadership and the freedom to adjust the form and location.

It takes time to expand the Kingdom by filling the impractical spaces, but taking shortcuts has cost us.

NEXT: The Impractical Churches Among Us

PREVIOUSLY: Distribution

So far, three parts into my multi-part series on the counterintuitive nature of life in Christ, and I’ve yet to receive any comments accusing me of being too negative or of harboring jealousy over the megachurch’s success. Clearly, I’ve either offended (or bored) away everyone who disagrees with me, or I’ve not been clear. Let’s be sure it’s not the latter.

Megachurches are based in extreme pragmatism. Consider the rationale behind them:

  • “They allow the church to have resources that smaller churches just can’t have.”
  • “We didn’t set out to build an impersonal empire of seeker-friendliness, but its what the people wanted.”
  •  “Hey, God’s blessing it.” or, “As long as people are coming to faith…”
  • “The Bible doesn’t say we shouldn’t have a multi-million dollar building with a coffee shop and a parking structure.”

Video Venues are an exercise in pragmatism. Supporters will be quick to claim:

  • “The video sites allow our pastor to increase his influence.”
  • “This way, I can spend more time with my family.”
  • “People don’t even seem to notice that the preacher isn’t physically there.”
  • “Whether we like it or not, people come to hear (our pastor) speak.”
  • “Paul wrote letters and sent them around. We use DVDs and streaming live video.”

Professional parachurch missions are a pragmatic response to the Great Commission. Churches outsource missions to them because:

  • “Our people are better trained for missions than most people in the local church.”
  •  “People are dying and going to hell.”
  • “A small church with limited resources can’t do as much as we can.”
  • “We’ve organized the work into strategic priorities.”
  • “We have a great insurance program.”

I am not saying any of these things are necessarily bad. I am saying that they are sensible solutions to perceived problems that may not be God’s best for His church. We should not default to these sorts of pragmatic approaches to ministry, mission, and church just because they “work” or “make sense.” Why not?

How we do ministry has profound and long-lasting detrimental consequences on the churches we serve. If we elevate practicality, effectiveness, and sensibility as church values, we risk changing the very message we preach. So much of who Jesus is and what Jesus does is counterintuitive. Why is it that so much of what the church does just makes sense?

My question is this: how can someone like me (missionary, practitioner) gently and lovingly point out the pervasive pragmatism in the American church without coming across as a negative, overly critical, know-it-all jerk? 

NEXT: What’s Wrong With Pragmatism?

PREVIOUSLY: The Counterintuitive Church

Despite the Church’s current tendency toward extreme pragmatism, much of the life that Jesus calls us to is counter-intuitive.

But that doesn’t seem to stop us from depending (almost entirely!) on our human logic when it comes to our missiology. Why is that? Why would we assume that a counterintuitive God would leave us to do things in ways that make sense to our rational process?

As a church planter begins to think about where (geographically) to begin, he almost always looks at where there isn’t a church. The thinking, I suppose, is that you don’t want two churches side by side (except, I suppose, in the Bible Belt, where neighboring churches often fight over parking space). So the planter looks as a map of the city, and decides to focus on the next largest area that doesn’t have a church. It just makes sense to do it that way.

Same thing with missionaries; they look at unengaged people, unreached groups. They assign people to villages that have no (known) evangelical work. It makes the work manageable to look for the gaps and fill them.

Churches are obsessed with the gaps. We want to know what we’re not doing, and then do that. No program for recovering cross-dressers? We feel like we need one. No church for the tattooed-and-pierced crowd? Light some candles and call it good. It just makes sense to start with need and then come up with a solution to meet that need.

But that’s not how God did things in the scriptures. I’m not convinced it’s the way He does things today, either. It didn’t make sense to Peter that God would tell him (in a dream) to focus his ministry on the unclean (and undeserving) Gentiles. It didn’t make sense to Paul that the Spirit would prevent him from going to Asia.

What if God is calling you to plant a church in a neighborhood that already has several? Rather than compete, you might see your work as a demonstration of Christian unity. What if God wants your church planting team to focus on a people group that is, statistically, “reached?” He, in His wisdom, might use your ministry to send members of that “reached” group to take the gospel to the unreached.

My point is this- the gaps aren’t the best place to start. God is the best place to start.

NEXT: Distribution

Most of the people who call themselves “missionaries” will tell you about their passion for the unreached people group they’re working with. Algerian Berbers. The Dong people of Nigeria. The Bondo Poroja of India. People you’ve never heard of. Dark-skinned people in funny hats, living in places you couldn’t find on a map. The missionaries have grown to love their adopted people groups- indeed many have been adopted by their people groups. But unless you’ve met people, spent time with them, eaten with them- shared life with them- it’s hard to relate. How can we connect with people whose paths will never naturally cross our own?

To most of us, they’re people groups, but not people.

Our strategic approach to missions has led us begin missions with taxonomy; we conduct extensive research to find, categorize, and then engage those people groups we deem “unreached.” The unintended result of such an approach is that we’re left with a long list of facts and statistics rather than a connection with people.

If you know you’re called to mission- not just in your neighborhood, but across cultures and around the world- don’t be intimidated by a long list of unpronounceable names and places. I’d encourage you to fast and pray about where God might use you. The truth is, he may not want an Westerner to show up on the scene. Your role may be indirect. The mission of the worldwide church is a domino effect- with people going out to where the Holy Spirit leads them and sharing life with those whom He has prepared.

The beauty of God’s global activity among the nations is that it doesn’t depend on you. You can miss out, but you can’t mess it up. So throw a dart at a map, draw a name out of a hat, spin the Google Earth globe. Just be sure that God is the one leading you. Because then, and only then, will people become more to you than an unreached people group. They’ll be friends. Family. Individuals whose lives are forever supernaturally entwined with yours. People, like you, who will love, hurt, teach, and know you.

I think that’s what missions is supposed to be.

A brand never changed anyone’s life. At least not for the better. In fact, we are a society of people who have been let down, frustrated, and ripped of by brands. Microsoft has frustrated our daily lives, McDonald’s has made us unhealthy, Starbucks has charged us ungodly amounts for coffee, and American Airlines loses our bags. Time after time, brand loyalty was taken for granted and rewarded with inferior products and services.

People, on the other hand, can make a difference in our lives. My life has been filled with teachers, pastors, friends, and others who have influenced me in life-changing ways. The influence of people helps me make sense of the world. We need people. We don’t need brands.

Yet why is it that the majority of missions organized by brands and programs? When we want to learn about theology, we go to Sproul, Wright, and Piper. Warren and Hybels are our gurus for growing megachurhes. Leadership, Maxwell. Church Planting, Stetzer. Missional stuff? Hirsch, Keller, etc.

Missions? The International Mission Board. YWAM. Christian Associates International. International Missions Society. Greater Europe Missions. International… well, you get the point. Missions is full of organizations and denominational entities. If you know a missionary at all, it’s likely because you knew her before she left for the field, met them on a trip, or that he’s come around asking for money. That’s your connection to the mission field.

Where are the missionary practitioners who will lead the church into a direct, responsible, and missiologically sound participation in missions?

Brands don’t cut it. We need some leaders.

air-9574995Week-long tourist mission trips that have suburban American teenagers staying in five-star hotels and complaining about the food.

Missions done more for adventure than out of obedience.

The Sunday-school class that passes out American flags and money.

Culturally inappropriate choir tours, drama troupes, youth musicals, puppet shows, clowns, mimes in the park.

Attractional replications of “what works” back home.

One-off drive-by mission trips that assuage the guilt and give a feeling of superiority.

Missionary, these you might roll your eyes at the thought of including short-term groups in your strategic approach to ministry. Church people can be consumeristic, naive, fickle. Their well-intentioned attempts to help can build unhealthy dependency. Their ignorance can jeopardize the ministry you’ve worked hard to build. You may swear off hosting church groups. I know- you didn’t come here to be a baby-sitter and tour guide. But the popular missiology that perpetuates missions-as-event is a result of your interaction (or, lack thereof) with the local church.

It’s your fault.

Those of you who scoff at the involvement of a local church (the same churches that send and support you), it’s time for you to take responsibility. If churches have a bad understanding of what missions is and should be, it’s your fault. How else will they know the reality of what God is doing among people around the world? What church members know about missions is what you’ve taught them. Or what you’ve failed to teach them.

The church is God’s design. Leadership. Accountability. Gifting. Community. Fellowship. Worship. It’s His design for His people, and you don’t get to bypass that structure just because you’re embarrassed by a church group that shows up in your part of the world wearing matching T-shirts. The church cannot be replaced. You can be her servant, but not her substitute.

Romans 12:3 warns us not to think too highly of ourselves. You are expendable. Any Spirit-led “volunteer” missionary can replace your language ability and cultural insight with a google search and a few hours in a smoky bar with a national. You’re not special. And you won’t get far without the direct involvement of the churches that send you.

Immediate. You can find and fund a small business in a developing nation in under five minutes on Kiva.org. Buy a pair of Tom’s Shoes, and a second pair is sent to a needy child in a developing nation (you can actually go on a “Shoe Drop” trip and deliver the shoes yourself). The action is (or, at least feels) immediate. Typical mission trips have been cast more as investments in the future. Nobody believes in the future anymore.

Tangible. Extreme (American) pragmatism is always concerned with the bottom line. Value is determined by dividing the total cost of involvement by the measurable results. People want to know that their work is producing something. At the end of the day, people want to be able to point to the building they built, the people they fed, or the number of salvations and say, “This was worth it.”

Socially acceptable. Everyone thinks (or, at least says they think) that it’s cool to support fair trade or finance micro-enterprises or buy shoes for the shoeless. If Bono, Coldplay, and all my Facebook friends are talking about it, it’s cool. No one gets ridiculed for wanting to save Darfur or free Tibet. Getting time off of work to help plant a church in Malaysia, however, can be difficult.

Pendulum swing. After years of prayerwalking, backyard Bible clubs, and tract spamming on strictly “spiritual” trips, believers are looking for better ways to connect with people. The missions scene tends to go back and forth between social ministries (feeding the hungry, digging wells, medical missions) to a more decidedly “spiritual” focus (“reaching unreached people groups,” public gospel presentations, etc). Things now are trending toward social action.

Platform. There are only a few places left in the world where a “missionary” is free to enter and do whatever he/she wants (and even in those places, it’s not wise to do so). Many believers realize that need-based humanitarian action is an ideal social access platform (reason to be in the country that is valued by the hosts).

Marketing. Social non-profits do a better job of marketing. Their campaigns incite and inspire while creating a sense of identity for those involved. Just look at “To Write Love On Her Arms” or the “Junky Car Club.” They allow people to determine their own levels of participation, and they are adept at using social networking media to get their messages out. Missions sending agencies, on the other hand, are still pushing “Xtreme Missions” (seriously- goolge “xtreme missions”- with or without the “E”).

Guilt. A generation (or two) of white, upper-middle class suburban Christians are starting to realize that not everyone in the world is born with the opportunities they enjoy. One trip to a developing nation will change one’s perspective on a multi-million dollar building campaign. Many believe that justice will require a sacrifice on our part.

Missiology. An emerging generation has gone back to theological basics in many respects. The “missional” movement is an example of this sort of reconstruction. It seeks to balance the direct teachings of Jesus with Paul’s missionary example. The emerging missiology is holistic, relational, and service-oriented. It doesn’t distinguish between “humanitarianism” and “missions.”

Experience. Many churchgoers have been on “mission trips,” and a great deal of those were not positive experiences. The process was too complex. They didn’t feel that their money was being used wisely, or they didn’t want anything to go to overhead/administrative fees. The hosting missionary didn’t seem to know what he was going. They didn’t feel useful.

Awareness. In this noisy world we live in, it is less and less likely that a church member is going to even know about the many ministries in relatively obscure places. A ministry with a high-profile spokesperson has a much better chance of getting through to churchgoers than an organization with a four-color brochure and a homemade website.

Armchair missiologists of the world-  when deciding where to get involved in missions, don’t be distracted by what isn’t there.

Let me explain. For far too long now, missions strategy has gone something like this: Start by finding where there are a lot of people who haven’t heard the gospel (or who don’t have access to the gospel, or who don’t have a church to go to), and do something there. An aspiring church planter posts a map of his city on the wall and sticks pushpins where all the churches are. He assumes that wherever there aren’t a lot of pushpins, there’s a need for a church/ministry.

What isn’t there is a bad start.

In its effort to find a niche, the world looks at a situation and says, “Where are the gaps? How can we do what nobody else is doing?” God, on the other hand, doesn’t tend to work that way. He seems to go with more of a “Shock and Awe” (to borrow an expression) sort of approach. Think Luke, chapter 10, or His work at on the Day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2.

No, a better way might be to ask whether a bunch of pushpins on the map might mean God is at work. Perhaps if God is at work in a place or among a people (as evidenced by the calling or workers, people coming to faith, or your own desire), you should join Him there.

Sure, you might find yourself working alongside other Great Commission believers, and that requires cooperation and unity. Yes, there might be places where it seems like there’s great need, yet no work. But we must trust God to orchestrate His work among the nations of the world.

I think that churches, not parachurch organizations, should be doing missions. I believe that there is no substitute for the God-designed structure of pastoral leadership, ministry of the spiritual gifts, and the community of faith.

Some churches, though, just don’t get it.

We sometimes joke about the church-sponsored group that arrived for a week-long trip to Wales wearing bright orange “Save the Wales” t-shirts. It really happened, but this was not an isolated instance of myopic missiology. We’ve had puppet shows, choirs, mimes (in France, but of course!), badly-translated tracts, well-translated tracts, and bullhorns. Rarely are these methods prescribed by long-term workers with cultural insight. Rather, they are tolerated in hopes of fostering a partnership and broader involvement.

It used to be that a missionary had two choices- let the churches do whatever they want (usually what they think “worked” back home), or spell out every step of a short-term trip and babysit the group to insure compliance.

The good news is that now there’s another option. There is a growing number of willing participants who are not bound by tradition or convention and are capable of contextually-appropriate innovation in missions. They’re connecting  with people across cultures in meaningful and influential ways through art, business, and social action.

How do you find them? Start with a visit to the Upstream Collective.