“Red Rover, Red Rover, send Stevie right over!”
Most churches actually require unbelievers to be the missionaries. In order for them understand the gospel and its effect on their lives, they have to enter our church culture and extrapolate for themselves what a relationships with Jesus would mean for them. They have to learn a new language in order to hear the gospel. They have to assume our worldview. They have to see past our politics, ignore our offenses, and overlook our ignorance, just to hear the gospel.
In response to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” our words say, “Confess and believe,” but our actions say, “In order to be saved you must learn to understand and appreciate our music, our culture, our version of community, our attitude toward you as an unbeliever.” This is not good news.
It used to be that you could distinguish between local “ministry” and cross cultural “missions.” Not anymore. Your influence will not grow– your “light” will not shine brighter– simply by doing more of what you’ve been doing. Your comfort in your setting is keeping you from being effective in ministry because you assume that you’re a member of the culture you work in. You’re not. You’ve got to be a missionary to the culture in which you find yourself.
Unfortunately, it’s not enough to simply join a culture. It won’t do to just blend in. Contextualization begins with dressing, talking, and acting the part, but it doesn’t end there. Our mission to make disciples requires us to incarnate the gospel by communicating and demonstrating what a disciple would look like in this culture. Crossing cultures requires us to live as models of what it would look like if they came to faith from within their own cultural context. This can be difficult, to say the least.
Incarnation requires that we do our homework. We have to deliberately and intentionally join the conversations that are happening within the culture. This means reading, watching, attending, eating, and experiencing the same things that our people do. But we’ve got to do it wisely. We can’t just passively consume the way dead people do, we’ve got to have our guard up, be in tune with the Spirit, and never go alone. We must learn the language of the “locals” in order to build redemptive relationships with them.
For too long, our ecclesiology has been divorced from our missiology. We must begin to see ourselves –our churches– as missionaries.
Believers often look to the life and ministry of the Apostle Paul as the model for missions. He did, after all, travel around telling people about Jesus and leave a trail of networked churches in his wake. But Paul isn’t the best picture of a missionary.
Paul didn’t seem to0 concerned with contextualization- mostly because he stayed within his own context. Sure, he moved in and out of different societies: Jews, Gentiles, Greeks, Romans. But these were the subcultures he lived among well before his call to mission. We don’t see Paul having to learn different languages, for example, his Hebrew served him well among the Jewish community, and his Greek allowed him to communicate everywhere else. He traveled within the Roman Empire, where, as a Roman citizen, his was the dominant culture. For the most part, Paul was already a member of the tribes he ministered to. That’s not to say that he wasn’t a missionary; let’s just consider him more of a “home” missionary than a “foreign” missionary.
The best example of a missionary? Jesus.
The Incarnation was the greatest mission trip ever. When the eternal Word became a human being, He left His home to live in a very different place in order to communicate God’s love for mankind. He didn’t hang on to his divine cultural identity, instead he traded it for the humiliation of being a helpless human child. We consider it “extreme” when an American missionary adopts indigenous dress; I wonder how long it took for God to get used to the confines of the human form. Some missionaries spend years learning the local language- Jesus probably took what, two, two-and-a-half years? He didn’t even have a foreign accent!
Jesus’ whole life was about context. When He was tempted by the Enemy, he could have smited (smote?) him with lightening bolts from His fingers, but He didn’t because that’s not how we did things in human culture back then. When He was nailed to a cross, He could have given the signal for a million angels to swoop in and take Him down, but He didn’t, because He thought it was important to suffer on our terms. Without the credibility of being recognized as God, Jesus entered the human conversations around religion, social norms, philosophy, and politics. He did this so that we would believe in Him.
Of course, Jesus also gave humanity glimpses of his culture of origin. He healed and forgave people, and He bucked even the most deeply ingrained customs if they contradicted His message. Jesus stood up against social inequality, dead religion, oppressive leadership, and political ideologies. He followed our rules for things like time and space and the need to breathe air so that we would be able to relate to Him and begin to understand what He was saying. He played the part, but only until the time was right.
At just the right moment, Jesus broke the cultural rules. Big ones, too- like death and gravity and walking through walls. He did this because it was time to show that was was, indeed, not from around here. He had come for a reason, motivated by love and a clear mission. That makes Him the best missionary of all.
Merry Christmas, dear reader.
Contextualization is the active work of translating the gospel into a culture that doesn’t have an indigenous expression of Christianity. The problem is that we all seem to be “contextualizing” for a culture that we don’t live in. We all look alike because we were all mentored by the same six guys (John, Rick, Mark, Brian, Tim, and Andy). We look like them because we know we don’t want to look like where we came from. We assume that if it seems new and cool and more biblically sound than whatever it is we’re reacting to, that it’s suitable for the context in which we minister.
Slapping a new coat of paint on the same old conventions is not contextualization. We need to be sure we’re contextualizing for the context to which we’re called- the ones in which we find ourselves. It won’t do to make your church look like someone else’s. You can’t just steal somebody else’s sermon. You can’t pipe in a great speaker who doesn’t know your context. You must be an expert in the people to whom you minister.
If you don’t do the missionary work of contextualization, you still can grow your church. But it won’t belong to the culture in which it’s planted. In order to be discipled in the foreign system you set up, people will have to first be converted to your culture- the one you imported from Grapevine, Texas, or Minneapolis, Minnesota, or Seattle, Washington. Then, you’ll find yourself having to train people to interact with the culture from which you’ve extracted them.
Which is the point, really- contextualization should be worked into the essence of every expression of Christianity. It is the key to indigenous church, and it is the key to communicating the gospel in a way that connects with your audience.
So you should wear cool glasses. If you have hair, you should either spike it up or grow it out. If you can handle a neckbeard, that’d be good. Do your best to squeeze into skinny jeans. Find a keffiyeh, and wear it even when it’s 90 degrees out. Watch Lost and 30 Rock. Talk about when Grey’s Anatomy jumped the shark. Become a vegan, or at least a part-time vegetarian. Listen to hip-hop, indie bands, alt-country, and Drink fair trade coffee-with organic soy milk, of course. You also need to ride a fixed-gear bike, smoke a cigars, drink microbrewed beer, and play hours of video games. Get a Mac, and talk about how long it’s been since you even tried using a PC. Oh, and an iPhone. You definitely need an iPhone.
Why? Contextualization, of course. But to which context?
My point is this: contextualization isn’t looking like the culture; it’s having lived in the culture. It’s how you think and communicate after putting yourself in someone else’s shoes for a while. Knowing the way it feels. Understanding how people treat you when you’re one of them. The experience is what makes you able to translate the gospel into a (sub)culture in a way that makes sense to the people who live there.
If you’re ministering to the homeless, you might try spending a night (or a month) on the street. If you’re in a community of Arabs, you should consider praying 5 times a day, seasoning your conversation with, “God willing,” and skipping the pulled-pork sandwich. Not to fool them into thinking you’re the same as them. You’re not. But until you’ve put yourself in their shoes, you really don’t have any idea what life it like for them- what’s important to them, what speaks to them, how they see you as an outsider.
Lugging around a camera doesn’t make you an artist, but it might help you understand one. Understanding one is key to communicating with him. Communicating with him is the key to sharing the gospel with him in a way that he can understand and respond to.
We’ve got to stop distinguishing between “missions” and, well, “not missions.”
The old paradigm was this: ministry is sharing the gospel. If you preached to believers, you were called a “pastor.” If you preached to non-Christians in your own culture, you were an “evangelist.” If you needed a passport to get there, you were a “missionary.” If those distinctions were ever helpful, they certainly aren’t today. Not when “the nations” are moving in next door and going to school with your kids. Not when there is yet to be an expression of Christianity that is truly free from modern rational humanism. We’re all missionaries because there is no “home.”
The division has resulted in “that’s not my job calling” on both sides of the divide. Many missionaries today see the church as a major distraction from their focus on evangelizing unbelieving people. Most churches outsource missions to a homely couple they send money to and pray for once a year.
The new paradigm is simple: all Christians are missionaries. They must be, because none of us are at “home.” Even if your ministry is to a group of people that you grew up with- a group that looks, talks, and acts just like you- you must recognize that your transformation in Christ necessarily makes you an outsider- a foreigner- to even your own culture. You can’t afford to assume that you are ministering in your own context. You don’t have a context in the world anymore.
Saying that all Christians are missionaries doesn’t mean we’re all good missionaries. Most Christians lack the skill, sensitivity, intentionality, and to truly be effective missionaries. Most Christians don’t worry about working to enter and engage culture because they think they’re already immersed in it. They may be, but the vast majority still step out of their cultures and subcultures and into an artificial “Christian” one every Sunday in order to worship and be discipled. We need missionaries.
If you are a Prius-driving, Lego-modding Starbucks barista, you’re uniquely qualified to be the missionary to that tribe. If you’re a Mac-using, soccer-mompreneur PTA member, your job is to incarnate the gospel among your people. It’s not enough for you to just try to fit in. You were saved to live out a Christ-transformed life in the midst of your social circles. You are where you are for a purpose.
There is no “home” and “foreign.” You are a missionary.
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.
In missiological terms, it’s called a “platform.” It’s how you enter into the community, what you do, how you present yourself, in order to make a connection. Many missionaries aren’t “missionaries” at all, but doctors, teachers, businessmen, artists, social activists. A good platform allows for natural interaction with the people to whom you’re ministering while leaving you with enough time to connect socially. Everyone in ministry needs a platform.
Apartment Life is an example of a great platform. Millions of people, especially in unchurched urban areas, live in apartments and multi-unit housing. The owners of these properties stand to make lots of money, but only if they can retain their tenants. Studies have shown that building a sense of community among residents can raise the level of retention. In other words, people will stay in an apartment complex if they have friends there. They may even be inclined to pay more in monthly rent, take better care of the property, and actively recruit potential tenants.
Enter Apartment Life. They place believers into apartment complexes in order to build a sense of community among residents. In exchange for welcoming new tenants, organizing community events, and making friends in the complex, you get to live there for free. Kind of like a property manager, but with relationships. It turns out that the cost of fixing trashed apartments, finding new tenants, kicking out deadbeats, and making people feel safe adds up to a lot more than what you would pay in rent each month. Apartment Life brokers a deal with property owners based on the idea that your presence adds value to their business.
This is one of the most creative and promising endeavors I’ve ever heard about. If you’re in any sort of incarnational ministry, whether it’s to urban professionals, immigrants, or the working poor, odds are they live in apartments. A great way to incarnate the gospel is to move into the neighborhood. Church planters could easily make this their platform for planting a church. (For a great example of apartment complex church planting, check out Mission Arlington.) You’ve got natural access to people, total property owner permission to throw parties and interact with tenants, and you don’t have to pay rent. You’re not limited to existing Apartment Life opportunities, either. If you need a place to live and you can proactively build community, send them an email requesting that they set something up in your area. Already living in an apartment? They might be able to broker a deal where you already live.
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
The birth of Jesus is the greatest plot-twist ever. Maybe you’ve read a book where the story seems to be going in a certain direction, (maybe the identity of the killer seems obvious), but then, in a crucial and defining moment, the entire thing is turned upside-down. The rules are changed, the focus shifts, and you realize that you were wrong about what you think you thought you knew.
In a really good story, you never see it coming. Maybe the seemingly objective narrator is actually the protagonists’ long-lost uncle. Maybe it turns out that the hero was dead the whole time but didn’t know it. Whatever it is, there is a unique sensation when the plot twist hits you. For a brief moment, before it all becomes clear, you feel sort of giddy and light-headed.
You realize that the author had laced the story with clues about the dramatic shift. Upon a second reading, it seems so obvious. Of course the support-group-addicted insomniac and the charismatic anarchist cult leader were one and the same!
God becoming a little Hebrew baby. Is a brilliant twist to the story of His interaction with humanity. With Jesus, it all suddenly makes sense. So it isn’t about being born to the right parents or being a good person! There is hope! God know what He was doing all along!
And the clues were so, obvious! How did we miss it? Beautiful in its simplicity, the Christmas story is about divine temperance. It’s about the mystery of His ultimate plan.
So here I am- a continent, three cultures, and two months since my last post. A lot has changed. For starters, I’m still working with the IMB. Our regional leadership has been a tremendous support as we’ve begun the “About Europe” meetings and worked to launch the Upstream Collective. My new job is to connect churches with the work in Europe, and to train them for strategic personal involvement in what God is doing there.
I’ve also relocated to Portland. It’s an amazing city- friendly, diverse, creative, polemical, active. In my short time here, I’ve found that I’m not the only Christian subculture refugee. Now that the dust is settling from the hoards of corporately-sponsored professional church planters who have come and gone (all the cool kids are planting in Arizona/New Mexico these days), the Pacific Northwest is a pretty neat place to be. We’re going to see what it can be like to live here like we lived in Barcelona; in intentional missional community that concerns itself with people and what’s important to them.
We’re going to buy houses, remodel them, and rent them to neighbors for as little as possible. We’re going to drive as little as possible and share what we’ve got. We want to take care of the community by meeting the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the people around us.
So far, there are nine or ten of us. If you’re interested in joining us, let me know.
Nearly anyone can live abroad. But incarnation is about more than just location. Successfully entering a culture that is different from yours requires that you learn the rules. If you’re trying to influence across cultures, the rules are crucial.
Society is made up of rules. There are rules for how a person should act in a given situation. There are rules for personal interaction, managing your money, and the volume of your conversation in public. There are rules about when it’s appropriate to make noise in your apartment building. There are rules for seating on the bus. What you wear, where you walk, how you order your coffee; there’s a rule for everything.
There are always consequences for breaking the rules. At best, being a rule-breaker will get you labeled (foreigner, rude, ignorant, proud). At worst, failure to follow the rules will get you removed from the community altogether. (Okay, so maybe that’s not the worst thing that could possibly happen, but you get my meaning here.) This is why many missionaries are marginalized, ignored, or “persecuted.” It’s not their message; nobody’s hearing that. They don’t have a voice because they’re trying to apply the rules of a culture two thousand miles away (or two thousand years ago) to their host culture.
Learning the rules can be very difficult, because they aren’t posted anywhere for you. No, you have to do your homework if you want access. The shortcut of mimicry will surely have you breaking all of the rules. You can’t deduct the rules by observing how insiders live. Often, their behavior seems to contradict their rules. There’s probably a rule about that. The rules are not the same for everybody. Even if you’re language-capable enough to ask, no one would be able to tell you all the rules because those who operate inside the culture assume that everyone shares their perspective on things. They don’t know that the rules where you come from are different from theirs. But you do. That’s the first thing you learn on the mission field.