I would imagine that few of us, upon arrival in a foreign country that we know nothing about, would presume to critique the efforts of a missionary who has been faithfully ministering among the people there for years. He knows the language, we do not. He spends time with nationals. He has studied local customs and listens to local news.
So when said missionary determines that the best way to make disciples among his particular people group is to launch gospel tracts out of a cannon fashioned out of bamboo, we defer to his expertise. When he insists on wearing nothing but a loincloth yet looking no one in the eye, we bashfully accept. His no-ministry-after-3:30pm policy might raise our eyebrows, but we trust that he knows hat he’s doing. After all, the missionary knows best.
Back home, however, we aren’t so demure.
We criticize ministers who give away iPads to get people to come to church. We mock churches who print coloring books that instruct children to follow their pastor without question. We judge Jumping for the King as mere spectacle. Why do we feel so free to criticize? We see ourselves as experts in American culture.
But are we experts in every American population segment? How well do we really know the redemptive power of the iPad among middle-class white people in small Southern towns? Are we all experts in cult-building among upper-middle-class materialists? Just how many of us are willing to live among the tribe of patriotic motorcycle jumpers from the 1970s?
Forgive my sarcasm. I’m really not trying to be mean.
I’m trying to make 2 points here:
- Different people groups and population segments require different approaches to ministry. The missionary principles of contextualization and indignity call for us to meet people where they are and promote discipleship in their culture.
- Point #1 does not excuse every ridiculous thing someone wants to do in the name of ministry.
If all of God’s people thought and behaved like good missionaries and if we all got the gospel, we would rightly trust that every approach was wise, prudent, and obedient. Unfortunately, the gospel is often lost translation, and we are often very bad missionaries indeed.
The way to build one another up in the Lord, I’m convinced, is to ask questions. “Is this pointing people to Jesus?” “How are our means affecting our message?” “What’s with the coloring book, dude?” These are the questions that we need to be asking.
Once I was “confronted” by a well-intentioned American pastor who wanted to know why I would waste time getting to know any nationals in our work in Europe. “You really just oughta preach the gospel to these people once. If they don’t want to listen, that’s on them,” I remember him saying. Was he wrong to ask us why we did things the way we did? No. Was he reacting to our methods in an unhelpful and way? I certainly thought so.
As God’s people on God’s mission, we need one another. We need others to encourage us in our work and to ask us the hard questions that make us think (and rethink) through our methodologies. Who are you to question a missionary’s approach? A co-laborer in Christ’s mission, that’s who. But when we question, we need to do so in love.
By the way, be sure to click over to Trinity Bible Church’s site, where Pastor Bolt has responded to my response to his response to an old post of mine.
Don’t you hate when someone starts a discussion with “You know what your problem is?” They should just say, “You’ve got a problem, and you obviously don’t know what it is, so I’m going to tell you.” Either way, everyone is a critic (even me).
Some of the IMB’s most vocal critics are a group of folks within the SBC who are concerned about the theology of the Board and the missionaries it sends. Our president, they say, is too charismatic. ILC (MLC) training, they charge, is theologically weak. CPM, they claim, leaves too much room for heresy to sneak in. I’m not exactly sure who “They” are, but “They” are concerned that we’ve got a bunch of liberals in the mission field. That’s why, even though the Board requires that all missionary candidates be members-in-good-standing of a Southern Baptist Church, and that career personnel have seminary training, we all had to sign the BFM 2000- to prove to “Them” we weren’t liberals. Somehow, our signatures didn’t help ease “Their” concerns, so “They” had the trustees adopt some new policies that would keep liberals out of the ranks. Now, Southeastern Seminary students are organizing to collect evidence against IMB personnel who might be labeled liberal. (Ok, so maybe I do know who “They” are.)
If you’ve read any of my posts here, you know that I, too, am concerned about the strategy and missiology of my coworkers. But I’m coming from a different direction. I’m not worried about chasing down liberalism, or defending the faith. Because they are in different cultural contexts, and because they are seeing God move in different ways, most of our personnel who have been overseas for very long would seem liberal to many of “Them.” It might also have to do with the fact that most of our M’s in the field don’t get Fox News…
The churches that we are planting (or working to plant) are not drowning in watered-down theology. They are being suffocated by our models and worldview.
If you were to ask me (and yes, I realize that you didn’t), the best thing that the IMB could do to further our church planting efforts would be to stop hiring and sending Missionaries. I’m not talking about slowing the flow of personnel to the field; we need all the businessmen and artists and chefs and computer programmers we can get. What we don’t need is more Missionaries. Most of the people sent by the Board are pastors (who end up pastoring the churches they plant), youth ministers (who tend to build strong seeker-friendly youth groups instead of churches), or ministers of music/associate pastor types (who are all about new programs and events). It seems to me that the best way to avoid the influence of the American Christian religion and subculture on the churches we plant is to stop exporting it through our personnel.
I agree with those who say we need to rethink our understanding on missions and the church. We need to send people who are well-trained and qualified to plant churches. But the solution to our struggles isn’t a liberalism witch hunt, it’s in open dialogue.
Speaking of open dialogue, what do you think?