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.
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.
My team had an interesting discussion over the last couple of days. This isn’t as remarkable as it might sound, but while most people spend Christmas talking about football and shopping, our team talks about ecclesiology. Who says we aren’t committed to our jobs? (And no, there is no truth to the rumor that we deliberately discussed “work” issues in an attempt to justify paying for a turkey dinner out of our “Office Expense” accounts.)
I’ve posted before about my frustrations with communication and word definitions. It seems like every attempt we make at defining or describing what we believe (and why) is lost as the words we use are co-opted by others who use those same words to put a new face on traditionalisms. We’ve even confused ourselves as we struggle to work through the implications of what we say we’re about. Our conversation this week, for example, began with this question: When one of our friends becomes a believer, can we really disciple him/her in their existing social structure?
Conventional missionaries today have begun to adopt the terms “relational,” “incarnational,” and “missional,” but their thought on evangelism and discipleship is usually something like this: Missionaries share the gospel, nationals hear it, some reject it, others respond. Those who respond are then grouped together to form the beginnings of a “church.” Another school proposes to switch the order to “group them and win them,” in order to disciple people within community.
Our collective experience has taught us that although this sort of “winning/grouping” approach to church planting sounds like a good strategy, it actually does quite a bit to hinder the “indigenousness” of the foundation that we lay. Individual believers are separated from their natural social groups and placed into these artificial, “Christian” ones for the sake of support and encouragement. But that separation greatly reduces the new believer’s influence in the relationships he/she had, and because the bulk of his/her spiritual transformation takes place in private (church), it has little positive impact on the community. It doesn’t take long for these new Christians to be so far removed from their own culture that they need to be trained to interact with their lost friends.
So we, despite using the same words, have tried to do things a little differently. Our team’s idea has always been to disciple people from wherever they are spiritually to maturity in Christ, without removing them from their existing social environment. Our discussion this week began with a current situation. A friend has recently shown some interest in Jesus. We can see him opening up to us and to the faith we’re always talking about. We pray that he will soon be saved. Naturally, this friend lives a lifestyle that does not honor God. He is addicted to drugs and he regularly participates in “trance parties” (Raves put on by “Shaman” DJs who use techno music to entrance partygoers in a pagan spiritual frenzy that sometimes last days and days). Let’s say he becomes a believer- can we leave him in that environment and expect him to grow in his faith and be an effecting witness to the people around him?
Again, most people would say no. They would argue that this friend needs to be removed from the dangerous situation so that he can overcome the sin that has bound him, and grow in his faith. I disagree (You expected as much).
I say that the role of the missionary (and yes, this is different from what most would say,) is to serve as spiritual “life-support” for the new believer as they struggle to work out their salvation within their own cultural context. This might mean that we meet with a national believer to disciple and encourage them, but we never “invite them to church.” Instead, we pray for God to move among the new believer’s circle of friends. We instruct him/her in righteousness, allowing the Holy Spirit to convict them of sin. We encourage him/her to share their faith, and pray for the day when God moves among his/her sphere of influence to plant a church there.
But nobody does it this way. For most of us, this approach is too messy, too limited, and it takes too long. What if they never feel convicted about certain sins? What if they never know another believer? What if, ten years down the road, they’re still struggling with basic holiness and remedial theology. How long can a believer survive on only spiritual milk?
It seems to me that our discomfort with Christians who are struggling to make sense of their faith has led us to impose a behavioral conformity that ignores the personal tension that salvation brings. When drug addicts and homosexuals get saved, we require that they immediately stop being those things, and start acting “Christianly.” From the outside, it would seem that we interpret the word “repentance” to mean that upon salvation, a person must suddenly exchange public sins for private ones. You cannot be a drug-using, foul-mouthed, homosexual Christian, but an over-eating, gossip who struggles with lust just has “a few things to work on.” Is Christianity only about (openly) sinning less?
Leaving a drug addict in a circle of drug addicted friends might seem like a bad idea, but it would allow the addict to see how his newfound faith applies to his real life. It would also allow his friends to see his personal transformation first-hand and allow them to actually participate in it. The power of salvation is most evident when it contrasts with the stark reality of the situation from which we are saved. The soil in which a seed takes root is sufficient for that new plant.
Continuing the thoughts of my previous post: what we need is not more Christians trying to “reach” the “people of the world,” but more “people of the world” trying to work out what it means for them to be a Christian.
I’ve posted about this before, but I’ve been hearing and reading a lot about “contextualization”of the gospel. If you’ve every read my blog before, you likely know that I believe that we the church should do all that we can to minimize the cultural differences that hinder the communication of love and truth to the people around us. If that’s what you mean by “contextualization,” then call me a “contextualizer.” The more foreign we are, the more foreign our message will seem. Context is important.
The other day I spoke with a friend who was concerned after reading my post “The Uncanny Valley.” This friend thought that I might be too caught up in trying to make Christianity “hip” or “cool.” I clarified my opinion for him, and we agreed that “contextualization” in the sense of trying to make Jesus seem “cool” is really a bad idea. The reason it’s bad is simple: we’re not cool. Especially this friend I was talking to.
There is a difference, then, between cultural translation of the message, and assuming the cultural appropriateness of a model or practice of the faith.
That’s the problem with models of church or ministry or evangelism; they’re only good during the life of the cultural context for which they were designed (and usually, not even that long.) The rate of change is so great these days; subcultures and population segments are moving “targets” (forgive me for using the word). I believe we should model (insofar as we’re able) what life in Christ might look like in our cultural setting, but we’ve got to remember that the best people to decide what church might look like in any given culture are the people of that culture.
I have been targeted by many Christians. Churches tailor their programs to meet my needs without bothering to ask what they are. Bible study resources are written for my demographic in order to help my walk. Evangelism experts call me ineffective, and blame it on my laziness for not going, my fear for not being bold enough, or my ignorance for not figuring out the “5 Simple Steps to Effective Soul-Winning.” I identify with the people most of you call “targets” and “contacts.”
If you’re comfortable with your current expression of your faith, good for you. I’m not; but please don’t think I’m asking you for help with that. Stop trying to make church relevant to me. Teach me what the Bible says about church, and get out of my way. My friends and family will wrestle with the cultural implications. Teach me what you understand to be God’s directive concerning leadership, worship, gifts, and service; leave it to us and the Spirit to work out the practice. Train me in truth, but don’t expect me to look, act, dress, talk, or think like you.
We read church planting books, we go to seminars, and we study models, strategies, and formulas. We are driven by statistics of measurable lostness, reached-ness, and saturation. We calculate number of personnel, availability of resources, and total cost involved.
When it comes to missions, as with the rest of Christianity, we’ve tried to make a science of what is essentially (and necessarily), an art.
According to the unquestionably reliable Wikipedia,
Art: “…is the product or process of the effective application of a body of knowledge, most often using a set of skills…”
Science: “…is an attempt to explain the complexities of nature in a common, known and replicateable way.”
While I’m not entirely certain that “replicateble” is even a word, I am convinced that the scientification (also not a word) of missions is the main factor that keeps us from knowing and participating fully in what God is doing around the world.
Most of the great artists in the world started as apprentices to great artists, not to great art teachers. Art lessons begin with philosophy; the master instills in his student a vision of why he creates, and then goes on to share how he creates. But a student will never be considered himself an artist so long as he is content to only copy the master’s work. No, he’s got to take what he’s learned and use it to express his own creativity, applying the master’s wisdom while creating a work that is uniquely his.
Discipleship cannot be taught in a classroom. Reading a good book by a proven and experienced church planter is not enough. We need mentors. We need current practicing disciple-makers to be teaching and leading others as they make disciples.
If I could have a conversation with someone of the IMB’s Board of Trustees, this (among other things) is what I’d say. We need to radically rethink our approach to training and equipping disciple-makers. The bar has been set way too low. It isn’t enough to have a seminary degree or to have signed the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. We need to be mentored. We need leaders who are currently in the thick of cross-cultural ministry to guide us in wisdom and that long-lost art of missions.
Until we have such a network of relationships, we will not be able to guarantee the theological integrity of our work. We will continue to be criticized by seminary professors and denominational politicians. We will remain on the sidelines of what God is doing around the world because we are debating the science of Christianity and mission while the artists are being used to build the Kingdom.
I have devoted the last four years of my life to the study of a language and culture that are not my own. When I started, I thought of these people only in stereotypes and generalities. Every new observation or bit of insight was applied to the whole. “Everyone here,” I can remember thinking, “hates me because I’m an American.” To me, the rude guy at the gas station represented an entire nation of rude people just like him. The poor customer service at the post office meant that it didn’t exist anywhere in the country. Ok, so maybe some of my observations were universal.
Life in another language is like taking a cold shower. The best way to start is to just jump in all at once. Even then, you don’t enjoy it. We say that we get used to it, but really we just become so numb it doesn’t bother us anymore. It takes about a month to get over the feeling that everyone around is talking about you. Another month before you can tell the difference between angry shouting and just regular talking. Every week after that, your chances increase that you’ll get what you think you ordered in a restaurant. I love picture menus, even though the food never really looks as good in person.
So now I know stuff. I know that I’m not the only one that the waiter is rude to, and that the person I’m meeting will be late, but if I am, I’ll get a text message asking where I am. I can really notice how much I’ve learned when new people come. Volunteers can be pretty oblivious, but other missionaries are the best barometers of cultural acclimation. I love the feeling of knowing what’s going on while the new guy is totally lost. I replace “When I was your age…” with “when I first got here…,” but otherwise, I’m the wistful old man of our team. All I need now is a rocking chair (and a porch), and I could keep you up all afternoon telling stories of times when I put my foot in my mouth or accidentally called a police officer a woman to his face.
I continue to study because it’s my job and I’m fascinated by it. I love learning why people here do what they do. Especially when they don’t even know. In a way, all this study, all this intentional living amongst these people makes me a bit of an expert. I’m not trying to sound proud or anything, but I most likely know more about the people to whom I’m ministering than you do. (Easy for me to say since I haven’t exactly told you who the people are.) Odds are that you’ve never even met someone from my people group, much less turned down the alcoholic beverage he offered while sitting on his sofa watching home videos of his niece’s Confirmation.
So that’s what I bring to the table. I’m not a good public speaker, and I don’t know how to play any musical instruments. But I have cultural insight that is unique to the people I work with here in Western Europe. I can tell you how someone from this city might respond to a gospel presentation. I know how they are likely to view us as outsiders, and I’m familiar with their felt needs. I have seen glimpses of the Church in this culture, and it doesn’t look very much like it does in American culture. In a lot of ways, that has been the payoff for all the work and stress of living in another culture; to see the Church in a different light.
Thank you for supporting us to be students of these different cultures. Thank you for trusting us to represent Jesus among people that aren’t looking for Him. Thank you for allowing us to translate the gospel into these cultures and plant indigenous churches that worship God in their own languages. Thank you for providing a way for me to do what I’m called to do.
We’re always looking for churches that are interested in partnering with us as we plant churches here in Western Europe. God has been good to provide us with mission-minded churches that participate sacrificially in what God is doing around the world. Sometimes we go looking for partner churches. Every once in a while, one comes looking for us.
Recently, we were contacted by a well-known megachurch in the Convention that was looking for opportunities to plant “postmodern” churches in Western Europe. For us, that’s a pretty big deal. It’s like landing a big account, picking up a high-profile client, closing a big deal. Or some other corporate term that means “good for us.” Having big and rich partner churches means an unlimited volunteer pool, round-the-clock prayer support, and a few items crossed off the unfunded needs list. Immediately we started planning vision trips and prayer materials for our new partners. It wasn’t until we met with the church leadership back in the States that we realized things we’re going to work out.
Their idea of church planting was to reproduce their successful stateside model in other countries. They explained to me that they had been hard at work putting together resources that would make it easy to implement their strategy. All I had to do was join their church planting network, and for $250 US per year they would send me recordings of their pastor’s sermons and some study materials. My membership also qualified me to shop in their church planting network resources store, where I could buy a state-of the-art sound system, a video projector, and padded seats in one of three tasteful colors. That’s right, they wanted to sell me church in a box.
Picture it: a mini-megachurch in the heart of Western Europe. Weekly sermons, already translated into national languages, ready to be shown on the big screen. A video of inspirational, seeker-sensitive worship music, complete with a powerpoint presentation of the lyrics. The package even included advertising materials, such as professional-quality brochures, vinyl banners, and pre-recorded radio spots.
When I told the church leaders that we were trying to start churches that would be a little more indigenous, they stared blankly. When I asked if we could try something that was a little more culturally appropriate, they offered to take a hundred dollars off the cost of my membership to their church planter’s network. When I outlined our strategy, they laughed. “We’re not going to get involved in anything that won’t let our people see immediate results,” they said. “Our model has been proven to work here in the U.S., and we’re just looking for someone to do it overseas.”
Looking back, the whole interaction sounds silly.
The Bible doesn’t talk a lot about Jesus’s physical appearance. In Isaiah 53:2 it tells us that Jesus was nothing special to look at. I’ve always taken that to mean that He was just very plain. If he was too handsome, we probably would have read about His following of young girls. And he certainly wasn’t too ugly, because well, an ugly face is hard to forget. But however He looked, people were somehow attracted to Jesus; they listened to what He had to say. I think that what people found attractive about Jesus was the way He treated them. When Jesus spoke to someone, they felt like they were, in that moment, the most important person in the world. They knew that what they thought, how they felt, where they’d been- it all mattered to this man, Jesus. He identified with people, and cared about them. Their sin bothered Him, and they were awarde of it. Their suffering hurt Him, and they were conforted by that. People don’t get that every day. Some people don’t get that ever. I think that was what drew people to Jesus. It’s what drew me to Him, and continues to do so.
I understand the idea of “reaching” people, I really do. Those of us who know Jesus- who have tasted true, full life, have experienced spiritual freedom and forgiveness, and been adopted into God’s family- want others to know Him as well. Besides, we’re commanded to tell all creation (aren’t we?) this good news message. But when I look at the different missions endeavors out there, I see well-intentioned believers undertaking huge campaigns to either make Jesus attractive (seeker sensitive), or to make Him their spokesman (Jesus votes Republican, you should too.) Maybe somewhere along the way, we lost the understanding that people are, well, people. When we make projects of people, we aren’t really loving them.
These days, we try to share life with people by spending time with them and letting them see how people of faith handle the mundane and remarkable aspects of life. We put a lot of effort into “being a blessing” to the individuals around us. Sure, this limits the number of “contacts” we make in the city, but that’s ok by us, because they’re not contacts, they’re people.
I believe that “lostness” is a dangerous motivation for missions, but so too is the common concept of our “passion.” I remember the first time we spoke in a church after our appointment with the International Board. I asked the pastor what he thought his church needed to hear from us as we shared about the exciting things God was doing around the world. His response was, “Son, just let them see your passion.” Since that time, I’ve seen the word become a vital part of the missionary’s vocabulary. “Passion,” once a word closely associated with carnality, is now used as definitive proof of one’s calling. (“I can tell you’re called to missions- we can just sense your passion for the lost.”) But what about our passion for God Himself? Can we safely replace our First Love with a passion to do His job for Him?
If we allow our “heart for the unreached” to guide us, what happens on a day where we just don’t feel much passion? Not to say that God can’t give us passion, or even use that to place His very call on our life to full-time service. But as a motivation for our work, human emotions can be pretty unsteady. Desire, love, compassion, and guilt are all emotions that come and go. It seems that a heart sensitive to the will of the Spirit of God would be much more dependable than a heart for a people group. Such a motive then frees us from the pressures of human-centered plans. Instead of asking God, “Give me a heart for this person,” or “Help me to reach this people group,” we would ask Him, “Please guide me in this conversation,” again allowing Him to dictate the strategy and the audience.
When we first arrived in Western Europe, our passion for ministry was quickly replaced by fear and frustration; obviously, neither were from God. I know that people are people wherever you go, but these people seemed so… so… foreign. They were totally oblivious to the people around them, customer service was a joke, and they bought food in the grocery stores that looked just as it did when it was alive. They seemed backward and stubborn and worst of all, they didn’t seem to appreciate that we had left the comforts of suburban California to come share with them the most imortant thing they could ever hear. I’m not sure passion even made it past the airport.
What if God’s missionary calling isn’t to a people group or a job or a position, but to an ongoing, total step-by-step obedience to Him? If that were the case, the “Unfinished Task” isn’t finishable at all. Could it be that our task is not to reach the unreached for God, but to be obedient to Him as He reaches them? The difference is more than semantic. The task, then, would be to remain so plugged in to Him, so in tune with His Holy Spirit, that we would go wherever we are called and do whatever we are led to do. Instead of limiting the number of missionaries we’ll send to Africa, we could post every job request and let God call His workers to where He’s working. What if, rather than sending any and all willing persons to the mission field, we closely examined God’s call on their life and how he has equipped them to fill that role? Then God would determine the strategy. We wouldn’t have people who don’t really know what God wants for them going to China just because that’s what we tell them to do. We wouldn’t have people focusing on the Muslim world just because there aren’t any churches, and no missionaries to India just because they felt sorry for the people starving there. We need to be careful that we don’t get ahead of God in our zeal for what we think He’s doing.