5059-275481-300x112-4827319I spend a lot of time thinking about how we market missions. I know there are lots of people out there trying to advocate for unreached people and raise support for missionaries working among them. But usually, it seems that missions marketers (they prefer the word “mobilizers) appeal to the “doing” side of things. They cite statistics and show pictures of unreached peoples in an effort to motivate people to action.

What I rarely hear, though, is the “being” argument for missions. That followers of Jesus will constantly be frustrated spiritually until they get on mission. You’re not a real Christian unless you’re a going Christian.

The value of marketing missions as “being” is that it moves us away from worldly metrics (how many, how difficult, how lost), and toward Godly ones (obedience, Christ-likeness, prayer). Missions as being helps people understand who they are in Christ. It establishes a posture for every aspect of life. Framing the conversation around being changes the way we think about missions. Instead of focusing on what missionaries do (construction, medical care, preaching, evangelism), we can focus on who missionaries are (sinners who obediently move in and between cultures to incarnate the gospel). We often hear “I don’t want to do that” but rarely would someone say, “I don’t want to be that.”

Currently, there’s a trend among pastors and church leadership to define their roles. Lead Pastor. Teaching Pastor. Executive Pastor. Counseling Pastor. Pastor of Evangelism. As if the Bible didn’t define “pastor” well enough.

Following the lead of the churches that support them, missionaries have likewise specialized within their calling. I’ve met “church planting missionaries” who use their emphasis on new work to isolate themselves from other believers. I know some “missionary advocates” who don’t actually engage people with the gospel, choosing instead to try to encourage and care for the other missionaries they may come across. “International Evangelists” are something like missionaries who take no responsibility for following through with making disciples after people come to faith.

In terms of jobs and access platforms, we need more diversity. We’re severely limiting ourselves if every “missionary” is an English teacher. But in terms of ministry, we need more “generalists.” We need people devoted to the ministry of counseling who do so with excellence, but without ignoring proclamation and evangelism. We need preachers who are good for something else besides. We need well-rounded leaders who don’t retreat into what they’re comfortable with. God provides a variety of gifting, but where are the “general practitioners?”

The cause of my concern is that this sort of “specialization” bleeds over into the lives of Christians everywhere. In misguided efforts to find identity in our gifting (rather than in Christ Himself), we’ve specialized ourselves out of Christianity into “that’s not my job;” where anyone who’s not “gifted” in service is justified in ignoring need. “Teachers” forsake all contact with unbelievers. “Prayer specialists” cloister themselves away, “Discerners” don’t have to be nice to anyone. Ever.

How do we avoid this unhealthy hyper-specialization? For starters, let’s get back to the basics of following Jesus. Loving God, loving neighbors, loving enemies. Working together as the Body of Christ to stand for justice and peace and against sin, oppression, and empty religion. Let’s remember that “making disciples” and “teaching them to obey everything Christ has commanded us” includes “doing unto others” even when it doesn’t come naturally. Let’s make more Christian Generalists.

If, during play, a child’s ball is punctured and begins to lose air, these are the steps to repairing it:

  • Find the puncture
  • Take any remaining air out of the ball
  • Remove the thorn, nail, claw, etc. that caused the puncture
  • Clean the damaged area
  • Patch the ball with glue and like material
  • Allow the patch to adhere
  • Fill the ball with air so it can be used again

Now, it wouldn’t make any sense to stop halfway through this list of steps, would it? Say you were to remove the thorn, but then leave the hole unpatched. The ballgame wouldn’t last long, would it? Likewise, it wouldn’t do to repair the hole, but then to leave the ball deflated. We can’t consider the ball to be repaired until it’s ready to be used for its intended purpose.

What about the human spiritual condition?

We talk about redemption. We talk about being made whole. Yet we’re content with salvation without restoration. If you have a problem with lust, stay away from women and pictures of women. If you’re a glutton, avoid donut shops and ice cream parlors at all costs. If you abuse alcohol, abstain completely.

Short-term solutions are held up as moral success- legalism points to them as indicators of holiness. But discipline is the beginning of redemption, not the end. It’s the quick-fix, not the long-term repair. Redemption means full-circle restoration back to right relationship. A redeemed person can be around women and not lust after them. He can eat healthfully and in moderation. He doesn’t abuse alcohol. He is restored to a right relationship with all things, according to God’s design.

Of course, you may never reach the redeemed state this side of heaven. The short-term fix might be as far as you get. You can’t indulge as a test to see if you’ve reached “redemption.” The alcohol abuser can’t drink to see whether or not he’s overcome his pattern of abuse. We go through the process blindly. We really never can know how much “progress” we’ve made. Toward Christ-likeness is good. Away from it is not. But there are no benchmarks. No, “Okay, got that one taken care of. Now I’ll move on to the next big sin.”

In the end, we’re all works in progress. But the true meaning of redemption means never boasting in the “successes” of our own piety. At best, not sinning is only halfway to where we need to be.

Much of what I write here centers around metrics- how we measure what we do. I believe that our desire to have measurable results of some kind has driven our strategy into a deeply human-centered pragmatism. From numbers to feelings, we try everything to try to get a handle on what it is that God wants from us. To illustrate:

  • If you believe that God does the saving (and not us), then measuring the number of salvations is kind of silly.
  • The story of Gideon’s army against the Midianites should prevent us from concerning ourselves with the number of people we have in the field.
  • By even attempting to measure resources we elevate them to a status they don’t deserve.
  • Holiness is commanded, but hard to pin down. The sin we see is usually just the tip of the iceberg.
  • Theology would be much, much easier to hold up as a standard if it weren’t for the continuous evolution of language and communication.

I’ve always  been a firm believer that obedience is the only standard we have for measuring our success. The Bible gives us clear directions in many cases, but it usually leaves the finer details to us. Sure, we’re supposed to “Go into all the world and make disciples,” but how? Obedience, of course, can be quite subjective (anyone can say, “God told me to”) and very hard to measure (89% obedient?). Nevertheless, the Bible does provide us with indicators of our obedience. Consider these:

Persecution, suffering, death. In John 15, Jesus offers this ominous warning, “as they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” In many ways, our calling as Christians is to share in Christ’s sufferings. While persecution is an indicator of reckless obedience, it is also an indicator of reckless stupidity. Chasing persecution is not a good idea, but if you’re not seeing any resistance to your ministry, you might be missing something.

Fruit. Jesus reminded us that a tree is known by its fruit. Galatians 5 outlines the fruit of the Spirit- when the Spirit of God does something, you can know it’s Him by the outcomes. Is fruit a good indicator of our obedience? Yes. And no. Unfortunately, just like at the neighborhood supermarket, good fruit can be hard to verify. Lots of people seem to be effective in ministry, but many are quite good at polishing up bad fruit to make it look good on the outside. A watered-down gospel may result in more initial commitments, but is that “fruit that will last?” Obedience results in lasting fruit that runs contrary to the work of the flesh.

Unity. One way to measure our obedience without buying every crazy “God told me to” idea is the fellowship of the Spirit. When someone claims to have a directive from the Most High, the Spirit in us should confirm that. We may not all be in total agreement, but affirmation of calling is a function of the church. Unfortunately, this is precisely why trouble-makers church-hop; they’re looking for leadership that will affirm (and fund) their “Christian postage stamp ministry” idea.

In the end, the question remains- how do we know that we’re doing what God wants us to do? How can we be unified in our efforts to be God’s people and build His kingdom? Some things are clearly spelled out in scripture (proclaim the good news in and out of season, make disciples, forgive our enemies) but it all comes down to obedience.

And obedience is hard to measure.

PREVIOUSLY: Impractical Spaces

Lest you think these last few posts reflected only the thoughts of a lone anonymous cynic, I’d like to introduce you to some of the many other intentionally impractical leaders among us:

When he started the Evergreen Community in Portland, Oregon, Bob Hyatt had a vision- he knew what he wanted his church to be (biblical missional community of faith), and what he didn’t want it to be (legalistic, programmatic, location-dependent). Now, five years later, Evergreen meets in three locations (two pubs and the facilities of another church), and has established itself in Portland as the church for people who are burned out on church. Evergreen’s intentionally small gatherings allow for conversational dialogue and the kind of accountability that only true community can provide. “Community isn’t optional for followers of Jesus.” Bob counterintuitively says, “So if you’re not sure Evergreen is the place for you, there are lots of other churches in town that might be a better fit for you.”

Michael Carpenter planted intentionally nontraditional Matthew’s Table in Lebanon, TN. The Nashville suburb’s claim to fame? It’s the proposed site of Bible Park USA, a “Christian” Theme Park. Matthew’s Table is an impractically missional gathering of believers in an unlikely place. Why Lebanon? “I have to honestly say that this is the VERY last place I thought we would plant, yet I am glad we are here.” writes Michael. But for him, it’s not so much about strategy as obedience. “This is where God sent us, period.”

Todd Littleton is the epitome of Impractical Church leadership. While most of the players in the “missional” conversation plant their own churches in trendy neighborhoods where it might be easier to find like-minded people, Todd has remained pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in rural Tuttle, OK for the last 15 years. Their worship isn’t focused on twenty-somethings or lighted with candles, but Snow Hill is an incarnational gathering. I visited one Sunday morning, and was greeted by a little old lady who spelled it out for me: “We are a different kind of church. Around here, we try to be ‘missional.’ That means that we take Jesus to the people instead of just inviting them to church.”

The list is long: Marty Duren in Buford Georgia. Steve McCoy outside Chicago. Both traded denominational influence for influence in their local communities. Kevin Jamison moved into Middletown, Ohio just as everyone else seemed to be moving out. Dr. Thom Wolf is a brilliant thinker and teacher who left a prominent teaching position to move to India. Andrew Jones and his family live in a truck. There are many Counterintuitives among us.

I don’t have a problem with megachurches or their pastors. I do have a problem with the fact that we listen to them so much. We read their books. We pay to hear them speak at conferences. We look to guys like Perry Noble, Mark Driscoll, and Mark Batterson for practical tips on how to grow our churches, open video venues, or make them more relevant. They are great guys- godly men, to be sure. But I think we’ve heard what they have to say. I think we need to hear from the Impractical Churches among us.

PREVIOUSLY: What’s Wrong With Pragmatism?

The majority of evangelical churches don’t pray prayers written by someone else. Sure there’s the occasional St. Francis quote, or a Puritan prayer used in a responsive reading, but for the most part, we like to pray more personal prayers that express a personal sentiment. Yet when it comes to worship through music, how many churches sing songs they’ve written?

Is it okay to outsource the message, language, and composition of your worship to Matt Redman (or Chris Tomlin, or David Crowder)? What about the preaching? There are countless “resources” available to expand and facilitate our ministries. We outsource these basic functions of the church because it just makes sense. The quality is better. It’s easier. It’s practical. But there’s a problem:

Quality, ease and practicality aren’t Kingdom values.

People who don’t make their own stuff soon forget how. We value things more when we know what goes in to creating them. Worship is not singing (someone else’s) songs in a heart-felt manner. It’s a posture, an attitude, a natural result of interaction with the Most High. Music is a great medium for that. It’s a powerful spiritual thing that can teach, unify, sober, excite, comfort, inspire… well, you get the idea.

So the Impractical Church writes its own worship music. Their worship time might not be as polished or professional as the new Passion City Church’s, but they’re okay with that. Polish and professionalism aren’t Kingdom values, either. Sincere hearts, clear consciences, and confidence in faith are. If an Impractical Church doesn’t have any musically-inclined people, they learn. Or, they find other ways to express their adoration of God. Even if it’s messy, the important thing is that the people of God learn how to worship in Spirit and in Truth.

NEXT: Impractical Spaces

PREVIOUSLY:  Let’s Be Clear

Some might read my commentary about widespread pragmatism in the American church today and ask, “So what?” Others might share my concern, but see few alternatives. I have never wanted to be merely a critic, so here I’d like to draw some conclusions. Next, I’ll try to share some ideas for what a counterintuitive church might look like.

As missionary church planters, we were constantly faced with the challenge of thinking through the eventual outcomes of our strategies and approaches to ministry. This was due, in large part, to the fact that our efforts to cooperate with the few evangelicals we found in Europe were often frustrated by their adherence to what their churches learned from the American missionaries who planted them a generation ago. European evangelicalism today looks a lot like American evangelicalism from the 1960s. Why? Because there are consequences to the decisions church leaders make.

Everyone’s traditional. Some of us just start new ones rather than following someone else’s. There are consequences to the tradition of pragmatism. You might be seeing “results” with the way you’re doing things but consider this:

  • If people come to faith through confrontational, guilt-trip evangelism, they’re coming to a confrontational, guilt-trip faith.
  • If your church’s myopic focus on Biblical knowledge makes it more lecture hall than place of worship, you’re likely going to get a bunch of armchair Reformation theologians and wanna-be ancient Greek scholars who are more concerned with being right than anything else.
  • If you allow your church to get so large that it’s a challenge to really know everyone (anyone) else in that local body, (versus starting smaller, more local gatherings,) you are discipling your people into a less personal expression of Christianity and, therefore, a less personal view of Jesus. [Pragmatic argument:] Of course, relational church can happen in your megachurch (through small groups, cliques, informal social circles, etc.), but as you add programs and square-footage, it begins to happen in spite of how you do church, not because of how you do church.
  • If your church mired in legalism, it won’t last. Legalistic religious people eventually can’t keep up with their legalisms. To them, God is only pleased with an impossibly demanding cycle of performance. They usually end up abandoning their “faith” or isolating themselves for fear of secular contamination.
  • If your church worships worship, your people might not learn to worship God. At the very least, they could be left unable to worship without a worship band and Mediashout® video backgrounds. Believers need to learn to worship, learn, serve, and share without the help of the professionals who make their livings by (intentionally or otherwise) perpetuating dependence.
  • If your church sits in grandstands with the lights dimmed, staring at a jumbo-tron, don’t be surprised if they act like spectators.

Nobody has a perfect church. I certainly don’t have all (any?) of the answers. And if we wait until we’ve got it right to do ministry, we’ll never start. Nevertheless, we must always be open to changing the way we do things- especially as we begin to see the potential detrimental results of  the way we do things. We must be sure that we know the costs before we say that we can do “whatever it takes.”

What’s wrong with practicing pragmatism? It tells people that we serve a pragmatic God. But we don’t. Ours is a God who time and time again shows Himself to do the opposite of what we would do.

NEXT: Impractical Worship

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?


Another way the church has fallen into the trap of pragmatism is the way we distribute our resources. Let me explain:

Say I’m in a mid-sized church that meets in small groups throughout the week. We only have so many leaders willing to  lead these groups. Of those who are willing, we’re likely that we can only identify a few that have the vision, commitment, and gifting to actually to do small group ministry. What do we do?

If we’re looking for the most effective approach, we spread out our strong leaders. One in each group. We can’t afford to double them up- that might mean groups let without. Right?

But the Kingdom is often (usually) counterintuitive. Sometimes, what we consider “good stewardship” is actually disobedience. Leaders, money, opportunities, reputations, connections- we hold tightly to these things because we don’t want to be irresponsible. But what if God wants us to put all of our eggs in one basket? What if God wants us to have three churches in a five-block radius? What if it’s His design to have a team of strong leaders and a couple teams of “weaker” ones? What if we spend so much time, energy, and money doing one thing that we cease to be able to do everything. If the Lord leads us to do something like that, I’d hope none of us would disagree, claiming that there is a more reasonable way to spend what He has blessed us with.

Remember when Judas opposed using a bottle of fine perfume to anoint Jesus’ feet? How are you any different when you automatically (according to church policy) limit the amount of missions money you’ll give to a member of your church who wants to go on a short-term trip?

Who knows? Maybe the reason we have a dearth of leaders is that we ration them out like lumps of coal in a Dickens novel. Sure it’s sensible, but when has Jesus been sensible when it comes to Kingdom resources?

NEXT: Let’s Be Clear…

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