I’ve been part of a couple of conversations lately about whether or not we still need denominations or associations of churches. Many times, supporters of these associations cite the benefits of smaller churches partnering with larger ones to be more effective in missions. There may be a good reason to hold on to denominations, but partnering for missions isn’t one of them.
More often than not, when you say that a collection of churches is “partnering in missions,” you really mean that small churches give what little money they think they can afford to a larger church or a missions sending agency that will handle mobilization, screening, indoctrination, training, sending, and maintenance of missionaries on the field. This is not “partnering,” it’s outsourcing.
The difference is subtle, but detrimental to our efforts and disastrous for our missiology. The myth of “insufficient resources” has left missions strategy to those with the most. It perpetuates the distinction between the “professionals” and everyone else. For members of the small church who faithfully send their offerings to “missions” there is very little personal connection with the work or the missionaries they “send.” Motivation (apart from guilt) can be hard to come by. The larger churches are left with the most influence over what “missions monies” are used for and by whom.
Small churches can do missions. These days, travel, education, and communication (essential for missions) are easier, faster, and cheaper than ever. Even in the smallest of towns, “the nations” live next door. No matter how big your church may be, incarnational ministry is done person-to-person. The myth that it takes lots of money or people to make a difference has left the commission in the hands of the megachurches and sending organizations for too long.
A true missions network would not connect churches in order to do missions, it would connect churches who are doing missions.
As I encourage churches to get involved in international missions, one thing that often comes up is the question of where to start. With thousands of people groups in the world, and millions of potential places of service, where do you start?
Most missions organizations would tell you to engage a “high priority” people. They usually mean the next largest people group with no known evangelical work. They believe that the best way to organize our efforts is to analyze the statistics of “lostness” and “reachedness.”
I tend to see missions less as a science and more as a relational interaction between God (through His church) and the nations. Picking an unreached people group at random is the missions equivalent of demographic-based door-to-door cold-call evangelism in your town. When engagement is decided based on statistics, it looses its (essential) relational foundation, undermining the basic gospel message which is that we can be brought into a right relationship with God and the world through Jesus.
Unless your church already has some connection to a country, culture, or people group, you would do well to start your search for missionary involvement in your town or city. What people groups are represented? Your Persian pediatrician or your Pakistani landlord might provide you with the cultural background and insight that you need to make the emotional and spiritual connection that God uses to inspire us to service.
What’s more, it’s quite possible that you can share the gospel across cultures (or engage an unreached people group) without even leaving your neighborhood. The most effective incarnational ministry can be that which starts locally and globally at the same time. Imagine the power of seeing a Portuguese man living in your town come to faith, and lead your church’s efforts to build the Kingdom of God in Portugal.
To get involved in missions, look around. It may be that God has brought the nations to your neighborhood.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking with leaders of small, nontraditional churches in major urban centers in the United States. Many of them are just getting started in ministry and planting churches. I understand that starting a church takes time and energy.
So when I ask these guys about their vision for involvement in international missions, their answers tend to be something along the lines of,
“We’re just getting started. Once we’re a little more established, we’ll launch into something like that.”
“We’re small and don’t have the resources that those big seeker churches do. For now, we’re just going to stay local.”
What do you want your church to be about? What message are you sending to your people by putting off missions off until you’re older? Do you really think it will be easier for your people to get a vision for global involvement when you’ve been established for a while? Are resources an obstacle for God?
I say, start now. Start a church by rallying support for an international missions endeavor. Prayerfully select a place, a people group, or a missionary who is already on the field. Work together to develop a missional strategy to engage people with the gospel. If you don’t have money, come part-time, associate with other churches and groups, or come and get jobs. Intentionally engage people on vacation, in the States, or online.
Start with global ministry, and watch what it does for your local ministry.
Starting now will establish missions as a priority for your church. It will help keep your focus outward, and give you something to work toward that has lasting kingdom significance. Not that you’re “attractional,” but global involvement is appealing for the kinds of people your church is meant for.
Besides, you’re who we need in Western Europe. Forget the big churches who want to set up franchises around the world. We’re looking for missional, relational believers who have some understanding of ministry in a post Christian culture. We need people who are creative, teachable, and anti-establishment. You’re perfect for the job, so what are you waiting for?
If you were waiting for an invitation, here it is.
We often have people express interest in coming for a visit to “see” our ministry. Some are church planters from the States, some are pastors of existing churches, some are missionaries in other places. We’ve had seminary students write papers on us, journalists write articles about us, and at least one grade school kid interview us for a class project. We’re thankful when anyone shows interest in our work here, and flattered with all of the attention. Nevertheless, everyone who comes to observe our work first-hand sees pretty much the same thing: not much.
Our ministry is entirely relational. How many American pastors and missionaries can I introduce my friends to before they really start to feel like projects? We don’t identify ourselves as missionaries. How many creative ways are there to explain how I know these strangers who are always passing through?
We spend time with friends in parks and cafes. Since we’re planting simple churches, we don’t have a building. We likely never will. We don’t have an office (though we could really use one). Our team meetings take place in our homes.
Like I said, there’s not a whole lot to see.
Some people understand that there isn’t much to see. Some leave disappointed. At least two have accused us of “hiding” our ministry from the “public;” one praising us for protecting and nurturing our fragile relationships, the other criticizing us for avoiding accountability. It wasn’t some conspiracy to keep people from seeing our work- there just nothing to see.
As a missionary, I am tempted to lie on a regular basis. It may or may not surprise you to read that statement, but it’s true nonetheless. What’s more, I find the temptation strongest when I’m talking with a coworker, partner, or supporter. It all starts out innocently enough; someone asks, “How is your ministry going?” or “What are you seeing God do among your people groups?” For some reason, it’s always difficult for me to know how to respond to these questions. And for some reason, I’m often tempted to offer a less-than-honest answer.
The lies that pop into my mind aren’t usually grandiose- I’m not talking about making up a church planting movement or a new great awakening. No, my temptation is to elaborate with, um, ministerial hyperbole the things that are actually happening. You know, for effect. Perhaps what I’m tempted to offer isn’t a lie, per se, but the result is the same. The only examples I share are those I’ve carefully selected. Certain details are emphasized. Some information is conveniently left out. Our small seeker group of four suddenly becomes a viable church plant of six. My casual interaction with national leaders grows into a full-blown partnership. I find myself taking credit for the successes of others by frequent use of the collective “we.” Everything suddenly becomes over-spiritualized.
The temptation isn’t limited to embellishing our successes. There’s something super-spiritual about suffering on the missions field, so I often feel the urge to overstate the modest struggles we face in Western Europe. Poor customer service becomes enemy opposition, and a hard time at the immigration office is persecution. If life here is too easy, my obedience is somehow less pleasing to God and fellow believers.
Maybe the temptation to stretch the truth is rooted in our performance-based culture that encourages us to value activity over identity. Maybe it’s my desire to be important or well-known. Whatever the reason, exaggerations and half-truths are trouble. Lying is one of those sins that tends to have the “snowball effect;” the liar quickly finds himself having to compose bigger, more elaborate, and (if it were possible,) more deceitful lies to cover the first one.
It occurs to me that a great deal of the misunderstanding is my own fault. How can I expect others to know and relate to my experience if I’m not being completely forthright? Besides, God’s constant and protection and provision for my life means that there is always a truth to be told.
God called me to missions in Western Europe by giving me a vision for what He could (would?) do among the people here. I was excited about being part of God’s interaction with the postmodern, postchristian people of Europe. I really believed that God was going to start a church planting movement here, and I trusted that He was going to use me to somehow be part of that. That certainty of calling and purpose is what has kept me on the field.
But something is bothering me.
We still haven’t seen it. Despite our efforts, prayers, and desires, we have yet to see God move in the ways we envisioned years ago. No city-wide house church networks. No major unity movements among the believers here. Years of studying the language and culture, sowing the gospel, building relationships, and speaking truth into people’s lives hasn’t produced the kind of fruit I thought we were called to.
Don’t get me wrong; I know that the work isn’t something that we do, and that God will do His will in His sovereign timing. Please don’t remind me of William Carey or Adoniram Judson. I’m not discouraged about the number of people who are being saved.
I’ve spent months in introspective prayer and meditation, asking God if there might be sin in my life, or if my actions might be disqualifying me from His service. I’m begging Him to use me. I’m open to whatever He has for us.
I guess I’m just a little disappointed, that’s all.
I recently read an interesting thing about Wal-Mart. It seems that in cities across the country, Wal-Mart stores are up-sizing from their regular old large retail centers to shiny new extra-large “Super Centers.” In many cases, these new stores are right next door or across the street from the old stores.
The problem is that the distinctively Wal-Martian building design and layout (you know, gray and blue big-box warehouse with two main entrances and a chain-link fenced-in “garden center” on one side) makes it difficult for any other retailer to use the old buildings. So the old stores are sitting empty.
Some communities are now requiring that new Wal-Mart stores be built with future use in mind, with store designs that are more easily subdivided for varied uses should the current Super Center ever vacate to build, I don’t know, what’s bigger than a Super Center?
For some reason, this reminds me of church buildings.
Western Europe is home to thousands of church buildings. Cathedrals, basilicas, chapels, and temples that were once full of devout religious people now sit empty in every part of the continent. In the U.K., Some have been converted to pubs. In Italy, many are used a museums. At least European church buildings are pretty to look at.
In one hundred years, what will have become of your church building?
Whenever I try to encourage Americans to be church planters, they almost invariably say something like, “There’s already a church on every corner.” The problem, of course, is that these people are mistaking “church building” for “body of believers.”
We certainly don’t need more church buildings.
Lately it seems that everyone I talk to is tired of church. Some are actively involved- teaching Sunday School, attending Bible Studies, even leading worship. Others have given up church altogether, opting instead for isolated and lonely personal ministries outside any organized body of believers.
These people are not where they need to be, but not because they are in sin. They aren’t rebellious or angry. They are discouraged because the church as they know it looks nothing like the community of faith that we read about in the scriptures.
Churches are all about programs, events, and activities. You’re a twenty-something married couple? Thirty and single? We have a program for you. Mothers of Preschoolers. Parents of Teens. Businessmen breakfasts, Scrapbooking, Golf, Church-league softball. The more you do, the holier you are. If we haven’t seen you in a while, we question your spiritual maturity.
Church leaders desperate to grow their congregations don’t know the people already in the pews. The gospel has become an invitation to church, and discipleship an altar-call. Why doesn’t anyone ever say, “Wow, they must be doing something wrong for God to be cursing them with all those people in attendance.”?
The result of the programs- and numbers-focus is a growing number of people who are churched-out. These are faithful people who have taught the Bible studies, led the mission trips, given their money, and visited the visitors. They know what goes into each big campaign (and how little comes out), and they don’t have it in them to “put-on” another one. Now they are finished. Many drop out altogether because they don’t see an alternative.
Maybe your mega-church should start a program for them.
Not so long ago, internet chat rooms were mostly populated by perverts and turbonerds. The current generation of young adults, however, has moved into the neighborhood and changed the rules. They’ve never known life without computers. For them, meeting people online is a normal part of life. They have real and meaningful relationships with people that they only know virtually.
Why not plant online churches as part of our global missions efforts? I’m not talking about evangelistic websites, comment-thread debaters, or hordes of E-vangelists copying and pasting Bible verses into site guestbooks. I mean commissioning real missionaries to engage unbelieving people in every corner of the earth through the internet. I believe that real churches could be planted through virtual efforts that mirror our real work on the field. Contextually appropriate gospel presentations. Relational discipleship that is both practical and biblical. Indigenous worship among communities of committed believers.
All it would take is a little training of committed cybernauts and some time. “Virtual Partners” could start to see their MySpace, Facebook, and Flickr pages as platforms to engaging online social circles. Blogs and message boards are great forums for the exchange of ideas and sowing of the gospel. Affinity-based websites are visited by people from all around the world. Social networking sites make it easier than ever for people to connect.
Some might assert that the anonymity of the internet makes true intimacy impossible. That may have been true in an analog age, but these days, people welcome the anonymity as security to share their most personal thoughts. Others might be concerned that comment threads on public blogs and boards are a poor place to have meaningful conversation because there’s so much room for misunderstanding. This isn’t so much a problem for lifelong internauts. They are adept at concise, meaningful (to them and their kind) conversations in multiple ongoing and overlapping encounters.
Globalization has made English (well, a form of English) the common language of the world wide web. That makes initial contact with different people pretty easy. Why not have partners start their ministries by finding a national to teach them the language of the focus people group? People group research would take on new meaning if the source material was a member of the people group in question.
I’m working on a couple new job requests. I’m looking for some new people to be full members of our team who only come and visit a couple times a year. They’ll go through orientation, learn language, and build relationships with people here through the internet (without quitting their day jobs). If you’re interested, send me an email.
A key element of our missiology is our understanding of what heavenly worship will look like. This will affect the degree to which we value the individual cultures of the nations. It seems that most of us tend toward one of two extremes. Of course, I simplify here for the sake of discussion.
- Multi-cultural Church: A people group’s culture is of eternal significance in that the unique attributes were built into it by God and that He is glorified by an expression of faith and worship through that cultural lens. In other words, people can and should be discipled within their own culture because God wants to be worshiped by different people in their different ways. In missions, these are the folks who go to great lengths to learn their people group’s language and customs, and make efforts to blend into the culture in order to minimize the differences between them and the people. Most of the questions about what the church should look like are left to be answered by new believers.
- A-cultural Church: There is a biblically-mandated “culture of the church” that runs contrary to the culture of the world. A people group’s culture is therefore not something that should be respected, as most of it needs to be “taken off” upon salvation. In missions, these “a-cultural church” church planters tend to worry less about losing their American accent or living like the nationals, and rely more on the power of objective truth of the gospel as they share it with people who are different from them.
I’m sure that you find your own opinion somewhere in-between the “multi-cultural church” and “a-cultural church” positions. Nearly all of us would say that a church should be indigenous- that it should be contextually appropriate to the culture. People should not have to learn English or wear western clothing in order to hear and understand the gospel. When it comes to “the nations,” most would lean toward the “multi-cultural” understanding of the universal church.
On the other hand, we understand that the church is necessarily marked by a distinct “Kingdom culture” that often conflicts with societal norms. Equality, unity, compassion, discipline- the culture and values of the church make it stand out from the world. We cannot be judgmental, controlling, greedy, bitter, or materialistic, no matter how ingrained these vices may be in our culture. Jesus sums up the “culture of the kingdom” with a lot of His, “You’ve heard it said… but I say…” comments. The church’s culture is not natural to sinful humanity. It is counter-cultural.
So we see that we need some good balance of indigenous and Kingdom cultures in the churches we plant. Consider, however, the West. Whenever the conversation turns to church planting in a postmodern, post-Christian context, people seem to run to the “a-cultural” extreme of the argument. “You can’t be postmodern and a Christian” some would say. “They cannot use words that we consider to be profane,” they say. “They must dress appropriately” they think, and “if they’re ashamed to call it a church, than it isn’t a church.” (These, by the way, are near quotes of what I’ve heard missionary colleagues and supporters back home say whenever I try to discuss what the indigenous church might look like in Western Europe.)
In Revelation 7, John recounts the vision God gave him of multitudes worshiping Jesus. The countless hoards of people, John writes, were “from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. ” For many of us, that same vision is what drives us today, together with the desire to be part of what God has said is certain to happen. We want to see the diversity of God’s children unified in worship. But not everyone sees the value and beauty of culture, especially when it comes to missions in a culture that seems near to our own.
I believe that the indigenous church in Western Europe, made up of mature, faithful believers, will look very different from the traditional churches that can be found here today. I believe that a follower of Christ in this culture will think very differently about gender roles in the church, alcohol use, experience of real supernatural activity, and celebration of worship, fellowship, and community than most of the churches that send me. I think that’s okay, because to me, culture counts. It’s the “language” we use to understand and relate to the world around us, and it allows us to worship God in a way that is real and meaningful to us.