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?
PREVIOUSLY: The Gaps
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.
“The first will be last,” Jesus said. “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” A quick perusal of Jesus’ words will turn up all sorts of instructions that don’t seem to line up with what we’d consider “common sense.” He told his followers to “Turn the other cheek” (didn’t He know about terrorism?) and to “Walk a second mile” when forced (by the government!) to walk just one.
As He sent them out on a short-term mission trip, why did Jesus tell His disciples not to carry any extra clothes and not to greet anyone along the way? That doesn’t seem very practical, does it? What if they had a great opportunity to witness to the guy sitting next to them on a red-eye out of Denver? So much of what Jesus told His followers to do (and not to do) just doesn’t make sense in our world. It almost always runs counter to our understanding of what might be the best way to get things done.
Yet most of what we do as believers tends to be determined by our pragmatism. We justify nearly all that we do with, “Hey, it’s working.” We consider efficiency and volume to be stewardship issues. From video-venue churches to mass marketing campaigns to building programs, churches are constantly searching for ways to make the biggest impact, to reach the greatest number of people, and to get the most bang for the buck. I believe that these are human values, not Kingdom ones. What if doing what seems to “work” in the short run is hurting us in the long run? What if giving away iPods and paying people to come to church has long-term negative effects for the church? What if our methods actually change our message?
In the next few posts, I’m going to explore some of the ways that the (particularly Western) Church has traded in God’s best for “what works.” Specifically, I want to look at the way we practice being the church, our efforts at church planting, and our theology of mission.
NEXT: The Gaps
Immediate. You can find and fund a small business in a developing nation in under five minutes on Kiva.org. Buy a pair of Tom’s Shoes, and a second pair is sent to a needy child in a developing nation (you can actually go on a “Shoe Drop” trip and deliver the shoes yourself). The action is (or, at least feels) immediate. Typical mission trips have been cast more as investments in the future. Nobody believes in the future anymore.
Tangible. Extreme (American) pragmatism is always concerned with the bottom line. Value is determined by dividing the total cost of involvement by the measurable results. People want to know that their work is producing something. At the end of the day, people want to be able to point to the building they built, the people they fed, or the number of salvations and say, “This was worth it.”
Socially acceptable. Everyone thinks (or, at least says they think) that it’s cool to support fair trade or finance micro-enterprises or buy shoes for the shoeless. If Bono, Coldplay, and all my Facebook friends are talking about it, it’s cool. No one gets ridiculed for wanting to save Darfur or free Tibet. Getting time off of work to help plant a church in Malaysia, however, can be difficult.
Pendulum swing. After years of prayerwalking, backyard Bible clubs, and tract spamming on strictly “spiritual” trips, believers are looking for better ways to connect with people. The missions scene tends to go back and forth between social ministries (feeding the hungry, digging wells, medical missions) to a more decidedly “spiritual” focus (“reaching unreached people groups,” public gospel presentations, etc). Things now are trending toward social action.
Platform. There are only a few places left in the world where a “missionary” is free to enter and do whatever he/she wants (and even in those places, it’s not wise to do so). Many believers realize that need-based humanitarian action is an ideal social access platform (reason to be in the country that is valued by the hosts).
Marketing. Social non-profits do a better job of marketing. Their campaigns incite and inspire while creating a sense of identity for those involved. Just look at “To Write Love On Her Arms” or the “Junky Car Club.” They allow people to determine their own levels of participation, and they are adept at using social networking media to get their messages out. Missions sending agencies, on the other hand, are still pushing “Xtreme Missions” (seriously- goolge “xtreme missions”- with or without the “E”).
Guilt. A generation (or two) of white, upper-middle class suburban Christians are starting to realize that not everyone in the world is born with the opportunities they enjoy. One trip to a developing nation will change one’s perspective on a multi-million dollar building campaign. Many believe that justice will require a sacrifice on our part.
Missiology. An emerging generation has gone back to theological basics in many respects. The “missional” movement is an example of this sort of reconstruction. It seeks to balance the direct teachings of Jesus with Paul’s missionary example. The emerging missiology is holistic, relational, and service-oriented. It doesn’t distinguish between “humanitarianism” and “missions.”
Experience. Many churchgoers have been on “mission trips,” and a great deal of those were not positive experiences. The process was too complex. They didn’t feel that their money was being used wisely, or they didn’t want anything to go to overhead/administrative fees. The hosting missionary didn’t seem to know what he was going. They didn’t feel useful.
Awareness. In this noisy world we live in, it is less and less likely that a church member is going to even know about the many ministries in relatively obscure places. A ministry with a high-profile spokesperson has a much better chance of getting through to churchgoers than an organization with a four-color brochure and a homemade website.
You may have heard about the controversy over the elephant exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo. The zoo is building a $42 million exhibit for Billy, its only elephant. There are three sides to the argument: those who say that $42 mil is too much to spend on one elephant, those who say the new “Pachyderm Forest” project is just what the zoo (and Billy) needs, and those who say that it is cruel to keep elephants in captivity, no matter how much is spent.
Reading about the controversy got me thinking about Christians. I’m a huge advocate of total church involvement in missions. I believe that the church’s gifting, authority, and accountability are vital to obedient and successful missions.
Nevertheless, church people aren’t always prepared for ministry in the real world. The way I see it, our modern expression of church is a lot like a zoo. We’ve got all kinds; the old urban zoos that are little more than cages in a central park. The theme-park kinds of zoos with multi-million-dollar attractions. Some mimic the animals’ habitats in the wild. Others seem like they’re more for show. We’ve got zoos that were designed for conservation, rehabilitation, education, entertainment, even research. The thing about zoos is their influence on animal health and behavior.
It’s called “institutionalization.”
It seems to me that there are three kinds of Christians; those who have left the wild and have been brought into the zoo, and those who were born and raised in captivity, and those who continue to live in the wild.
- Those who came to faith outside the church setting are quickly assimilated into the Christian culture. They are taught to speak, act, and think like a Christian (each according to the customs of his local zoo, of course.) On the one hand, this process is seen as a rescue operation. On the other, it’s a cruel and unnecessary act that strips a person of his ability to relate, understand, and survive in what was his natural environment.
- Believers who grew up in church really don’t stand a chance in the wild. Their dependence on doctors, caregivers, guards, and spectators makes them unprepared to face the challenges of life in the real world. They position themselves in pecking order, clinging to the members of their small groups for social comfort.
- Christians who operate outside the walls of an institutionalized church. Some simply slipped through the cracks of the programs that the church designed for them. Others came to faith through real relationships and have never found it necessary to trade real life for a safely synthetic one. These aren’t lone wolves- they move in dynamic but fiercely loyal packs and herds.
For some reason, the first two kinds of Christians are the ones the church sends out on mission, and left and right, they’re being devoured by dangers and distractions of life in the wild. We need more of the third kind of Christian, the ones outside the institution. The truth is, they’re already doing ministry , and they’re doing it better, more humbly, and more cheaply than the zoo ever could. It comes quite naturally to them. But they need the church’s approval, support, prayer, and encouragement.
Institutional church is bad for believers, bad for ministry, and bad for the environment. Okay, maybe not so bad for the environment, but you know what I mean.
Your church cannot be missional and have video venues.
There, I’ve said it. I know it’s contrary to what Mark Driscoll and Matt Chandler and others are saying and doing. The multi-site trend continues to grow among churches in the United States. It’s been discussed and debated at length in the blogosphere. Perhaps the best discussion took place back in 2006 on Steve McCoy’s blog, Reformissionary. In the comment stream of the post, Darrin Patrick, the pastor of The Journey in St. Louis, shares his struggle with his church’s decision to open multiple sites. is a fan. Craig Groeschel has raised multi-site church to an art. Popular leaders such as Mark Batterson and Ed Young are growing their churches by leaps and bounds by opening up “alternate sites” across the country and around the world. According to Third Quarter Church Consulting, there are over 2,000 multi-site churches meeting across the country.
Most multi-site churches are made up of distinct locations that share one pastor, and/or leadership team. In the early days of multi-site, the preacher would preach a sermon at one location, and then drive (or even fly) to a second location to present an encore presentation of the sermon. With the rise of video recording technology, many satellite campuses would watch a pre-recorded version of a sermon. Nowadays, preachers are streamed live onto screens across the country. The idea behind the multi-site church is this: a church starts out small, and grows. They fill up their meeting space, so they start to hold multiple services over the course of the week. Maybe they relocate or build a new building. People are driving in from miles away to attend. The next logical step is to open up another location.
Multi-site church is a logical and efficient solution to a problem brought on by bad missiology.
1. It perpetuates the celebrity pastor mentality. Your oratory skills may be out-of-this-world (they’re probably not), but do you really want your church to be built around you? Many multi-site churches start with “hey, the pastor can only do so much.” Why not disciple young leaders to preach and teach? Why not dispel the myth of the rockstar preacher by intentionally limiting your influence to the behind-the-scenes equipping of leaders?
2. It promotes Christian consumerism. Rather than put in the work that it requires to be the local church, many resort to opening a Fellowshipchurch.com franchise. It may be what people want, but wise church leaders will prefer to give them what they need. They need a pastor who knows their name, lives in their community, and can be available for them personally.
3. Realistically, your church has become two when you decided to hold multiple services (especially when these services are designed to appeal to different demographics). What reason (other than the pastor’s ego) is there to insist that these are “one” church? “One church in many locations” is only the illusion of unity. Why insist that every new spin-off church be part of the same brand?
4. Multi-site church breaks the missiological principle of indigenaity. Rather than allowing each new fellowship to reflect the culture in which it is planted, multi-site locations instead export with them the culture of the “mother” church. I know that some churches try to help this by having a local worship team or support staff, but rarely are satellite locations allowed to stray too far from the formula.
For the record: I’m not against sermon podcasts or broadcasts. God used these sorts of resources maintained my team spiritually on the mission field. I’m also not trying to criticize anyone in particular. If a church is led to multi-site, I want them to be successful and to prosper. This is not intended to tear down anyone. I really am a big fan of many multi-site pastors, and hope I don’t offend any of my multi-site friends with this post. Nevertheless, as a missiologist, missionary, and missional believer, I felt the need to say something.
By the way, Bob Hyatt wrote a great article on multi-site church at Out of Ur.
Be sure to watch for my next post, “Your Sound System Is Where You Went Wrong.”
All around you there are groups of people who are influencing and being influenced. You can (and should) be part of the discussion, but you’re too busy doing something that nobody else cares about. In your little “Christian” subculture bubble, you have no influence and few friends. Here are some tips to help you become interesting enough to actually make some friends this summer.
- Get a hobby. It doesn’t always have to be a really expensive one, either. It seems like everyone is into photography these days, (which is cool) but a new digital SLR can be pricey. Lomography can be really fun, or why not try something less consumeristic, like making your own camera? Share your pictures on Flickr or your own photoblog.
- Start a campaign. Find something to be passionate about and work to get other people excited about it too. You could design a web site about it, record a podcast about it, silkscreen or print T-shirts, or write a manifesto.
- Go camping. Borrow a tent (everyone has one, but few people actually ever use them), and pack a sandwich. You don’t have to make it a big deal. Camp in the backyard even. Spending time in nature is a good way to enjoy and appreciate its Maker.
- Teach yourself something new. The Dangerous Book for Boys is full of awesome stuff you should know but probably don’t. Your paper airplane skills will surely help you connect with some cool people. The interwebs are full of how-tos and useless information. Some things I’ve taught myself (with varying degrees of success) include: making my favorite chicken enchilada soup, writing a basic web page in html, home movie editing, how to read a map, and painting with oils.
- Read a book. Not disposable airport novels, but something that will inspire, intrigue, or challenge you. Become an inspired storyteller by rediscovering children’s literature. Start with Lemony Snicket’s A series of Unfortunate Events or anything by Roald Dahl. There’s certainly no excuse for any literate person to not have read On The Road, by Jack Kerouac or J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye, and these are idea for reading with a friend or discussion group. Steven D. Levitt’s Freakonomics, made me want to be an econo-sociologist, as did Malcom Gladwelll’s The Tipping Point, but don’t bother with Blink, just read his blog instead. Now these books will give you something to talk about.
- Go geek. Read Wired magazine, hang out in a comic book store, or go bowling even when you’re not on a youth group lock-in. Start collecting vinyl records, modifying vintage furniture to disguise modern technology, or scroll frame-by-frame through every episode of Lost looking for clues and easter eggs. Be sure to start every sentence with “basically…” “actually…” or “technically…” Geeks are the best friends you’ll ever have.
- Volunteer. There are literally hundreds of charities and non-profit organizations that could use your help. The “nonprofit sector” section of your city’s craigslist is a great place to start your search. Be sure your lifestyle doesn’t contradict your cause., though. A fair-trade Peta vegan pretty much has to swear off KFC.
This list won’t make you an instant mover and shaker, but if you pick a couple and really go for it, you just might have a circle of friends to take pictures of and cook for on your volunteer do-it-yourself grassroots camping and Comic-Con and road trip in July.
The concept of “people groups” has radically affected they way we do missions. It used to be that missionaries were sent to minister to the people of a given country. These days, however, we recognize that people group themselves and identify with communities that may not necessarily conform to (sometimes random and often disputed) political boundaries. Consider the following definition, taken from peoplegroups.org
A “people group” is an ethnolinguistic group with a common self-identity that is shared by the various members. There are two parts to that word: ethno and linguistic. Language is a primary and dominant identifying factor of a people group. But there are other factors that determine or are associated with ethnicity. Usually there is a common self-name and a sense of common identity of individuals identified with the group. A common history, customs, family and clan identities, as well as marriage rules and practices, age-grades and other obligation covenants, and inheritance patterns and rules are some of the common ethnic factors defining or distinguishing a people. What they call themselves may vary at different levels of identity, or among various sub-groups.
The idea is that people group themselves in such a way as to create commonality with some people and (therefore) distinction from others. Now, I say “people group themselves…” but really, most of us are born into a group and stay in the group our whole lives. Because these groups create our way of understanding and relating to the world around us, leaving one group for another is very difficult, if not impossible.
Most missionaries these days are sent to engage a people group with the gospel. They usually start by researching the group’s culture and history, and examining that group’s interactions with other groups. That’s how we know, for example that even though the Basque people group resides on both sides of the France/Spain border, they are one ethnolinguistic people group. This is good information to have when we’re trying to coordinate the work among the Basque people. Under the old paradigm, we might have assumed that they were two groups.
My concern with “people group thinking” as it is commonly held, is that it tends to assume that people groups are static, well-defined things. A missions strategy based on people groups would tend to focus on sending missionaries to work among a people group. Once that people group is “reached,” the idea is that the missionaries would move on to another “unreached” people group. One thing that we don’t seem to have taken into account is how drastically people groups change.
Culture is dynamic. It never stops changing. Interconnectivity opens the world to global influences that have dramatic effects on even the most traditional cultures. Growing generation gaps and socioeconomic discrepancies fragment people groups. Aggressive exportation of culture through media, commercialism, and politics, leaves a lasting impression on all people groups. Some are assimilated. Others are willfully abandoned. Some die out altogether, while new ones are being born all the time. The changes that used to take place over the course of centuries now happen daily on social networking websites. When cultures bump up against each other, people are profoundly affected.
Take, for example, well-established immigrant people groups. If a group of ethnic Chinese move to London, they would tend to live in community with one another. But that transplanted Chinese community is not immune to the influence of British culture. They may hold tightly to certain traditions and aspects of their home culture, but, for survival’s sake, they are certain to adopt some of the customs of their host culture as well. How long before that Chinese community becomes something else entirely?
When a group displaced from its people group has become culturally different enough from it’s home culture that, for changes to its values, traditions, and social structure, it could not easily re-integrate into that home culture, it is a new people group.
When a visitor from the home culture visits friends among the displaced group, how does he feel? If, due to changes in worldview, he can no longer fully relate to the group, it is a new people group.
When a displaced people group adopts so much of its host culture’s language, dress, politics, and perspective that it is rejected by its its home culture, it is a new people group.
That’s why the children of missionaries aren’t called “MKs” (Missionary Kids) anymore. Now they’re called “TCKs” (Third Culture Kids). They don’t really belong to the culture that their parents left or to the one in which they’ve come to live.
During the recent elections in Florida, the media paid a lot of attention to Cuban exiles there who are politically active. Since Fidel Castro took control, a growing number of Cubans have fled to the U.S. since the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Today, there are 2 million Cubans living in the United States; 650,000 in Miami alone. Separated by ninety miles, fifty years, and lots of “Spanglish,” are the Cubans in Miami the same people group as those who have stayed in Cuba?
Our missiology needs to hold to an unchanging God and an ever-changing world. Why do we continue to see “emerging” as a cultural term and not a missiological one?
You may not be aware of this, but even the “working class” in the United States is richer than most of the people in the world. This economic discrepancy is known in even the most isolated of places, and certainly everywhere missionaries go.
The image on the upper right is a cartogram (a map deliberately distorted to illustrate global statistics) of the projected global distribution of wealth for the year 2015. The actual dimensions of the map are exaggerated according to where the wealth is. The bulging United States, Europe, and Asia show the concentration of material wealth. Compare that to the cartogram below that illustrates the world’s population. If wealth were distributed equally around the world, both maps would be the same.
Before anyone complains about my use here of the term “distribution of wealth” instead of something more guilt-assuaging, like “earned wealth,” consider the luxuries we take for granted: clean water, choice of diet, education, the protection of a local police force… At this point in history, we are not all on an even playing field.
To make matters worse, the images of American culture that are aggressively exported around the globe is one that flaunts our excesses. A common international news item is, “what’s news in America,” which usually has more to do with celebrity gossip than international crises. I’m not trying to make anyone feel guilty. I just want to be sure you realize the ramifications for international missions of the uneven distribution of wealth around the world.
- When American missionaries come to a place, their arrival is usually viewed in one of two ways: 1) excitement over the potential material help, 2) resentment that the rich would presume to tell the poor how they ought to live and believe.
- Often, people extol the virtues of mobilizing missionaries from within unreached cultures. In developing countries, it is very easy to find people who would be willing to accept our money to do pretty much anything.
- Great needs must be met before people will listen to any sort of gospel message. But by meeting those needs and then calling for repentance, the behavior is inadvertently tied to the material gifts. Jesus met the same problem when he performed miracles; some were healed and didn’t even thank Him. Others followed Him around, expecting Him to put on a show. The difference, however, is that Jesus wanted people to be totally dependent on Him. We don’t want people to depend on our handouts.
- Every report (substantiated or not) of the mismanagement of funds by anyone who calls himself a “Christian” negatively affects our reputations on the field. Same goes for the major building campaigns, and fund raisers.
- American missionaries and volunteers often (unknowingly?) perpetuate stereotypes by the way they live and present themselves to the people they work with. That said, in most parts of the world, for an American family to move in and live just like their people group would be strange enough to prevent real relationships from being built. People resent missionaries who live in mansions, but they are suspicious of missionaries who move their families into the slums and ghettos.
There are but a few of the implications of being an American missionary. The reality of global discrepancies make for a sensitive dynamic in strategic missions engagement. These are some of the things we have to think about on a daily basis.
By the way, check out Worldmapper. It’s a site that redraws the world to illustrate global discrepancies.