I am not a missionary. It’s kind of a big deal for me to admit that. Yeah, I know that “we’re all supposed to be missionaries,” and that people who bring the good news have beautiful feet. I’m struggling with the whole thing because of all people, I’m supposed to be a missionary because I’m employed by the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. They hired and appointed and commissioned me to serve as a church planter here in Western Europe. They interviewed me, checked all of my references, confirmed my calling, examined my theology, gave me a physical, trained me, and sent me out. The organization is considered the most effective missions sending agency in the world. Surely, they know what missions is, right? Obviously, they know how it should be done, wouldn’t you think? So when I find myself disagreeing with some of the Board’s basic missiology and methodology, you can understand why I’m assuming that the problem is with me and not the wise men and women (but mostly men) who are responsible for our operations.
My problem is one of conscience. As the concept of missions is further defined by both the organization and the Christian subculture, I continue to grow less and less comfortable with the title “missionary” and with “missions” as it is understood within the organization. If, because of certain differences, I can’t represent the Board as they would like me to, how can I, with integrity, continue to take their financial support? If the people in the pews that give sacrificially (and even the stingy ones that give way less than they could) think that they’re funding certain mission endeavors of certain people, and I, in all honesty, am not one of those people, shouldn’t I quit? This isn’t a new problem. I’ve been struggling with this since before I ever got to the field. But as time has passed, and as I’ve invested myself into ministry, I’ve found myself becoming increasingly unlike the missionary I know the IMB thinks I am.
I have sought the counsel of wise coworkers. Most of them have said something to the effect of, “Don’t worry- the Board needs people like you with a different perspective on things to take a different approach toward our work.” Others encouraged me to keep seeking God on the issue. A few (usually the seasoned veterans) gave me the “when I was your age…” routine. Maybe they’re right. Maybe this is all a phase I’ll grow out of, or some immaturity I need to grow through.
Which is why I’m posting my thoughts here. I guess it’s probably cowardly to post my opinions anonymously, but I don’t want to offend any of my friends and coworkers. Even though I tend to express myself in a way that sounds confident (hopefully never arrogant), I admit that I don’t have all the answers. Sometimes I wonder whether I even have one or two answers. My intent here is to question some of the things about missions and missionaries and our fine organization that I don’t hear anyone else questioning. I won’t assume that anyone else struggles with these things, but I will hope that someone out there might share their thoughts on these things.
I get a paycheck on the 15th of every month. I know that isn’t the norm for most professional “missionaries,” but the IMB funds us so that we don’t have to raise our own support. We’re not getting rich, (in fact, we just got a decrease in pay), but we’re not going hungry either. The financial support is a blessing that really frees us up to do our work without wondering how we’re going to pay next month’s rent.
Every year, the IMB collects the “Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.” The Board uses this heavily-advertised season of fund-raising to ask Southern Baptist churches to give to the Board’s international endeavors. In 2003, the LMCO brought in $136,204,648.17. This year, the goal is 150,000,000 (that’s 150 million). When people give to the Board throughout the year through the Cooperative Program, some of that money is used for stateside operations such as administration, publicity, etc. (Most people aren’t aware that a large part of daily operating costs is funded by investment returns- money made through stocks and bonds.) The entirety of the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, however, is used in support of overseas personnel. You can see, then, why the offering is a big deal to us.
The Board really knows how to do things. They use quality media productions and publications to educate the people in the pews about our church planting efforts around the world. They have a department that analyzes the financial needs for the budget year and sets giving goals for the churches. Thousands of people give sacrificially to the organization because they believe in what the Board is doing and they want to be involved however they can.
I’m trying not to get too comfortable, though. It’s not that I don’t think the IMB knows how to raise funding. Times change. In the past, churches were proud of their Southern Baptist identity. Today, many SBC churches don’t use “SB” in their name; I’d venture to say that most members don’t even know what the Convention is or whether their church belongs to it. The only real denominational identity these days is that of “Crusading Conservatives” who are caught up in divisive politics and culture wars.
People are tired of sacrificially giving their hard-earned money to a faceless corporate institution that both defines “the Task” and measures its own progress in fulfilling that task. “It’s going to cost us $800 million for us to finish the task,” the organization might say. But beyond that, there is no real accountability as to how the money is spent or even as to where the financial figures come from.
The changing times has changed the way people feel about giving, but it has not changed their desire to give. “We know Jack and Suzy Brown. They’re part of our spiritual family. We know they’re called to and equipped for missions, and we’ve seen them be intentional in ministry here at home. We’ll support them. We have a relationship with them that will insure accountability, we can remain involved in their ministry, send them volunteers, and house them when there home for a visit.”
The Board’s efforts at personalization and fostering partnerships cannot compete with the relationship that Jack and Suzy Brown have with their home church. Nor should it.
Only when you know your supporters can there be true accountability. One of the biggest problems our field personnel have is the feeling of entitlement. This attitude of “I get what’s coming to me” and “It’s MY money” is everywhere. Regional policies only serve to reinforce the selfishness. “The Policy Manual says that we are entitled to 30 days vacation.” “Regional guidelines clearly state that we get an apartment of 1400m2. Ours is only 900.” It goes on an on. Because our money comes in the form of a paycheck every month from a well-oiled machine that raises support for us. We don’t see the little old ladies who give as much as half of their social security check every month, or the families who give inheritance money or vacation savings. We don’t know the people who give so that we can live and work overseas, so their money means much less to us. There is great financial accountability to the Board, but little accountability to the churches that give to support us.
So what’s the solution? Well, the megachurches are sending their own missionaries. Denominational splinter groups are too. The Board is trying to put on a more personal face by encouraging partnerships between missionaries and stateside churches. They push missionaries to speak in churches and conferences whenever possible. I say, stop it. I say, dismantle the machine and let local churches send their own people through the Board. When they don’t have anyone, or can afford to fully support them, let them cooperate through existing associations. But make sure every church that gives, no matter how little it might be, knows personally the missionary they are sending. If thirty churches in rural Arkansas want to give, make sure they have the opportunity to know the people who receive their offerings, and insure that they have some relationship with that overseas ministry. Instead of selling people groups, the Board needs to be representing us, the field personnel to the churches back home.
What do you think?
When a person comes to faith in Christ, there is necessarily an immediate and ongoing response. There are certain things they can continue to do. There are other things, however, that they cannot continue to do. And then there are things that they can continue to do, but now with a new motivation. For example: a hard-working father in Barstow, California enters into a relationship with God through Jesus after years of church attendance. Immediately, he is convicted about his materialism and selfishness. These things, he recognizes, he must leave behind in order to follow Jesus. He is also aware of his need to read the Bible and speak to God through prayer, habits he had never picked up despite years of good instruction from his pastor. There are other things in his life, that he will continue to do, but now for new reasons. He should continue work hard and do his best, but not out of a desire for social status or material goods. He needs to keep spending quality time with his kids, but not in order to avoid the embarrassment of an unruly child or to make up for unkept promises of the past. His new motivition to continue all of these behaviors is Jesus. This response is one that happens over time. As we mature in the Lord, we become more like Him. He teaches and stretches us and shows us those places in our lives that need to be developed and changed.
We see this pattern pretty clearly in the case of a churchgoing American: repentence, then the ongoing process of sanctification. But what about a Muslim or a Hindu? If someone from a Buddhist cultural background comes to faith in Christ, can he continue identifying himself as Buddhist? This question is one that missionaries are faced with all over the world. IMB personnel struggle with it on a daily basis.
I believe that there is only one way to God and life in Him; it is Jesus, not Christianity, that provides access to the Most High God. So would I have a problem with an Indian believer who, after being reborn in the Holy Spirit, continues to call himself a Hindu? No. But I’m certain that the Board would not agree. IMB leaders are rumored to be considering a poliicy that would require our personnel to stop using the word “Allah” when referring to God. Allah, some reason, is the Muslim God. Nevermind that it is the Arabic word for God, or that the works-based religion traces itself back to the same Yahweh of the Hebrew people.
I guess the question is this: Did Jesus come to start a new religion? I don’t think He did. I think He fulfilled a religion, and permitted those whose cultural identity was wrapped up in it to continue practicing it. In Acts, we read that the first “Christians” continued meeting in the synagogues. For them, their national identity was Judiasm; it was not unlike the cultural Catholicism found throughout Europe or the cultural Christianity common in the U.S.
Did Jesus intend for His followers to build the spiritual family into an institution? I don’t think so. Sure, He instructed them to do certain things, and to avoid others. There were certain traditions, like a communion meal or baptism, that He seemed to expect us to continue. But I can’t help but wonder how He would feel about joining some of the Southern Baptist churches in the States. I don’t mean to say that our way of doing church is wrong, I’m saying that congregational cooperations are a cultural construct, and that we ought to recognize them as such. Being a follower of Jesus is, after all, about a relationship, not a religion, right?
All believers know the good news about Jesus, and most are able to sum it up in a few phrases. “Jesus loves you and has a plan for your life… All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” These things are true, and part of the gospel, but they are not the gospel. I once had a discussion (read: arguement) with a friend over “sharing the gospel in its entirey vs. sharing it in bits and pieces.” You can imagine how it went: he was of the opinion that due to the urgency of the message, and the uncertainty of our immediate futures, we ought to make the most of every opportunity to share the complete gospel with every person we could. Mostly, I disagreed with his interpretations of the concepts of urgency, opportunity, and gospel. Yes, we are in the last days of life as we know it, and time is short. Yes, we need to be ready at all times to give a reason for the hope we have, and make the most of every opportunity. But how much information must a person know in order to be saved? What is required understanding for a follower of Jesus?
No, the gospel is not information. It is a person. Jesus. He is the way, truth and life. A person knows the Most High God by meeting Jesus. Telling other people about Him, no- introducing others to Him is a huge part of who we are. But loving people unconditionally is sharing Christ. Feeding the hungry and caring for the sick is indeed being Jesus to people. It is incarnation of the Word.
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 think the best way to handle the tough call of whether a person is saved or not is to not try to answer it. “Judge not, lest you be judged” is usually quoted by judgemental people as they pass judgement on someone. “I’m not judging you,” they like to say, “God is.” But I read where Jesus tells us that we’re going to be surprised when we get to heaven at who isn’t there that we expected to be and who is that we were sure would never make it. Again, there is not salvation outside Christ. But who are we to know the heart of a person? I believe in the fruit of the Holy Spirit, but I’ve met a whole lot of really good Mormon folks who are trapped in works and religion, and don’t know Jesus.
So how does this translate into missions? Well, if we stopped counting the number of salvations (or baptisms), and instead focused on disciple-making, it really wouldn’t matter where someone was spiritually. Our task, then, would be to take people in whom God is working from wherever they are to maturity in Christ. Salvation would happen somewhere along the way, but as a matter between each individual and God Himself, it might not happen according to our schedule. This way, we don’t change our focus between pre-salvation “evangelism” and post-salvation “discipleship.”
In preaching only an evangelistic message, we inadvertantly change the message itself. We present a Christianity that is about saying a prayer, asking Jesus into our hearts, or even repentence. Salvation is not the goal, it is the beginning! A relationship with Jesus is one that radically canges every aspect of our lives. Why would we present a simplified, reproducible message that avoids talking about the fullness and beauty (and indeed, difficulties) of living as redeemed people in a fallen world?
Maybe it’s our affinity for convenience that has led us to settle for marketing-campaign dissemination of information over the long-term disciple-making relationships Jesus modeled with His disciples. But discipleship is not sharing information, public discourse, or debate. It has little to do with the materials we have available, and is not quick and easy. Discipleship is a relationship. In fact, the Good News is a relationship. The gospel itself is a relationship, and relationship is the context through which it must be shared.
The way I see it, Christians have been intrepreting the “Great Commission” to be a call to evengelism, and they’ve been responding to that call by doing missions and going on mission trips. These are usually intentional forays into the world, where Christians leave the comfort and safety of their subculture in order to take the gospel to lost people. They prepare a “program” and memorize their gospel presentations. They put together skits and songs. They collect cotton balls and toungue depressors for craft time. They raise money.
The mission trip mindset is one that I’m less and less comfortable with. It’s all about a “come see” event that often resorts to bait-and-switch tactics in order to share our message. I’ve seen people use clowns and puppets, music, sports, even food to get people to come and hear. When I participated in the Summer Missions program at Gano Street Baptist Mission Center in Houston, Texas, I had the opportunity to really help people in need. I remember really trying to learn Spanish so that I could communicate with the people in the neighborhood. We drove a big truck through the slums distribuiting day-old bread that hed been donated. All we had to do was drive slowly and shout out “Pan!” The Spanish word for bread had people running to the truck for something to eat. We gave out clothing to people who need it. There was a huge clothes closet at the mission center, and I was always overwhelmed by people’s gratitude as they left with new clothes to wear to work and school. We played with children during the day so their parents wouldn’t have to leave them alone while they went off to work. In reality, it was glorified babysitting, but we did it because we wanted to love the people of Houston. We really did love the people we were ministering to, but sometime during every act of service we required that the people listen to a presentation of the gospel. For them, it was a hoop they had to jump through in order to receive the help they needed. For them, prayer time was waiting for the “Amen” so they could rush home and fill their stomachs, brush their teeth, or put on their new clothes. We thought we were sharing Jesus. Looking back, I think we were probably standing in His way.
“Let your light so shine before men,” the verse goes, “that they might see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” As I think about it, Gano Street Mission Canter, and many like it around the world have done tremendous work in selflessly ministering to people in need. They’ve done it in Jesus’s name. I just wish they didn’t always feel this need to tack the sermon on to the service. I think that selflessness and altruism and brotherly love are all supernatural things- not natural to humans but a result of God’s intervention. Our good works are evidence of God’s work in our lives, and that incarnational “picture” of Jesus really doesn’t require that we add the caption “This selfless act brought to you by Jesus.” I’m not saying that we souldn’t be quick to mention His name, nor that we sould leave any ambiguity as to why we do the things that we do. I’m just saying that “it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance.”
A group of volunteers once came to a major European city on a mission trip. They had prepared a series of dramatic skits that they hoped would allow them to share the gospel with nationals despite the language barrier. You might be familiar with the skits; each portrayed sin as the problem and Jesus as the answer. One used a cardboard box to show how sin can trap us; another showed how people often ignore Jesus throughout their daily routine. Several had actors pantomime smoking and drinking in an attempt at depicting the depravity of unbelievers. You might imagine how the drama troupe was received. Without some cultural and linguistic translation, the Gospel was not communicated. Worst of all, the good news message was somehow changed from “Jesus is Life” to “God hates people who smoke and drink.” For the European audience, it was hardly good news. While they did make the volunteers feel good about their efforts, the trite and cheesy skits only served to reinforce the perception of Christianity as irrelevant and powerless.
I recognize that there are some problems with “obedience as the strategy.” There are real questions of trust and control. Allowing the Holy Spirit to run our strategy would require us to trust each person with hearing and understanding God’s call on their life. We might not have control over where we send people. Plus, how do we decide where the money goes if we let God lead? And how would we measure results? Even worse, there would be no subjective way to rate performance. “84% obedient- try to work on that before you fall into the 70s- that calls for probation, you know.” We would have to trust the individual to maintain such a close personal fellowship with God that he or she knows what God wants for them and does it. We’d need to spend less time training our folks about church planting movements and more time teaching them who they are in Christ. We would have to put added emphasis on accountability, where our obedience actually could be measured within the context of relationship. But what a lot of work that would be! Better to make an across-the-board rule against drinking than to trust missionaries to make the right decisions regarding such cultural issues. Would that we had such an organization that associates were hired and fired based on personal accountability and pastoral guidance instead of projected personnel needs and rule book violations.
We depend on the terms “lostness,” “unreached,” and “the Task” to provide a standard by which we can measure our success. They were invented by strategists to help us get a handle on what we’re doing, and to assure the people back home that we’re making progress. We recently received a strategy report from the home office, in which our leadership outlined our strategy for the coming year. Basically, it stated that our organization needs X number of missionaries on the field in order to “finish the task.” They looked at the number of “unreached” people groups and decided that if we placed missionaries from our organization among those peoples, our job would be done. This plan was passed by the board and sent on to our leadership in the field. But this is a case of the performer dictating the standard by which his own performance should be measured. By sending out brochures and flyers and promotional videos, we teach people that success is possible and tangible and just around the corner. This works well to show that we are professionals who know what we’re doing. We’re in control, and you can trust us to use your donations well. But it is essentially a human-centered plan. We seem to have forgotten that God sometimes moves in mysterious ways.
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.
We need to understand that there is more than just a language barrier between us and the people to whom we minister. Cultural differences make relating to others very difficult- first, we need to recognize our own culture, then we need to learn a lot about theirs, and then we can begin to understand what translation would involve. Think of Lottie Moon, a great missionary to China in the 1800s. She recognized that her typically American way of being direct and confrontational was offensive to the Chinese. No one would listen to her message because they were offended by her delivery of it. Lottie, realizing the necessity of relevance, immersed herself in the culture. She gave up her western clothes and started dressing like the Chinese. She learned the language- not just enough to get by, but well enough that her accent no longer distracted her Chinese friends from what she was trying to say. For some reason, we see it clearly in the cases of the heroes of international missions, but we are blind to the cultural differences around us. Out of fear or pride we retreat from the world and create our own cultures and subcultures. Within these circles, it takes no time at all for us to lose the ability to relate to those around us.