2006 April

I recently attended a conference workshop where the speaker asked a lot of questions. She was talking about postmodernism (yeah, we still have to have the “Postmodernism” talk every time we get together), and sharing from her experience with a postmodern European guy. She presented their interaction as a case study, to illustrate the challenge of cultural translation of the good news. After she told her story she, for the sake of discussion, asked her audience: “So what would you do if you were in my shoes and ministering to this postmodern European guy?”

And then it began.

Instead of taking the speaker’s question (she is an excellent communicator, by the way) as a conversation-starter, they heard her asking for advice on how to handle the situation. Never mind the fact that the speaker was asked to speak because of her wisdom and experience in ministry to postmoderns. Never mind that she had already been ministering to this individual for some time. People actually raised their hands and offered their answers to her “problem!”

“Have you tried confronting him about his sin?”“You should give him a copy of ‘Evidence That Demands A Verdict.’”

“I’d move him to the back burner and look for someone more open to the gospel.”

I’ll admit that I was secretly comforted by the response the speaker received. I’ve often found myself in the same situation; asking questions to inspire discussion but met with words of advice from an oblivious audience. Until now, I thought it was me.

Now, please don’t hear me say that I don’t want or need the wisdom of others. I, of all of us, certainly do. But there’s something disheartening about interactive discussion being shut down by a know-it-all. More than the answers, I think it’s the attitude that ruins things. It’s the “I’ve already got these things figured out. I’ll go to the trouble of sharing the solutions with you, but I won’t venture to honestly revisit the question.” You can almost hear them saying: “Look, I gave you the answer. I solved your problem. If you spend any more time talking about it, you’re a fool.”

But what that says to people like me (as if there were more than just me) is that the know-it-alls don’t really have it figured out at all. They have a working “solution,” and either for fear, laziness, or ignorance, won’t suffer questioning it again. I never want to be that guy. But for some reason, our subculture often seems to hold “that guy” up as the leader.

I am encouraged, though. It’s been a long time since “that guy” has been invited to lead a workshop.

I say, let’s ask questions. Even the ones we answered a long time ago. Especially the ones that are scary to ask. Let’s, for the sake of discussion, re-ask questions about God and His people from the perspective of know-nothings. I think there’s a lot to be learned by asking questions. Don’t you?

1. Kate Winslet was in Titanic with Leonardo DiCaprio2. Leonardo DiCaprio was in Catch Me If You Can with Tom Hanks

3. Tom Hanks was in Apollo 13 with Kevin Bacon

You’re probably familiar with the game “Six Degrees of Separation (Kevin Bacon),” where one player picks an actor, and the other players list a string of co-stars and supporting actors that connect that actor to Kevin Bacon. Apparently, Kevin Bacon is the center of the film universe. If you’ve never tried it, you should. If you’re lazy, or if you don’t want to admit to watching rated-R movies, there’s a Bacon Calculator to do it for you at the “Oracle of Bacon.”

Lately I’ve been reminded of the Kevin Bacon game a lot. I spent the last week talking with missionaries from around Western Europe, and I was encouraged to hear their stories. I really had no idea what some of them were doing in their places of service (and in more than one case, I had never even heard of their place of service). Anyway, one thing that struck me about nearly every story I heard was how they related the great spiritual need they they found every day. It seemed like everyone I spoke with felt the need to tell me how lost their people group or city really was.

For example:
“We’re working with university students in Salamanca. There are one hundred and fifty thousand students there, and the city is less than point-five percent evangelized.”

“Our team is working with Cambodians in Dusseldorf, and they are the largest UPG in the world.”

It’s not just the numbers. As if work in a city of five million was somehow more important than work in a village of thirty thousand. Ok, so maybe it is the numbers that bother me. But I’ve written enough about how I don’t think we should let numbers determine our strategy. My question now is about degrees of “lostness.” Are some people more lost than others? What is it that makes missionaries measure their importance by the perceived challenge of “reaching” a bigger, “loster” people group?

Is a historically “Christian” people group closer to Jesus than a Muslim one? Maybe we should measure lostness by distance from the land where Jesus Himself walked (as the crow flies). Should we consider the ones that sin more to be further from salvation? Maybe the less civilized? I guess that biblically, we could argue that the richer nations have a harder time entering the Kingdom…

So now we’re back to the Kevin Bacon game: Are there degrees of separation from God? Are some people more lost than others? I get that some people are more spiritually minded than others, and that some are nearer than others to that point of belief that comes with a relationship with the Creator. And of course, God uses encounters with believers to draw people to Himself. But if a person or people group is separated from God, aren’t they still only one step away from Him? I believe that people are only separated by one degree from God. After all, it isn’t us that bridge the gap between them and Him. Forget Kevin Bacon, Jesus is the relational center of the universe.

I have devoted the last four years of my life to the study of a language and culture that are not my own. When I started, I thought of these people only in stereotypes and generalities. Every new observation or bit of insight was applied to the whole. “Everyone here,” I can remember thinking, “hates me because I’m an American.” To me, the rude guy at the gas station represented an entire nation of rude people just like him. The poor customer service at the post office meant that it didn’t exist anywhere in the country. Ok, so maybe some of my observations were universal.

Life in another language is like taking a cold shower. The best way to start is to just jump in all at once. Even then, you don’t enjoy it. We say that we get used to it, but really we just become so numb it doesn’t bother us anymore. It takes about a month to get over the feeling that everyone around is talking about you. Another month before you can tell the difference between angry shouting and just regular talking. Every week after that, your chances increase that you’ll get what you think you ordered in a restaurant. I love picture menus, even though the food never really looks as good in person.

So now I know stuff. I know that I’m not the only one that the waiter is rude to, and that the person I’m meeting will be late, but if I am, I’ll get a text message asking where I am. I can really notice how much I’ve learned when new people come. Volunteers can be pretty oblivious, but other missionaries are the best barometers of cultural acclimation. I love the feeling of knowing what’s going on while the new guy is totally lost. I replace “When I was your age…” with “when I first got here…,” but otherwise, I’m the wistful old man of our team. All I need now is a rocking chair (and a porch), and I could keep you up all afternoon telling stories of times when I put my foot in my mouth or accidentally called a police officer a woman to his face.

I continue to study because it’s my job and I’m fascinated by it. I love learning why people here do what they do. Especially when they don’t even know. In a way, all this study, all this intentional living amongst these people makes me a bit of an expert. I’m not trying to sound proud or anything, but I most likely know more about the people to whom I’m ministering than you do. (Easy for me to say since I haven’t exactly told you who the people are.) Odds are that you’ve never even met someone from my people group, much less turned down the alcoholic beverage he offered while sitting on his sofa watching home videos of his niece’s Confirmation.

So that’s what I bring to the table. I’m not a good public speaker, and I don’t know how to play any musical instruments. But I have cultural insight that is unique to the people I work with here in Western Europe. I can tell you how someone from this city might respond to a gospel presentation. I know how they are likely to view us as outsiders, and I’m familiar with their felt needs. I have seen glimpses of the Church in this culture, and it doesn’t look very much like it does in American culture. In a lot of ways, that has been the payoff for all the work and stress of living in another culture; to see the Church in a different light.

Thank you for supporting us to be students of these different cultures. Thank you for trusting us to represent Jesus among people that aren’t looking for Him. Thank you for allowing us to translate the gospel into these cultures and plant indigenous churches that worship God in their own languages. Thank you for providing a way for me to do what I’m called to do.

One of the most difficult things about this job, as any professional minister will tell you, is figuring out what the job is. Sure, lots of churches go to great lengths to define the roles of their staff members. And I answered a pretty well-written job request when I came to the field. But no matter how hard we try to make it look like one, my job will never be a real job. Even if I punch a clock, it won’t ever begin at 8:30 am and end at 6:00 pm. Being a church planter defies planning. Preparation, of course, but there is no way to schedule the birth and growth of a spiritual family.

Busyness comes in waves. We’ll have a hundred volunteers in one month, and that’s when national friends come out of the woodwork to spend time with us. Then we’ll go months without a call. We find ourselves pursuing anyone who will take our calls. So far, the only way we’ve found to guarantee that people call us is to schedule a vacation. As soon as we book our flights we’re certain to get an invitation to a wedding or baptism or soccer game.

A lot of what we do seems like busywork. We fill out reports. We start projects, make contacts, and build websites. Sometimes, it’s easy to get so caught up in the preparation for ministry that we don’t have time to, you know, minister.

I’m still not sure if we all start out that way, or if it’s being on the field that affects us, but missionaries are weird. We work really hard to learn language, which ends up making us really dumb in our own language. We talk about missing things like Wal-Mart and American Idol and customer service. We still wear the clothes we bought off the Gap sale rack while we were on our last stateside assignment. In 1997.

Our job depends on something only God can do. Only He can save someone. Only He knows the heart of the people we’re here to love. Only He can start a movement of faith among these people. My job is “Church Planter,” but only God can plant a church. Sometimes, I wish I was a mechanic or something. A job where you’re done when the car is fixed or the clock strikes six, whichever comes first.

I had been here six months when I found myself talking with a friend who was not a believer. The only English he spoke was the HTML code he had picked up in a “Web Design for Dummies” class. I had only been studying his language since I arrived on the field, so I could hardly claim to be fluent. As usual, we started off talking about politics. Anarchy, I think, or something else I know nothing about. Then we got to the topic of family. His was very important to him, but he often felt suffocated by their constant dependence on him. He hated always having to help his grandparents and run errands. I say, that’s what you get for living at home until you’re 32.

Our leisurely discussion explored the limits of my language skills. I’ve always measured how well I can speak by how much the other person scrunches their face as they work to understand me. In any given conversation, my friend would go from a James Dean to a Gilbert Gottfried. He was at about a Dirty Harry when we got into spiritual things that day, and I was struggling to find the words to express such abstract concepts as forgiveness, prayer, and Vacation Bible School. I started to pray panic prayers when I realized that he was very interested in what I had to say, but that my language level wasn’t yet good enough to allow me to communicate.

But something happened as I shared my faith with my friend. Actually, nothing happened, which was strange. We just kept on talking. About knowing our creator, and about fuller life and about purpose. We talked about Jesus, and I shared some of my most personal thoughts about my faith. My friend told me that if he were ever going to believe in a god, that mine was the kind he’d like to believe in. Before our talk, he didn’t even know Jesus was a way, much less the way.

It wasn’t until I was home, praying for my friend to be haunted by the truth in our conversation, that I realized how un-scrunched my friend’s face had been while we talked. My friend had understood me, and he hadn’t been distracted by my American accent that often gets in the way. I had said things correctly in a language I had hardly known. We had talked about things I wasn’t capable of discussing. I had used words I had never learned. He didn’t have to correct me, help me, or ask his usual “What is it that you’re trying to say?” He heard Good News in his heart language.

The discussion replayed over and over in my mind that night, like one of those television dramas that frames the flashbacks in hazy, blurry border in order to make them seem more, you know, dramatic. I am convinced that the Holy Spirit spoke for me that day. I’m certain that He gave me words beyond my ability in order to communicate with my friend through me. Something supernatural had happened. Just to keep me humble, I had a miserable experience at a restaurant that night. I didn’t get what I thought I had ordered. The waiter didn’t understand me.

I don’t speak in tongues. I’m not allowed to. IMB policy prohibits me from participating in that sort of thing. It might not have been only the Holy Spirit that helped me, anyway. It was probably more like half Him, and half the intensive language course that I had taken. In fact, maybe I was just having a really good language day that day. I’ve been praying for more of those every day.