2006 August

My favorite part about my “job” is hanging out with people. Even if it’s just sitting across from a friend in a coffee shop, I enjoy being in the moment of spending time with them. Any time that I have with a national is a gift from God. Really. There’s no way someone would want to spend time with me other than God compelling him do do so. I am literally that uninteresting. It actually took some time for me to get used to having people from here call and invite me to hang out with them. For the first couple of years, it was all I could do to keep from asking “Why are you asking me, of all people?” But God called me here to minister to people, so I know what (Who) motivates them.

I love that subtle pressure to think of something interesting to talk about, to keep the conversation going with witty questions and by showing interest in the other person. Eventually, you get to the kind of casual interaction that is so natural that you don’t mind the times you run out of things to say. At that point, you’re in a constant attitude of prayer as the Spirit prompts you to say the right thing at the right time. My friend shares about a struggle; I want to express my sympathy without coming across as condescending. He thinks out loud about world events; I learn what’s important to him. I want to encourage him in the Truth, so I’m prayerfully considering what he needs from me. It’s in that relational balance and personal human interaction that ministry really happens, and Truth is shared. People don’t feel like targets, and I don’t feel fake.

And the best part about it? I’m intentionally in touch with God, who knows both my friend and me inside and out. I don’t have to guess what he needs; God already knows. There’s not some terrible spiritual drain on me, because God uses my friend to minister to me as well. I open up and share personal struggles, I honestly relate the difficulty of working out my faith, and he sees, first hand, what life in Christ is like. These are the times I see God working. I’m reminded what He’s called me here to do, and I’m humbled as I remember that I’m insignificant in the whole process. I am thankful that I get to interact with nationals. That’s my favorite part of my job.

This is part 76 in my long-running series about word definitions…

Whenever someone shares a fresh perspective, or wants to challenge the status quo, he or she is bound to be misunderstood. It starts like this:

Copernicus: “Hey guys, I’m thinking that maybe the Earth isn’t the center of the solar system.”

Well-Intentioned Misunderstanding Guy: “So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.” Joshua 10:13

Misunderstanding Guy #1: “Are you saying that all of the astronomers that have gone before you are stupid? How arrogant!”

Misunderstanding Guy #2: “Oh, so you’re throwing out the entire concepts of planets, then? I suppose we’re all floating around in space on figments of our imagination, then.”

Misunderstanding Guy #3: “You’re a liberal.”

Misunderstanding Girl: “Why are you so negative all the time?”

Misunderstanding Old Guy: “When I was your age, I used to think the Earth revolved around the Sun, too.”

Misunderstanding Guy #1(again): “I defy you to prove your theory.”

Anonymous Misunderstander: “Yeah, but the Earth is still round.”

Of course, I’m no Copernicus. While I realize that what I write here is neither fresh nor challenging, I run into the same sorts of trouble. Say I question a commonly held missiology. Someone is bound to accuse me of being proud or ignorant or both.

The worst part of the misunderstanding game is having to preface everything I’m trying to say with everything that I’m not saying. People read one bit of a post and jump to conclusions. If a key word is used or some vaguely familiar reasoning is appealed to, the labels come out and the communication ceases. That’s why we can’t talk about miracles without adding the disclaimer: “I’m no Charismatic, but…”

“I affirm the Baptist Faith and message, but…”

So someday, I’m going to put together a book that contains all the things I’m not saying. By questioning the wisdom of a rule, I’m not being disrespectful of those who set the rule. When I say that we need to live out our faith, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t tell people about Jesus. Don’t get upset when I write “I’m uncomfortable calling myself a missionary” or “I don’t go to church” until you know (or at least have made an effort to know) what I’m actually saying.
If you have a question, please ask! That way we can discuss what’s being said, instead of arguing over what isn’t.

An anonymous commenter on my last post disagrees with the distinction between home culture “missions” and what I’m calling “host culture missions.” You can thank him for this post. Unless, of course, you actually like this post. I which case, please thank me.

My assertion: If the word “missions” means “telling people about Jesus” or even, “Sharing one’s faith by living out a culturally relevant evangelistic lifestyle,” then we need to come up with a new word for cross-cultural, um, “missions.”

Let me be clear: I do not believe that international ministry is any better or more important than home ministry. Ministry to people of your own culture can be as difficult as crossing cultures, and there are many similarities. But they are not the same. Sure, there are culture differences between New York City and, say, Paducah, Kentucky. I think I experienced worse culture shock when I moved to the Midwest than I did moving to Western Europe. But kids in Dallas watch the same television shows and get their news from the same news outlets and eat the same cheeseburgers as kids in Boise. The commonality of influences serves to lessen the culture barrier.

I know I’ve got it easy here. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a culture that has absolutely nothing in common with my home culture. I live in Western Europe, in a country that westernized, civilized, and modern. Despite all that I might have in common with the people here, I am not like them. I did not grow up with the same influences and national experiences they did. This means that for me to share my faith in a way that makes sense to them, I must translate my relationship with God and it’s impact on my life into their culture.

By the way, if you’re out of touch with your home culture, it’s because you’ve taken measures to insulate yourself from it. We should all be students of the cultural context in which we minister, and if you don’t have anything to talk about with a lost person, you’re to blame.

When David Rogers tags you, you play along.

1. One book that changed your life: Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak
2. One book that you’ve read more than once: Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
3. One book I’d want on a desert island: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
4. One book that made me laugh: A Series of Unfortunate Events, Lemony Snicket
5. One book that made me cry: The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein
6. One book that you wish you had written: The Fall of the House of Usher, Edgar Allan Poe
7. One book you wish had never been written: The Growth Spiral, Andy Anderson
8. One book that you are currently reading: The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon
9. One book that you’ve been meaning to read: The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand

I’m sure this might sound like a poorly disguised attempt to find a job, but it isn’t. Not exactly, anyway. Lately all I can think about is what I would do if I weren’t doing, well, whatever it is I do. Maybe it’s that everyone is on vacation for the month and the city is empty. Maybe I’m having another third-to-mid-life crisis or something. Whatever the cause, I can’t get this thought out of my head: If I were to pack up and move back to the United States, what would I do?

I’d want to live in a city. I’m addicted to the fast-paced urban jungle life. The suburbs would bore me and a rural setting would kind of freak me out. After years of simple/house church, I certainly couldn’t ever go back to the traditional sort, so I’d have to find some like-minded individuals to be my spiritual family and to help me plant other spiritual families. That much I’m sure of.

I would definitely get a job. I’m not really skilled at anything, so I’m not sure what I’d do, exactly, but I’m really not comfortable as a professional minister. What sort of job requires no special skills, pays well, and would allow plenty of free time for me to plant churches? Other than the job I already have, I mean. I could wait tables, or serve coffee, provided I didn’t have to remember orders or actually make the coffee. I guess there’s always politics.

One of the unfortunate side-effects of being on the field is the isolation. Email and prayer newsletters can’t make up for the years of my experience here while life has marched on there. My friends and family back home don’t know me, they remember me. Needless to say, I don’t have a lot of “contacts” that could help me find a job or get involved planting churches. It’d be like starting from scratch.

The other big side-effect of being a missionary is financial. We are well taken care of here. The IMB does a tremendous job of making sure that we have everything we need, and even a lot of things we don’t need. Despite the complete support of the faithful people who send us, it is very difficult to save money on the field. Some of it has to do with how expensive it is to live in Western Europe. More of it has to do with the cost of flying home on vacation. More than I’d like to admit has to do with the fact that we have Starbucks here… Starting over in the U.S. would be an expensive endeavor. A car. A house or apartment, at least enough to pay the rent until I got a job. Thinking about money gives me a headache.

Anyway, this question of “life after missions” is really bothering me. Even though I’m not planning on returning to the States any time soon, I feel like it’s a question I should have answered or at least thought through. Just in case.

It’s time to change the lingo of missions. (Including the word “missions.”) Really. Hardly any of the words that we use to talk about cross-cultural ministry accurately describe the work of our people on the field. Many of our words actually work against us. Take, for example, the idea of “reaching” people. What does that mean? I know what we mean when we say it (at least I think I do…), but I’ve heard it used to describe many of very different activities. The term is too ambiguous to allow for any sort of meaningful communication.

When we say “missions,” we make it sound like we’re part of some military operation. Yeah, I’m aware of the war analogies and imagery in the Bible, but using militaristic words like “target,” or “strategy” only go to reinforce the erroneous mentality that people are our enemies, and that we’re here to either “hit them and run” or stay as an occupying force. Neither is good missiology.

Instead of the role of “Strategy Coordinator” what about “Contextualizer?” Or “Cultural Translator?” These sorts of terms better describe the real work of a missionary, and they leave out the militaristic/political word, “strategy.”

“Church Planter” would be okay if we were talking about God.

“Evangelism.” For the vast majority of believers today, it seems that the word “evangelism” has come to mean “preaching a summary of the Message.” I think it’s sad that we’re not creative enough to come up with a word in our own language to describe the process by which the Good News culturally translated, shared and received. On our team, we use the term “Sharing Life” to refer to this process. We work to get involved in people’s lives, knowing that as they get to know us, they will also get to know our Savior. We live in such a way as to support everything we say about Jesus so that (hopefully) it all makes some sense to them.

“Volunteers.” Technically, this one is appropriate, since we use it to refer to people who come to work with (for) us at their own expense. I’d prefer the word “partner.” A volunteer is someone who is doing you a favor. A partner is serving out of obedience, and therefore has equal stake in the work of the ministry. The term also helps narrow the difference between the professionals and the laity.

The biggest reason to change our missions vocabulary is that it isn’t biblical. Why don’t we call our “M’s” “Disciplers?” or “Disciple-makers?” Maybe something like “Proclaimers” to describe the ongoing announcement of the kingdom. I like “Workers;” not as a substitution for “missionary,” but as a good way to describe God’s people doing what they were created for, and doing those things that cause the people around them to glorify the Lord.

A new vocabulary would help shape our general attitude toward the Commission.
I think it would also help us do a better job of communicating what we’re doing on the field, and what God is doing among the people of the world.

What “missions” words would you change? What replacements would you suggest?