2006 February

Don’t you hate when someone starts a discussion with “You know what your problem is?” They should just say, “You’ve got a problem, and you obviously don’t know what it is, so I’m going to tell you.” Either way, everyone is a critic (even me).

Some of the IMB’s most vocal critics are a group of folks within the SBC who are concerned about the theology of the Board and the missionaries it sends. Our president, they say, is too charismatic. ILC (MLC) training, they charge, is theologically weak. CPM, they claim, leaves too much room for heresy to sneak in. I’m not exactly sure who “They” are, but “They” are concerned that we’ve got a bunch of liberals in the mission field. That’s why, even though the Board requires that all missionary candidates be members-in-good-standing of a Southern Baptist Church, and that career personnel have seminary training, we all had to sign the BFM 2000- to prove to “Them” we weren’t liberals. Somehow, our signatures didn’t help ease “Their” concerns, so “They” had the trustees adopt some new policies that would keep liberals out of the ranks. Now, Southeastern Seminary students are organizing to collect evidence against IMB personnel who might be labeled liberal. (Ok, so maybe I do know who “They” are.)

If you’ve read any of my posts here, you know that I, too, am concerned about the strategy and missiology of my coworkers. But I’m coming from a different direction. I’m not worried about chasing down liberalism, or defending the faith. Because they are in different cultural contexts, and because they are seeing God move in different ways, most of our personnel who have been overseas for very long would seem liberal to many of “Them.” It might also have to do with the fact that most of our M’s in the field don’t get Fox News…

The churches that we are planting (or working to plant) are not drowning in watered-down theology. They are being suffocated by our models and worldview.

If you were to ask me (and yes, I realize that you didn’t), the best thing that the IMB could do to further our church planting efforts would be to stop hiring and sending Missionaries. I’m not talking about slowing the flow of personnel to the field; we need all the businessmen and artists and chefs and computer programmers we can get. What we don’t need is more Missionaries. Most of the people sent by the Board are pastors (who end up pastoring the churches they plant), youth ministers (who tend to build strong seeker-friendly youth groups instead of churches), or ministers of music/associate pastor types (who are all about new programs and events). It seems to me that the best way to avoid the influence of the American Christian religion and subculture on the churches we plant is to stop exporting it through our personnel.

I agree with those who say we need to rethink our understanding on missions and the church. We need to send people who are well-trained and qualified to plant churches. But the solution to our struggles isn’t a liberalism witch hunt, it’s in open dialogue.

Speaking of open dialogue, what do you think?

At the beginning of the Iraq war, I heard an American military analyst on CNN talking about how young American troops had a major advantage over their enemy due to the fact that most of them grew up playing video games. He went on to say that training time for pilots and drivers had been drastically reduced since most of the military machinery (fighter jets, tanks, etc.) had been outfitted with interfaces and controls that mimicked the those of video games. I thought that was interesting. It also makes me glad that Japan is an ally- those kids play video games in their sleep!

I wonder about that element of desensitization, too. You know, when a kid sees however many thousand acts of violence on TV before he reaches the age of twelve, it’s bound to make him flinch less when he sees people being shot. From a parent’s perspective, this is an outrage. From a military strategist’s point of view, however, it can actually be a good thing. It means that your soldiers aren’t going to be distracted from the job they’ve been assigned to by the violence it requires. Of you’ve seen it in “Saving Private Ryan” and “blackhawk Down,” you’re going to expect it in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Which brings me to the meeting we had the other day. Our leadership team was going over the information we use in training new personnel before they come to the field. One of the hardest things about preparing folks before they come is getting them ready for the postmodern Western European worldview. We assign books like Stan Grenz’s “A Primer on Postmodern” that teach about postmodernism, and we have them check out websites like Andrew Jones’ blog. But we still have people come over who have no concept of life beyond their modern rational worldview. So I put together a list of movies that do a good job of showing postmodernism as we seen it in Western Europe. The list included movies such as Fight Club, American Beauty, and Vanilla Sky. Oddly enough, almost all of the films on my list came out between 1999 and 2001. Unfortunately, all of them are rated R.

Even though there are many films that do a great job of illustrating postmodernism, we will not be sending this list of movies to new personnel. There is no way we can even suggest, much less assign, an R-rated movie as preparation and training material for new missionaries. The reasons, I think, are obvious.

I think there is value in studying the culture and those things that influence it. What if we could get our people used to European culture before they got here? The problem, of course, is that so much of the culture is defined by it’s sin. There is value in being exposed to the relativism, anti-consumerism, and cynicism that define this culture. But how can we expose ourselves to those attitudes without sitting through the foul language, sex, and violence that usually accompany them?

On the one hand, I want to say, “Watch the movie. Life and ministry in Europe (and the States, for that matter) requires that we be exposed to things that are not God-honoring. If you’re going to be offended by lost people doing lost people things, how are you going to spend time with them? That’s what the spiritual armor is for.” But on the other hand, I would say, “We’re surrounded by sin. We see it every day. What good can come from exposing ourselves to any more of it?”

So the question remains: How can we be PG people and yet minister in an R-rated world? I guess my answer would be that if we equip our people to be in tune with the Holy Spirit and to be students of the culture, we can be incarnational without becoming carnal.

There is an ongoing discussion within the convention about the Emerging Church Movement. Originally, it was seen as a mostly harmless group of “younger” leaders who pushing for authenticity and social involvement. Since then, due to the ambiguous nature and “more questions than answers” style of emergent authors like Brian McLaren, popular opinion has changed. Now, the label “emergent” is equated with “liberal” (or worse). People who are sympathetic to emerging church ideas are accused of abandoning truth in order to make our faith relevant to the world.

I admit that my worldview is different from most of my fellow missionaries. This is due in part to the fact that I am younger and that I was raised outside the Bible Belt. It may also be that living in Western Europe and investing my life into studying the culture and integrating into the community has led me to adopt some of their worldview. Either way, I am not typical.

Unlike most of my coworkers, I have yet to see a contemporary expression of our faith that I am comfortable with. I am tired of labels. I believe in God’s sovereignty, but I can’t stand the arrogance of most Calvinists. I’m open to new ways of doing church and living missionally, but I don’t want to be written off as “emergent,” “Generation X,” or “Postmodernist.” I can’t even grow a goatee. If I were to have a conversation with a member of the Board of Trustees about politics, they would most likely label me a liberal. Theologically, I’m very conservative, but our style of ministry would make many church members back home scratch their heads. I have a hard time trusting institutions; even the one that sends me. I believe that the Bible is without error, but that none of our interpretations is. I believe in truth, but I don’t believe any of us have it contained in a formula, book, or study guide. I am not Purpose Driven.

All of this is to say that most of my questions here are not born of any desire to make the gospel “cool” or “relevant” or “easier to swallow.” I understand that the Truth is offensive, and that it always runs counter to both human nature and the flow of culture. No, my questions aren’t about me making things work for them, I’m trying to make it work for me. (Philippians 2:12,13)

So even though a lot of my posts sound like sermons, and I tend to state my opinions as though they were fact, the purpose of this blog is for me to work out my salvation- my calling and ministry- by asking questions, exploring ideas, and being critical. I appreciate those of you who read, and those who take time to comment. That’s why I’m doing this, um, publicly; to hear from others who might be able to encourage and challenge me.

I want to understand my faith, and to be able to share it with others. I want to plant churches that are free of the modern American religion that I’m having such a hard time with. Marty Duren wrote an excellent post on this at SBC Outpost. If you haven’t read it, you should. I think many of us can relate to what he says about legalism.

One thing I’m becoming aware of is how negative some of my posts may sound. (All of my posts?) In my next couple of posts, I’m going to try to propose some positive solutions for making sense of things for myself and the culture I live in. Please feel free to add your own.

We’re always looking for churches that are interested in partnering with us as we plant churches here in Western Europe. God has been good to provide us with mission-minded churches that participate sacrificially in what God is doing around the world. Sometimes we go looking for partner churches. Every once in a while, one comes looking for us.

Recently, we were contacted by a well-known megachurch in the Convention that was looking for opportunities to plant “postmodern” churches in Western Europe. For us, that’s a pretty big deal. It’s like landing a big account, picking up a high-profile client, closing a big deal. Or some other corporate term that means “good for us.” Having big and rich partner churches means an unlimited volunteer pool, round-the-clock prayer support, and a few items crossed off the unfunded needs list. Immediately we started planning vision trips and prayer materials for our new partners. It wasn’t until we met with the church leadership back in the States that we realized things we’re going to work out.

Their idea of church planting was to reproduce their successful stateside model in other countries. They explained to me that they had been hard at work putting together resources that would make it easy to implement their strategy. All I had to do was join their church planting network, and for $250 US per year they would send me recordings of their pastor’s sermons and some study materials. My membership also qualified me to shop in their church planting network resources store, where I could buy a state-of the-art sound system, a video projector, and padded seats in one of three tasteful colors. That’s right, they wanted to sell me church in a box.

Picture it: a mini-megachurch in the heart of Western Europe. Weekly sermons, already translated into national languages, ready to be shown on the big screen. A video of inspirational, seeker-sensitive worship music, complete with a powerpoint presentation of the lyrics. The package even included advertising materials, such as professional-quality brochures, vinyl banners, and pre-recorded radio spots.

When I told the church leaders that we were trying to start churches that would be a little more indigenous, they stared blankly. When I asked if we could try something that was a little more culturally appropriate, they offered to take a hundred dollars off the cost of my membership to their church planter’s network. When I outlined our strategy, they laughed. “We’re not going to get involved in anything that won’t let our people see immediate results,” they said. “Our model has been proven to work here in the U.S., and we’re just looking for someone to do it overseas.”

Looking back, the whole interaction sounds silly.