2006 July

Steve McCoy killed his Missional Baptist Blog last week. It was a great forum for missional folks to connect with likeminded people and discuss everything from theology, ministry, culture, and whatever else we wanted. I am thankful for Steve’s hard work in maintaining it, and always keeping the discussion fresh and interesting. While I admit that my favorite comment threads were the ones where some wacko would come in and make a couple of crazy remarks and Steve would end up banning him, I think it’s really cool that he shut it down.

Why? Because he says that it served its purpose. His blog networked many of the missional leaders in the States and on the mission field. We’ve worked together to define what we’re about, and we’ve shared ideas of how that might look in the real world. Now, most of us have our own blogs, many of which feature the same comments we were making on his site. Missional Baptist Blog had done what Steve set out to do with it, and now it is time to move on. I think we could learn something from that.

What if all the pastors that read his blog stood up in front of their churches this Sunday, and instead of preaching a sermon, simply announced that they were going to let the church die? Something like: “Folks, I have an announcement to make. We’re selling the building, and I’m getting a job at Home Depot.” I think it would be a great thing. I’m wondering if most of our churches haven’t already reached their expiration date.

Has your church built up leaders? Do you have a real spiritual family that is missionally active in the community? Have you subdivided into Bible Study groups or cell groups? Maybe it’s time to shut everything else down. You don’t need a building. You don’t need professional ministers. You don’t need any of the programs that you’ve got going on. If the system that you’ve maintained has served its purpose, shut it down.

I believe that this sort of thing is what it would take to make “Christianity” as we know it in the 21st century make sense for me, and I don’t think I’m alone.

I’ve just finished answering D Birchfiel’s “Seven Questions.” You can read my responses at OKpreacher, assuming that he decides to post them. One of the questions he asks is, “What do you wish Southern Baptists knew about your ministry?” That was the most difficult question for me to answer; not because I didn’t have anything to say, but because I had such a hard time narrowing it down to just one (or two…) That, of course, got me thinking about all that I wish the people that send and support me knew about missions in general, and our ministry specifically.

Here’s a list of things I wish you knew:

-We appreciate you. I know that there is no way I would be on the field if it wasn’t for your monetary support, and no way I’d be able to stay here without your prayers.

-Missions is not the same as evangelism. It seems like so many of us confuse the two. Missions is more than gospel proclamation, or even sharing Christ across cultures. It is about incarnational living that demonstrates what life in Christ might look like for people in the host culture. We call it cultural translation, and it’s hard to quantify.

-We cling desperately to emotional, financial, and prayer support that you have committed to us. When we hear about divisive arguing and politics among the people we depend on, it makes us nervous.

-We don’t send three-color printed brochure newsletters anymore. We blog. If you read our blogs, you can get a better idea of what life is like for us.

-We feel like dorks. We are a bunch of nobodies that God sent to other places. Sometimes I wonder if He wasn’t just sparing you from our presence in the States! It makes us uncomfortable that you would allow us to represent you on the mission field.

-We expect you to do the same thing we’re doing. Granted, most of you don’t have to learn a new language, but your job really is the same as ours. Only we have better medical coverage.

-God is working overseas. He’s doing amazing, supernatural things that constantly remind us of His presence and grace. We see it on a regular basis. Forgive us for not consistently sharing it with you, it’s just that sometimes we think you wouldn’t understand.

-We like when you ask questions about our work or otherwise show interest in what we’re doing. It reminds us that we’re part of a bigger family, and that our ministry matters to someone.

So I guess those are some of the things I wish you knew about our ministries. Now you know.

It happens every week. The shiny silver saucer floats down the pew, picking up fingerprint smudges and wadded-up bills. Or maybe your church uses those velvet bags with the wooden handle horns that jingles with change and does cartwheels as it’s passed from hand to hand. We call it the “offering.”

You put in some money, 10% of your income, maybe more. Maybe less. You give some pocket change or a check, you might even use pink little envelopes that have your name pre-printed on them next to little boxes you can check if you read your Bible that week or brought a friend to church with you. You might give with joy, celebrating God’s provision. Maybe you give begrudgingly, out of duty or guilt or tradition. Or maybe you’re excited to give, knowing where the money is going and how it will be used.

Thank You.

Thank you for giving money to support us. I know it isn’t really us your giving to, but God. But without your gifts, we couldn’t be here. Without the faithful giving and cooperation of God’s people back home, we wouldn’t get to know the blessing of seeing God work in these different cultures. I have benefited from your generosity. I have been able to follow God’s lead in my life and represent you on the mission field. He is using your obedience and sacrifice to support mine. I understand that with your support comes great responsibility. I don’t deserve the funding I receive. I haven’t really earned the trust you put in me. But I know how important it is for me to be a good steward of that support, and to administer the money in a way that pleases God, and extends the Kingdom.

Thank you.

A few days ago, I took part in a great discussion about faith. A Catholic, an Atheist, an Agnostic, and I (sounds like the beginning to a bad joke) sat around a table in the smoking section of a cafe that was really too small to go to the trouble of designating “sections.” We took turns sharing what we believed, but mostly what we didn’t believe, and we let everyone speak their mind. After that, we sat in silence while we all processed how differently each of us approach and express our spirituality. The Catholic is religious, but hardly spiritual. The Atheist is spiritual, but in a soulful, dreadlocks and hemp poncho sort of way. The Agnostic is not so much religious as superstitious. As usual, I presented myself as spiritual but not religious. When I say it that way it makes me sound like such a rebel.

After the silence, the Agnostic (appropriately) asked us, “But how do you know?”

Looking back, I’m not exactly sure what she meant by the question. I guess I wasn’t the only one guessing, though, because we each took turns answering a different version of it.

“You know a religion is right for you when it is such an influential part of your family and cultural history,” the Catholic answered. “Common sense should give you some clues,” said the Atheist, accidentally sounding snobbish. “You just know,” was the only answer I could come up with. I immediately wished I had come up with something better, you know, more evangelistic.

But then I got to thinking, how do I know? Jesus is the Son of God. He is the Way to the Father. Salvation is found only in Him, and He came that we might have real life; I believe all of this to be true. But how do I know?

I know because I have been convinced by supernatural means. I believe something that is unbelievable because something unbelievable happened to me. I know I have been born again in the same way I know I was born physically. And I know because in Christ, I am not the person I would otherwise be. I know because God has opened my eyes to the spiritual reality.

The national language differentiates between two types of knowledge. One can “know” something in the factual sense of the word. I know where the bank is, I know my phone number, and I know how to drive a car. But there is also another type of knowing, one that explains one’s relationship with the subject. This type of knowing starts with an introduction and deepens in familiarity through time and experience. I know the store keeper. I know the city.

Next time I sit down with the group of friends, that’s the word I’m going to use, and that’s what I’m going to tell them. “You know…” I’ll say, “Ever since our talk about our faith a couple weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about that question…” And that’s when I’ll tell them how I know.

Last week, we were visited by a church planting professor from one of our seminaries. He taught a seminar for some of the workers in our country as part of the IMB’s professor-exchange program. He shared church plating strategies and theories, and some basic principles from scripture.

I sent our Journeymen.

These girls have been great at building relationships and engaging the culture here. I’ve learned a lot from them about sharing life with people by publicly working out their faith. They are pioneers in relational church planting in Western Europe. Their experience makes them the experts; there really isn’t anyone who can teach them how to minister in this context. Unfortunately, these particular Journeymen don’t feel as though they know what they’re doing. They don’t understand that despite being young and not having seminary degrees, they are leading the way for cross-cultural missional church planting in the world. There aren’t any books written about it. There are no formulas, programs, or training materials to teach them how to do their jobs. They are learning by doing and having a great time on the journey.

The Journeymen came back from their time with the church planting professor very discouraged. It seems that the professor, who has tremendous experience and by nature of his position presents himself as an expert in all things church planting, questioned a lot of what the Journeymen were doing. His questions, of course, were coming from a perspective of no cultural insight, and no understanding of our team. He bullied them. Why weren’t they passing out Jesus films? he asked. Why were they just hanging out with nationals if that hadn’t worked yet? Why weren’t people coming to the Lord and churched being planted? Why don’t you just…?

On an academic level, these are good questions, and a good start to a discussion that needs to take place. When I met the professor for coffee the following week, we had a great conversation. But the girls still haven’t recovered from it. They are still questioning their ministries, and the direction of the team. “We’d hate to do it and our friends would hate us, but maybe we should be passing out tracts.” “What’s the point of doing relational ministry of it takes years and years to build a relationship in Western Europe and I’m only here for two or three?”

So now I’m trying to encourage them. The professor doesn’t know our context, I reasoned. Our strategy is not accidental, I remind them.

So now I’m convinced: seminary training doesn’t make us better church planters.

Despite the fact that people are always telling me that history is important, I’ve never really been a history buff. In fact, I learned nearly everything I know about history by watching Hollywood movies. I didn’t even know about the Apollo 13 thing until, well, Apollo 13. Forest Gump taught me about three Presidents, Elvis Presley, and the Black Panthers. Saving Private Ryan exposed me to the horrors of World War II… okay, so maybe Tom Hanks taught me all the history I know.

Anyway, I read something the other day about how a large percentage of the homeless population in the U.S. are veterans of the war in Vietnam. Many of them came home after the war and were never able to integrate back in to American life and culture; at least not enough to hold down a job and support a family. I guess it would really change a person to be recruited by his country (or worse still, drafted) into the military, trained to kill people and blow things up, and sent off to fight Asian Communists. I can’t imagine how war must affect a person. But I don’t think that war is the only reason we can still find veterans walking down the middle of the street talking to themselves in obscenities at three o’clock in the morning. I think it’s America’s fault.

I think that Americans weren’t really all that into the fight against communism in the first place, and when President Johnson sent all those boys to Vietnam, the country was indifferent. While they were gone, Americans decided they were against this unwinnable war, and began to resent it. They protested against it. And when the boys came back they weren’t welcomed with the ticker-tape parades like the heroes of WWII. No, they were showered with shouts of “Baby Killer!” and other mean things. No wonder the soldiers didn’t fit in when they got back. They did exactly what they were trained and sent to do, and when they got home, we blamed them.

Sometimes it seems like that same sort of thing happens to missionaries.

Now I would never even consider comparing the experience of a soldier fighting in a physical war to what we go through on the field. Especially not those of us in Western Europe. The comparison I’m making is not to the effects of the battle, but to the necessity of support from those who sent us, and the profound effects of anything less than total support.

My recruitment to work for the IMB began when I was four years old. It was a denominational program called “Mission Friends,” and we were taught about brave IMB missionaries who left their homes and went to live among the primitive tribes of Guatemala or wherever. My missions education continued throughout my life: Royal Ambassadors, Sojourners, Centrifuge. They told me what missions was, and how it was done.

So I “enlisted.” I felt God’s calling and made the decision to enter “full-time ministry,” whatever that meant. I went to a Baptist University for training, and then on to Seminary. Both trained me well in the ways of church planting, Bible scholarship, and cross-cultural communication. The IMB put me through a crash-course orientation, and I was off to the “Foreign Field.”

We hit the ground running. We sought out Persons of Peace and worked to learn the language and engage the culture. We started groups and shared our faith. And it affected us. We worked to live out our faith in this foreign context, and it changed us. Doing what we were sent to do had the side effect of allowing us to see ourselves from another perspective. We found it harder and harder to relate to the fat, lazy American Christians and their fat, lazy American Christianity; so full of themselves and their politics and their megabuildings. We began to resent being sent by religious people that wanted us to set up American franchise churches and who threw money at us to “just do our jobs.” We grew frustrated with the increasingly restrictive rules that they imposed without any regard for the impact those rules might have on our ministries. We are becoming jaded.

It wasn’t until the first time I returned to the States on vacation that I realized that the churches, those same people that cheered us on and prayed over us at our appointment, had changed, too. New missions trends, theories, and ideas had swept through the Christian subculture, and the focus had moved on to different unreached people groups. Missions-minded churches were still sending volunteers, but they craved something more “extreme.” Some churches focused only on local “missions,” buying into the idea that overseas ministry is only for rich megachurches. The majority seems to think that by getting involved in IMB politics and trustee antics they are somehow supporting us and furthering the kingdom work. The churches sent us, and then for whatever reason, forgot us.

Now missionaries compete with other missionaries for support. We talk up our flashy new programs to try to get volunteers to come to us and not to Central Asia. We tell stories of how hard it is here to legitimize our work, to prove to you that we, too, are doing real missions. We print up professional-quality prayer cards to attract your attention to our photo on your refrigerator.