2006 June

For the last few days, I’ve been reading about Jesus in the Gospels. (I got the idea from Mentanna) I’ve been thinking about how all followers of Jesus see Him through their own cultural lenses. All of them. And I’m struck by the idea that our different interpretations of Jesus can be so, well, different.

Reading just the Gospels has challenged my perspective on Jesus. If you read about Jesus without reading the rest of the Bible (not that we should…), you would likely get, well, a different Jesus. You might get a Jesus who is:

Pro-taxes (Render unto Caesar…) Matthew 22:21Concerned about helping the needy (Especially widows and orphans) Matthew 25:40Anti-violence/war (Turn the other cheek) Matthew 5:39Anti-religion (Rebuked religious leaders) Mark 12:38-40Concerned with Personal Health (Healed the sick) Mark 8:22Against Unethical Capitalism (Money-changers in the Temple) Matthew 21:12Remained in the Jewish tradition (His religion was Jewish, not Christian) Matthew 12:35Made and Drank Alcohol (Cana Wedding) John 2:1-11Grace instead of Judgement: Luke 6:36-38Forgiveness over Justice: Luke 6:28-30Told stories instead of preaching sermons: Matthew 13:34Left the meaning unclear: Mark 10:4-11

Never planted a church…

This Jesus would be called a “Liberal” by some believers today.

Anyway, just an observation. I understand that we should look at all of Scripture, but I’m wonder how much of the “Christian religion” is based on the teachings of Christ.

Last weekend, I sent my Jman girls to Madrid for a church planting class taught by a visiting seminary professor from the states. They said that they really liked what the teacher had to say, but that they came away discouraged, feeling like he didn’t approve of our team’s strategy as they shared it with him. Now, he’s invited himself to visit our team’s house church time next week.

Now I’m feeling defensive. Is he coming to confront us about the direction of our work? Why would he want to sit in on our worship time? We don’t really invite others to come along, so it will be strange, anyway.

The guys in boy bands aren’t usually friends that grew up together, singing barber-shop quartet songs on the street corner for tips. No, they are strategically selected by professionals through shopping mall casting calls that attract thousands of talented applicants. 23 seconds to prove you’ve got the right stuff, and then “Next!”

“We’ve got the ‘Bad’ boy, the sporty one, the funny one, the good dancer… We need the cute one!”

In a lot of ways, putting together a church planting team with the IMB is a similar process. We know what we want before we know who we have. Our time on the field and Spirit-led strategy tell us what sort of team we need on the field. A strong self-starter. Someone with administration skills. At least one who is gifted in evangelism. A couple that can lead us in prayer. In our minds, we put together the perfect church planting team designed specifically for the location, culture, and strategy. Like a missionary boy band. We write personnel requests for each of the positions and then let the organization handle the selection process.

Which is good until my “Already has the language, gifted in teaching, experienced graphic designer.” request is filled with a “Willing to learn the language, gifted encourager, slightly interested in design” applicant. Hey, we can only send people who apply. Then there’s that balance: Someone with experience, but not so much that they come in thinking they’ve got all the answers. Young, but not immature. Outgoing, but not annoying. Flexible, but reliable. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it would look like if I could put together my “dream team.” Guess what? It would look a lot like the team I’ve got now. Here’s an example of who I’m looking for right now:

ISC Couple. (Career workers are over-rated and expensive)
Age: 28-34 (Young, but not too young)
From: California (Outside the Bible belt, with postmodern worldview)
Children: None (Hard to go out all night with kids)
Education: University, Graduate School (People here are highly educated)
Abilities: Language, team player, Cultural adaptation (Basically, someone with a head start)
Experience: Three years teaching in public schools. Published author, songwriter. (“Secular” experience, artistic/creative)
Spiritual Gifts: Teaching (discipleship), Encouragement (team maintenance)

You might look at the profile I’ve written and say, “Yeah, we’re all looking for them to be on our team. But I’d like to add a couple of things. I’m looking for someone who fits the above criteria and:

Doesn’t think drinking is wrong. This almost always results in what I like to call “condemnation evangelism.” We need people who aren’t so totally overwhelmed by the sin of the people that they can’t see, well, the people. Sin is flaunted in front of us, but we have to be able to recognize and appreciate the good things this culture has to offer, and to be able to learn from these people.

Isn’t worried about their “witness”: The fact of the matter is that here in Europe, you don’t have a witness. That you don’t drink, smoke, or use certain words does not communicate anything, especially to people that do not see these things as bad. People don’t see Jesus in you for what you don’t do.

Enjoys the adventure: Every day on the field is different. We love to find people that don’t just wait for things to become “normal,” but are open to trying new things, meeting new people, and loving every minute of it. People can tell if you don’t want to be here. It makes them not want to be around you.

Humble in self, confident in Christ: Everyone that comes to the field comes to the point where they have to give up. We’d like to have someone who already has. In a foreign language, you don’t have a personality, much less a sense of humor. When people have to put a lot of effort into understanding you, it makes you feel stupid. We need folks that are okay with making fools of themselves every day. Sometimes twice a day, just for good measure. They need to have the confidence in Christ that will motivate them in spite of that.

Fun to be around: Sure this one is hard to quantify, but who wants to work with a guy that has no personality? Or someone that takes themselves too seriously? We’re looking for people who are interesting, fun, and know how to tell stories. We want the couple that makes you feel good about yourself when you’re around them; like you’re not a weird missionary.

To me, a couple of people like the one I’ve outlined here would make for the perfect church planting team. If you are the person I’ve described, send me an email…

This post was going to be about the “Saviors.” I was going to write about the well-intentioned missionaries who come to the field thinking that their arrival somehow brings salvation to whatever unreached people group they have selected. The ones who feel needed, in my opinion, are missionaries that do not belong on the mission field.

I know. I know. Some of you were hoping for a post called “The Bloggers.”

In what has proven to be too long a story arc, I have outlined two “types” of missionaries that I think should not be on the mission field. These were taken from my personal experience. Some readers have anticipated the big reveal I hinted at in the first post: the Professional, the Lifer, and even the “Savior-complex” missionary that shouldn’t be on the field is me.

On a regular basis, I am tempted to try to make this ministry to which God has called me into a career. The Board hired me as a “Career Missionary,” and with that comes some pressure to professionalize what amounts to obedience. Sometimes it’s out of pride: “Hey, I’m special. Not just anyone can do this job.” But usually it’s out of the awkward embarrassment I feel when someone asks, “So, what do you do?” So much of my identity is wrapped up in my answer that question that I feel this constant need to justify the fact that I receive money to tell people about Jesus. But my time on the field has taught me that church planting is not a job, but a calling. It’s an intentionality that the churches back home graciously underwrite. But then I go to a meeting or write a new personnel request, and I slip right back into the professionalism that only serves to separate me from nationals and other believers.

I am very much a product of the Southern Baptist Convention. Mission Friends. Royal Ambassadors. Centrifuge. God called me to cultural translation of the gospel when I was in high school. By the time I graduated I had decided my career path: I was going to be a missionary. So here I am, a Lifer with the IMB. Because of my exclusively Southern Baptist education, I am not qualified for any “real” job. I am extremely grateful for the support of the organization that sends and maintains me, but I have become fully dependent upon the Board for everything that I have. Housing. Stipend. Insurance. I couldn’t begin to answer the question of what I would do or where I would do it if I weren’t doing this. Unfortunately, such dependence sometimes breeds complacency. I know what’s expected of me, and there are times I’m tempted to do only that.

My motivation for being here changes pretty regularly. There are times when
I pity the people around me here, but not in a good way. On a really bad day, I have caught myself feeling very superior. As if the reason for the lostness here is that the people are too stupid to find Jesus, and it’s such a good thing that I’ve finally arrived to set the straight. My savior complex should disqualify me from service.

This “series” began as a journal entry. I was venting my frustrations with some coworkers, and dreaming of building the “perfect” church planting team. I was writing about the Professionals, the Lifers, the Saviors, and the Whiners (don’t ask) when I was convicted of being and doing those same things that I resented so much about my fellow missionaries. I’ve come to believe that many of the characteristics that mark “someone who shouldn’t be here” aren’t brought to the mission field, they’re picked up here. Sometimes we’re tempted by laziness, other times by pride; all of them, I think, are defense mechanisms for dealing with our strange lives.

I really am convinced that not all believers belong on the mission field. Not everyone is cut out for it. I’m intrigued with that idea, because in never really occurred to me. And though I have known coworkers that have exhibited some of these same characteristics and, I suspect, struggled with these same attitudes and tendencies, I realize that judging them is the Pot calling the Kettle black.

I was home from college for summer break, and our pastor began a sermon series on the book of Romans. When I returned home for Christmas, he was on chapter 2. I’m convinced that’s why our church wasn’t Calvinist. I never thought I’d post a “series” of posts. I guess I’ve never had a single coherent thought that would call for it. (Not that I do now, mind you.) But here I am, posting what will be part three of my “Some of Us Shouldn’t Be Here” “Series.” How many parts does “Left Behind” have?

If the Professionals are the most visible missionaries that shouldn’t be on the field, the Lifers are the most common. Imagine a person who grows up in the American Christian subculture: youth group, visitation, mission trips, Sunday School. He responds to the invitation to consider “Full-time Christian Service.” Twice. When it’s time to go to college, he chooses a fine Southern Baptist institution, and majors in missions. Then he’s off to seminary for the MDiv. He takes his first pastorate at the age of nineteen, marries at twenty, and has three kids by the time he reached the IMB’s minimum age requirement of 24. He makes contact with a Candidate Consultant, answers all the questions right, and is appointed for missionary service. He prayerfully selects the field to which God is calling him from the Board’s list, and the next thing he knows, he’s on the ground as a career missionary. In many ways, he’s prepared for this his whole life: he has the degree, the “experience,” and the endorsement of his home church. He’s a Lifer.

I call them “Lifers” because while these folks actually worked very hard to get to the mission field, they only do just enough to stay on the mission field. Their label comes from the fact that if they can just stay beneath the radar, not draw too much attention, they can be supported by churches back home for life. Never mind that they don’t have the gifting, people skills, or work ethic to be church planters. Ignore their inability to detect differences between their host culture and the American culture they miss so much. Overlook the fact that they don’t have any friends back home, either. We, the Convention, called them to full-time service through our altar calls and missionary slideshow guilt trips. There is great need, and they answered the call.

Sure there are drawbacks. Separation from family. Monthly Ministry Reports. No Dr. Pepper. The whole “living in a foreign country” thing. But for lifers, it’s worth it. You get paid to do… well, no one is sure what it is you do, exactly. Great insurance. A month’s vacation. And a hero’s welcome every time you’re home on furlough.

Besides, you can stock up on brownie mix and your favorite jeans on your next stateside assignment.

Lifers shouldn’t be on the field because they may or may not have heard God calling and then they quit listening. They have the Board to maintain them in a strategic place where they live in permanent survival mode. They’re content. Fat and happy. Apathetic, even. But this is what they are. If they weren’t missionaries, what would they be? What would they do?

Lifers love to suffer for Jesus. If nationals don’t like them, they count it as persecution. Their loneliness is due to the “soil being hard,” not their abrasive, annoying personalities. They blame not knowing anyone in their city on “Things are slow here,” instead of the fact that they tell the same stories over and over. Hey, it wasn’t that funny the first time. They sign their prayer newsletters with subtle lines like “Blessedly Tired,”or “Joyfully Busy,” just to let you know how much missionary stuff they’re doing. Their reports reveal how much they dislike and distrust the people they’ve been sent to work with.

Lifers shouldn’t be on the field, but they are. And they will be long after I’m gone. They’re in this thing for the long haul. For them, being missionary isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle.

Perhaps the most visible type of missionary that shouldn’t be here are the Professionals. They are the missionaries that built the IMB into the huge corporation that it is today. These are the folks that fill their days with professional missionary things like going to conferences and making appearances at meetings. Usually, the Pros are big on networking. They like to name-drop, brag, and make guys like me meet people that they think are like me so that we can know each other and so later, when they drop our names, they can say things like, “You know, I introduced them!” The Professionals are the ones who have a hard time not having a “real job,” so they put lots of effort into making church planting look like one.

The reason professionals shouldn’t be on the field is that they are not really planting churches. They are not really sharing life, culturally translating the gospel, or facilitating a house church movement. No, these guys don’t have time to do real ministry, they’re too busy being missionaries.

Professionals are usually the ones that get promoted up the responsibility food-chain and put in strategy leadership positions. At first glance, they look like they’re really doing something. They’re well spoken. They have a great web site. They bring in lots of volunteers. They’re sharp dressers. They prioritize primary action items and draft mission statements and publish team goals and objectives in sleek .pdf prayer newsletters.

The reason that Professional Missionaries shouldn’t be on the field is that they have effectively redefined the concept of missions for the churches that support us. They have changed the stereotype from the four-pocket short-sleeve dress shirt wearing homely couple with seven children to a jet-set Blackberry addict with places to go and people to see. They are the reason we have conferences about how to “reach” people and strategy documents and ASR reports instead of, well, churches.

Don’t worry, I’m not saying we need to fire all of the Professional Missionaries. We don’t need to. They are the ones that get burnt out and go home as soon as they realize that no matter how hard they try, they cannot make church planting into a corporate position. They realize that no one is competing with them for the next leadership position, and that there is no prize for starting a new church planting partners network. They go home to work for Xerox or Saddleback.

While the timing of this post does not intentionally coincide with the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, I’ll admit that it seems like a relatively safe time to write such a mean post. Hopefully, everyone that might read this, especially the people I’m actually referring to, are either at the Convention or busy reading about it over at SBC Outpost.

Yes, we’re all supposed to be “missionaries” in the “Go ye therefore” sense of the word. Yes, the Lord of the Harvest calls workers to the field. But anyone who has spent any amount of time with IMB personnel and is willing to be honest will tell you that we’ve got some people on the field that shouldn’t be.

Call it a result of the days when there was plenty of money and “Any Warm Body” was the candidacy policy. (Wow, we’ve gone to the opposite extreme, haven’t we?) The IMB was all about momentum in those days- being able to report sending more missionaries and reaching more people groups really got people excited about missions. Volunteering was up, giving was up, and people were signing up for career service. The ranks of the IMB swelled with willing , if not capable, missionaries.

If you were to try to deduce the hiring policy of the IMB by conducting interviews of our career people on the field, what would you come up with?

I think this explains the recent actions of the IMB’s Board of Trustees; “We’ve got people on the field that don’t belong there, and we need to do something about it.” It wasn’t so bad when there was enough money to go around, but nowadays the Board can’t afford to send just anyone. We’ve got people on the field that don’t speak the national language, aren’t actively involved in ministry to nationals, and don’t have a clue of where to begin.

But we can’t fire them, can we? On what grounds? “God hasn’t used you to start a church planting movement?” No, the only way we can fire someone is if they steal money or sleep with a Journeyman. So instead of sending people home, we shuffle their incompetence around the globe. As if moving to a warmer climate would heal laziness. We could have all of our personnel on the field sign a new, even more exclusive document that includes a statement of belief, proof of effectiveness, and pledge of allegiance. You know- to get people to quit. The problem with that is the ones who get worked up about that sort of thing are usually the good ones. They were last time, anyway. So we’re sort of stuck with the people we’ve already got on the field. For now.

Everyone is talking about the new, narrower, theological requirements for appointment, but those aren’t the only changes being made to help weed out the dead weight (pardon the pun) and save some money.

There has always been a health requirement for IMB personnel. Obesity, serious medical conditions, and emotional/psychological issues have always been red flags in the consideration of potential candidates. But recently, the Board has adopted even stricter policy concerning overweight personnel. As a self-insured mega-organization, we can save a lot of money by not employing the fat people that are sure to use up a lot of money through medical claims. Recent changes have lowered the acceptable body-mass index (BMI) for all employees of the IMB. (Though I’m pretty sure trustees are exempt…)

The Board will continue to adopt very restrictive hiring and employment policies, but always leave a loophole for “exceptions.” That way they only get people that meet all of the requirements, and screen out those that don’t belong.

So who are these missionaries that shouldn’t be on the field? Sorry SEBTS folks, I’m not naming names. Besides, they probably aren’t who you might think.

Oh, and I’m probably one of them.

Stay tuned…