2006 November

Every six months or so, I have to post my thoughts on “the missionary task.” In my opinion, this is the single most important topic that no one is talking about. In another attempt to incite some discussion, I’ve also posted this to the Church Planting Forum.

Below is an outline of my current thoughts on “the Task.” Please forgive my over-use of quotation marks.

Since my appointment and move to Western Europe, I’ve wrestled with the conventional understanding of what has come to be known as “the Missionary Task.” I’ve prayed about it, read about it, googled it, and blogged about it, but there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of discussion on the topic. I’m sure this is due to the fact that most of us (Christians, that is) already have the thing clearly sorted out in our heads.

I begin by admitting that my current perspective on the subject is likely wrong and would certainly be improved by some honest discussion with brothers and sisters who are obediently participating in the task. My question is simple: what is the nature of “the task?”

The question is important because most of us are heavily involved in ministries that have been planned around a particular understanding of our calling, goals, and purpose. “The Task” is the missiological idea that has led us to concepts such as the “10/40 Window” and “Frontier missions.” It’s led us to move our focus and resources from “reached” areas (despite the harvest) to “unreached” ones. It’s led us to rely heavily on statistics and models for our missions strategies. I’m not sure we’ve got it right. Here’s why:

-The Great Commission is a call to Go and make disciples. Does it necessarily have to be a “finishable” task? When I was a kid, my mom was always telling me to make my bed and pick up my room and eat my vegetables. Turns out she wanted me to do it every day. It would have been silly of me to say (as I’m sure I did), “Mom, I’m almost finished with the task you assigned me.”

-Some of you will want to pull out your Greek lexicons and start chanting, “ponta ta ethne” or something like that. I see the use of the term “all nations” (Matthew 24:14, 28:19-20, Luke 24:46-47) as a descriptive term, not a prescriptive one. Here’s a blog post about this.

One verse that also uses the “all nations/every nation” terminology is this one that tells about the Day of Pentecost:

“Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nationunder heaven.” -Acts 2:5

I find it odd that this one doesn’t usually figure into the discussion. Does it mean that there were literally Jews in all nations? Or is it saying “of the nations in which there were Jewish people…” If the former is true, the “task” was completed at Pentecost!

-To me, the concept of a “Final Frontier” assumes a static world. I blogged about this here. There are new people groups being born all the time that have their own unique languages and cultures.

-It also seems to assume that once a nation is “reached,” it will always remain so. I work in Western Europe where in many ways, our work is to reintroduce the Gospel to people who are inoculated against it.

-As far as I can tell, “the Task” we’re called to is nothing less (and nothing more!) than a step-by-step following of the Holy Spirit. But the IMB has scrapped that for something more practical. It’s like we read the instructions Jesus gave in Matthew 28:18-20, and we say, “Okay folks, you heard Him: All nations. Let’s get the job done!” I address the question “What’s it gonna take?” here.

-It seems to me that we can fulfill the task (obediently going as God leads), but we’re not really going to “complete” it. I’m okay with that, because I think it requires us to be more dependent on Him, instead of developing some game-plan to finish something that He never assigned. A task of world evangelization isn’t enough, in my opinion.

These are, roughly, my thoughts on the subject. I’ve always wanted someone to discuss these things with me, and to clarify my thinking where possible. What do you think?

I may not know you, but I can pretty safely say that you do not speak ancient Greek. Maybe you’ve studied it, I’m sure you can define a noun, parse a verb, or analyze the grammar. You might even be clever enough to make a witty joke in the biblical language. But you don’t speak ancient Greek.

Don’t tell me that in no uncertain terms, you know what the original text means, because you don’t. Your understanding comes from popular interpretation (Or your Greek teacher, or a lexicon, or some fancy computer software.) Please stop using “panta ta ethne” as your basis for missions strategy. Please stop trying to trump everyone else’s argument by saying that you know foe certain that biblical “oinos” was weaker than modern wine.

Greek scholarship is important. Without it, we would have poor translations of the Scriptures, and we’d have little to go in in terms of the original context and cultural implications of the text. But you are not a scholar, you are a preacher. You are a blogger who took the same Intro to Greek course I took (and my professor was probably better than yours.) You are a seminary professor who thinks that no one should be allowed to question you if you quote the Greek. Stop it, please.

You treat Koine Greek like it’s some secret knowledge that gives you greater enlightenment and brings you closer to God. You act as though you are the keeper of all truth and wisdom because your theologies are built on God’s own language. But God doesn’t only speak Greek (Or Hebrew, or Aramaic).

So stop looking down your nose at me because you think that my understanding is founded in some misunderstanding of the original language. I’ve got the same interlinear Bible you’ve got.

Did I mention that you don’t speak ancient Greek? The language is no longer tied to a surviving culture. If learning a second language has taught me anything, it’s that all living languages are dynamic. A phrase has a literal meaning, a commonly used one, and a colloquial one, and all are “correct.” Meanings can differ from town to town, nevermind region to region. When you add to that Greek was imposed in multiple cultures who lived together, you’ve got layers and layers of meaning; layers that you weren’t around to observe.

So how about qualifying all of your pompous predications with “Many scholars agree…” Can we replace “The actual meaning of the original Greek is…” with “A possible meaning might be…”? Sure there is a right understanding and interpretation of Biblical text. But if that understanding doesn’t come from illumination of the Holy Spirit, we’re not going to get it from a dead language.

Just for fun, I’ve addressed the disagreements raised by cafeaddict on my last post (Who, by the way, is challenging my post just for the sake of argument. He/she mentions that they actually agree with my post). If only cafeaddict could find the shift button for capitalization…

stepchild, since you no longer have any dissenters on your blog, (By the way, I have noticed that, and I intend to find some traditional thinkers and poke them with a stick or something in order to incite some kind of discussion. Maybe another post about alcohol…) i am going to play the devil’s advocate althougth i TOTALLY agree with you… (Here’s hoping people read this disclaimer!)

relational evangelism will never accomplish the task. The task cannot be (and was never meant to be) “accomplished,” “completed,” or otherwise, “finished.” The “task” (and I do hate that word) is a call to obedience, which entails making disciples, preaching the gospel, loving people, and worshipping with our lives.

it is too slow. If, in our rush, we get ahead of God, our work is in vein. god didn’t call us to make friends, he called us to make disciples. The teacher/disciple relationship is just that- a relationship. Have you considered that Jesus spent lots and lots of time with twelve guys over the course of three years? do you honestly think that every person jesus encountered was his best friend? No, and I’m not talking about becoming best friends with everyone. That would be time consuming, tiring, and get really expensive around Christmas time. he taught people sometimes for a day, sometimes for a minute and then moved on. he sensed those who were spiritually receptive and targeted them. Yeah, I’m not sure about this one. What qualifies a person as “spiritually receptive?” For me, anyone who would want to spend time with a foreigner who’s always talking about Jesus is obviously receptive to some extent. Did Jesus really “target” the seekers (or anyone, for that matter)? he didn’t waste time with the rich young ruler. he gave him a choice and when the money loving guy chose his riches, jesus chose another subject. Yeah, the RYR walked away. But what if he hadn’t? What do you suppose Jesus would have done if the guy had continued to follow Jesus around?

all you postmodern people say that everything is about relationships. you site jesus as your example, yet when i examine the evangelism techniques of jesus, they reflect the “street evangelism” approach more than your “i just don’t want to take a chance and offend someone” approach. I’m not sure Jesus used any “techniques.” It does seem to me that he was relational and personal with people, though. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were Jesus’ friends. The disciples certainly had profound relationships with Jesus, even Judas. Have you ever noticed how many different answers Jesus gave to the question, “What must I do to receive eternal life?” He met people where they were, and for me to do that, I have to get to know them.

As for offending people, I’m all for it. The Gospel is, after all, offensive. I’m just not convinced that people are being offended with truth very much these days, especially in Western Europe. It seems that they’re being offended by other things, such as the attitudes of the messenger, and way that the “message” is being delivered. Prepared, pre-packaged evangelism seems powerless and trite to the people I know here, and it seems that way to me, too. When Jesus addressed people, it’s obvious to me that in that moment, during that encounter, they felt like the most important people in the world. That’s what I’m going for in relational ministry. Not just to tell people that they’re loved, but to show them as well.

i get tired of hearing you guys say that it isn’t right to get into relationship with someone just to share the gospel with them, as if doing that were underhanded. well, i will have you know, that the most loving thing we can do is share the gospel with people. The problem is the conditionality of a relationship that is built on expectations. Anytime there are ulterior motives, the relationship is less than authentic. “I’m your friend and I want you to know the Lord” is different from “I’m your friend because I want you to know the Lord.” Unfortunately, the world knows Christians as “I won’t be your friend unless you come to know the Lord.” so the more people i meet with the objective of sharing the gospel, the more loving i am. how can it be a bad thing that i want as many people as possible to be in heaven with me? Wanting people to go to heaven is a good thing, but it’s hardly the goal of evangelism. The goal is reconciliation with the Creator. My problem with the idea of just “getting the word out” is that the Gospel is more than just information. If you’re just wanting to preach the truth, nevermind the context or people, you might just as well broadcast it live over the radio and go home. Add to that the idea that here in Western Europe, we’re not just introducing Christianity, we’re reintroducing it to an emerging culture.

we have so little time and our task is so enormous. The “task” is not overwhelming for God, is it? Will He return before His perfect timing? Woe to the people who’s eternity depends on you and me! we need to be telling people about jesus not going to the movies with them. Going to the movies with people is a great way to tell them about Jesus. A discussion afterward can provide excellent opportunities to share the Gospel explicitly, and to comment on the movie from Christ’s perspective. relational evangelism in my opinion is a cop out. As “drive by” evangelism is in my opinion. It’s much easier to “preach” a message and move on than it is to invest in relationships. we don’t want to do the hard stuff so we justify our disobedience with the fluffy relational excuse. The hard stuff? Passing out tracts is easy compared to long conversations in smoky bars at three in the morning. Going to parties, getting involved in people’s lives, trying to be a viable example of what life in Christ might look like for the people around us, that’s difficult.

what say you stepchild? That say I. Thanks, cafeaddict, for being the lone voice of dissent on this otherwise boring and unnecessary blog.

I hate buzzwords. One that is widely used in ministry is “relational.” What does that mean? I’ve heard people that do surveys and questionnaires describe their ministries as “relational.” Does a brief encounter on the street count as a relationship? Why does everyone feel the need to talk about relationships, even if they don’t (or can’t) build and maintain any?

Our team has a relational approach to ministry. We really think that God can use authentic relationships to build the kingdom here in Western Europe. We focus on our relationships with God, one another, and with nationals. Through these friendships, we can show the good news that we consistently share with the people that God brings to us. For us, relationships are the context for discipleship.

Our relational approach isn’t some attempt at relevance, or us trying to makes Jesus cool. For us, real relationships are what’s been lacking in our own spiritual journeys. We’re tired of shallow (“How are you? Fine, thanks. You?”) interactions that gloss over our struggles and only end up making us feel more isolated. We’re relational because it’s what we need. We know the power of the Gospel through our relationships with God. We know the Truth of scripture through our relationship to it. We know love through truly loving relationships.

Of course, some object to the idea of “relational ministry.” It’s too limiting, some say. Others contest that efforts toward building relationships with non-seekers would be better spent on those people who are “closer” to salvation. The problem with only building relationships with people who we see moving closer to faith is that the relationship is then conditional and motivated by results. It’s like the car salesman who’s your best friend until he realizes you aren’t really going to buy a car today.

Another reason people are skeptical about relational church planting is that we don’t have any great models of the transition from “friendships” to “churches.” So you’ve got a group (or a couple of groups) of friends. How do you lead those people to faith, and how can they then learn to be a body of believers?

I’ll let you know how it works out for us.

By the way, our team’s favorite passage of scripture that talks about relationships is Romans, chapter 12. On the subject of love, Paul writes: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” v.15

I’ve posted about this before, but I’ve been hearing and reading a lot about “contextualization”of the gospel. If you’ve every read my blog before, you likely know that I believe that we the church should do all that we can to minimize the cultural differences that hinder the communication of love and truth to the people around us. If that’s what you mean by “contextualization,” then call me a “contextualizer.” The more foreign we are, the more foreign our message will seem. Context is important.

The other day I spoke with a friend who was concerned after reading my post “The Uncanny Valley.” This friend thought that I might be too caught up in trying to make Christianity “hip” or “cool.” I clarified my opinion for him, and we agreed that “contextualization” in the sense of trying to make Jesus seem “cool” is really a bad idea. The reason it’s bad is simple: we’re not cool. Especially this friend I was talking to.

There is a difference, then, between cultural translation of the message, and assuming the cultural appropriateness of a model or practice of the faith.

That’s the problem with models of church or ministry or evangelism; they’re only good during the life of the cultural context for which they were designed (and usually, not even that long.) The rate of change is so great these days; subcultures and population segments are moving “targets” (forgive me for using the word). I believe we should model (insofar as we’re able) what life in Christ might look like in our cultural setting, but we’ve got to remember that the best people to decide what church might look like in any given culture are the people of that culture.

I have been targeted by many Christians. Churches tailor their programs to meet my needs without bothering to ask what they are. Bible study resources are written for my demographic in order to help my walk. Evangelism experts call me ineffective, and blame it on my laziness for not going, my fear for not being bold enough, or my ignorance for not figuring out the “5 Simple Steps to Effective Soul-Winning.” I identify with the people most of you call “targets” and “contacts.”

If you’re comfortable with your current expression of your faith, good for you. I’m not; but please don’t think I’m asking you for help with that. Stop trying to make church relevant to me. Teach me what the Bible says about church, and get out of my way. My friends and family will wrestle with the cultural implications. Teach me what you understand to be God’s directive concerning leadership, worship, gifts, and service; leave it to us and the Spirit to work out the practice. Train me in truth, but don’t expect me to look, act, dress, talk, or think like you.

Thank you.