2007 July

Get a hobby.

This is my advice for Christians everywhere, and especially those who are intentional about living out their faith in culture. For some reason, many believers act as though time spent doing anything other than witnessing and studying the Bible is time wasted. But those same people have an extremely difficult time relating to and interacting with nonbelievers. I say, get a hobby.

Think of all the people in your town, and all that those people are into. Shopping (malls, garage sales, eBay). Collecting (stamps, Beanie Babies, cars, antiques). Projects (art, crafts, home renovations, fund raisers). Sports (golf, softball, leagues and pick-up games). Clubs (book clubs, crafts, support groups). Video games. Blogging. Tattoos.

These “hobbies” are much more than that. These are the activities that define the people who participate in them. They spend lots of time and money on their hobbies, and they aren’t alone. Even the most solitary of activities can foster a real sense of community among the people who participate. These are affinity groups.

To speak into- to influence- an affinity group, you’ve got to do more than just know about whatever it is they do. Mac users have some sort of internal radar that can identify a PC user from a mile away. Scrapbookers can find stories and memories in what you’ve thrown out as garbage. Civil War “reinactors, ” well, they’re a breed unto themselves. But if you aren’t in, you’re out.

These groups have their unique cultures, languages, and moral codes. If you had a hobby, you might be able to be a Light among other enthusiasts. You might be able to show fellow Lord of the Rings fans the Truth behind their favorite epic tale. You could have the opportunity to share Christ as your motivation for volunteering, giving, or playing. Perhaps you might find yourself in the middle of a group of people who enjoy great fellowship and never run out of things to talk about.

Or, you could read a book about how to engage lost people.

Missions- (mishuh ns) -noun: 1. a group of persons sent by a church to carry on religious work, esp. evangelization in foreign lands, and often to establish schools, hospitals, etc. 2. missionary duty or work 3. organized missionary work or activities in any country or region 4. a church or a region dependent on a larger church or denomination 5. a series of special religious services for increasing religious devotion and converting unbelievers: to preach a mission 5. an assigned or self-imposed duty or task; calling; vocation 6. a sending or being sent for some duty or purpose 7. those sent

I’m starting to realize that the greatest problem facing Christian missions today is not money, not manpower, not strategy, and not even the physical and spiritual opposition to our work. The problem with missions is that we don’t know what it is. The concept, the very definition of the word, is interpreted and applied by so many people in so many ways, I think we’ve lost the plot.

To the world, missions is church people feeding the poor and building church buildings. To the casual churchgoer, missions are those trips the youth group takes every summer. To the volunteer missionary missions is sacrificing time and hard-earned money to travel to a distant place to conduct sports camps and backyard Bible clubs. To the long-term and career missionary- well… they obviously have no idea what it is.

For the sake of my calling and work, I’m going to work on defining the ministry and role of the missionary.

So I’ve had a couple of inquiries about the “new” “trend“(it’s really neither, but more on that later) away from full-time, professional missionaries and toward volunteer and short-term mission endeavors. I’ve made no secret of my own discomfort with being a professional missionary, so some of my readers ask if I’m excited by the potential shift toward an alternative that might facilitate broader involvement.

I’m not.

What I do is not something you can do on a week-long visit to the Old World, no matter how many language-courses-on-tape you’ve listened through. The cultural immersion required for relational and incarnational ministry is a long-term investment. I believe in the short-term involvement of volunteers, and I expect divine appointments through which God can affect tremendous change, but I believe that hit-and-run evangelism will not communicate the gospel to Western European peoples better than sharing life with people over time. We need both long and short-term people on the mission field in order to be effective in contextually-appropriate ministry. I’m not special, but I’m here.

With that said, people (especially those who support me) need to realize that I’m not doing what I do so that they don’t have to. Sending money to me (through my organization, of course) is not what you get to do instead of being a missionary yourself. The Commission is not one you can or should hire out, and I’m not your stand-in. In fact, if you give to missions for any reason other than obedience to God, please stop. We don’t need your money.

A missions organization asking about the “trend” toward volunteers is like a travel agency asking about the “trend” of customers using the internet to make travel arrangements. The democratization of missions activities means that the professionals no longer have a corner on the market. We need to take extra measures to spell out the benefit (relevance?) of career missions. If people don’t see the point, or see better way (say, missional expatiratism, or incarnational immigration?), of course they’re going to pursue it.

Heck, if we’ve got professional missionaries wondering about the validity of professional missions, maybe we’re not doing a very good job of rationalizing our system.

The Gospel. The “Message.” The “Good News.” Whatever you want to call it, it is considered the basic information of evangelism. Most people agree that whatever it is, it’s surely a good thing to share with people, and many believe that it’s even better to take to those people who have not heard it before. Christians talk about it and practice passing it on. Most would say that it is the core of the Christian faith. The problem, in my opinion, is that few of us really agree on what the gospel is and why it’s so important.

To me, the gospel is God’s story. It is the summary of who God is and how He normally interacts with people. It is the knowledge that evokes our response to salvation. But to me, the gospel is much more than information. It is a person. Life in Him is beautiful and terrible at once. It has a power and a profundity that goes beyond just the notion. I believe it must be experienced to be believed.

This means that despite what our training, evangelistic materials, and denominational leaders say, the gospel is not always “Good News.” Sure, in the grand scheme of things, the fact that God made a way to relationship with Him through Jesus is good news indeed. But for many people, the gospel isn’t “Good News” at all. For them, it is bad news; that they might not have everything figured out, that all that they’ve struggled to accumulate and achieve is worthless.

The gospel is not, in my opinion, the “minimum” that must be believed in order for someone to be saved. It is not a set of principles, concepts, laws, or “truths.” The gospel does not save, it is only a description of the possibility of salvation. It is not something that we can ever finish sharing; there is no end to mark the completeness of it’s presentation.

So the questions remain: “What is the gospel?” and “Are we talking about the same thing? In an age where we’ve reduced our faith to an objective soundbite summary of supposedly life-changing information, what are we talking about?

What’s the gospel to you?