2007 November

How are you involved in international missions? In the past, mission agencies gave you three options: pray, give, or go. Hopefully, you’re doing at least one of these things.

I’d like to invite you to a fourth way to participate in what God is doing around the world. You may not be aware of this, but there is a way for you to build a personal relationship with an unbelieving person from an unreached people group that is free, requires no training or time off work, and doesn’t require you to learn another language.

You can be a pen pal.

Thankfully, the internet has taken the old idea of corresponding with a complete stranger on another continent and made it, well, faster, cheaper, and more fun. Here’s how you can get started:

1. Visit an international classifieds website like kijiji.com, craigslist.org, or tribe.net
or a social networking site like facebook.com, myspace.com, or any of the hundreds of similar sites listed here.
Classified sites tend to be a bit easier to manage (London’s gumtree.com, for example, actually has a section titled “pen pals.”) and are especially good if you already have an idea of what people group or city you’d like to connect with. For now, let’s assume you’re using kijiji.com.

2. Scroll to the bottom of the site, and select the local site of your desired country. Many countries have classified ad sites, but it people in Western Europe are so web-connected, these countries are a great place to find someone who is likely to correspond with you.

3. Register a username and password, if necessary.

4. Search through the classified ads to find someone with whom you have something in common. Amateur authors in Wales? A guitar player in Spain? How about moms in Dublin?

5. Post a response to an ad. Or, post an ad of your own. Maybe you’d like to swap recipes with someone in Basel or find a pen pal in Berlin who likes NASCAR. (Good luck with that one). Just be yourself! Remember: for you, this may be a strange and frightening way to make friends, but for them, meeting people online is a pretty normal thing to do.

6. Wait for someone to answer your ad. Many of theses sites will email you when you receive a response. Be sure to keep security in mind as you introduce yourself and get to know the person. Don’t make promises you won’t be able to keep.

7. Share life with your new friend. Don’t treat this as a confrontational evangelism tool- let the person get to know you. For many Western Europeans, you may be the only practicing believer with whom they’ve had contact. Even those who know about Jesus are unlikely to have seen life in Christ lived out before them. They need to hear what a follower of Jesus thinks about all sorts of things. Tell your stories. Listen to theirs. Send photos. Have a voice conversation on Skype. You may eventually get to meet your pen pal in person some day.

Now, this isn’t for everyone. If you’re the type who can’t stand to talk with someone with whom you disagree, please don’t bother. If you’re not willing or able to personally invest in a “virtual friend,” this isn’t for you.

I think there are a lot of believers out there who didn’t even know this is an option. I imagine many of you that don’t have the time or money or desire to go on a mission trip may be intrigued my the idea of meeting someone online for the sake of sharing life intentionally.

Who knows? God may use you to start an online church planting movement.

We’re always looking for opportunities to interact with people here. I think one of the neatest things is how God continues to bring us to people who are willing to interact with us on a deeper level despite the fact that we are foreigners.

One weekend not long ago, we were invited by a friend to visit them in their family’s “country home,” where they like to spend most of their summers. They have a child the same age as ours, and they love to play together. Of course, we recognized this invitation as a great opportunity to spend time with nationals. We consider it an act of God whenever someone actually wants to be around us. This was an even bigger deal, as we were invited into their home, something people here just don’t normally do. Our entire relationship started when my wife, desperate to find a friend, and friend, walked up to this woman siting on a bench and just started talking to her. It was a great opportunity.

I didn’t want to go.

I feel bad that I didn’t want to go. Really. How terrible of me to not even be the least bit excited about building a relationship with these nice people. But I felt fake. I have nothing in common with these folks. The husband is twice my age. It felt so forced, so fake.

We drove the hour-long half hour’s drive in silent anticipation of that awkward feeling we’ve felt so many times before. In my head, I was scripting the dialogue that would inevitably take place. How do you like the weather here? How is work? Did you hear about the new movie theater they’re building? I wanted to add, “Why did you invite us?” or “What’s the point of all this?” I knew I wasn’t really going to ask those questions, though, because I probably knew better than they did what prompted them to invite a family of foreigners to spend the day with them.

As a missionary, I am tempted to lie on a regular basis. It may or may not surprise you to read that statement, but it’s true nonetheless. What’s more, I find the temptation strongest when I’m talking with a coworker, partner, or supporter. It all starts out innocently enough; someone asks, “How is your ministry going?” or “What are you seeing God do among your people groups?” For some reason, it’s always difficult for me to know how to respond to these questions. And for some reason, I’m often tempted to offer a less-than-honest answer.

The lies that pop into my mind aren’t usually grandiose- I’m not talking about making up a church planting movement or a new great awakening. No, my temptation is to elaborate with, um, ministerial hyperbole the things that are actually happening. You know, for effect. Perhaps what I’m tempted to offer isn’t a lie, per se, but the result is the same. The only examples I share are those I’ve carefully selected. Certain details are emphasized. Some information is conveniently left out. Our small seeker group of four suddenly becomes a viable church plant of six. My casual interaction with national leaders grows into a full-blown partnership. I find myself taking credit for the successes of others by frequent use of the collective “we.” Everything suddenly becomes over-spiritualized.

The temptation isn’t limited to embellishing our successes. There’s something super-spiritual about suffering on the missions field, so I often feel the urge to overstate the modest struggles we face in Western Europe. Poor customer service becomes enemy opposition, and a hard time at the immigration office is persecution. If life here is too easy, my obedience is somehow less pleasing to God and fellow believers.

Maybe the temptation to stretch the truth is rooted in our performance-based culture that encourages us to value activity over identity. Maybe it’s my desire to be important or well-known. Whatever the reason, exaggerations and half-truths are trouble. Lying is one of those sins that tends to have the “snowball effect;” the liar quickly finds himself having to compose bigger, more elaborate, and (if it were possible,) more deceitful lies to cover the first one.

It occurs to me that a great deal of the misunderstanding is my own fault. How can I expect others to know and relate to my experience if I’m not being completely forthright? Besides, God’s constant and protection and provision for my life means that there is always a truth to be told.