2008 April

It is comforting and empowering to know for sure that you’re doing what you need to be doing. The big decisions are a lot simpler when you’re sure of the parameters. You rest easier in the face of troubles because there are some things you just won’t question no matter what. So there’s something disquieting about changes to that plan you were so sure of. Like the sense of betrayal you feel when the ground moves in an earthquake.

When we arrived on the field six years ago, we knew for sure that we were where God wanted us to be. That didn’t make the transition to life in Western Europe easy, but knowing that you’re doing what you’re supposed to do can demote things like language learning and culture shock from overwhelming to intimidating. I’m so thankful that God has proven Himself over and over to be our provider. He has maintained us on the field, and we are thankful that He has used many of you to encourage and support us along the way.

You can probably guess from the preamble that this is your standard resignation announcement. It is. And it’s a lot harder to write than I thought it would be.

We know what it’s like to know for sure that we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing. That’s what makes our decision to return to the States so simple. We feel God’s direction, and we don’t want to stick around to find out what it’s like to ignore that. I used to always hate when people played the “God card.” You can get away with pretty much anything with a heartfelt “God told me to.” Hopefully, that’s not what we’re doing here. I don’t think it is. Some of you might be discouraged to hear that we’re leaving. Please, don’t be. Trust God on this sort of thing no matter what, because He is orchestrating His work around the world.

We will be leaving the field at the end of May. We’re moving to Portland, OR. We’re going to finally get “real jobs” and get involved in the community. We’re pretty excited about going back to the U.S. and putting into practice all that we’ve learned in here in Western Europe. Surely God will bring us to someone who wouldn’t mind exploring things like house church and relational ministry with us. Portland seems like a good place for that. Besides, we hear that there are lots of coffee shops in Portland, and that the public transportation system is good enough that you don’t need a car.

Would you please pray for us as we move? We’re a little bit anxious about living in the States again, and about fitting in and making friends. Also, please pray for the people of Western Europe and the work here. Our team is preparing to undergo some major changes, and we want to be sure that we deal with them in a way that points people to Jesus.

Nearly anyone can live abroad. But incarnation is about more than just location. Successfully entering a culture that is different from yours requires that you learn the rules. If you’re trying to influence across cultures, the rules are crucial.

Society is made up of rules. There are rules for how a person should act in a given situation. There are rules for personal interaction, managing your money, and the volume of your conversation in public. There are rules about when it’s appropriate to make noise in your apartment building. There are rules for seating on the bus. What you wear, where you walk, how you order your coffee; there’s a rule for everything.

There are always consequences for breaking the rules. At best, being a rule-breaker will get you labeled (foreigner, rude, ignorant, proud). At worst, failure to follow the rules will get you removed from the community altogether. (Okay, so maybe that’s not the worst thing that could possibly happen, but you get my meaning here.) This is why many missionaries are marginalized, ignored, or “persecuted.” It’s not their message; nobody’s hearing that. They don’t have a voice because they’re trying to apply the rules of a culture two thousand miles away (or two thousand years ago) to their host culture.

Learning the rules can be very difficult, because they aren’t posted anywhere for you. No, you have to do your homework if you want access. The shortcut of mimicry will surely have you breaking all of the rules. You can’t deduct the rules by observing how insiders live. Often, their behavior seems to contradict their rules. There’s probably a rule about that. The rules are not the same for everybody. Even if you’re language-capable enough to ask, no one would be able to tell you all the rules because those who operate inside the culture assume that everyone shares their perspective on things. They don’t know that the rules where you come from are different from theirs. But you do. That’s the first thing you learn on the mission field.

I’ve spent the last couple of days reading through my blog. I’m amazed at how much I’ve written about pretty much the same thing. There were times when thoughts and questions flowed and I posted frequently. There were other times where everything dried up and I hardly wrote anything at all. There were seasons where I got distracted, focusing on denominational politics and organizational frustrations, and long periods of a broader, hopefully more kingdom-centered focus.

God has taught me a lot since I’ve been on the mission field. I’m really not the same man I was when I left the United States. From my national friends, I’ve picked up a passion for social awareness and action. I’ve moved away from distinguishing between “spiritual” and “everything else.” I now value environmental stewardship. I have put away (or, at least tried to put away) willful ignorance. I believe strongly in promoting peace. I recognize the sanctity of all life, instead of just being “anti-abortion.”

I have a new love for the freedom of expression, and I oppose the stifling of dissent. I’m excited by asking questions, and I’m content with the unknown. I’m realizing how little I know about anything at all, and yet how much my former worldview required me to be all-knowing. I’ve learned that you really can camp out on the philosophical “slippery slope,” and that agreeing with people I disagree with or don’t like isn’t the end of the world.

I have learned to worship without music or a guy with a guitar. I have come to realize that prayer should be a two-way conversation between God and me. I’m working on reading the Bible for what it says and what the Holy Spirit illuminates to me instead of picking verses that support my arguments. I’ve altogether quit thinking of the church as a building with a paid staff and youth group games on Wednesday nights.

I came here to tell people about Jesus. Now I realize the power of publicly living out the joys and struggles of my faith. Though I still struggle, I can now see through the lies of materialism. I find my identity in Christ instead of my profession or the successes of my ministry. I’ve learned not to assume that I know what’s going on around me spiritually. I’ve come to enjoy the spirituality of conversation with believers. I’ve learned a lot from fellowship with people who don’t believe.

I drink more coffee (if that were possible). I talk with my hands. I shout at people while I’m driving. I’m a lot more patient about waiting in line, but protective of my place in it. I don’t pretend to cough just to make a point when someone is smoking nearby. I listen to music just for fun. I think in two languages (with really bad grammar in both.) I ride a bike. I recycle. I speak in a quieter voice in public. I wear sensible (yet stylish) shoes.

No, I’m not the same guy I was. Hopefully, I’m a little bit more like who God wants me to be.

When you’re a carpenter, people pay you to build things out of wood. Mechanics earn their living by fixing cars. Authors are paid for writing books, lawyers bill for their counsel, and teachers are compensated for teaching.

What is a missionary paid for? There’s really no tangible service being performed, and we don’t produce any material goods. The people who pay my salary will likely never even meet me, much less benefit from my services. Nevertheless, they give.

I’m humbled by the sacrifice and generosity of those who support us on the field. But there’s something strange about missions offerings. Many supporters talk about missions money as though by giving, they’re doing me a favor. I’ve had a number of conversations with church leaders who talk about their missions offerings like they were a big gift to me, their charity case. Again, I am grateful for the sacrifice of those who give, but money given to missions is supposed to be given to God.

Thanks. Really. But don’t do me any favors. If God called me to the field, He will provide everything needed to keep me here. Since He doesn’t need your money, I don’t either.

People support missions for lots of different reasons. Many feel some sense of obligation. Some give to satiate their guilt. Others give as an act of worship. The pious give out of pity and duty. I’m sure certain people feel led by God to send their money, and it’s obvious (to me) that most give out of their own kindness and generosity.

If giving money to support missions keeps you from actually being involved personally in what God is doing around the world, you should keep your money.

All around you there are groups of people who are influencing and being influenced. You can (and should) be part of the discussion, but you’re too busy doing something that nobody else cares about. In your little “Christian” subculture bubble, you have no influence and few friends. Here are some tips to help you become interesting enough to actually make some friends this summer.

  1. Get a hobby. It doesn’t always have to be a really expensive one, either. It seems like everyone is into photography these days, (which is cool) but a new digital SLR can be pricey. Lomography can be really fun, or why not try something less consumeristic, like making your own camera? Share your pictures on Flickr or your own photoblog.
  2. Start a campaign. Find something to be passionate about and work to get other people excited about it too. You could design a web site about it, record a podcast about it, silkscreen or print T-shirts, or write a manifesto.
  3. Go camping. Borrow a tent (everyone has one, but few people actually ever use them), and pack a sandwich. You don’t have to make it a big deal. Camp in the backyard even. Spending time in nature is a good way to enjoy and appreciate its Maker.
  4. Teach yourself something new. The Dangerous Book for Boys is full of awesome stuff you should know but probably don’t. Your paper airplane skills will surely help you connect with some cool people. The interwebs are full of how-tos and useless information. Some things I’ve taught myself (with varying degrees of success) include: making my favorite chicken enchilada soup, writing a basic web page in html, home movie editing, how to read a map, and painting with oils.
  5. Read a book. Not disposable airport novels, but something that will inspire, intrigue, or challenge you. Become an inspired storyteller by rediscovering children’s literature. Start with Lemony Snicket’s A series of Unfortunate Events or anything by Roald Dahl. There’s certainly no excuse for any literate person to not have read On The Road, by Jack Kerouac or J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye, and these are idea for reading with a friend or discussion group. Steven D. Levitt’s Freakonomics, made me want to be an econo-sociologist, as did Malcom Gladwelll’s The Tipping Point, but don’t bother with Blink, just read his blog instead. Now these books will give you something to talk about.
  6. Go geek. Read Wired magazine, hang out in a comic book store, or go bowling even when you’re not on a youth group lock-in. Start collecting vinyl records, modifying vintage furniture to disguise modern technology, or scroll frame-by-frame through every episode of Lost looking for clues and easter eggs. Be sure to start every sentence with “basically…” “actually…” or “technically…” Geeks are the best friends you’ll ever have.
  7. Volunteer. There are literally hundreds of charities and non-profit organizations that could use your help. The “nonprofit sector” section of your city’s craigslist is a great place to start your search. Be sure your lifestyle doesn’t contradict your cause., though. A fair-trade Peta vegan pretty much has to swear off KFC.

This list won’t make you an instant mover and shaker, but if you pick a couple and really go for it, you just might have a circle of friends to take pictures of and cook for on your volunteer do-it-yourself grassroots camping and Comic-Con and road trip in July.

cuba-florida_map-2358901The concept of “people groups” has radically affected they way we do missions. It used to be that missionaries were sent to minister to the people of a given country. These days, however, we recognize that people group themselves and identify with communities that may not necessarily conform to (sometimes random and often disputed) political boundaries. Consider the following definition, taken from peoplegroups.org

A “people group” is an ethnolinguistic group with a common self-identity that is shared by the various members. There are two parts to that word: ethno and linguistic. Language is a primary and dominant identifying factor of a people group. But there are other factors that determine or are associated with ethnicity. Usually there is a common self-name and a sense of common identity of individuals identified with the group. A common history, customs, family and clan identities, as well as marriage rules and practices, age-grades and other obligation covenants, and inheritance patterns and rules are some of the common ethnic factors defining or distinguishing a people. What they call themselves may vary at different levels of identity, or among various sub-groups.

The idea is that people group themselves in such a way as to create commonality with some people and (therefore) distinction from others. Now, I say “people group themselves…” but really, most of us are born into a group and stay in the group our whole lives. Because these groups create our way of understanding and relating to the world around us, leaving one group for another is very difficult, if not impossible.

Most missionaries these days are sent to engage a people group with the gospel. They usually start by researching the group’s culture and history, and examining that group’s interactions with other groups. That’s how we know, for example that even though the Basque people group resides on both sides of the France/Spain border, they are one ethnolinguistic people group. This is good information to have when we’re trying to coordinate the work among the Basque people. Under the old paradigm, we might have assumed that they were two groups.

My concern with “people group thinking” as it is commonly held, is that it tends to assume that people groups are static, well-defined things. A missions strategy based on people groups would tend to focus on sending missionaries to work among a people group. Once that people group is “reached,” the idea is that the missionaries would move on to another “unreached” people group. One thing that we don’t seem to have taken into account is how drastically people groups change.

Culture is dynamic. It never stops changing. Interconnectivity opens the world to global influences that have dramatic effects on even the most traditional cultures. Growing generation gaps and socioeconomic discrepancies fragment people groups. Aggressive exportation of culture through media, commercialism, and politics, leaves a lasting impression on all people groups. Some are assimilated. Others are willfully abandoned. Some die out altogether, while new ones are being born all the time. The changes that used to take place over the course of centuries now happen daily on social networking websites. When cultures bump up against each other, people are profoundly affected.

Take, for example, well-established immigrant people groups. If a group of ethnic Chinese move to London, they would tend to live in community with one another. But that transplanted Chinese community is not immune to the influence of British culture. They may hold tightly to certain traditions and aspects of their home culture, but, for survival’s sake, they are certain to adopt some of the customs of their host culture as well. How long before that Chinese community becomes something else entirely?

When a group displaced from its people group has become culturally different enough from it’s home culture that, for changes to its values, traditions, and social structure, it could not easily re-integrate into that home culture, it is a new people group.

When a visitor from the home culture visits friends among the displaced group, how does he feel? If, due to changes in worldview, he can no longer fully relate to the group, it is a new people group.

When a displaced people group adopts so much of its host culture’s language, dress, politics, and perspective that it is rejected by its its home culture, it is a new people group.

That’s why the children of missionaries aren’t called “MKs” (Missionary Kids) anymore. Now they’re called “TCKs” (Third Culture Kids). They don’t really belong to the culture that their parents left or to the one in which they’ve come to live.

During the recent elections in Florida, the media paid a lot of attention to Cuban exiles there who are politically active. Since Fidel Castro took control, a growing number of Cubans have fled to the U.S. since the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Today, there are 2 million Cubans living in the United States; 650,000 in Miami alone. Separated by ninety miles, fifty years, and lots of “Spanglish,” are the Cubans in Miami the same people group as those who have stayed in Cuba?

Our missiology needs to hold to an unchanging God and an ever-changing world. Why do we continue to see “emerging” as a cultural term and not a missiological one?