2008 December

Armchair missiologists of the world-  when deciding where to get involved in missions, don’t be distracted by what isn’t there.

Let me explain. For far too long now, missions strategy has gone something like this: Start by finding where there are a lot of people who haven’t heard the gospel (or who don’t have access to the gospel, or who don’t have a church to go to), and do something there. An aspiring church planter posts a map of his city on the wall and sticks pushpins where all the churches are. He assumes that wherever there aren’t a lot of pushpins, there’s a need for a church/ministry.

What isn’t there is a bad start.

In its effort to find a niche, the world looks at a situation and says, “Where are the gaps? How can we do what nobody else is doing?” God, on the other hand, doesn’t tend to work that way. He seems to go with more of a “Shock and Awe” (to borrow an expression) sort of approach. Think Luke, chapter 10, or His work at on the Day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2.

No, a better way might be to ask whether a bunch of pushpins on the map might mean God is at work. Perhaps if God is at work in a place or among a people (as evidenced by the calling or workers, people coming to faith, or your own desire), you should join Him there.

Sure, you might find yourself working alongside other Great Commission believers, and that requires cooperation and unity. Yes, there might be places where it seems like there’s great need, yet no work. But we must trust God to orchestrate His work among the nations of the world.

The birth of Jesus is the greatest plot-twist ever. Maybe you’ve read a book where the story seems to be going in a certain direction, (maybe the identity of the killer seems obvious), but then, in a crucial and defining moment, the entire thing is turned upside-down. The rules are changed, the focus shifts, and you realize that you were wrong about what you think you thought you knew.

In a really good story, you never see it coming. Maybe the seemingly objective narrator is actually the protagonists’ long-lost uncle. Maybe it turns out that the hero was dead the whole time but didn’t know it. Whatever it is, there is a unique sensation when the plot twist hits you. For a brief moment, before it all becomes clear, you feel sort of giddy and light-headed.

You realize that the author had laced the story with clues about the dramatic shift. Upon a second reading, it seems so obvious. Of course the support-group-addicted insomniac and the charismatic anarchist cult leader were one and the same!

God becoming a little Hebrew baby. Is a brilliant twist to the story of His interaction with humanity. With Jesus, it all suddenly makes sense. So it isn’t about being born to the right parents or being a good person! There is hope! God know what He was doing all along!

And the clues were so, obvious!  How did we miss it? Beautiful in its simplicity, the Christmas story is about divine temperance. It’s about the mystery of His ultimate plan.

Merry Christmas.

Recently, there’s been some discussion regarding the use of the term “missional.” Some claim that its a useful way to distinguish incarnational ministries from those which are more attractional. Others point out that unlike the “come see” approaches to church, so-called “missional” ministries aren’t especially productive.

I’ve written about the dangers of pragmatism before. Evaluating a missiological concept (or its resulting ministry) by its “effectiveness” or “efficiency” is the worst thing we could do.  In fact, I believe this is the greatest factor in our disqualification from full participation in God’s redemptive work around the world today. Our rush to do more and do it better stands in direct opposition to our complete obedience to the step-by-step guidance of God’s Spirit.

In other words, it doesn’t matter what you call it, “missional/incarnational,” ministry is about doing what God leads you to do (and has commanded in scripture) regardless of the outcome. When we start with “what works,” we’re getting ahead of God by making a human-centered assumption about what He wants us to do. As I wrote previously, why would we value something that God never does?

Note to my colleagues on the mission field: Please don’t allow your desperation for results to influence your strategy. Broad seed-sowing will never be better than obedient seed-sowing. Rapid reproduction will never be better than God’s timing. You, your team, and your ministry will never be so cool, innovative, or attractive as to attract people to Jesus; Jesus attracts people to Himself. Be sure your desperation is for God, and that your strategy is born of your pursuit of Him.

I’m convinced that ministry these days is far too pragmatic. Missionaries desperate to see tangible results busy themselves searching for “what works.” Missions strategies and approaches to ministry are almost always based on whether or not they seem likely to produce results.

On a pretty regular basis, I receive advice from colleagues and supporters on how we should proceed in ministry. They usually begin with “I think I have an idea that would work in your context…” They’re probably right. I’m sure that there are many things that would “work” here. But I’m not only looking for what works.

I’m looking for God’s guidance. If something I do results in bad fruit, it’s obviously not of God. But in order for me to participate in  the production of fruit (fruit that will last), I must be obedient. Sometimes obedience makes for some effective ministry. Sometimes, the fruit is not so obvious, and the allure of measurable results is a temptation away from doing what God leads us to do.

So when I read about believers who justify all sorts of nonsense by saying, “Hey, it works.” I get frustrated. When missionaries develop their strategies based on what might “reach more people,” they have gotten ahead of God.

Rarely does God do what would, by our standards, be the most efficient, effective, or wise. Seriously. Look at the scriptures. Rather than writing them out himself and giving humans magic decoder sunglasses, He chose to use regular people.  Time and again, He limited Himself, He held His tongue, He left things vague. Jesus let people believe He was a fake when He could easily have proved His might. If God never values “effectiveness” or “efficiency”, why do we?

Talking about Jesus can be a strange thing to do. Sometimes, when speaking to an unbelieving friend, I make passing mention of Him just to gauge their reaction. A knowing nod makes me feel at ease; I’m put on guard when I note a disapproving purse of the lips.

I try never to assume that people know Him like I know Him. But that means talking about Him as though I were trying to set someone up on a blind date with Him. “I know a guy who’d be perfect for you!”

My tendency these days is to use a certain level of informality when I talk to God. I don’t mean any disrespect, sometimes I just want to remind myself that He’s a real person. I pray with my eyes open. I’m not afraid to sprinkle in questions, suggestions, or frustrations. But I always wonder if doing that in public might be taken the wrong way. I’m also learning to deal with my own baggage when it comes to talking about Him. I try not to use clichés (“the Man Upstairs”) or foreign languages (Jahovah Jireh), and I’m careful to explain what I mean when I say whatever it is I say.

There’s a strange pressure when the people around you learn about God through your relationship with Him. I want to differentiate my God from all the other ones out there. He’s not impersonal. He doesn’t care about the stuff that most people think He cares about.  How do you introduce people to someone they think they’ve met (and are sure they don’t care for)?