2008 March

I’ve been part of a couple of conversations lately about whether or not we still need denominations or associations of churches. Many times, supporters of these associations cite the benefits of smaller churches partnering with larger ones to be more effective in missions. There may be a good reason to hold on to denominations, but partnering for missions isn’t one of them.

More often than not, when you say that a collection of churches is “partnering in missions,” you really mean that small churches give what little money they think they can afford to a larger church or a missions sending agency that will handle mobilization, screening, indoctrination, training, sending, and maintenance of missionaries on the field. This is not “partnering,” it’s outsourcing.

The difference is subtle, but detrimental to our efforts and disastrous for our missiology. The myth of “insufficient resources” has left missions strategy to those with the most. It perpetuates the distinction between the “professionals” and everyone else. For members of the small church who faithfully send their offerings to “missions” there is very little personal connection with the work or the missionaries they “send.” Motivation (apart from guilt) can be hard to come by. The larger churches are left with the most influence over what “missions monies” are used for and by whom.

Small churches can do missions. These days, travel, education, and communication (essential for missions) are easier, faster, and cheaper than ever. Even in the smallest of towns, “the nations” live next door. No matter how big your church may be, incarnational ministry is done person-to-person. The myth that it takes lots of money or people to make a difference has left the commission in the hands of the megachurches and sending organizations for too long.

A true missions network would not connect churches in order to do missions, it would connect churches who are doing missions.

wealthmap-2528697You may not be aware of this, but even the “working class” in the United States is richer than most of the people in the world. This economic discrepancy is known in even the most isolated of places, and certainly everywhere missionaries go.

The image on the upper right is a cartogram (a map deliberately distorted to illustrate global statistics) of the projected global distribution of wealth for the year 2015. The actual dimensions of the map are exaggerated according to where the wealth is. The bulging United States, Europe, and Asia show the concentration of material wealth. Compare that to the cartogram below that illustrates the world’s population. If wealth were distributed equally around the world, both maps would be the same.

populationmap-2985664Before anyone complains about my use here of the term “distribution of wealth” instead of something more guilt-assuaging, like “earned wealth,” consider the luxuries we take for granted: clean water, choice of diet, education, the protection of a local police force… At this point in history, we are not all on an even playing field.

To make matters worse, the images of American culture that are aggressively exported around the globe is one that flaunts our excesses. A common international news item is, “what’s news in America,” which usually has more to do with celebrity gossip than international crises. I’m not trying to make anyone feel guilty. I just want to be sure you realize the ramifications for international missions of the uneven distribution of wealth around the world.

  • When American missionaries come to a place, their arrival is usually viewed in one of two ways: 1) excitement over the potential material help, 2) resentment that the rich would presume to tell the poor how they ought to live and believe.
  • Often, people extol the virtues of mobilizing missionaries from within unreached cultures. In developing countries, it is very easy to find people who would be willing to accept our money to do pretty much anything.
  • Great needs must be met before people will listen to any sort of gospel message. But by meeting those needs and then calling for repentance, the behavior is inadvertently tied to the material gifts. Jesus met the same problem when he performed miracles; some were healed and didn’t even thank Him. Others followed Him around, expecting Him to put on a show. The difference, however, is that Jesus wanted people to be totally dependent on Him. We don’t want people to depend on our handouts.
  • Every report (substantiated or not) of the mismanagement of funds by anyone who calls himself a “Christian” negatively affects our reputations on the field. Same goes for the major building campaigns, and fund raisers.
  • American missionaries and volunteers often (unknowingly?) perpetuate stereotypes by the way they live and present themselves to the people they work with. That said, in most parts of the world, for an American family to move in and live just like their people group would be strange enough to prevent real relationships from being built. People resent missionaries who live in mansions, but they are suspicious of missionaries who move their families into the slums and ghettos.

There are but a few of the implications of being an American missionary. The reality of global discrepancies make for a sensitive dynamic in strategic missions engagement. These are some of the things we have to think about on a daily basis.
By the way, check out Worldmapper. It’s a site that redraws the world to illustrate global discrepancies.

Fear is a powerful thing. It can cause us to do some very irrational things. Of all the threats that we face on a daily basis, we put more time, money, and effort into protecting ourselves from things that we find very scary, whether they are likely to happen to us or not. In Chapter 5 of his 2005 book Freakonomics, Steven Levitt offers an example of this “fear of the scary over the real. ” More children die each year drowning in swimming pools (550 deaths per year, 1 death for every 11,000 pools) than from gunshots (175 deaths per year, 1 death for every 1,000,000 guns). Yet much more money is spent on campaigns, legislature, and passive protection (gun locks, safes, registration, licensing, etc.) than on pool safety (education, awareness, first-aid training, fences, covers, etc.) When was the last time you heard about requiring pool owners to have licenses or to be registered and trained?

Guns are way scarier than swimming pools.

A missions organization has many people doing high-risk things (evangelism, scripture distribution, discipleship) in high-risk areas. It makes sense, then, that the International Mission Board would spend money on training it’s missionaries to respond to crises such as natural disasters, terrorism, or targeted violence. But how many IMB missionaries are personally faced with such events each year?

Compare that to the number of our people every year who fall victim to moral failure, poor stewardship, team conflict, and depression. These aren’t the ones you read about, but these are the real killers of missionaries’ ministries and personal lives. Are we responding proportionately to these threats that every one of our people face on a daily basis? How much do we spend in discipleship for our missionaries on the field? What emphasis are we putting on continued training, pastoral care, and ongoing spiritual development?

Hopefully, we aren’t responding to the risks that scare us at the expense of responding to the risks that kill us.

lifesavers-8587653I hate when people give advice about evangelism. “What you need to do,” they start, “is buy a five-pound bag of individually-wrapped Lifesavers candy. Then, print about five hundred business cards with the plan of salvation on the back. Staple a lifesaver to each of the business cards, and ask people if they’d like a lifesaver. When they say yes, (because, I mean, everybody likes Lifesavers, right?) then you tell them that you’d like to give them a REAL lifesaver. Then you tell them about Jesus Christ.”

Okay, so that story isn’t mine. But a friend actually had a well-intentioned church member share this bit of evangelistic wisdom with him. It “works” for this guy, surely it would be equally effective in any setting. People can’t resist a “hook” like that. If they had Lifesavers in Jesus’ time, He would have used them, too.

Did I mention that I hate when people give evangelism advice?

So here’s my advice. If you’re a fairly healthy, socially adept individual, please move on; this advice isn’t for you. But if you were raised in church, you’re likely as socially awkward as I am. You might need this.

Sometimes, the hardest part about talking to someone about Jesus is bringing it up. Since we were raised in a sheltered subculture that didn’t help us make connections between our faith and “real life,” we often have trouble expressing ourselves on spiritual matters without resorting to clichés and religious words that don’t really mean anything to anyone outside our circles. To make matters worse, we’ve been trained to talk to strangers about Jesus. That’s easy. We’ve been convinced that the people around us will surely ridicule us for our beliefs, so we’re prepared to take that sort of rejection. Someone calls you a freak when you share your faith? Good for you, you’re suffering for the cause of Christ. But our friends? That’s much more difficult. There’s nothing worse then the “persecution” of being snubbed by your best friend the next time you run into them at Starbucks.

Why not write a letter? Not a letter outlining the four spiritual laws. Not sharing your faith. Write a personal letter telling your friend that you’d like to get together to talk with them about your spirituality. Tell them why you find it uncomfortable. Express your intentions- not to convert them but to share your experience. Tell them that you fear their rejection. Explain your frustration with your own inability to talk about these things without using church words. Tell them that you feel stupid for not being about to talk to your best friend about something that is so important to you. Tell them you’re sorry for being socially inept. Make an appointment with them for a time to talk about Jesus.

I’ve found that talking about Jesus isn’t nearly as weird for our friends as it is for us. They’re not emotionally hung up about it. They can talk about it like any other topic. We’re the ones who make it strange. In fact, I suspect that if you write a letter like this, your friend would respond. They would probably bring it up. They may even hold you accountable and not let you wimp out. If they know it’s important to you, they’ll likely come prepared to talk about it.

But don’t do the Lifesavers-stapled-to-a-tract trick. That’s ridiculous.

As I encourage churches to get involved in international missions, one thing that often comes up is the question of where to start. With thousands of people groups in the world, and millions of potential places of service, where do you start?

Most missions organizations would tell you to engage a “high priority” people. They usually mean the next largest people group with no known evangelical work. They believe that the best way to organize our efforts is to analyze the statistics of “lostness” and “reachedness.”

I tend to see missions less as a science and more as a relational interaction between God (through His church) and the nations. Picking an unreached people group at random is the missions equivalent of demographic-based door-to-door cold-call evangelism in your town. When engagement is decided based on statistics, it looses its (essential) relational foundation, undermining the basic gospel message which is that we can be brought into a right relationship with God and the world through Jesus.

Unless your church already has some connection to a country, culture, or people group, you would do well to start your search for missionary involvement in your town or city. What people groups are represented? Your Persian pediatrician or your Pakistani landlord might provide you with the cultural background and insight that you need to make the emotional and spiritual connection that God uses to inspire us to service.

What’s more, it’s quite possible that you can share the gospel across cultures (or engage an unreached people group) without even leaving your neighborhood. The most effective incarnational ministry can be that which starts locally and globally at the same time. Imagine the power of seeing a Portuguese man living in your town come to faith, and lead your church’s efforts to build the Kingdom of God in Portugal.

To get involved in missions, look around. It may be that God has brought the nations to your neighborhood.

After reading Dr. Malcolm Yarnell’s paper entitled, Shall We “Build Bridges” or “Pull Down Strongholds”? I was inspired to respond. I don’t usually do this sort of thing, but here’s an excerpt:

I, however, believe that the gap between the mainstream culture and the “Christian” subculture many Americans find themselves in should be filled. This should not and cannot be accomplished by efforts to “make the church relevant,” but by ceasing the active propagation of the myth of Christian culture. In other words, if our churches valued indigenous interpretation of scriptural truth, we would see expressions of Christianity that reflect (and therefore affect) the cultures in which we find ourselves. Churches would be “relevant” (I prefer “contextually appropriate”) if we stopped making people look like us in order to follow Jesus. But because many of us fail to see the cultural influences on our own Christianity. If we think that ours is a pure Christianity, unaffected by the world and its cultures, it makes sense that we would be wary of missional contextualization.

Please read the entirety of my way-too-long response, entitled:

In Response to Dr. Malcolm Yarnell’s Shall We “Build Bridges” or “Pull Down Strongholds”? A practitioner’s decidedly unacademic answer to an esteemed theology professor’s uninformed opinion.

lg_cocacola_can-1381151They say that Coca-Cola is the world’s most recognizable brand. No matter  where you go in the world, chances are that you can get the familiar caramel-colored fizzy drink. Coke is everywhere.

Coke doesn’t taste the same in every country, though. They adjust the flavor based on local tastes. In Europe, the cola is less sweet than its American counterpart. In Thailand, from what I understand, it’s much sweeter and less fizzy. The one thing that keeps the soft drink recognizable around the world is the familiar red label.

Well, mostly red. Years of market research and competition with Pepsi (and about a hundred others) had led the makers of Coke (I’m thinking these were committee decisions) to gradually change the packaging. The idea was probably to make the brand appear “hip” and “cool.” They added swooshes and swirls, bubbles, gradients, coupons, and sports logos. Soon, the can blended in with all the other soft drinks and energy drinks vying for the consumer’s attention.

Last summer, Coke got back to the basics. They reintroduced the familiar red can. Solid red with white lettering and the “dynamic ribbon” graphic they’ve used since 1969. The change finally made it to Western Europe last month. I recently read an interview of The Coca-Cola Company’s European President. When asked about the change, he replied, “We’re Coke. We’ve been around forever. We’re not fooling anyone with flashy graphics. We’re proud of our product, and the new (0ld) look represents that.”

Consumers raved over the return to the classic look. They are finding beauty in the simplicity, and the value in the recognition of the brand’s heritage.

Of course, there’s a lesson to be learned here. Whenever we talk about contextualization of Christianity, some people assume we mean dressing it up to look like the culture. We don’t. We mean giving people the essential ingredients of the faith, and allowing them to prayerfully determine the formula. The packaging doesn’t really matter so much.

But what we’re finding is that Christianity, like Coke, has been around a while. Not everyone is a fan, but most have had a taste if it. We’re not introducing the gospel, we’re reintroducing it. This means that there’s a long history to acknowledge. The challenge is to identify with our heritage in a way that allows us to overcome our failures.

Remember “New Coke?”

telenovela-2574717Have you ever watched one of those insanely melodramatic Mexican soap operas? You know, the ones with beautiful women, beautiful men, and lots of crying and screaming and face-slapping? You may not know this, but those telenovelas have great influence. Believe it or not, they are intentionally filled with subtle, even subversive messages.

In the 1970s, Miguel Sabido, a market researcher for a Mexican television studio, developed a way to influence audiences through storytelling. He started by writing a diversity of characters into the story lines of the popular serialized shows. He branched out from the “good guy/bad guy” architypes and introduced flawed (yet beautiful) protagonists that viewers could relate to. Every story, no matter what the plot, was a tale of change. The good characters would struggle with their secret badness; the bad guys would occasionally surprise everyone by doing something good. All of this, of course, had been done before (and, to be sure, better.)

Sabido’s goal was to influence viewers in positive ways. He did so by having the characters in his soaps deal with serious real-life issues. He tackled racism. Sex. Abortion. Death. As his characters changed and grew through these challenges, his viewers changed and grew as well.

Through storytelling, Sabido engaged millions of people with his agenda. He got them talking about family planning, sexual health, and other social issues. Many people credit his efforts for the plateaued population growth in Mexico. In a way, it was propaganda; weaving social and political messages into popular media programming. In communication theory, it’s called the “Sabido Method.” No matter what you call it, stories are powerful influencers.

silverspoons-9236425You might be more familiar with the Sabido Method than you think. Remember when your favorite sitcoms in the 1980s and 90s would air “Very Special Episodes?” Like when Blair from The Facts of Life was nearly raped, or when Kimberly Drummond from Diff’rent Strokes suffered from bulimia? The characters of Alex P. Keaton, Ricky Stratton, Punky Brewster, and Mike Seaver were all used to shape our social behavior and attitudes concerning everything from suicide to racism.

In life’s soap opera, God’s story, we are the characters. He uses the story arcs of our lives to incite, inform, engage, and influence. Being missional is publicly living our story instead of insisting on skipping to the moral at the end.

Why do millions of people around the world tune in every week (many are even willing to pay for it) to watch a convoluted, (half-baked?), confusing serialized television show about plane crash victims stranded on a mysterious island?

The story.

Questions. Unexpected twists. Attention to detail. Artistic nuance. Mythologies. Love. Danger. The unknown. Intentional lack of resolution. Good and evil. The Supernatural. It draws people in and it hold their attention. It evokes a response and inspires creativity. Communities are built around it.

Contrast that with most presentations of the gospel “story.” A neatly packaged presentation that is clear, concise, and full of answers. A “subjective” third-hand account where the allegorical dots are connected by lines of propositional truth. It does little to intrigue and works to leave nothing unexplained. Our story sounds tired, contrived, and commercial.

We have a lot to learn about being storytellers.

From the early days of television through the 1970′s, there were three television networks. They had no competition and total control over what Americans watched on TV.

Then came cable. 24 hours a day of news. Sports. Movies. Weather. Home shopping. Music videos. They focused on smaller markets, but gave people what they wanted to watch. Suddenly, people had choices. Satellite expanded the television universe to micro markets. The soap opera network. The game show network. Do-it-yourself home repairs. Extreme sports, classic sports, international sports. Poker.

Now the internet. YouTube. iTunes. Sidereel. Anyone can watch whatever they want, anytime. And not only watch, but connect with other fans and create their own content.

This is happening with mainstream Christianity as well. Splinters, spin-offs, and startups dot the landscape of American Christianity and provide an infinite number of ways for churches to connect and cooperate. Exclusivity is passé; most of the churches involved are aligned with multiple networks. “Loyalty” is redefined; churches maintain these associations only as long as they serve their intended purposes. Christians used to connect via centralized “broadcasts” such as denominations, personalities, or geography. Now they’re connected via the “cloud;” allowing them to partner with others according to their beliefs, worldview, practice, politics, and interests. Some are pretty unique. Others are nearly identical.

The Southern Baptist Convention is NBC in the 1960′s. Now there are hundreds of ways for likeminded believers to connect with one another. The Founders movement. Purpose Driven. Mosaic. Allelon. Acts 29. Glocal. The Missional Church Network. CBF. New Baptist Covenant. Emergent. The Antioch Church Network is a new channel to watch.

Why does all this matter?

Because it all comes down to influence. You don’t need to be the president of anything to change everything for some people. Steve McCoy is a nobody in his church’s denomination. To artistic, reformed-leaning, music-loving, post-denominational bloggers, he’s a rock star. Follow his blog for a little while and you’ll understand.

And because if you’re dependent on one of the old broadcast TV-style networks, you need to find some new ways to connect.