2008 May

Several people have asked about what’s next for me. The truth is, I don’t know. I still don’t know what I’m going to do for a living after we arrive in the U.S. Sure it sounds irresponsible and immature to up and leave a perfectly good job and regular paycheck for, well, nothing, but I am.

I am and I’m not.

For those of you who know me (and some of you know me, but don’t know that you know me…), it will come as no surprise that I have been working on a new thing. I’m really excited about getting a real job and being a regular person (you know, rather than a missionary), but I’ve also been working with some colleagues on a new initiative to get churches more directly involved in missions.

I’ve written quite a bit about the centrality of the local church to missions, and the current trends that conspire to keep her on the sidelines. Everywhere I turn, I’m finding people and churches who are looking for a more biblical missiology and a better way to do missions.

upstreamlogo-thumbnail-2548082 That’s why we started the UpStream Collective, a small group of missional leaders who are committed to training churches to develop innovative strategies for incarnational missions in Europe. This is not a new sending organization. It’s not a business, or even a ministry (in the traditional sense). We’re just a group of (former) missionaries who are looking for ways to share what we’ve learned on the field with people back in the States.

We’re going to focus on four things:

abouteuropelink-thumbnail-1971004 The “About Europe” Meetings: This summer, we’re taking a road trip. We’re asking friends in several cities across the country to host small get-togethers where we’ll talk about the church’s role in missions, and share some practical ideas for engaging people with the gospel. If you’re interested, please check out the “About Europe” website.

skybridgelink-thumbnail-3801820 Skybridge Community: There are lots of believers who live and work in Europe, but aren’t “missionaries” because they have real jobs. Because they’re not part of the missions sending system, many of them don’t have any kind of support (spiritual, emotional, prayer, help, etc.) that they need. We’re going to connect churches who are serious about missions with expatriate professionals in Europe who are serious about missional living. For churches with few resources, this is a great turnkey strategy for immediate missions engagement.

jetsetlink-thumbnail-7969137 Jet Set Trips: A couple times a year, we’re leading a vision trip to Europe. A few days in a European city is all you’ll need to get a clear understanding of the postmodern, post-Christian spiritual reality there. What’s more, it will give you a unique insight into what the U.S. will look like in just a few short years. Participants will see the sights, talk to the people, and explore innovative ways to develop and coordinate strategic missional work among the unreached.

missionsmisunderstooflogo-thumbnail-9150803 Missions Misunderstood, the Book: Okay, so that’s not exactly what it will be called, but we are working on a couple of books, and we plan to continue blogging. We are committed to promoting dialog about missions, and to sharing ideas freely with all who might be interested. We’re going to organize several campaigns geared toward churches getting more directly involved in missions.

I’m not the sensitive emotional type. I never cry at weddings. I hate romantic comedies. I think that pictures of babies in flower pots should be considered cruelty. I don’t save souvenirs, birthday cards, or mementos.

As I pack up to leave the field, I’m experiencing this strange sensation- emotion. Everything I do is taking on a new meaning (“this may be the last…”). I’m hyper-sensitive to the uniqueness of the sights and smells. I have a new-found desire to take it all in, to enjoy my final moments here.

It might just be coffee with milk, but you can’t get anything like it in the U.S. I’m watching the European league soccer finals on TV here, yet I feel so close, so involved. I don’t want to lose that. The man at the kebab shop. The cashier at the store. My friends, neighbors, and the familiar strangers I see in the city every day. I don’t want to forget them.

So I’m taking it all with me. I’m taking pictures of mundane things like street signs, sunsets, rooftops, and advertisements. (I actually stole a menu from my favorite coffee shop!)

As I go, I’m wondering whether it’s made a difference at all that I’ve been here. I don’t imagine that the city will be any different after I’ve left. But all of the things that were so strange to me when I came here now seem to mean so much.

I’m mourning the loss of what was my life in Western Europe.

In the comments section of my last post Now Tell Us How You Really Feel, a reader asked about some of the details of my transition from the field back to the United States. In the past, I haven’t written as much about these sorts of details; partly to protect my anonymity, and partly out of my belief that we tend to focus too much on these details and not enough on the theory behind them.

“now that you are leaving the organization, and leaving the country where you serve, what will happen to the people whom you have worked with (the nationals) and what are you leaving them to go on with (the big ‘reproducibility question)?

Back in January, I wrote Nothing To See Here, Folks, a post about the intangibility of our relational ministry here. The fact that we only have relationships (not programs), means that my leaving only affects those people with whom I have spent time over the last couple of years. I really don’t see my move as “leaving” anyone, though. I plan to stay engaged in redemptive and discipling relationships with my friends from a distance. I have already planned my first return trip back here in the Fall.

I do wish that we were further down the road in terms of seeing a church established. It would be a thousand times better if I could leave friends with the support of a strong network of national believers. Unfortunately, that is not the case. As I leave, I am struggling with the discrepancy between what I hoped to accomplish (God through me) and what I actually accomplished (not much, apparently). This weighed heavily on the timing of my decision to leave. To be honest (and really, why not?) , I suspect that this sense of guilt has kept me here on the field well past the time I knew I should leave.

“who is going to continue your work once you leave? is your team strong enough to keep the momentum going? have you all picked a new team-leader?”

As I mentioned above, I plan to continue (in one form or another), the work I started here. Our team is a different story. I’ve spent the last year or so working with some of my teammates to develop their strategies and thus help them reach a certain level of independence (strategically speaking). Due to circumstances beyond our control, the entire IMB team here will be leaving this summer. Work here is set to resume after the first of next year, and I doubt that my strategy (arts, social action, culture exchange) will be implemented by those who come behind me.

“do you feel that God has led you from point A to point B to point C, but may eventually lead you back to point B (at some point)? that asks a lot of you with regards to the will of God, but i’m just curious.”

My answer to this question sort of depends on what you mean by “back to point B.” If point B is where I live now (well, for the next two weeks), then my answer is yes, absolutely. But if by “point B” you were referring to the organization from which I am resigning, then I’m my answer would be no, not likely.

I’ve always seen this whole thing as a big adventure. I am pursuing what I believe to be God’s direction for my life, and while I often second guess His leadership (behind his back, of course), I’ve learned not to doubt His provision and sovereignty through it all. When I left the States for Western Europe, so much was unknown. I was in the (desirable) position of having to totally and completely depend on God. He was my only stability. Now that I’m moving back to the U.S., I happily find myself in that same situation.

I’d like to thank everyone who’s sent emails and comments in support of our move. I’m not sure what it means when people seem to be glad you’re leaving, but I’m going to take it as an encouragement.

One thing that many people are asking is whether I’m going to really let someone have it in a blog post now that I’m leaving the organization. One friend wrote, “So are you going to let loose on your blog now that you’re free?”

I think I know what they mean. When I’m out from under the Board’s authority, I shouldn’t have any inhibitions about writing a negative post about my former employer. The thing is, I have boldly expressed myself about the things that have bothered me about the organization and about missions in general. I don’t have to “let loose” now, because I’ve used this blog as an outlet for years now. Maybe I’ve tried to be diplomatic about it, but I’ve freely expressed my thoughts, questions, and ideas regarding my organization, co-workers, and denomination. My conscience is clear.

The longer I’ve been on the field, the more uncomfortable we’ve become with our missionary system. I’ve written about that at every turn along the way.

In I posted my concerns about narrowing parameters in the Southern Baptist Convention, and questioned whether or not there was still room for me here:

Some bloggers are asking whether we’ve gone too far in restricting the parameters of who is “in” and who is “out.” Others are insisting that we haven’t gone far enough. Through all of the discussion, the boundaries are drawn and redrawn, and I get the feeling that I’m no longer welcome. I can’t help but wonder, “Is there still room for me?”   -Is There Room For Me? 2 October, 2006

Way back in December of 2005, about finances in the organization, I wrote:

People are tired of sacrificially giving their hard-earned money to a faceless corporate institution that both defines “the Task” and measures its own progress in fulfilling that task. “It’s going to cost us $800 million for us to finish the task,” the organization might say. But beyond that, there is no real accountability as to how the money is spent or even as to where the financial figures come from.    -Financing the Machine, 21 December, 2005 

I’ve regularly addressed my missiological concerns, but rarely as concisely as I did here:

I cannot accept a missiology that essentially puts us on “auto-pilot” in terms of to whom we should go. The second we assume where and in whom God is going to work, we get ahead of Him and disqualify ourselves from full participation in what He’s doing. This missiology is essentially either/or; missions is either relating to those people that God leads us to, or it is targeting the next “lostest” people group according to our statistics and research. It cannot be both, because the second assumes a monopoly on the first. How else can we explain so many of our workers feeling called to work among “reached” peoples?   -Messed Up Missiology, 3 December, 2006

I haven’t pulled any punches when voicing my concerns with Church Planting Movements as Strategy, either:

I refuse to believe that the reason we aren’t seeing Church Planting Movements is that we just haven’t gotten it right yet. I’m tired of seeing good, faithful people feel pressure to produce something that is totally out of their control. We have people on the field that feel like complete failures because they haven’t seen God re-create what He did in Asia, and it weighs heavily on them. It’s time to re-evaluate our strategy and goals.   -Where Are The CPMs?  25 January, 2007

I have tried to be honest about my questions and concerns along the way. I believe that the process has helped me grow and learn. Even though my thoughts here haven’t always been well formulated, I appreciate the outlet for discussion. Many of my readers (if “many” can be applied to so few) are still with the IMB, and I would like to continue to dialog with them about ways to be even better about doing missions.

So no, don’t hold your breath for some scorching exposé about my organization as I leave. For all my questions and concerns, I really like the IMB, and I’m thankful for the opportunity they’ve given me to serve.

If you read my last post, you know that after six years, I am moving back to the United States. I’m filled with mixed emotions as I try to sort through what this means for my life and retirement plan. I’ve moved into that pensive, reflective mode; everything I do here may be “the last time.” This may be my last trip to the mountains here, my last coffee with these friends, my last night to be rudely awaken at all hours of the night by the sounds of drunken teenagers on the balcony and and garbage trucks on the street.

As I reflect on all that I’ve learned and on all of the ways I’ve changed, it occurs to me that I’m better at some things than I was when I came. I’m a better conversationalist, for one. For all the hours and hours of hanging out with friends in smoky bars, I can pretty much talk about anything with anyone.

I’ve become a lot more patient. You’ve got to be when navigating the bureaucratic systems of socialist Western Europe. I’m more understanding of the plight of the immigrant for having been one myself. I recycle. I read the newspaper. I frequent mom-and-pop shops (when I can find them) even when there’s a Starbucks next-door.

I’ve grown to be better at spiritual things as well. I can talk about my faith much more naturally than before, and avoid using Christian clichés. In relationships, I’m no longer so overwhelmed by a person’s blatant sin that I cannot love him. I have come to know the maintaining power of ongoing conversational prayer throughout the day. I read my Bible because I’m convinced of my need to hear the gospel (which builds faith), not just because a good missionary ought to. People who think differently than I do don’t seem as ignorant, and people who do things differently don’t seem as wrong. I’m a better citizen, a better friend, and, hopefully, a better example of what it’s like to have life in Christ.