2009 August

eavesdropping-2724520More often than not, the conversation isn’t just between you and me. Because it takes place over blogs, Twitter, conferences, and books the pubic nature of our dialog means that others are listening in. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. What better way for the nonbelievers around us to learn about Jesus than to witness the interaction between His followers?

But we need to be conscious of the eavesdroppers. The problems start when one party to the discussion is aware that others are listening in while the other party isn’t. Missionaries run into this all the time. Knowing that nationals or government officials or bad guys might be reading their emails or tapping their phones, workers in many parts of the world are careful to choose their words wisely. Not only to they want to avoid persecution, they also want to let eavesdroppers hear the gospel in their sometimes obscure messages to supporters back home- a difficult balance, to be sure. The supporters, however, don’t always get it.

“We used to support some missionaries somewhere in Asia,” a deacon in a small rural church once told me, “but he never told us what he was doing over there. Why, he hardly even talked about anything spiritual at all!” The church didn’t understand what the missionary knew- others were listening in.

A quick perusal of the comments section of any of the popular evangelical blogs shows the same ignorance- Christians interacting with Christians in un-Christlike ways. Surely the name calling and mud-slinging wouldn’t be as common if both sides of every debate remembered that frustrated Christians and  non-believers were lurking.

Brian McLaren, Jay Bakker, or Mark Driscoll are, each for different reasons, polemical figures in certain circles. Whether you agree with them or not, these guys are aware that people are listening in. They ask certain questions and avoid answering others. They each maintain a certain public persona that earns them an audience which they in turn influence heavily. They also have loyal detractors that follow them around waiting for them to do or say something heretical, controversial, or ridiculous that can be used to discredit everything else they say or do.

In John 11, Jesus says a prayer in front of Lazarus’ tomb. It’s not a personal prayer, though;  So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” This prayer is for the eavesdroppers- the ones all around who were watching Jesus to see what He was all about. Of course He knew the Father heard His prayers- He wanted the crowds to understand that as well. Jesus never forgot that others were around, and he behaved accordingly.

People are watching, and your witness is at stake. Don’t forget the eavesdroppers.

Currently, there’s a trend among pastors and church leadership to define their roles. Lead Pastor. Teaching Pastor. Executive Pastor. Counseling Pastor. Pastor of Evangelism. As if the Bible didn’t define “pastor” well enough.

Following the lead of the churches that support them, missionaries have likewise specialized within their calling. I’ve met “church planting missionaries” who use their emphasis on new work to isolate themselves from other believers. I know some “missionary advocates” who don’t actually engage people with the gospel, choosing instead to try to encourage and care for the other missionaries they may come across. “International Evangelists” are something like missionaries who take no responsibility for following through with making disciples after people come to faith.

In terms of jobs and access platforms, we need more diversity. We’re severely limiting ourselves if every “missionary” is an English teacher. But in terms of ministry, we need more “generalists.” We need people devoted to the ministry of counseling who do so with excellence, but without ignoring proclamation and evangelism. We need preachers who are good for something else besides. We need well-rounded leaders who don’t retreat into what they’re comfortable with. God provides a variety of gifting, but where are the “general practitioners?”

The cause of my concern is that this sort of “specialization” bleeds over into the lives of Christians everywhere. In misguided efforts to find identity in our gifting (rather than in Christ Himself), we’ve specialized ourselves out of Christianity into “that’s not my job;” where anyone who’s not “gifted” in service is justified in ignoring need. “Teachers” forsake all contact with unbelievers. “Prayer specialists” cloister themselves away, “Discerners” don’t have to be nice to anyone. Ever.

How do we avoid this unhealthy hyper-specialization? For starters, let’s get back to the basics of following Jesus. Loving God, loving neighbors, loving enemies. Working together as the Body of Christ to stand for justice and peace and against sin, oppression, and empty religion. Let’s remember that “making disciples” and “teaching them to obey everything Christ has commanded us” includes “doing unto others” even when it doesn’t come naturally. Let’s make more Christian Generalists.