2009 July

Tradecraft is the set of skills one acquires though experience in a particular trade. Seasoned businessmen know how to properly vet new leadership. Exceptional communicators are aware of their tone, gestures, volume, and cadence because they know that delivery is as important as content. Good authors don’t forget pay attention to the details that make their stories believable. The master carpenter learns to measure with stock rather than a tape. A chef learns not to “measure” at all. Spies quickly learn to handle valuable information carefully in hostile environments. For the pros, these “little tricks” become force of habit. When your livelihood depends on results, you develop good tradecraft.

Missionaries are rarely taught tradecraft. They learn about people groups and theology and such, but rarely does arrive on the field mean the kind of old-pro-to-idealistic-newbie kind of real-world training a person needs to be effective in cross-cultural ministry. The result is a huge learning curve and lots of ruined missionaries.

If I were going to make a missionary tradecraft handbook (and maybe I will one of these days), it would include:

  • How to have a long and meaningful conversation in an unfamiliar environment with someone you’ve just met.
  • How to learn language. Most missionaries only learn how speak a language. Good tradecraft would include mastery of the art of language learning.
  • On-the-spot profiling. When the police do it, profiling is bad. When missionaries do it, they’re able to communicate more appropriately with their audience by contextualizing their behavior, speech, and social posture. This skill also helps missionaries avoid bad situations, neighborhoods, and scams. When everything is strange to you, it’s really hard to distinguish between different and bad.
  • Efficient and effective online communication. Believe it or not, many missionaries still spend hours printing monthly newsletters and stuffing envelopes. In the good ol’ days, this was good tradecraft. Today, it’s time-consuming, slow, and counter-productive.
  • How to share the gospel. Talk to any old-timer on the mission field and he’ll demonstrate his preferred way to “present the gospel.” Through experience, insight, and personal interactions, he’s developed a way to talk about Jesus that he’s comfortable with and is sure to make sense to whoever it is he’s talking to. He practices this “presentation” on a regular basis.
  • Filters for “good” information and “not as good” information.
  • A “Spider-sense” for evil. Missionaries live in spiritually dangerous places. The ones who survive are keenly in tune with the supernatural world around them, and have a well-developed sense for when the enemy is present and active. He positions himself for obedience- to stand, watch, and pray, or to run.
  • Someone you can trust. Through crises, doubt, discouragement, boredom, sin, success, and celebration, it’s good tradecraft to have a trustworthy friend.

Missionaries sometimes have a difficult time getting the attention of the busy (and distracted) churches that send them. It’s really hard to compete with the flashy ad campaigns of nonprofits that have contractually-obligated celebrity endorsements and seemingly limitless resources. Costly partnerships in intangible work with unreliable results can be a hard sell. Sometimes, ministry just isn’t cool.

The answer? Marketing. Missionaries (and their advocates) present their work in ways that grab attention and pull at heart strings- even if it means defying logic (or sound theology).

Consider the “10/40 Window,” that so-called “Final Frontier” of evangelical missions. It’s finite, measurable, and descriptive. It’s marketing. It establishes a first-tier of priority “no one deserves to hear twice until all these unreached people have had the opportunity to hear once.” Of course, a “10/40 window” focus comes at the expense of those people groups unfortunate enough to live too far north or south. It also overlooks the fact that Christianity was born in the heart of this very “window.” But it doesn’t matter, because the concept has served to focus the missionary efforts of the American church like never before.

Really, it’s all marketing. The difficulty of life on the field. The prayer card photo of the (large) missionary family all dressed alike. The personal stories. The prayer requests. The tales of hardships. The mythology of the martyrs. The photos of people who are so obviously different from us, the clearly depicted need.

Missions cannot be separated from the marketing it depends on. Too bad so much of it is a poor knockoff of the tactics employed by the world in the pre-electronic age. I’m praying for new marketers for missions. People who can cast vision for lived transformed, for redemptive relationships that shape culture through radical Christ-centralization. I’d love to see missions marketed as “This is what you were made to do. Anything else will leave you frustrated, unfulfilled, and wanting.” We need a campaign that emphasizes the supernatural element and God’s divine orchestration of people and resources. Something interactive and engaging- a way to get the word out that doesn’t feel manipulative, competitive, or revisionist.

Until then, won’t you join me in praying that the Lord of the Harvest would send more workers?

advertising-quiz-250x150-3276777You’ve worked hard to build a missions-minded church. You have a couple that are really excited about ministry in Indonesia. You have a young lady who’s been to Kenya over a dozen times. Your church has planted churches in inner-city Detroit and suburban Ohio. You take mission trips to Nicaragua and Lisbon every year. You sponsor needy children through Compassion. Every other Saturday, you send people to volunteer at the rescue mission. You’ve sent out missionaries to Wales, Yemen, Ecuador, and Belarus. Your church does missions. You’re going in a hundred different directions.

With an endless number of opportunities for service and overwhelming need all around, it can be hard to know what to get involved in. You’ve been sure to teach your people to be involved in service and to be missional, so they are. Odds are, you’ve got people involved in everything from digging wells in Africa to literacy programs among the urban poor.

But is missions a point of division for your church?  Each ministry requires time and money. That couple who started a ministry to homeless teenagers is always asking for time at the end of your worship service to share about the work. Your international missionaries plea for money, the orphanage advocates need volunteers. You’ve got fundraiser dinners for student mission trips, canned-good drives for immigrants and refugees, and gift-card collections every Christmas. The people involved in each ministry think you need to give more time from the pulpit to their causes. They feel that money spent on other things would be better spent in support of their work. They resent the “apathy” they see in everyone else (who are likely involved in their own ministries), and they judge the attention given to less crucial activities. They accuse you of playing favorites when you fail to mention their charity concerts and bake sales. They compete for the church’s time and attention. Sure everyone is “on mission,” but everyone is on a different mission. You end up divided, overwhelmed, and less effective than you ought to be.

How do you decide what to say “yes” to, and what’s a “no?” Does your pastoral staff make the decisions? Do you have a missions pastor? Does everything go to a committee? Most churches arrive at their missions involvement through democratic consumerism; individuals somehow hear about a ministry and decide that it’s something the church should get excited about. The opportunities that get the most votes win. The church is influenced by slick marketing on the part of missionaries and nonprofit organizations. They follow the latest trends, looking to rock stars and former celebrities for guidance on what to support. “Missions” becomes buying a T-shirt, going on a trip, dropping money in a beggar’s cup. Where’s the unity in this? What’s the theology behind it? How can your church be unified in its efforts?

The answer isn’t to ask people to back off their involvement in any particular area. Instead, consider revisiting the basics of your church’s missiological priorities and values. Do an in-depth study of the biblical foundation for missions. Highlight examples of ministry opportunities that reflect those values, and warn your people against things that might be a distraction. Provide your church with a common vocabulary to talk about these things. Explore the gifts, resources, and interests within your faith community. Emphasize commitment, sacrifice, obedience, blessing, and love. Explain the purpose of our presence.

Given some principles, your church members will be able to make smart choices based on the priorities you help establish. They’ll be able to avoid unhealthy distinctions between “social” ministries and strictly “spiritual” ones. They won’t be tempted to put the plight of depressed suburban teenagers on the same level as that of children dying from easily preventable diseases. They won’t focus so heavily on evangelism that they miss the discipleship we’re commissioned to do. Reproducing “what works back home” won’t be as attractive to them. Throwing money at a problem will cease to assuage their sense of guilt. They won’t buy into the lie that missions is about “suffering for Jesus” or fall for the convenience of outsourcing missions. They’ll finally be free of the three boxes- “Pray, Give, or Go.”

With a common understanding, your church can be unified in its mission endeavors. You may still be involved in different types of ministry in different parts of the world, but you’ll be united in your understanding of the part you play. You’ll have established criteria for what gets mentioned during worship gatherings and what gets financial support. You’ll be able to say “no” without feeling guilty. Missions will have meaning; it can be your reputation in your community, and the focus of your unity. Instead of going in a hundred different directions, it’ll seem like your just going in one.

When I was a kid, the use of certain words would get my mouth washed out with soap. A mouthful of soap (usually a bar, the liquid kind in a pinch, and laundry detergent once) is a pretty effective deterrent, so I had to find creative news ways to express the same sentiments.

My parents subscribed to the “dynamic equivalence” theory of vulgar language. “Damn,” of course, was out, but so were its more commonly accepted derivatives “darn” and “dang,” because those were just “different ways of saying the same thing.” Oddly enough, “shoot” was just fine.

All my friends’ parents all had similar rules, but the banned vocabulary differed from household to household. Some kids  would “hell” and “crap” with impunity while others (like me) played it safe, reassigning stronger meanings to what we’d heard from Beaver Cleaver and Charlie Brown.

Language is a dynamic, ever-changing thing. Words have meanings, but those meanings change from region to region, and generation to generation. New words are coined all the time. Every clique in high school has its favorite euphemisms. Remember when “bad” meant “good?” Gay used to mean “happy” (or so I’m told). Every day, words are borrowed and stolen, co-opted, branded, and misspelled (intentionally and otherwise).

Culture assigns meaning to the words we use. Technically, it’s referred to as the “dysphemism treadmill;” a word or phrase can have multiple meanings, depending on the context. Consider U2 frontman Bono’s use of the grandaddy of all curse words on live television upon receiving a Golden Globe Award. Because the Irishman’s use of the F-word was not meant to be profane (he celebrated his receipt of the award by gleefully saying, “This is really, really f—ing brilliant!), the FCC deemed it acceptable. “Family Values” proponents everywhere (few of whom had obviously ever been to Ireland) were outraged. The rest of America yawned. They understood Bono’s meaning.

Culture warriors are upset with Mark Driscoll over his language. He doesn’t understand “the distinction between strong language and obscene language,” they say. I say he’s a product of (and minister to) the Pacific Northwest, a region of the United States that uses language differently from, say, Kentucky. In order to communicate, one needs to be curt, direct. In Seattle, to be politely vague is not to communicate at all- people literally cannot get your meaning unless you speak frankly and directly. That’s why Pastor Mark doesn’t mince words. His culture values plain language. He provides it in order to clearly communicate the gospel (and its implications) to people who otherwise don’t hear it.

I’m not advocating vulgarity or profanity here. I believe that words and meanings are important. I believe that Christians should not use unwholesome or filthy language. But I’ve been the foreigner and outsider enough to know that I can’t be the police of the world’s English. The problem with language is that obscenity doesn’t depend on a particular string of consonants and vowels, it’s all about the intent. Intent is a tricky (and dangerous) thing to judge.

If, during play, a child’s ball is punctured and begins to lose air, these are the steps to repairing it:

  • Find the puncture
  • Take any remaining air out of the ball
  • Remove the thorn, nail, claw, etc. that caused the puncture
  • Clean the damaged area
  • Patch the ball with glue and like material
  • Allow the patch to adhere
  • Fill the ball with air so it can be used again

Now, it wouldn’t make any sense to stop halfway through this list of steps, would it? Say you were to remove the thorn, but then leave the hole unpatched. The ballgame wouldn’t last long, would it? Likewise, it wouldn’t do to repair the hole, but then to leave the ball deflated. We can’t consider the ball to be repaired until it’s ready to be used for its intended purpose.

What about the human spiritual condition?

We talk about redemption. We talk about being made whole. Yet we’re content with salvation without restoration. If you have a problem with lust, stay away from women and pictures of women. If you’re a glutton, avoid donut shops and ice cream parlors at all costs. If you abuse alcohol, abstain completely.

Short-term solutions are held up as moral success- legalism points to them as indicators of holiness. But discipline is the beginning of redemption, not the end. It’s the quick-fix, not the long-term repair. Redemption means full-circle restoration back to right relationship. A redeemed person can be around women and not lust after them. He can eat healthfully and in moderation. He doesn’t abuse alcohol. He is restored to a right relationship with all things, according to God’s design.

Of course, you may never reach the redeemed state this side of heaven. The short-term fix might be as far as you get. You can’t indulge as a test to see if you’ve reached “redemption.” The alcohol abuser can’t drink to see whether or not he’s overcome his pattern of abuse. We go through the process blindly. We really never can know how much “progress” we’ve made. Toward Christ-likeness is good. Away from it is not. But there are no benchmarks. No, “Okay, got that one taken care of. Now I’ll move on to the next big sin.”

In the end, we’re all works in progress. But the true meaning of redemption means never boasting in the “successes” of our own piety. At best, not sinning is only halfway to where we need to be.