They say that, over time, we begin to resemble our spouses.
Maybe it’s convenience- we use the same products, shop at the same stores, eat the same foods. Eventually, you can’t tell whether those are your glasses or hers. You just grab whatever set of dentures you find lying around and put them in. It might have something to do with personal taste- that we “rub off” on one another and begin to like the same things. Perhaps the key is environmental- years of sitting in the same chairs and sleeping in the same bed is bound to give you the same stooped posture and creaky joints as your significant other. Maybe the fine people of Kentucky are on to something – we all end up married to our sisters anyway.
Most people, including pastors, choose a church that looks like them. Everything from racial and socio-economic profile to parenting style to theological bent. All around the world you’ll find hippie churches, yuppie churches, black churches, white churches, Hispanic churches, affluent churches, traditional churches- you get the idea. In missiological terms of segmentation, that’s good for the spread of the gospel; people can interact with a body of believers that “looks” just like them. They can see examples of Christ’s life-transforming work in their own culture.
In terms of discipleship, homogeneity isn’t a good thing. As people grow in their faith, they necessarily need to move away from those cultural attributes that are contrary to the values of the redeemed. Segregation, isolation, prejudice, ignorance, fear, disunity- these are not of God. Maturing churches shouldn’t look like new ones, because maturing believers don’t look like the world from which they are being saved.
I’m convinced the changed-appearance phenomenon happens with churches, too. It doesn’t take long before a congregation begins to look like its spouse. The church, of course, is supposed to be the bride of Christ. It stands to reason, then, that it should grow to look more and more like Jesus, taking on His attitude, His values, His reactions, His perspective.
Yet when I visit churches across the country (and around the world), churches tend to look a lot like their pastors (or the pastor’s wife, or the head deacon, or whoever may actually run the show.) I see churches that put academic knowledge above everything else- just like their pastor, Dr. So-and-So. I’ve been in churches that worship Worship (at least, the singing and music part,) led by former-ministers of music and aspiring Christian rock artists. Churches that focus on fighting the cults and cultures their leaders have been saved from; churches that react to whatever bad experience their pastor had as a kid. Churches that cater to families (usually while the pastor has young children)- then they move on to being a youth-oriented church. Angry churches. Discouraged churches. Political churches. Proud churches.
Who does your church look like? When people see and interact with you, who is it they’re seeing and interacting with? Is it your pastor? Your leadership team? Your critics? Or is it Jesus?
“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down,” Jesus said to the treed tax collector in Luke 19:5. “For I must stay at your house today.”
Jesus invited himself over to Zacchaeus’ house.
Usually, Jesus was invited in to people’s homes- the wedding party at Cana, Mary and Martha, Peter- they all requested that He visit. They had time to prepare for his arrival. But this time, Jesus didn’t wait for an invitation. He was coming over, ready or not. I get the feeling he did the same with Levi (Matthew) the tax collector. Maybe it was Jesus’ tax-collector strategy. He simply told people that He was coming over.
In both cases, He extended the invitation (to Himself) in public. It wasn’t a private R.S.V.P.- sort of thing. Even if He wanted to, Zacchaeus couldn’t turn Jesus down. “Uh, Teacher, we’re in the middle of a remodel in the kitchen. Can we take a rain check?” The tax man really had no choice but to accept.
How often do you invite yourself over? This is different than inviting yourself in. Inviting yourself in is knocking on the door, and being pushy. But this was different. Consider what Jesus’ self-invitation did for Zacchaeus. Jesus, a (momentarily) popular guy- the one everyone wanted to listen to, the one Zacchaeus had climbed a tree to get a glimpse of-publicly invited himself over. Zacchaeus is a gracious host. Zacchaeus was grateful (and maybe slightly flattered) that Jesus would make the suggestion.
I imagine everyone around the sycamore tree that day heard Jesus’ exchange with Zacchaeus and followed along. Zacchaeus was a well-known guy in town, and not in a good way. Luke tells us that the religious people around complained about Jesus, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner’.” Some of the disciples we’re probably hoping Jesus was going to crack a whip and turn over some tables in his living room (He didn’t). They probably didn’t go into the house with them, but I picture the crowd peeking in the windows and holding their ears to the doors to hear what the Rabbi was going to say to the Cheat.
In this case, it’s Zacchaeus, not Jesus, who is the “witness.” The transformed life of the tax collector (and his entire household) is the “public proclamation of the gospel.” Everyone knew the man Zacchaeus had been. Now, because of this encounter with Jesus, he wasn’t that guy anymore. There’s power in that witness.
Put yourself in a position to be invited over by the people to whom you minister. Make the most of those opportunities. But don’t be afraid to invite yourself over.
Most negative missions experiences are due to unrealistic expectations. (This, of course, is a wildly unsubstantiated claim based on my limited experience and no formal research whatsoever.) It usually goes something like this:
“Yay, we’re going to be missionaries! We love the nations! God’s glory! Passion! Finish the task”
Then, “It’s okay to be uncomfortable. Different isn’t necessarily bad. We can do this.”
Finally, “I’m just not cut out for missions. The missionaries here aren’t cut out for missions. I’m never leaving home again.”
Expectations are a funny thing. We use them to motivate people to do missions in the first place- “It’ll change your life,” we tell them. “God has something special for you,” we say. Short-termers, career missionaries, volunteers- we set them up for disappointment by telling them missions will be a great experience. Or hard. Or spiritually significant. Or life-altering. But then, for whatever reason, it’s none of those things.
Environmental expectations are a big one. We had volunteers come through Western Europe and complain that it was too, “developed.” Trippers on “extreme teams” in the remote jungles of countries you’ve never heard of come back feeling like failures for not having used their emergency survival kits. “We were hoping to get to go into holy city…” “We weren’t able to make contact with the imam…” “We thought there was going to be greater opposition…”
Nearly every “missionary” has a change in job/role/purpose over the course of service. “Originally, we were going to work in a medical clinic.” “We went over there to do sports camps, but…” “I was supposed to be the strategy coordinator…” This can have a profound effect on a person’s sense of and the value of his/her contribution.
And then there’s the expectation of numbers. Talk to anyone who’s been on a mission trip, and you’re likely to hear, “We didn’t get to see any churches planted” or “We only saw thirteen people come to faith.”
On the one hand, you don’t want people to go on a trip with low expectations (it is God we’re talking about, after all). But even lowering expectations can hurt the experience. We used to tell volunteers that they were unlikely to see professions of faith. Then, when the volunteers did actually see people get saved, they immediately assumed that we, the missionaries, didn’t know what we were doing. “It was easy,” I remember one young lady saying. “I don’t know why your team has to make it so complicated.” She didn’t come back because she wanted to go somewhere where “the soil might be harder.”
On the other hand, expectations tend to be what get people to spend their vacation time prayerwalking in Bangladesh rather than sitting on the beaches of Hawaii. People expect to help. They expect to see that all of this “missions” stuff isn’t just a waste of time. In order to mobilize people, we tell them that they can make a difference. We promise (directly or indirectly) that they can be part of “God’s global mission.” Then, if they don’t “see it,” they’re disillusioned disappointed, and inoculated against missions in the future. These are the people who say, “But there are lost and needy people in my own neighborhood.” They’re the ones who stop sending money to missions agencies and organizations. The ones who don’t believe in “missions.”
For those who might overspiritualize (William Carey, I’m looking at you), saying “expect great things from God,” I’d remind you even “great things” can be an unrealistic expectation. Though our church culture might discourage it, many people return from the mission field lamenting the fact that they didn’t see God do anything “great.” Sure that’s a matter of perspective, but how can we be sure people aren’t discouraged to the point of (however disobediently) abandoning missions altogether for something they see as “making a difference”?
If you’ve been on a mission trip (or if you’ve been a missionary) and had a bad experience, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that you felt like your participation wasn’t valued. I’m sorry that you felt like time and money were misspent. I apologize for missionaries who didn’t have their acts together, treated you like children, or were just generally clueless. I regret that you didn’t get to see whatever it was you were hoping to see. I feel your pain when you had to report back to your church that your time on the field was unproductive. I can relate to those of you who felt called to mission with a vison for churches being planted and lives being changed, but saw little (if any) of that come to pass.
Don’t be discouraged. Don’t let the pragmatists, the acheivers, or the falsely humble tell you that your contribution didn’t matter. Don’t allow those who think they can quantify and engineer “success” label you a failure. If you had a bad experience, go again. Next time might be different. Or, maybe not. Either way, you’re going because we serve a God who goes and commands us to go as well. We go because it’s what we do, who we are.
Dirty, sick orphans living in garbage dumps in South America.
Malnourished children in desolate African villages.
Underground house churches in outer Chinese provinces.
Sex slaves lining the street in a Thailand slum.
A burgeoning pub church in Western Europe.
What do these scenes have in common? Streams of Christians on mission trips.
In an effort to raise awareness and develop partnerships, missionaries, humanitarian aid workers, social activists, and nationals are bringing in busloads of American churchgoers to get a first-hand look at the terrible realities in which they minister. You can talk about the need, but when a megachurch pastor wades through the cesspool that villagers drink from, it really hits home. You can show pictures, but a five-minute interaction with starving children is a wake-up call. You can tell stories, but a silent worship service with persecuted Christians is the perfect object lesson. Heartstrings are pulled. Dots are connected. (Purse strings are loosed.)
But what effect does the observation have on a mission field? How does and endless string of guests and visitors affect the dynamics of a church plant? What do the persecuted and enslaved think of the mission trip tourists?
I believe in the power of first-hand experience. I think that every point of contact, every interaction is an opportunity to demonstrate Christ’s love and compassion. I think that a little bit of help is better than no help at all. Still, it feels like the worst kind of Christian consumerism- where church leaders shop for mission opportunities that fit their budgets and time schedules and will play well with their target demographics. I’d hate to see us get to the point when churches focused on the plight of poverty-stricken children decide to get involved in with street kids in India only because the hotel facilities there were more comfortable than the ones near the orphanages in Uganda. If your vision trip leaves you with creative mission trip t-shirt designs rather than creative solutions for the desperate situations people find themselves in, we’re missing something.
Are we there yet? Hopefully, no. What can we do to avoid it?
- For starters, be sure that it’s God (and not the latest craze or what you feel your church might be ready for) that guides our missions involvement.
- Recognize the importance of relationships in ministry. If your church as a missionary sent out already, pursue long-term involvement in that ministry before you start something new.
- Stay committed. Don’t hop around from place to place and cause to cause. If your people are bored, don’t foster their ministerial ADD by switching to a mission field that might seem sexier.
- Don’t ever be just an observer. If you interact with people in need, love them. For every photo you snap, spend time talking to and praying with people.
- Refuse to tell any story that isn’t true. Call it a “mobilization technique” if you want, but exaggerating numbers, and dramatizing risk is just lying. It creates false expectations and fuels the unhealthy comparison of mission fields and people groups.
- Focus on the Church. Planting a healthy, missional, indigenous church should be the goal of every mission endeavor. Meeting basic human needs is important. Building dependence and leaving spiritual orphans is irresponsible.
If you have the opportunity to go on a mission trip, there’s no excuse not to. Just know that it isn’t enough to observe poverty, slavery, oppression, and lostness. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Awareness brings responsibility.
If everything I know about church was learned in youth group, I’d be inclined to think that:
- Church should be a good mix of games, singing, a short devotion, and pizza.
- Accountability is meeting with a “grownup” who asks me if I’ve been reading my Bible.
- Socially, it’s easier to be a big fish in the “small pond” of church.
- All the hype is to get me in the door. This all happens for me.
- Discipleship happens through events and programs- Camp, Mission Trip, Lock-ins, Disciple Now Weekends.
- Spiritual maturity is measured in terms of event attendance.
- The space in which we meet is very important.
- Evangelism means inviting my unbelieving “friends” to church.
- Missions is backyard Bible clubs with poor kids one week every summer.
I’m not against youth ministry. But I suspect a generation (or two!) of pastors and church leaders who are products of youth group have heavily influenced the way church is done. So we’ve traded “pizza, games, singing and a short devotion” with, well, “donuts, drama, singing and a slightly longer devotion.” But the idea is the same- events, programs, attraction, and t-shirts are not what church is about.
We need to grow up.
Grown up doesn’t mean boring. It’s not the opposite of attractive. Grown-up church is unabashedly intrusive. It’s boldly personal. It’s radically Christ-centric. It fills in the gaps between “mountaintop experiences.” It replaces accountability groups with discipling relationships. It moves beyond “lend a helping hand” mission trips to entire churches taking spiritual accountability for unbelieving people groups. Grown-up church survives economic recession, moral failure on the part of the leadership, tragedy, marginalization, and persecution.
Is your church growing? Is it growing up?
Contextualization is the active work of translating the gospel into a culture that doesn’t have an indigenous expression of Christianity. The problem is that we all seem to be “contextualizing” for a culture that we don’t live in. We all look alike because we were all mentored by the same six guys (John, Rick, Mark, Brian, Tim, and Andy). We look like them because we know we don’t want to look like where we came from. We assume that if it seems new and cool and more biblically sound than whatever it is we’re reacting to, that it’s suitable for the context in which we minister.
Slapping a new coat of paint on the same old conventions is not contextualization. We need to be sure we’re contextualizing for the context to which we’re called- the ones in which we find ourselves. It won’t do to make your church look like someone else’s. You can’t just steal somebody else’s sermon. You can’t pipe in a great speaker who doesn’t know your context. You must be an expert in the people to whom you minister.
If you don’t do the missionary work of contextualization, you still can grow your church. But it won’t belong to the culture in which it’s planted. In order to be discipled in the foreign system you set up, people will have to first be converted to your culture- the one you imported from Grapevine, Texas, or Minneapolis, Minnesota, or Seattle, Washington. Then, you’ll find yourself having to train people to interact with the culture from which you’ve extracted them.
Which is the point, really- contextualization should be worked into the essence of every expression of Christianity. It is the key to indigenous church, and it is the key to communicating the gospel in a way that connects with your audience.
So you should wear cool glasses. If you have hair, you should either spike it up or grow it out. If you can handle a neckbeard, that’d be good. Do your best to squeeze into skinny jeans. Find a keffiyeh, and wear it even when it’s 90 degrees out. Watch Lost and 30 Rock. Talk about when Grey’s Anatomy jumped the shark. Become a vegan, or at least a part-time vegetarian. Listen to hip-hop, indie bands, alt-country, and Drink fair trade coffee-with organic soy milk, of course. You also need to ride a fixed-gear bike, smoke a cigars, drink microbrewed beer, and play hours of video games. Get a Mac, and talk about how long it’s been since you even tried using a PC. Oh, and an iPhone. You definitely need an iPhone.
Why? Contextualization, of course. But to which context?
My point is this: contextualization isn’t looking like the culture; it’s having lived in the culture. It’s how you think and communicate after putting yourself in someone else’s shoes for a while. Knowing the way it feels. Understanding how people treat you when you’re one of them. The experience is what makes you able to translate the gospel into a (sub)culture in a way that makes sense to the people who live there.
If you’re ministering to the homeless, you might try spending a night (or a month) on the street. If you’re in a community of Arabs, you should consider praying 5 times a day, seasoning your conversation with, “God willing,” and skipping the pulled-pork sandwich. Not to fool them into thinking you’re the same as them. You’re not. But until you’ve put yourself in their shoes, you really don’t have any idea what life it like for them- what’s important to them, what speaks to them, how they see you as an outsider.
Lugging around a camera doesn’t make you an artist, but it might help you understand one. Understanding one is key to communicating with him. Communicating with him is the key to sharing the gospel with him in a way that he can understand and respond to.
If a New Yorker stepped the pulpit of a Savannah, GA church to preach on a Sunday morning, his accent would undermine his message. To Southerners, a “yankee” accent means a person isn’t trustworthy. A Northerner is seen as “slick” and “smooth talking.” When he comes in to preach, even if he’s preaching the infallible and inerrant Word of God, people aren’t readily going to trust him.
Consider the reverse situation- outside the deep south, a strong southern accent (or southwestern drawl) makes a person seem stupid and slow. One man’s “Good Ol’ Boy” is another man’s “Country Bumpkin.” Just ask George W. Bush or Perry Noble. Respected in their neck of the woods, ridiculed elsewhere. This is why newscasters work hard to lose their accents. It’s why politicians play their up. An accent either says “I’m one of you,” or it says, “I’m an outsider.”
Consider the accents you might find just within the U.S. and what they might mean to different audiences. A Surfer Dude’s “bro’s,” “dude” and “right on” make him seem irresponsible and aloof to others. A Floidian’s Latino twang might make his message seem a bit foreign around the Great Lakes.
So it’s not just what you say, but how you say it that makes communication effective.
This brings me to another missiological concept- contextualization. A person needs to hear the gospel in a way that makes sense to him. Of course it needs to be in his own language. But it also needs to be in his own dialect. Indeed, his own accent. Is your church preaching the gospel in your community’s accent?