2009 March

PREVIOUSLY: Distribution

So far, three parts into my multi-part series on the counterintuitive nature of life in Christ, and I’ve yet to receive any comments accusing me of being too negative or of harboring jealousy over the megachurch’s success. Clearly, I’ve either offended (or bored) away everyone who disagrees with me, or I’ve not been clear. Let’s be sure it’s not the latter.

Megachurches are based in extreme pragmatism. Consider the rationale behind them:

  • “They allow the church to have resources that smaller churches just can’t have.”
  • “We didn’t set out to build an impersonal empire of seeker-friendliness, but its what the people wanted.”
  •  “Hey, God’s blessing it.” or, “As long as people are coming to faith…”
  • “The Bible doesn’t say we shouldn’t have a multi-million dollar building with a coffee shop and a parking structure.”

Video Venues are an exercise in pragmatism. Supporters will be quick to claim:

  • “The video sites allow our pastor to increase his influence.”
  • “This way, I can spend more time with my family.”
  • “People don’t even seem to notice that the preacher isn’t physically there.”
  • “Whether we like it or not, people come to hear (our pastor) speak.”
  • “Paul wrote letters and sent them around. We use DVDs and streaming live video.”

Professional parachurch missions are a pragmatic response to the Great Commission. Churches outsource missions to them because:

  • “Our people are better trained for missions than most people in the local church.”
  •  “People are dying and going to hell.”
  • “A small church with limited resources can’t do as much as we can.”
  • “We’ve organized the work into strategic priorities.”
  • “We have a great insurance program.”

I am not saying any of these things are necessarily bad. I am saying that they are sensible solutions to perceived problems that may not be God’s best for His church. We should not default to these sorts of pragmatic approaches to ministry, mission, and church just because they “work” or “make sense.” Why not?

How we do ministry has profound and long-lasting detrimental consequences on the churches we serve. If we elevate practicality, effectiveness, and sensibility as church values, we risk changing the very message we preach. So much of who Jesus is and what Jesus does is counterintuitive. Why is it that so much of what the church does just makes sense?

My question is this: how can someone like me (missionary, practitioner) gently and lovingly point out the pervasive pragmatism in the American church without coming across as a negative, overly critical, know-it-all jerk? 

NEXT: What’s Wrong With Pragmatism?

PREVIOUSLY: The Gaps

Another way the church has fallen into the trap of pragmatism is the way we distribute our resources. Let me explain:

Say I’m in a mid-sized church that meets in small groups throughout the week. We only have so many leaders willing to  lead these groups. Of those who are willing, we’re likely that we can only identify a few that have the vision, commitment, and gifting to actually to do small group ministry. What do we do?

If we’re looking for the most effective approach, we spread out our strong leaders. One in each group. We can’t afford to double them up- that might mean groups let without. Right?

But the Kingdom is often (usually) counterintuitive. Sometimes, what we consider “good stewardship” is actually disobedience. Leaders, money, opportunities, reputations, connections- we hold tightly to these things because we don’t want to be irresponsible. But what if God wants us to put all of our eggs in one basket? What if God wants us to have three churches in a five-block radius? What if it’s His design to have a team of strong leaders and a couple teams of “weaker” ones? What if we spend so much time, energy, and money doing one thing that we cease to be able to do everything. If the Lord leads us to do something like that, I’d hope none of us would disagree, claiming that there is a more reasonable way to spend what He has blessed us with.

Remember when Judas opposed using a bottle of fine perfume to anoint Jesus’ feet? How are you any different when you automatically (according to church policy) limit the amount of missions money you’ll give to a member of your church who wants to go on a short-term trip?

Who knows? Maybe the reason we have a dearth of leaders is that we ration them out like lumps of coal in a Dickens novel. Sure it’s sensible, but when has Jesus been sensible when it comes to Kingdom resources?

NEXT: Let’s Be Clear…

PREVIOUSLY: The Counterintuitive Church

Despite the Church’s current tendency toward extreme pragmatism, much of the life that Jesus calls us to is counter-intuitive.

But that doesn’t seem to stop us from depending (almost entirely!) on our human logic when it comes to our missiology. Why is that? Why would we assume that a counterintuitive God would leave us to do things in ways that make sense to our rational process?

As a church planter begins to think about where (geographically) to begin, he almost always looks at where there isn’t a church. The thinking, I suppose, is that you don’t want two churches side by side (except, I suppose, in the Bible Belt, where neighboring churches often fight over parking space). So the planter looks as a map of the city, and decides to focus on the next largest area that doesn’t have a church. It just makes sense to do it that way.

Same thing with missionaries; they look at unengaged people, unreached groups. They assign people to villages that have no (known) evangelical work. It makes the work manageable to look for the gaps and fill them.

Churches are obsessed with the gaps. We want to know what we’re not doing, and then do that. No program for recovering cross-dressers? We feel like we need one. No church for the tattooed-and-pierced crowd? Light some candles and call it good. It just makes sense to start with need and then come up with a solution to meet that need.

But that’s not how God did things in the scriptures. I’m not convinced it’s the way He does things today, either. It didn’t make sense to Peter that God would tell him (in a dream) to focus his ministry on the unclean (and undeserving) Gentiles. It didn’t make sense to Paul that the Spirit would prevent him from going to Asia.

What if God is calling you to plant a church in a neighborhood that already has several? Rather than compete, you might see your work as a demonstration of Christian unity. What if God wants your church planting team to focus on a people group that is, statistically, “reached?” He, in His wisdom, might use your ministry to send members of that “reached” group to take the gospel to the unreached.

My point is this- the gaps aren’t the best place to start. God is the best place to start.

NEXT: Distribution

“The first will be last,” Jesus said. “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” A quick perusal of Jesus’ words will turn up all sorts of instructions that don’t seem to line up with what we’d consider “common sense.” He told his followers to “Turn the other cheek” (didn’t He know about terrorism?) and to “Walk a second mile” when forced (by the government!) to walk just one.

As He sent them out on a short-term mission trip, why did Jesus tell His disciples not to carry any extra clothes and not to greet anyone along the way? That doesn’t seem very practical, does it? What if they had a great opportunity to witness to the guy sitting next to them on a red-eye out of Denver? So much of what Jesus told His followers to do (and not to do) just doesn’t make sense in our world. It almost always runs counter to our understanding of what might be the best way to get things done.

Yet most of what we do as believers tends to be determined by our pragmatism. We justify nearly all that we do with, “Hey, it’s working.” We consider efficiency and volume to be stewardship issues. From video-venue churches to mass marketing campaigns to building programs, churches are constantly searching for ways to make the biggest impact, to reach the greatest number of people, and to get the most bang for the buck. I believe that these are human values, not Kingdom ones. What if doing what seems to “work” in the short run is hurting us in the long run? What if giving away iPods and paying people to come to church has long-term negative effects for the church? What if our methods actually change our message?

In the next few posts, I’m going to explore some of the ways that the (particularly Western) Church has traded in God’s best for “what works.” Specifically, I want to look at the way we practice being the church, our efforts at church planting, and our theology of mission.

NEXT: The Gaps

Most of the people who call themselves “missionaries” will tell you about their passion for the unreached people group they’re working with. Algerian Berbers. The Dong people of Nigeria. The Bondo Poroja of India. People you’ve never heard of. Dark-skinned people in funny hats, living in places you couldn’t find on a map. The missionaries have grown to love their adopted people groups- indeed many have been adopted by their people groups. But unless you’ve met people, spent time with them, eaten with them- shared life with them- it’s hard to relate. How can we connect with people whose paths will never naturally cross our own?

To most of us, they’re people groups, but not people.

Our strategic approach to missions has led us begin missions with taxonomy; we conduct extensive research to find, categorize, and then engage those people groups we deem “unreached.” The unintended result of such an approach is that we’re left with a long list of facts and statistics rather than a connection with people.

If you know you’re called to mission- not just in your neighborhood, but across cultures and around the world- don’t be intimidated by a long list of unpronounceable names and places. I’d encourage you to fast and pray about where God might use you. The truth is, he may not want an Westerner to show up on the scene. Your role may be indirect. The mission of the worldwide church is a domino effect- with people going out to where the Holy Spirit leads them and sharing life with those whom He has prepared.

The beauty of God’s global activity among the nations is that it doesn’t depend on you. You can miss out, but you can’t mess it up. So throw a dart at a map, draw a name out of a hat, spin the Google Earth globe. Just be sure that God is the one leading you. Because then, and only then, will people become more to you than an unreached people group. They’ll be friends. Family. Individuals whose lives are forever supernaturally entwined with yours. People, like you, who will love, hurt, teach, and know you.

I think that’s what missions is supposed to be.

Why do I need God’s word on my heart if I’ve got it on my iPhone?   bible-1jpg-1031337

I often hear pastors lament the fall in Biblical literacy among believers today. People just don’t know their Bibles anymore. Supposedly mature Christians don’t know who built the Ark or that the Children of Israel were not actually all children.

The ignorance may be due, in large part, to the fact that we have technology designed to do our remembering for us, making it easier and easier to not know the information we depend on every day. The internet connection in my pocket means that I don’t need to memorize a recipe, driving directions, or order confirmation numbers. I don’t even know anyone’s phone number anymore. Appointments, birthdays, and reservations all live in my phone and computer, quietly waiting until it’s time to remind me of their pending arrival. The infinite capacity of the interwebs leaves more and more free space on my biological “hard drive.”

Access to digital copies of the Bible should change the way we interact with scripture. For instance, we don’t need to lug around  Life Application Study Bibles anymore. (Good riddance highlighters and gold script name embossing!) We don’t need to settle on one perspective for study notes or even a single translation or language anymore. These days, our Bibles hyperlink to commentaries, maps, satellite images, and dramatic reenactment video clips. Metadata tagging make chapter and verse numbers obsolete. Sharing scripture is no longer an expensive (and heavy!) endeavor; now it’s just an upload/download away.

So do YouVersion and Bible Gateway mean I don’t need to know scripture? No. The Word is more than just information- it is “the power of God unto salvation.” That power is applied to my life- not when I download scripture to my Kindle, but when I hide it in my heart. We need to have the Word in our minds and on the tips of our tongues for it to powerfully affect every aspect of our lives. Temptation doesn’t wait for Bible Gateway to load. We need to have access to that foundation of Truth even (especially!) when our batteries are dead.