2009 May

“If you really cared about the unreached peoples of the world, you’d be more involved in missions.”

“If you truly understood the Great Commission, you’d be a missionary.”

“If only you were made aware of the opportunities to share the gospel, you’d go on a mission trip.”

“If you honestly saw the need, felt the urgency, or recognized the importance of the task, you’d be more supportive of missions.”

Guilt, obligation, shame. This is how we motivate people to do missions. In a condescending and patronizing tone, we declare the people in the pews ignorant, apathetic, and lazy. We judge them to be sinful.

The thing is, guilt, fear, judgment, and shame aren’t the best motivators. Don’t get me wrong- they work just fine. For thousands upon thousands of people, a mission trip started with a guilt trip. But a person who’s been motivated this way will always default to acting out of obligation. She’ll get involved, but it will be because feels like she has to. Every decision along the way is a blind stab in the dark in search of “what works” or “what makes me look busy enough that I don’t risk loosing my support.”

The best motivation for missions is inspiration.

“You can make a difference in someone’s life.”

“This is what you were made for. It’s your destiny.”

“This is something that really matters.”

“You can be part of something that will provide profound connection to God and to others.”

When someone’s been inspired to missions, they live for it. Every decision is made in light of the vision they have for God’s redemption of the world. These are the people that throw themselves into relationships and work backward from the vision to develop progressive strategies toward the goal. We need inspired missionaries, not reluctant ones that constantly need to be convinced and cajoled.

In Matthew 24, Jesus gives us a glimpse into the future- a future where people from every tribe are worshipping at the throne of the most high God. The vision can be inspiring- that’s what we’re created for! We can be assured of that victory! Or, it can be twisted into a tool of manipulation: “Jesus can’t come back until you finish the task!” “Their blood is on your hands!”

Are you motivating through inspiration?

We’ve got to stop distinguishing between “missions” and, well, “not missions.”

The old paradigm was this: ministry is sharing the gospel. If you preached to believers, you were called a “pastor.” If you preached to non-Christians in your own culture, you were an “evangelist.” If you needed a passport to get there, you were a “missionary.” If those distinctions were ever helpful, they certainly aren’t today. Not when “the nations” are moving in next door and going to school with your kids. Not when there is yet to be an expression of Christianity that is truly free from modern rational humanism. We’re all missionaries because there is no “home.”

The division has resulted in “that’s not my job calling” on both sides of the divide. Many missionaries today see the church as a major distraction from their focus on evangelizing unbelieving people. Most churches outsource missions to a homely couple they send money to and pray for once a year.

The new paradigm is simple: all Christians are missionaries. They must be, because none of us are at “home.” Even if your ministry is to a group of people that you grew up with- a group that looks, talks, and acts just like you- you must recognize that your transformation in Christ necessarily makes you an outsider- a foreigner- to even your own culture. You can’t afford to assume that you are ministering in your own context. You don’t have a context in the world anymore.

Saying that all Christians are missionaries doesn’t mean we’re all good missionaries. Most Christians lack the skill, sensitivity, intentionality, and to truly be effective missionaries. Most Christians don’t worry about working to enter and engage culture because they think they’re already immersed in it. They may be, but the vast majority still step out of their cultures and subcultures and into an artificial “Christian” one every Sunday in order to worship and be discipled. We need missionaries.

If you are a Prius-driving, Lego-modding Starbucks barista, you’re uniquely qualified to be the missionary to that tribe. If you’re a Mac-using, soccer-mompreneur PTA member, your job is to incarnate the gospel among your people. It’s not enough for you to just try to fit in. You were saved to live out a Christ-transformed life in the midst of your social circles. You are where you are for a purpose.

There is no “home” and “foreign.” You are a missionary.

Syncretism is a key missiological concept that refers to the all-too common practice of overlaying one set of beliefs with another, disparate one. People often go to great lengths to reconcile different, even opposing, belief systems in order to make sense of the world around them.

When African tribes were (forcibly) “converted” to Christianity by imperialist missionaries in the 18th century, tribal leaders responded by adding the Holy Spirit to the collection of spirits they depended on to keep them safe. As the “Holy” Roman Empire expanded, nations were assumed into it by renaming their pagan gods, saints, and feasts after Christian ones.

This kind of syncretism is bad because it ignores the transformative power of Christ. It creates a veneer of Christianity that is devoid of the character of the Most High. The result is a broad misunderstanding of what life in Christ truly ought to be. Jesus isn’t just another prophet. Mary isn’t analogous to “Mother Earth.”

Of course, it isn’t always the pagans adopting Christian language and imagery; syncretism works both ways. December 25 was the date of a Roman pagan festival having to do with stars long before it was selected by the Church for the celebration of Christmas. Easter wasn’t always a holiday of remembrance of Christ’s resurrection- it began as a celebration of Spring, fertility, and an Anglo-Saxon goddess called ?ostre.

syncretism-6897178The problem with this “reverse” syncretism is that changing the name of a holiday doesn’t necessarily replace the object of worship with Jesus the Christ. Equating freedom in Christ with political freedom grossly understates the true meaning of freedom and makes too much of the worldly version.

Adopting cultural forms and methodologies without retaining a prophetic voice is syncretistic mimicry. But interjecting the God narrative into the culture is different from syncretism.  As Christians engage the cultures in which they live, they retell the culture’s stories back to it from God’s perspective.

The culture’s worship looks to the stars? We can’t say, “At least you’re looking up!”  We can say, “Let me tell you about the star that led wise men from the East to worship a baby in a feed trough.”

The culture celebrates new beginnings? It isn’t enough to encourage that celebration- we must point people to Jesus, whose resurrection makes possible the ultimate new beginning for humanity and all of creation.

Our culture values freedom? The Bill of Rights can only get you so far (and can be amended!). Only Jesus can make you truly free.

Jesus did this with Jewish law in the “You have heard… but I say to you…” sayings of His Sermon on the Mount. Paul filled in the blanks of Athenian religion when he addressed the philosophers at the Aeropagus. It is the spiritual takeover of a worldly stronghold. This isn’t syncretism, it’s redemption; reclaiming the truth that can be found in all cultures as God’s truth.

Image HT: Eric G. at Circular Thoughts

Much of what I write here centers around metrics- how we measure what we do. I believe that our desire to have measurable results of some kind has driven our strategy into a deeply human-centered pragmatism. From numbers to feelings, we try everything to try to get a handle on what it is that God wants from us. To illustrate:

  • If you believe that God does the saving (and not us), then measuring the number of salvations is kind of silly.
  • The story of Gideon’s army against the Midianites should prevent us from concerning ourselves with the number of people we have in the field.
  • By even attempting to measure resources we elevate them to a status they don’t deserve.
  • Holiness is commanded, but hard to pin down. The sin we see is usually just the tip of the iceberg.
  • Theology would be much, much easier to hold up as a standard if it weren’t for the continuous evolution of language and communication.

I’ve always  been a firm believer that obedience is the only standard we have for measuring our success. The Bible gives us clear directions in many cases, but it usually leaves the finer details to us. Sure, we’re supposed to “Go into all the world and make disciples,” but how? Obedience, of course, can be quite subjective (anyone can say, “God told me to”) and very hard to measure (89% obedient?). Nevertheless, the Bible does provide us with indicators of our obedience. Consider these:

Persecution, suffering, death. In John 15, Jesus offers this ominous warning, “as they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” In many ways, our calling as Christians is to share in Christ’s sufferings. While persecution is an indicator of reckless obedience, it is also an indicator of reckless stupidity. Chasing persecution is not a good idea, but if you’re not seeing any resistance to your ministry, you might be missing something.

Fruit. Jesus reminded us that a tree is known by its fruit. Galatians 5 outlines the fruit of the Spirit- when the Spirit of God does something, you can know it’s Him by the outcomes. Is fruit a good indicator of our obedience? Yes. And no. Unfortunately, just like at the neighborhood supermarket, good fruit can be hard to verify. Lots of people seem to be effective in ministry, but many are quite good at polishing up bad fruit to make it look good on the outside. A watered-down gospel may result in more initial commitments, but is that “fruit that will last?” Obedience results in lasting fruit that runs contrary to the work of the flesh.

Unity. One way to measure our obedience without buying every crazy “God told me to” idea is the fellowship of the Spirit. When someone claims to have a directive from the Most High, the Spirit in us should confirm that. We may not all be in total agreement, but affirmation of calling is a function of the church. Unfortunately, this is precisely why trouble-makers church-hop; they’re looking for leadership that will affirm (and fund) their “Christian postage stamp ministry” idea.

In the end, the question remains- how do we know that we’re doing what God wants us to do? How can we be unified in our efforts to be God’s people and build His kingdom? Some things are clearly spelled out in scripture (proclaim the good news in and out of season, make disciples, forgive our enemies) but it all comes down to obedience.

And obedience is hard to measure.