2011 June

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Everywhere I go, I find missionaries who have lost faith in the local church. Bad experiences have left them unsure that there’s even a place for churches in the work on the field. Well I’ve got news: it isn’t the churches who have a problem. Here are five common reasons churches won’t partner with people on the field.

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Joseph Plumb Cochran, Presbyterian Missionary to Iran, 1848

If you thought like a missionary, the word “church” would conjure images of people, not buildings.

Your plans for the year would be limited only by your creativity, not your available funds. You’d have a plan for what happens after you’re gone (a plan that could be implemented tomorrow).

You’d worry more about getting things right than being right. You’d know that every decision you make along the way has far-reaching implications for the work. Missionaries think about the long-term strategic consequences of decisions like establishing elders too soon, dividing up families for Bible study, and growing one large church vs. starting several smaller ones.

Church planting would be more than just starting a church and being its pastor; it would entail discipling indigenous leaders and pastoring through them.

You’d exegete your cultural context, not consume it. What you learn would inform what you do, because indigeneity would be a goal of your work.

You would love your city, but never quite feel comfortable in it. Something would always remind you that you are a stranger, pilgrim, and at best, an acceptable outsider.

Your church would understand that it’s only a part of what God is doing around the world. There’s a lot to learn from believers of other times and in other contexts. Global involvement cannot wait until local work is mature.

Your team would spend more time listening to the Holy Spirit than listening to you.

Your family’s active involvement would be vital to your ministry. Missionaries, at least the ones that last, include their spouse and children in building redemptive relationships.

The people you’re ministering to would have your mobile phone number. The real one.

Your stories would be current, first-person, and self-depreciating.

You would be keenly aware of the depth of your inadequacy, the dangers of the spiritual reality, and the blessing of God’s gracious provision.

You should become a missionary.

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Key to our theology of place is that we understand that we are priests. No, not the kind who wear robes or back suits with funny collars, but the kind mentioned in 1 Peter 2:9:

“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

While Christ is the mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5), we act as mediators between God and the unbelievers we live among until they meet Him. We often think of our personal ministry as being to people across town (or around the world), but where we live matters. We must focus some of our attention on those we live among. Seeing ourselves in this light could radically affect how we interact with our neighbors.

A priest speaks on behalf of God to his neighbors. As His ambassadors, we are God’s spokespeople. When we speak and act on God’s behalf in our neighborhoods, we demonstrate that we are in Christ, are filled with His Spirit, and are familiar with His Word.

Some examples of speaking for God into the lives of our neighbors:

  • The gospel- “And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard?” (Romans 10:14)
  • Wisdom- Through conversation, we can speak timely Biblical wisdom into a person’s life.
  • Warning- When we see a neighbor headed in a dangerous direction, we are obligated to warn them.
  • Peace- as agents of peace, we may speak peace (Luke 10) to troubled people.

On the other hand, as priests, we speak to God on our neighbors’ behalf. As people who have access to the Father through the Spirit (Ephesians 2:18), we can intercede for those who live around us.

  • Prayer/intercession- We can always make our needs (Philippians 4:6) known to God. But we may also pray for mercy, grace, guidance, and forgiveness for our neighbors.
  • Thanksgiving- Every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of Lights (James 1:17). We can thank him on our neighbor’s behalf!
  • Worship- while I don’t believe in worship by proxy, I can’t help but remember God’s conversation with Abraham in Genesis 18, where He agreed to show mercy to a city if only one faithful person could be found. Our obedience may be more significant for our neighbors than we realize.

The funny thing is that when we act like priests, people begin to treat us like priests. They invite us to events because they feel that our presence somehow makes a thing sacred. They confess their sin to us, because doing so gives them a taste of God’s comfort for sinners. They come to us with questions, because we regularly demonstrate ourselves to be well-acquainted with the Truth. Our words take on extra weight, our reputation is of love, and our faith a welcome constant.

Ultimately, as priests, our role is to be a blessing. To bless something is to ascribe spiritual value to something. When we bless those around us, we point them to the Most High God. Like Abraham, we have been blessed to be a blessing. How can we intercede and mediate for those around us?

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It turns out that finances aren’t the problem, and neither are language or culture. One of the biggest obstacles to mission today is access.

Perhaps I should clarify: travel is easier than ever, so Christ-followers on mission don’t have too much trouble getting to pretty much anyplace God leads them to go. But missionary access is more than just arriving, it’s moving into social positions, (called “platforms”) that allow them to proclaim the gospel and live it out incarnationally. This, it turns out, is the tricky part.

“Tourist” is only good for a short while, and brings with it a certain expectation of exploitation. Tourists visit a place not to give, but to take. They take in the sights, take photos, and take their time. Might they share their faith along the way? Of course! But is the tourist-host relationship the best for gospel incarnation? Probably not.

“Non-profit” can turn the tourist mentality on its head. A non-profit worker serves at her own expense for the benefit of others. Non-profit and charity, both religious and secular, are by far the most utilized platforms. However, these can certainly have their drawbacks. Charity is viewed differently by different cultures. India’s caste system, for example, considers poverty and suffering as the payback side of karma. A person is re-incarnated as, say a dog or a woman, as punishment for bad behavior or until an important life lesson is learned. Easing the discomfort of extreme poverty is like robbing them of their penance. In other places, charity is the work of the government, and non-profits (especially foreigners) ought not compete.

“Business,” on the other hand, is largely underdeveloped as a social-access platform. The problem, historically, is the mixture of money and ministry. Time spent building the business is often seen as competing with time in ministry. A minister’s altruism often makes him a poor businessman.

Consider the benefits of business as mission:

  • legitimizes presence (everyone knows what a businessman is)
  • assigns culturally-acceptable motives (you’re here to make money)
  • moves you into ethic-revealing relationships
  • business people are networked
  • it uses gifting not often associated with ministry
  • dissociates fund-raising from missions
  • could assist the local economy and provide jobs for nationals

So clearly, business is a good platform.

We must consider the competitive nature of business. Anytime an outsider enters a market, he does so against existing ventures (and usually with the benefit of outside resources, knowledge, and experience). A good platform provides more and better jobs than it takes. Some examples of good business platforms:

  • Import/export
  • Art
  • Food/Culinary
  • consulting
  • legal
  • tech/media
  • engineering/architecture
  • construction
  • education
  • marketing/advertising
  • sports/coaching

Some typically troublesome business platforms:

  • medical (maybe better left non-profit)
  • retail (competition, unfair practices)
  • large-scale manufacturing (working conditions)
  • tourism (guides, hospitality, travel, etc. )
  • agriculture (land ownership)

Business platforms to avoid:

  • security (anything that involves weapons)
  • banking/investing (holding other people’s money)
  • religious goods/services (appearance of “selling” the gospel)

All that said, there are some interesting models out there.

Tom’s Shoes: though they’ve been accused of killing the market for shoes in their target areas, the “buy-one-give-one” model tells a great story and appears to exploit Americans’ materialism to benefit others. As a business, Tom’s definitely has earned access into many nations that would otherwise be closed to gospel influence. I’d like to see a bit more creativity in their design, a certified fair-trade manufacturing process, and maybe improved overall quality of the shoes. Tom’s has recently started selling sunglasses, too.

Unnamed (for security reasons) Coffee Roasters: Though they operate in what is technically an open-access area, this coffee roasting company provides social access to many strata of society. They import coffee from developing nations, roast the beans on site, and distribute the final product to cafes across their host country. The key to their business model is the employment of nationals (many buyers don’t realize the company was started by outsiders) and the sale of coffee to the U.S. Like the Tom’s Shoes model, taking advantage of high-demand (and high-generosity!) markets can underwrite much of the in-country business. Of course, they do compete with national coffee importers, roasters, and distributors. But cooperating with nationals mitigates the negative impact. Their presence benefits the local economy.

Finally, I like the transfer model. A junior staff member of a transnational investment firm recently put in for a transfer to a closed-access country. Inside the company, his stock went up (the business had so far struggled to find anyone to take that job). Outside the company, this Christ-follower found himself a guest of honor in the home of local clan leaders, businessmen, and politicians. His willingness to move to another country on that country’s terms put him in a very unique place of influence there.

Just to be clear– we don’t need a bunch of pastors moving overseas to start business. We need Spirit-led businessmen to live out the gospel among the different peoples of the world.

As you can tell, I’m a big fan of business as mission. If you’d like to connect with other believers who are serving as Christ-following businesspeople around the world, join the Skybridge Community.