2013 February

It just occurred to me that over the course of my many missionary adventures around the world, I may have accidentally worshiped a false god or two.

I’ve visited temples, burial grounds, festivals, and holy sites. I’ve removed my hat and shoes, I’ve drunk ceremonial teas, eaten a fattened goat– I’ve even bowed (in greeting). I’ve always felt the tension between wanting to be respectful of local customs and, well, not wanting to worship that culture’s gods. Did any of my attempts to navigate these things amount to “worship?”

Despite my best efforts I’m sure there have been times when my respect was construed as reverence. Of course, I would never knowingly worship anything or anyone but the Most High God. And worship is a matter of the heart, an internal posture more than an external one. But what about accidental worship?

In Romans 13, Paul writes about the reality of living as missionary people among pagans. For those who are in Christ, we are free to eat, say, wear, and do whatever our conscience allows. He dwells on the example of eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols. Can a Christian eat it? Yes. Should he? Well, it depends.

Firstly, the idols are not God. They are pathetic imitations of the One True God. They have no power over us. Eating food that has been sacrificed to them, is not, in and of itself, sinful.

And yet, idols are spiritual. While hunks of carved wood and stone are not God, they do have influence. Millions of people around the world are slaves to the “rulers,” “authorities,” “powers of this dark world,” and to the “spiritual forces of evil.”(Ephesians 6:12) Idols are the charms that distract us from the treasure; they are a dangerous thing indeed.

And then, of course, there are the missiological implications accidental worship. We should take care not to do anything that might indicate to others that we might revere a weeping statue or fear a pagan goddess. This has the potential to confuse our message. At the very least, it might send mixed-signals about the sufficiency and exclusivity of Christ.

And therein lies one of the difficulties of being missionaries: knowing the culture well enough to distinguish between cultural norms and pagan rituals, which often look very similar to one another. An outsider may not immediately understand the difference between bowing upon meeting someone and prostrating in worship. It isn’t always clear whether attending a summer festival amounts to actually participating in a solstice celebration it was founded upon. During our initiation into a culture, we’re not aways taught the origins and significance of local traditions, folkways, or activities.

Lest you think that the question of accidental worship is limited to those missionaries living in foreign lands among primitive peoples, consider idol worship in your own context. Every day, people in your town make pilgrimages to the mall to pay tribute at the cash register. They get up each morning looking for ways to serve their masters: Power, Wealth, and Pleasure.  They worship the idols of family and rights and religion.

You may think it a silly question to ask whether the missionary in West Africa should attend a Santería healing ritual, or wear a henna tattoo. I would ask whether a Christian in America should go to a football game or wear name-brand clothing.

What are you accidentally worshiping?

These are completely different, right?

The Upstream Collective have launched their new book, Tradecraft: For the Church on Mission. It’s a collection of nine basic missionary skills which, according to the authors, was written for “all Christians everywhere.”

In the old days (and by old days, I mean the First Century), missionary skills were treated as basic discipleship. If you were going to be a follower of Jesus, you had to know how to join tribes, exegete culture, and build relationships. Jesus instructed His disciples to look for persons of peace and to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Being a Christ-follower was being a missionary.

But somewhere along the way, we separated out the missionary training from the rest of discipleship. It became acceptable to be a Christian not on mission (as if there was such a thing!).  The missionary training we reserved only for those who would commit to living abroad.

With Tradecraft, Upstream calls on the Church to re-integrate missionary skills back into discipleship. It’s one thing for a church to say that they are making disciples, but it’s another thing altogether for a church to make missionaries.

Tradecraft is an important book, if for no other reason than it moves beyond defining mission (as so many other books do) to focus on how to do mission. Believe it or not, there’s really very little

in the way of practical guides to mission available today. Most prescribe formulas for small-group Bible studies or consider cleaning up the local public school to be “mission.” Tradecraft instead focuses on the skills that help Christians sort through all of that and decide how best to live a God’s people among those who do not know Him.

While the authors may have intended the book to be for non-professtional missionaries and their churches, it’s actually the professionals who could use this kind of guidebook. The vast majority of international Christian workers have no formal training (or education, for that matter). Even those career missionaries with seminary training often don’t get much practical instruction. Tradecraft would be an excellent “field guide” for missionaries everywhere.

I recommend the following uses for Tradecraft:

  • Church small group studies: this is a great way for a small group to have a common vocabulary and perspective on everyday incarnation.
  • Mission teams required reading before a trip: no more ignorant missions teams! Require volunteers to read this before they get on a plan.
  • Church planting team formative study: you’re doomed to replicate the attractional, event-based consumer model unless your team thinks like missionaries.
  • Missionaries on the field: it’s like continuing education; even if you’re been around for a while, refresh your memory of the basics.
  • University/Seminary missions courses: Tradecraft fits nicely as a practical complement to Christopher Wright and David Bosch.
  • Student groups: turn students into campus missionaries by teaching missionary tradecraft.
  • Church staffs/elder boards: missionary thinking is the best way to insure that you’re building God’s kingdom, not yours.
  • A gift for missions supporters and donors: if they understand how missionaries think- why they do what they do- donors are less likely to make ridiculous suggestions or have unrealistic expectations. Disciple those who send you into being missionaries themselves!