Every time I dip my toe into the social media stream I’m faced with it: Christians fixated on sin. They complain about the evils of American culture. They wring their hands over encroachments on our rights. They decry rampant moral decay. “It’s bad out there!” they shout. “We’re losing ground!” they warn. Of course, they’re right. The world, including the United States of America, is hopelessly lost without Jesus.
Unfortunately, complaining about your mission field is an especially unmissionary thing to do. It shows that there are still many influential American Christian leaders who mistakenly see themselves as “at home” rather than in the sinful, gospel-impoverished, ends of the earth.
When a missionary arrives on the field to make disciples among an African tribe, he doesn’t complain about their lostness. He does something about it by sharing the good news through word and deed. To do anything otherwise would be like complaining about a dead man’s rotting corpse. Sin is the the disease, both the cause and the symptom– and it’s the reason we’ve been sent as agents of God who heals by forgiving.
A few weeks ago, Trevin Wax wrote a post on his blog at The Gospel Coalition about his Observations about Younger Southern Baptists. In it, he wrote:
When I talk with younger Southern Baptists, I get the impression that the landscape has shifted to the point they expect to be a minority. Therefore, the strategy becomes more about preserving space for Christian morality and less about enshrining our views in law. This is a generalization, but I think there’s truth here: Older Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Israel. Younger Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Babylon. That’s a significant shift, and it leads to a different tone.
This well-written observation of Trevin’s is exactly right, and while he attributes the shift as haven to do with generational differences, it’s really about mission. These “younger” Southern Baptists (and many more from other traditions,) are doing a better job of thinking and acting like missionaries than their forebears. They recognize that as Christians, even if we were the social or political majority, we are necessarily outsiders. When you get this, living on mission becomes obvious. When you don’t, you miss the trees for the forest, the fish for the water; or, in this case, the sinner for the sin.
Of course there is a place for calling sin what it is. There’s a need for the prophetic. But focus solely on sin, and you only reinforce the perception that Christianity is nothing more than a list of things to do and hate. You build an isolationist faith that is contradictory to the nature of our life in the Sent Son.
We are not at home, brothers. It’s time we started acting like it.
Those involved in Christian missions tend to be two-dimensional thinkers. They look at a map, see all of the “unreached people groups,” and then look for ways to reach them. This is, of course, an over-simplified view of how societies group themselves and how transformational information spreads from one group to another.
The generation gap, for example, adds a dimension to mission among people groups. Consider, for a moment, the great distance between generations within any given group of people. Humanity has always noticed a “gap” between older and younger members of society. The old are concerned that the young are disrespectful, irresponsible, and foolish. The young, on the other hand, see the old as closed-minded, controlling, and irrelevant. Technology, globalization, and changing social norms make the gap wider with each new generation. My point is this: what may, at a glance, appear to be one single “people group,” may actually be a deeply divided set of peoples who have only their ancestry in common.
Mission must take the generation gap into consideration. As it turns out, the younger generations of people groups may have much more in common, and may indeed maintain a greater level of shared culture than they do with their own elders.
Of course, generations aren’t the only additional dimensions to mission. New people groups, as I’ve written before, are emerging faster than we can engage established ones. Urban tribes are largely ignored by our current mission strategies, and we haven’t even begun to prepare for ministry among virtual social groups.
The truth is, people are connected meaningfully in multiple ways and at multiple levels. For us to be good missionaries, we must understand this and organize appropriately.
For starters, we need to promote diversity among mission teams. It won’t do to send three young couples and consider a group “engaged.” In order to address the generation gap (and to infuse a bit of wisdom into the situation,) we need many more mature adults on mission. Likewise, we need a diversity of life stages, experience, skills, and spiritual gifting on the teams we send.
We live in a complex world. In order to be good missionaries, we cannot afford a simplistic view of people groups.