I would imagine that few of us, upon arrival in a foreign country that we know nothing about, would presume to critique the efforts of a missionary who has been faithfully ministering among the people there for years. He knows the language, we do not. He spends time with nationals. He has studied local customs and listens to local news.
So when said missionary determines that the best way to make disciples among his particular people group is to launch gospel tracts out of a cannon fashioned out of bamboo, we defer to his expertise. When he insists on wearing nothing but a loincloth yet looking no one in the eye, we bashfully accept. His no-ministry-after-3:30pm policy might raise our eyebrows, but we trust that he knows hat he’s doing. After all, the missionary knows best.
Back home, however, we aren’t so demure.
We criticize ministers who give away iPads to get people to come to church. We mock churches who print coloring books that instruct children to follow their pastor without question. We judge Jumping for the King as mere spectacle. Why do we feel so free to criticize? We see ourselves as experts in American culture.
But are we experts in every American population segment? How well do we really know the redemptive power of the iPad among middle-class white people in small Southern towns? Are we all experts in cult-building among upper-middle-class materialists? Just how many of us are willing to live among the tribe of patriotic motorcycle jumpers from the 1970s?
Forgive my sarcasm. I’m really not trying to be mean.
I’m trying to make 2 points here:
- Different people groups and population segments require different approaches to ministry. The missionary principles of contextualization and indignity call for us to meet people where they are and promote discipleship in their culture.
- Point #1 does not excuse every ridiculous thing someone wants to do in the name of ministry.
If all of God’s people thought and behaved like good missionaries and if we all got the gospel, we would rightly trust that every approach was wise, prudent, and obedient. Unfortunately, the gospel is often lost translation, and we are often very bad missionaries indeed.
The way to build one another up in the Lord, I’m convinced, is to ask questions. “Is this pointing people to Jesus?” “How are our means affecting our message?” “What’s with the coloring book, dude?” These are the questions that we need to be asking.
Once I was “confronted” by a well-intentioned American pastor who wanted to know why I would waste time getting to know any nationals in our work in Europe. “You really just oughta preach the gospel to these people once. If they don’t want to listen, that’s on them,” I remember him saying. Was he wrong to ask us why we did things the way we did? No. Was he reacting to our methods in an unhelpful and way? I certainly thought so.
As God’s people on God’s mission, we need one another. We need others to encourage us in our work and to ask us the hard questions that make us think (and rethink) through our methodologies. Who are you to question a missionary’s approach? A co-laborer in Christ’s mission, that’s who. But when we question, we need to do so in love.
By the way, be sure to click over to Trinity Bible Church’s site, where Pastor Bolt has responded to my response to his response to an old post of mine.
A missionary to Burma* would arrive to his field of service having very little familiarity with his new host culture. Any missionary worth his salt would immediately set out to learning about the people– their beliefs, values, language, and lifestyle. In the process, the missionary is likely to observe some things about the culture that he does not understand. He is also likely to find some things he understands perfectly but completely disagrees with.
For starters, the missionary may immediately notice the poor treatment of women in the country. Burmese girls are often married off at very young ages, and many are denied formal education and medical care. The missionary may also abhor the existence of sweat shops and the practice of child labor that is common in some areas. These conditions are symptoms of sin, and should be opposed by God’s people.
The missionary would probably also find things about the culture that offend him personally. He may find taxation exessive, the media biased, and the country’s immigration policies unfair. Of course, he would likely be frustrated by the fact that the Burmese government does not want him to be in their country. Though his presence is illegal, the missionary moves in and gets to work anyway (he has, after all, been sent by God). Nevertheless, a good missionary would probably not get tangled up in these sorts of things. He’s here to be Jesus to the Burmese people, not to fight for governmental fiscal responsibility.
The missionary keeps in mind that he is in this place for a reason. He therefore concerns himself with the most important things– with exegeting culture for bridges and barriers to the gospel, and with building relationships in order to make disciples. What this missionary would not do is work to maintain his comfort, preserve his preferences, insure his personal safety, or fight for his rights.
As I travel the world and interact with Christians from different traditions, I’m struck by their very unmissionary concerns. They’re worried about their security, their reputations, and their rights. They bemoan the fact that their mission field is not reflective of the Kingdom, that the people to whom they’ve been sent don’t worship the Most High God.
And how do these unmissionary Christians respond to the ungodliness of the world around them? By complaining rather than proclaiming. By fighting for their rights rather than turning the other cheek. By isolating themselves in a “Christian” subculture.
If the missionary to Burma behaved this way, we’d call him a bad missionary. We’d say that he’d become concerned with the affairs of this world and distracted from his mission. Of course, a missionary to Burma isn’t our model for mission., Christ is. His attitude toward an unbelieving world was blessing. He sacrificed His comfort, His rights, –His life– on their behalf. This is the mind all Christians ought to have. In Christ, we are all necessarily missionaries. The question is whether we will be good ones, or distracted ones.
*I have no knowledge of missionaries in Burma. I also am aware of the fact that “Burma” the country is called Myanmar.
For a related post, please read: “You’re Not From Around Here Anymore“
“You know,” the woman said, in a serious tone. “I have the most important job in the world– even more important than the President of the United States.”
The woman was a trustee for a large missions sending organization. She took her job seriously, and it showed. But how was this the most important job in the world?
“As a trustee, my job is to decide who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.”
She went on to explain: “We trustees decide where funds are allocated, and where missionaries will be deployed. If we assign resources to an unreached people group, we’re ensuring that they hear the gospel and have an opportunity to know Christ. But we’re stretched thin. Churches aren’t giving enough for us to send missionaries to all the places that need them. We have to say, “sorry, we don’t have enough to go around, so you all have to go to hell.””
I couldn’t believe my ears. The audacity, the pride, the ignorance– the bad missiology– were appalling.
Unfortunately, this “savior complex” is ever-present in the missions world. Just as medical doctor might come to believe that he has ultimate power over life and death, passionate and well-intentioned missionaries often believe that they are the only hope for the world. This subtle lie undermines the gospel with short-sighted, human-centered, modernistic missiology.
The only way to change the conversation about mission is to actually have a conversation, so here are my thoughts regarding the Most Important Job In The World:
Firstly, we must understand that “the mission” we talk about isn’t our mission, it’s God’s. He is redeeming sin-slaves to himself. He chooses to use us to accomplish His purposes, but He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything. He is not a weak God, limited by our disobedience or our resources.
Secondly, while this woman’s organization was indeed sizable and effective at sending full-time career missionaries, God is doing much more than what the agency is capable of doing. He is sending regular people with regular jobs to make disciples among tribes all around the world. The organization’s strategic plan is but a small part of God’s activity among in the world. Knowing this is key to our humility.
Finally, we must be clear– the only thing sending people to hell is guilt of sin. Not the decisions of the “haves” regarding the “have-nots,” not the strategies of mission organizations. And the only thing that saves people is the grace of God through Jesus; not the luck of the draw or the efforts of His people.
This mistaken notion that the fate of the world depends on our organizations and institutions must be challenged, and replaced with the truth that Christ alone is the hope of humanity. Our part is to surrender to step-by-step obedience as He orchestrates His work of redemption.
In light of that, all of our jobs are equally important (and unimportant).
Exploring her new city, the missionary located concentrations of her people group by scanning each block through a virtual reality heads-up display that showed demographics, statistics, and points of interest. She had only just started learning the local language, so she depended on her visual translator to read signs and labels. Her social networking application helped her meet young women in the area who shared her love of cooking and were willing to meet for coffee and practice English. A few text messages allowed the ladies to connect in a local cafe. When the missionary had an opportunity to share the gospel, she pulled up the book of John in the local language, and then showed a clip from the Jesus film, also in the heart language. As she Tweeted her experience, some supporters (who had been praying in real-time) were moved to give financially to her ministry via Paypal. That evening, the missionary sat down to edit the photos and videos she had taken throughout the day into a podcast and prepared for a video call to her church back home.
Your missionary needs an iPhone.
It’s funny to think that not long ago, missionaries were only seen once every four years or so. Communication consisted of letters and care packages, which had to travel by boat (slow, expensive) or by air (faster, even more expensive). Locally, the missionary had only word-of-mouth and find nationals who might be interested in knowing Jesus. Scripture translations were few and hard to come by.
The separation meant that churches were less likely to be directly involved in the missionary’s life, less engaged in what was happening on the field, and less informed by the lessons learned though the missionary endeavor. Those days are gone, and now, there’s no excuse.
Your missionary needs an iPhone.
What once would have been science fiction, is now part of everyday life for millions of iPhone (or other smartphone) users. The device facilitates much of what missionaries do: navigating, mapping, and communicating. Downloadable apps (even the free ones) make short work of producing a continuous stream of information that keeps supporters actively involved.
Despite leaps in technology, not much has changed for most missionaries on the field, who rarely have access to things like iPhones. Overseas, smartphones sell for hundreds of dollars, and require either expensive and restrictive contracts or technologically-challenging “jailbreaks” and SIM-unlocks in order to work.
Sure, in some places, missionaries can’t justify carrying a luxury item like an iPhone. In other places, the iPhone’s poor signal reception would severely limit it. And far be it from me to send a missionary something that would cause the natives to worship him as the god of Angry Birds or something. But as iPhones and iPods become increasingly common, they are less conspicuous. Cultural acceptance move them from opulence to curiosity to “does anyone around here not have an iPhone?”
Now, more than ever, we have to tools to bring our churches in regular direct contact with what God is doing around the world.
Why not include an iPhone in the next care package you send?
Six people were killed on Saturday, and thirteen injured, when a gunman entered a townhall meeting held by Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D–Arizona), and opened fire. The congresswoman was among the injured. Today, politicians are calling for an end to gun rhetoric that has become popular among pro-gun public figures such as Sarah Palin and others. Each side, of course, blames the other.
Some are saying that the shooter was incited by the militaristic rhetoric of conservative pundits. While the gunman’s motives are yet unknown, the discussion got me thinking about some of the militaristic terminology we use in missions today. We “mobilize” missionaries when we mean to “send them out.” We “enlist” the “support” of “prayer warriors” as we “strategically” “engage” the people of our “target” audience. Might the words we use lead some, both believers and unbelievers, to come to the conclusion that Christians are warring against non-Christians?
The problem with thinking of ourselves primarily as “Christian soldiers” (rather than “Christian peacemakers”) is that we’re always looking for someone to fight. The spiritual enemy is very real, but we’re easily distracted by the human ones (both real and suspected). The Bible includes militaristic imagery (Ephesians 6 tells us to “put on the full armor of God”), but it’s clear that our war is a spiritual one. In the scriptural analogy, unbelieving peoples aren’t the enemy, they’re the captives.
I’m choosing to replace the militaristic terms in my missions vocabulary with words that better communicate my intentions. In any land, among any people, I mean no harm. I’m not that sort of soldier. I’m here to bless, reconcile, and bring peace in the name of Jesus. That’s my mission (okay, so that’s one military word I may have to keep!)
It seems that everyone either has a network or is starting a network. A couple years ago, we started the Upstream Collective, a group of churches that think and act like missionaries. We looked around and didn’t see anything like it. We thought we could help. We saw a need, and we set out to meet that need. We thought we were unique. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones.
Timmy Brister recently launched the church-centric PLNTD Church Planting Network. The GCM Collective seems to be a splinter group of more missional-leaning Acts 29 leaders. Missional Network is the North American Mission Board’s appropriately-named network of missional churches. Missional Church Network, on the other hand, is mostly just a really good website, and not to be confused with the other Missional Church Network, which isn’t very missional at all, and is in fact, a very bad website. Ecclesia is a “relational network of churches, leaders and movements that seek to equip, partner and multiply missional churches and movements.”
And there’s that word, movement. According to its website, EXPONENTIAL isn’t just a conference, it’s a movement. Allelon is a movement of missional leaders. Alan Roxburgh has his own Missional Network, which isn’t a movement, but is a catalyst. Catalyst started as a conference and now wants to be a movement. Erwin McManus’ Mosaic Alliance is not the same as his joint venture with Dan Kimball called the ORIGINS Project. ORIGINS is an event, network, and community (all rolled into one) that will feature Alan Hirsch, who this year is launching his Forge USA Network and Future Travelers, a vision trip initiative not unlike our own Jet Set Vision Trips.
These networks are characterized by their presence and the personalities behind them. Their websites (for the most part) feature sharp graphic design, professional-quality logos, and quality writing (nevermind that we’re all drowning in jargon). The majority feature photos and bios of the writers, bloggers, speakers, thinkers, and Christian micro-celebrities that founded or endorse them. You really can’t separate GlocalNet from Bob Roberts, or have lifechurch.tv (also a network) without Craig Groeschel.
Networks are on the rise, and have replaced denominations for identity and influence. Local denominational entities may be responsible for funding most of the churches that are being planted today, but few of those new churches actually want to associate with those denominations. The result is lots of Mosaics, Journeys, Sojourns, Ecclesias, and Life(something)s, and fewer First, Second, and Third Baptists Churches being planted. This is why most of the more successful networks are sponsored by denominations, and why most new denominational efforts are being branded as “networks” and “movements.” (It’s important to note that those issues that divide conservative evangelical denominations are the same issues that prompt the birth of new networks: women in leadership, personalities, money, methodology/style, and power/influence.)
The prevalence of networks also reflects a further fragmented church. We used to have dozens of denominations, not we have hundreds of networks. Some of these groups are only loose affiliations- Founders Ministries has become the informal association of reformed Southern Baptists- while others, like churchplanters.com, are pay-to-play. Many networks, such as SendNYC and Austin-centered PlantR are local. Others fancy themselves global (yes, that’s Mosaix with an “X”). In all cases, churches describe and identify themselves by their network affiliations. There are even networks of networks.
The question remains: do we need all these networks? Is it good for a church to describe itself as “an emerging, purpose-driven, organic, simple, missional, incarnational, gospel-centered, Southern Baptist member of the Acts 29 Network?” To what extent are we all just competing for the attention (and dollars) 0f the same audience only to do (more or less) the same things?
Sitting in one Starbucks, looking across the street at another.
Most of the time, when people make decisions, they’re not really choosing from among all the options. Call the filters, call them limitations; but things like popularity, availability, accessibility, cost, visibility, availability, and ignorance all come into play- narrowing the field of choices to (usually) just a few. Many of us who would like to see things change find ourselves pointing out the problems of a broken system. But those who are involved in the system, especially those who are invested in it, tend to stick with it because they don’t see any alternatives. The current, broken system is better than nothing, right?
- Why do so many churches treat missions as just another program of the church?
- Why do we pile kids into a church van, drive to an Indian Reservation to do Backyard Bible Clubs and call it “missions?”
- Why are so few churches actively and directly engaged in planting the gospel among people who don’t know and believe it?
- Why do missionaries treat partner churches like volunteer labor or children to be babysat?
- Why do some only consider ministry among “unreached” people groups to me missions?
What are the alternatives? In each of these cases, churches and individuals act according to what they’ve been taught. They do what others are doing, they do what they think they can. They go where they think finances, prudence, and church leadership will allow. They spend what they think they can afford. They act when they think it will help them. They don’t always even know why they do what they do (and don’t don what they don’t do.)
We need alternatives. We need to know about churches the orient their entire existence around the mission. About the value of humanitarian trips to our obedience as believers. That the Great Commission is the church’s responsibility. How churches can do so much more than paint houses and prayerwalk. That the people groups of the world are not static, and that obedience is the best strategy. If we don’t know, it’s unlikely that we’ll do anything different.
PREVIOUSLY: Impractical Spaces
Lest you think these last few posts reflected only the thoughts of a lone anonymous cynic, I’d like to introduce you to some of the many other intentionally impractical leaders among us:
When he started the Evergreen Community in Portland, Oregon, Bob Hyatt had a vision- he knew what he wanted his church to be (biblical missional community of faith), and what he didn’t want it to be (legalistic, programmatic, location-dependent). Now, five years later, Evergreen meets in three locations (two pubs and the facilities of another church), and has established itself in Portland as the church for people who are burned out on church. Evergreen’s intentionally small gatherings allow for conversational dialogue and the kind of accountability that only true community can provide. “Community isn’t optional for followers of Jesus.” Bob counterintuitively says, “So if you’re not sure Evergreen is the place for you, there are lots of other churches in town that might be a better fit for you.”
Michael Carpenter planted intentionally nontraditional Matthew’s Table in Lebanon, TN. The Nashville suburb’s claim to fame? It’s the proposed site of Bible Park USA, a “Christian” Theme Park. Matthew’s Table is an impractically missional gathering of believers in an unlikely place. Why Lebanon? “I have to honestly say that this is the VERY last place I thought we would plant, yet I am glad we are here.” writes Michael. But for him, it’s not so much about strategy as obedience. “This is where God sent us, period.”
Todd Littleton is the epitome of Impractical Church leadership. While most of the players in the “missional” conversation plant their own churches in trendy neighborhoods where it might be easier to find like-minded people, Todd has remained pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in rural Tuttle, OK for the last 15 years. Their worship isn’t focused on twenty-somethings or lighted with candles, but Snow Hill is an incarnational gathering. I visited one Sunday morning, and was greeted by a little old lady who spelled it out for me: “We are a different kind of church. Around here, we try to be ‘missional.’ That means that we take Jesus to the people instead of just inviting them to church.”
The list is long: Marty Duren in Buford Georgia. Steve McCoy outside Chicago. Both traded denominational influence for influence in their local communities. Kevin Jamison moved into Middletown, Ohio just as everyone else seemed to be moving out. Dr. Thom Wolf is a brilliant thinker and teacher who left a prominent teaching position to move to India. Andrew Jones and his family live in a truck. There are many Counterintuitives among us.
I don’t have a problem with megachurches or their pastors. I do have a problem with the fact that we listen to them so much. We read their books. We pay to hear them speak at conferences. We look to guys like Perry Noble, Mark Driscoll, and Mark Batterson for practical tips on how to grow our churches, open video venues, or make them more relevant. They are great guys- godly men, to be sure. But I think we’ve heard what they have to say. I think we need to hear from the Impractical Churches among us.
PREVIOUSLY: What’s Wrong With Pragmatism?
The majority of evangelical churches don’t pray prayers written by someone else. Sure there’s the occasional St. Francis quote, or a Puritan prayer used in a responsive reading, but for the most part, we like to pray more personal prayers that express a personal sentiment. Yet when it comes to worship through music, how many churches sing songs they’ve written?
Is it okay to outsource the message, language, and composition of your worship to Matt Redman (or Chris Tomlin, or David Crowder)? What about the preaching? There are countless “resources” available to expand and facilitate our ministries. We outsource these basic functions of the church because it just makes sense. The quality is better. It’s easier. It’s practical. But there’s a problem:
Quality, ease and practicality aren’t Kingdom values.
People who don’t make their own stuff soon forget how. We value things more when we know what goes in to creating them. Worship is not singing (someone else’s) songs in a heart-felt manner. It’s a posture, an attitude, a natural result of interaction with the Most High. Music is a great medium for that. It’s a powerful spiritual thing that can teach, unify, sober, excite, comfort, inspire… well, you get the idea.
So the Impractical Church writes its own worship music. Their worship time might not be as polished or professional as the new Passion City Church’s, but they’re okay with that. Polish and professionalism aren’t Kingdom values, either. Sincere hearts, clear consciences, and confidence in faith are. If an Impractical Church doesn’t have any musically-inclined people, they learn. Or, they find other ways to express their adoration of God. Even if it’s messy, the important thing is that the people of God learn how to worship in Spirit and in Truth.
NEXT: Impractical Spaces
PREVIOUSLY: Let’s Be Clear
Some might read my commentary about widespread pragmatism in the American church today and ask, “So what?” Others might share my concern, but see few alternatives. I have never wanted to be merely a critic, so here I’d like to draw some conclusions. Next, I’ll try to share some ideas for what a counterintuitive church might look like.
As missionary church planters, we were constantly faced with the challenge of thinking through the eventual outcomes of our strategies and approaches to ministry. This was due, in large part, to the fact that our efforts to cooperate with the few evangelicals we found in Europe were often frustrated by their adherence to what their churches learned from the American missionaries who planted them a generation ago. European evangelicalism today looks a lot like American evangelicalism from the 1960s. Why? Because there are consequences to the decisions church leaders make.
Everyone’s traditional. Some of us just start new ones rather than following someone else’s. There are consequences to the tradition of pragmatism. You might be seeing “results” with the way you’re doing things but consider this:
- If people come to faith through confrontational, guilt-trip evangelism, they’re coming to a confrontational, guilt-trip faith.
- If your church’s myopic focus on Biblical knowledge makes it more lecture hall than place of worship, you’re likely going to get a bunch of armchair Reformation theologians and wanna-be ancient Greek scholars who are more concerned with being right than anything else.
- If you allow your church to get so large that it’s a challenge to really know everyone (anyone) else in that local body, (versus starting smaller, more local gatherings,) you are discipling your people into a less personal expression of Christianity and, therefore, a less personal view of Jesus. [Pragmatic argument:] Of course, relational church can happen in your megachurch (through small groups, cliques, informal social circles, etc.), but as you add programs and square-footage, it begins to happen in spite of how you do church, not because of how you do church.
- If your church mired in legalism, it won’t last. Legalistic religious people eventually can’t keep up with their legalisms. To them, God is only pleased with an impossibly demanding cycle of performance. They usually end up abandoning their “faith” or isolating themselves for fear of secular contamination.
- If your church worships worship, your people might not learn to worship God. At the very least, they could be left unable to worship without a worship band and Mediashout® video backgrounds. Believers need to learn to worship, learn, serve, and share without the help of the professionals who make their livings by (intentionally or otherwise) perpetuating dependence.
- If your church sits in grandstands with the lights dimmed, staring at a jumbo-tron, don’t be surprised if they act like spectators.
Nobody has a perfect church. I certainly don’t have all (any?) of the answers. And if we wait until we’ve got it right to do ministry, we’ll never start. Nevertheless, we must always be open to changing the way we do things- especially as we begin to see the potential detrimental results of the way we do things. We must be sure that we know the costs before we say that we can do “whatever it takes.”
What’s wrong with practicing pragmatism? It tells people that we serve a pragmatic God. But we don’t. Ours is a God who time and time again shows Himself to do the opposite of what we would do.
NEXT: Impractical Worship