2010 July

ed-stetzer-7835943At the “amen” of the closing prayer, the man bounded up to the stage with a satisfied look on his face. “Dude, you really brought it just now!” he exclaimed. “That was just what we needed to hear!” The Dude in question was Ed Stetzer, missiologist, author, preacher, researcher, and popular Christian conference speaker. The excited guy from the audience was going in for the hug when he uttered some very telling words: “Thanks for being a pastor to all of us.”

Ed had no idea who this guy was. Not because he’s especially forgetful (he’s a human Wikipedia of missions and the church), and not because he’s bad with names (he isn’t– except maybe with mine). The problem was that Ed had never actually met this man who was clearly his biggest fan. (Though anyone who knows germaphobic Ed would know better than to actually touch him.)

Ed Stetzer is everywhere. He spends lots of time on the road, speaking at conferences, teaching in seminaries, and consulting with various organizations and denominational groups. He puts out several books each year. He blogs regularly and Tweets like a spambot. His brain never shifts out of overdrive. I’ve seen him answer text messages while making a keynote presentation without ever missing a beat. Despite his crazy travel schedule, he’s home every weekend to spend time with his family and preach at church every Sunday.

It would be easy for anyone who reads his stuff and sees him speak a couple times a year to feel as though they knew Ed. His commitment to biblical truth might even make some of his fans feel as though Ed was their pastor. He’s not, and he doesn’t claim to be. Neither are any of the other two dozen or so other big names in evangelical circles. Unless you go to their churches (and in some cases, even that won’t do it), authors and conference speakers aren’t your pastors.

A pastor knows you well enough to preach the gospel into your community of faith. He holds you accountable for your missteps and encourages you through the rough patches. As described in 2 Timothy 4, a pastor is more than just a presenter of gospel teaching, he’s a shepherd who supervises your spiritual formation. The conference stage, book, (and, in many cases, the megachurch pulpit) serve as two-way mirrors; allowing us to be taught without being seen, to be preached to without being cared for.

We need thinkers, teachers, authors, and speakers. On the corporate level, leaders like Ed Stetzer are the people who drive the conversation and inspire with new ideas. They teach, equip, and challenge us publicly. They speak on our behalf. But believers need more than just sound instruction. Every Christian everywhere needs a pastor who knows them and speaks into their lives personally.

Ed Stetzer isn’t your pastor. Neither is Francis Chan, John Piper, or Matt Chandler (unless, of course, you go to their churches.) If you don’t know who your pastor is, you need to find one. If you don’t know of any in your area, ask Ed Stetzer– he probably does.

I love church planters. They really are a unique breed. Anyone who would launch out on their own to navigate the waters of societal indifference, institutional competition, and sustained discouragement  in efforts to start a church deserves some respect (Or pity. Maybe both.) I get to meet a lot of church planters from across the country, and they are invariably passionate and highly motivated.

I always ask how far into the process a planter is. The brightest-eyed always answer in terms of months; the more haggard of the bunch in years. Others still will answer in depth, as in “About up to here.”

I never ask how many people participate in the church plant. I think it’s a terrible question that only perpetuates the “numbers= success” mentality. I love to ask planters about the challenges they’re experiencing. Most are struggling in some way or another, and many don’t have anyone to talk to about those struggles. You’d be surprised how many of them have no peers to talk to about behind-the-scenes ministry-related stuff. Lots of them have wives that just aren’t into the whole thing. Most are struggling financially. Assessment and accountability can help with some of these things, but you’d be surprised how much springs up only after the planter is well into the church planting process.

On the international mission field, those who work among the unengaged, unreached people groups in undeveloped places are considered the “elite forces” of the missionary world. They work under constant opposition, threat of persecution, and with daily physical hardship. Theirs is important work, but not because it’s difficult. The value in their service is their obedience, not their sacrifice.

As much as I love church planters, I don’t like the way we’ve glamorized what they do. When we treat church planting as the ultimate accomplishment in Christian ministry, we make it into something that actually competes with our obedience. People who have no business planting churches pursue it for the sake of the challenge and the status it brings. Others walk away from ministry completely when they don’t see the results they were expecting. For every Rick Warren and Mark Driscoll there are hundreds (thousands?) of, well, me.

I worked hard for several years to plant a church (actually, a movement of churches) in Western Europe. I had a great team, good accountability, a sound plan, and a passion for God’s church. Through our work, we saw lives transformed, community formed, and the gospel proclaimed among unreached people. In the end, we didn’t see God do what we thought He was going to do. I certainly couldn’t plant a church and God, for whatever reason, didn’t.

You may be surprised that I don’t feel like a failure (anymore). I learned a lot through my experience, and I know that my obedience matters more than my accomplishments. I realize that my plans and strategies don’t guarantee results. I also came to realize that I’m not a church planter. In fact, none of us are. God plants and builds His church. We’re just the means by which He doe it.

ilovemycity-300x300-9872519I meet lots of pastors, church planters, and Christian leaders in my travels. Usually, “Where are you from?” comes only after, “What’s your name?” If you’re planting a church in inner-city Pittsburgh or rural Oklahoma, I’m going to assume that it’s because you feel called to that location. I’m not here to judge, but what other reason could you possibly have to live in Needles (which probably shouldn’t count as “California”) or Kentucky (which probably shouldn’t count as the “United States”)?

How you talk about your city says a lot about how you see it (and how you see yourself in relation to it).

“We have the largest homosexual population after San Francisco.”

“Most violent city in America.”

“Worst traffic in the country.”

“Most unchurched.” “Least evangelized.”

“Highest percentage of (_insert sin/vice/malady here_).”

If God called you to live in and love your city, why can’t you tell me anything good about it? Why not tell me about how creative the people are? Or how active? I’d like to hear about how friendly people in your town can be, or generous, or hospitable. I’d know you loved your city if you lead by bragging about its commitment to literacy, its efforts toward public health, or its fascination with high school sports. Tell me about the great food, the well-kept parks, or the quaint downtown. You say you love your city. Don’t you want me to love your city too?

My perception of many cities was colored by your description long before I even visited them. Houston and Amarillo smell bad. L.A. has gangs and traffic. Everybody in Tennessee is a narrow-minded bigot. Detroit is falling apart. Seattle is lazy (I just made that one up), and the gays are taking over Minneapolis. You don’t get extra points for living in a place you hate. The value of your presence isn’t determined by the lostness of your city.

Your focus on the negatives says a lot about how you engage the people of your city. Are you for them, or against them? Do you see them as guilty sinners (they are), or as powerless slaves? (They are.) Do you see the creative spark that God put in every human being? Do you see value in their existence? If you do, I can’t tell, because all you’ve talked about are the challenges and obstacles.

How do you talk to the other people who live in your city about your city? Say you’re watching your kids at the playground, talking to some of the other parents. Do you sound like someone who wants to be there? In line at the bank, do you come across as someone who loves your city, or someone who’s afraid of it?

Next time we talk, I’m going to ask you about your city. If you don’t have anything good to say, I’ll encourage you to move.

screen-shot-2010-07-21-at-4-19-54-pm-300x152-9609698I’ve often written about the importance of good communication from the mission field. You’d be surprised, though, how many missionaries I meet that don’t even know what a blog is. Many of those who do have blogs are forced, fake and over-spiritualized. I won’t name any names here, but I could.

Let me point you to Steve and Jamie Wright, or, as they’re known in the blogosphere, El Chupacabra and The Very Worst Missionary. Theirs are perhaps the best examples of missionary blog anywhere. Really. They write regularly about their daily lives in Costa Rica, turning the mundane into witty, fun-to-read insight into the lives of the missionary. They use healthy doses of unsettling candor, biting sarcasm, earnest confession, and self-deprecating humor that make readers feel as though we’re right there with them, caring for kids in poverty, struggling with Spanish, and not flushing toilet paper down the toilet.

wrights-300x267-4831694If more missionaries wrote like this, we’d have more and better missionaries on the field. Seriously. Everyone would have a more realistic understanding of what a missionary is and what life on the field looks like on a daily basis. The horror stories would weed out the tourists. The full disclosure would demystify the role while making it attractive to accessible, creative, brave, and interesting people.

The best thing is about the Wrights is that they’re interesting. These are blogs you want to read. People you want to know. They point you to Jesus and make you want to be in community with believers like them.

Steve and Jamie, thank you for writing. Thanks for opening a window into your lives, and for being obedient to what God has told you to do.

Be sure to bookmark/RSS both blogs. Also, you can follow Steve and Jamie on Twitter.

Growing up in church, kids always got special treatment. At my church, for example, there was some unwritten rule giving all adults in church “special” permission to “discipline” us as though we were their own kids. Doyle Braden was an arm-grabber, as I recall. Mr. Lettow would flick the backs of our heads. Sean’s dad pinched ears. Hard.

I digress.

Church kids didn’t have to listen to sermons. We were allowed to draw on the backs of bulletins and take naps. The sermon was for “grownups.” The kids, well, we were told “Bible stories.”

bibel-1-300x204-5099524I remember my Sunday School teacher pulling out the flannelgraph and using felt-cutouts of camels, caves, and men with beards retell (okay- summarize) the stories of the Bible. Noah and the Ark. The Fiery Furnace. The Good Samaritan. Great stories, all told in kid-friendly ways. You know, like on Sesame Street.

And that was the problem. Our little kid brains had a hard time telling the difference between Bible stories (which, I presume our teachers believed to have really happened or, in the case of the Samaritan, to have really been told by Jesus) and every other story we had been told. After all, David and Goliath had a giant, but so did Jack and the Beanstalk. Jesus was resurrected by the power of God, Sleeping Beauty was revivified by the Kiss of a Prince. To us, it was all kind of the same.

To make matters worse, our teachers often oversimplified the stories, diluting them into moralistic tales that they were never meant to be. Adam and Eve, Jacob and Esau, and Achan, taught us that is was bad to tell a lie. David and Jonathan showed us that sharing made us a good friend. Jonah was a lesson in obedience. Sunday morning Bible stories were like lo-tech Saturday morning cartoons. Only boring.

Looking back, I recognize that each “story” was an opportunity to share the gospel; to demonstrate our need for a savior and to recognize God’s provision in Christ. But instead, we learned that sharing and using good manners made Jesus happy. As we grew up, those stories were left behind for more practical topical Bible studies and the abstract “meat” of Pauline theology.

Of course, we eventually learned that The Three Little Pigs, The Seven Dwarfs, and all the other protagonists in our childhood stories weren’t real. How were we to know that their Bible story counterparts were?

I suppose what I’m getting at is that we need to be careful how we communicate things. The Bible isn’t God’s Cautionary Tales. Sure, there are lots of examples in the history of the Creator’s interaction with creation, but there’s more to it than that. Everything recorded in the text points to humanity’s relationship to God, made right only through the life, death, and real resurrection of Jesus. The way we talk about that history will affect how it is understood by those we tell.

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?

This the the third in what I didn’t realize was going to become a series on the relationship between missiology and ecclesiology. I believe this is an extremely helpful conversation. One that needs to happen more and more.

Missiologically-driven folks need to hear more about the centrality of the church in the Great Commission. Many of my missionary friends seem to be a bit, er, underdeveloped in their ecclesiology. They operate as though the local expression of the church is but one of several valid mechanisms for mission. As if things like pastoral care, personal accountability, and spiritual gift-based ministry were optional. But as I’ve written before, I believe that the Commission was given to the church, and that it is God’s structure for obeying that Commission. I believe that churches, not individuals, should be planting churches. I believe that church doesn’t just happen by accident, but that people must be discipled into becoming a healthy body of Christ.

The church has a mission.

The church-centrics, on the other hand, tend to lose sight of the fact that the church exists to do mission. Not in the pragmatic, “whatever works” sense, but in the “what’s the point of our presence on earth if we’re not deliberate about incarnating the gospel in our context?” sort of way. If the church, (lead my Christ Himself) were to organize itself around the mission, it might look a bit different than it does. You know, things like where we meet. How we spend money. The language we use. Our attitudes toward those who don’t believe. Our taste in music.

The mission has a church.

Just to be clear (I know, why start now?) I’m not calling for balance here. I’m calling for mutual influence. Missions-types need to hear from pastoral church guys. Without condescension, without ignorant over-simplification. The church-centered side desperately needs to hear from the missionaries among us. No guilt-trips, no judgmental disdain. When we get together and wrestle through conversations like these, we really are getting somewhere.

The Upstream Collective recently went to London and Paris on a Jet Set vision trip. We took 26 pastors and church leaders (and  a couple wives) to Europe to see first-hand what missions looks like in that post-Christian context. These trips have always been successful.  90% of pastors who participate find ways to become directly involved in missions within 6 months of the trip.

My favorite part of our Jet Set vision trips is the casual conversation that happens over coffee and on the subway. When you get a group of church planters and leaders together, we sort of geek out on theology, social trends, and technology. This trip was a great mix of highly motivated church planters. They saw the challenge of ministry in these global cities and had some great ideas for strategic engagement there. But every conversation seemed to come back around to one sticking point: The Stateside pastors/planters felt that the workers in the field had a low ecclesiologicaly relative to their missiology.

I think the pastors had a good point. Missionaries, acting as “free agents” without direct oversight from any local body of believers, were almost entirely focused on building relationships, studying culture, and looking for ways to move into spiritual conversations. I’ve written extensively here about the importance of these things. But I’ve also written here about the same concern the American pastors had– that the missionary teams were working hard to start churches without actually being a church.

The fellowship of believers is a powerful thing. The presence of the church can serve as an example of Christ-centered community that is attractive, incarnational, and redemptive. But these orphaned church planting team has to do quite a bit to make up for the fact that they are not churches. Outside the care, gifting, leadership, and authority of a local church, they’re in a spiritually dangerous place.

Some missionary teams join local churches (when there are any), hoping to be “adopted” by them as they work to plant new churches. But these local churches had no part in the missionaries’ confirmation of calling, formation, preparation, or sending. They don’t often share a common vision for church planting among their own people. Consequently, missionaries can be frustrated, sidetracked, or rejected by existing ministries among their people group.

When missiology is at the forefront– when it “precedes” ecclesiology, we send missionaries separate from the local church to do mission on behalf of the church. The result can be an isolated missionary that is estranged from God’s organizational structure, the church.

More soon…

There has been an ongoing discussion among Christian leaders about the relationship of the church and the mission of God. On one side, you’ve got those who say that ecclesiology (theology of church) should come before our missiology (theology of mission). In other words, the church is the most important thing in terms of how believers organize themselves, and that mission is a function of the church. If you get church right, these leaders say, then mission, along with the other functions of the church, will happen. If the church isn’t doing mission, it’s because the church isn’t healthy, obedient, and gospel-centered.

On the other side of the discussion are those would would flip that perspective around, making ecclesiology serve our missiology. My friend Alan Hirsch is an articulate advocate for this take on missional thinking, and he says, “Rather than say that the church has a mission, we should say that the mission has a church.” Believers have a mission, and what we know as “church” is meant to organize us to do that mission. From this perspective, our health, obedience, and gospel-centeredness are measured not by our leadership structure, but by our ownership of and involvement in God’s mission.

I believe that the two sides of this conversation represent the difference between pastors and missionaries. On the one hand, we’ve got pastors who major on church and minor  on missions. On the other hand, we have missionaries who major in mission and minor on church.

I’ll share more of my thoughts on this topic soon. In the meantime, be sure to check out this series by David Fitch and this post and comments from Jonathan Dodson,  and this Next Wave article on the topic.

bullying-300x224-8957205Nobody likes a bully.  Ours was Brian Whipple, a red-headed sixth-grader with a beard and anger management issues. “The Whip,” as we called him, loved to challenge us, in front of the most popular guys and prettiest girls in school, to do things that one would not normally want to do. Dangerous things. Embarrassing things. Against-the-rules things that could result in detention, humiliation, or personal injury.

But we did them.

The pressure was too great to refuse. We were sheep, seeking the approval of our peers, and the “double-dog-dare” was a challenge to our honor. One kid drank an entire bottle of ketchup (and promptly vomited it all over the cafeteria wall). Another jumped off the top of the monkey bars on the playground, breaking a leg and bruising his ego. I gave in to calling my teacher by her first name (“Terry,” as I recall), resulting in extra homework and several weeks on Ms. Ludlow’s “bad side.” These antics got us into varying degrees of trouble, but to us, we cared more about what others thought of us than what went on our “permanent record.”

Lots of people are bullied into participation in missions. They begrudgingly go on a trip to Mexico or inner-city Detroit because everyone else at church is doing it, or because the guy in charge of mission trips double-dog-dares them to do it.

The problem with daring people to action is that it builds resentment. Sure, you can get people to do things, but they end up hating you in the end. They don’t appreciate or learn from whatever it is you’ve convinced them to do. The result is a bad memory of a bad experience and inoculation against future service.

When I was a high-schooler trying to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up, I had a pastor scoff at my desire to be an animator for Disney and dare me to “do something more meaningful with my life.” I forgot about being an artist and went on to become a missionary. Did God call me to ministry? Yes, I think He did. But the dare was something that stuck in my mind for a long time, and I resented the feeling of being bullied into “Christian service.”

There’s no excuse for a believer to shirk his responsibility to obedience. We all must participate in the Great Commission. I guess all I’m saying is that bullying people into going is a troublesome mobilization strategy.