Front Burner

This is a follow-up to my last post, Back Burner.

I believe that relationships are the context in which the gospel should be shared. Real relationships. This means that the only filter I apply to my ministry is my trust that the people that God brings our way are the people in whom He is working. I pursue natural friendships with these people that don’t depend on them becoming believers. I intentionally take every opportunity to speak into their life. I walk with them through the daily grind and I’m there for them when the big things come up. I don’t believe there’s any higher calling or better use of my time.

I refuse to buy into evangelism economics. I’m tired of counting numbers and measuring success by visible results. There aren’t any formulas for getting the most bang for our ministry bucks, and I don’t want to pimp out relationships like some sort of Amway salesman. Artificial relationships that have strings attached make me feel fake. I’m sick of hearing “But we aren’t here to make friends, we’re her to plant churches” as though the two were mutually exclusive. I think that “broad seed sowing,” as it is commonly understood, requires dilution of the gospel, something I’m not willing to do. I know that an American Christian has coming to share the “plan of salvation” with a Western European does not necessarily mean that the gospel has been communicated, and so I’m not willing to “move on” if someone doesn’t respond the way I want them to.

I have a good friend, a national, who calls himself an agnostic. He does not believe in a personal, “knowable” God. In the beginning of our relationship, I was encouraged every time I had the opportunity to share my faith with him. I prayed that he would show interest in spiritual things, and that he would come to know the Lord. Even after years of sharing life together, he showed no signs of faith. He knew what I believed; I’ve never been shy about the fact that my life is founded in Christ. He just didn’t want any of it. My ministry seemed to hit a plateau; no “progress” was being made. I went through a time of really questioning things. Was I wasting my time with an unresponsive individual? Was it time to “move on?”

One day, my friend and I were having coffee when an acquaintance joined us. The conversation turned, as it often did, to spiritual things. The guy heard me mention my faith, and asked me what I believed. Before I could respond, my friend jumped in and, in the most articulate way, explained exactly what I believed: that Jesus is the only way to God, and that there is no spiritual life apart from Him. That a person is saved by grace alone, regardless of his or her deeds. He even mentioned “life more abundant!” Here, my unbelieving friend was sharing the good news to someone I hardly knew.

Who knows? Maybe this is how God is going to do things in Western Europe. Maybe He’s leading us to “waste time” on “unresponsive” people that He sees fit to us in the cultural translation of the gospel. Does my friend’s “gospel presentation” lack the power of the evidence of a changed life? Yes. Is my friend, who does not have a relationship with God, in a position to disciple others? Of course not. Maybe that’s why I’m here. Either way, I’m going to continue to invest my life in the lives of the people God brings to me, however inefficient that my be.

21 thoughts on “Front Burner

  1. Your Amway remark really resonates with me. There’s no more sure turn-off for people than for them to see that you have an ulterior motive for your interest in them. I have to believe that God will honor your investment in the lives of others.

    But can you avoid the “evangelism economics,” as you put it, when you are a paid missionary? What you are doing is what every member of my church ought to be about, but they aren’t drawing their salary from the LMCO, they’re giving to it.

    Or is what you’re doing what we should expect from our missionaries? I certainly find no fault with it, but I wonder how many “broad seed sowing” missionaries it will take to make what you’re doing impossible for IMB field personnel.

    Again, thanks for your faithful work. You are in my prayers.

  2. The fact that I’m a paid missionary is a huge part of why I have this blog. I am sure of my calling, but I question my “vocation” almost every day. I’m looking for insight from others on this, because I don’t like that I’m paid to make “real” relationships. Of course, we don’t advertise that here on the field.

    I have never heard anything but support for our relational ministry. But another reason for this site is for me to be sure that the IMB leadership (beyond those to whom I am directly accountable) and my supporters (Stateside churches) know what we’re doing with their money. I want to be able to articulate our approach so that they can decide if it is something they want to support. If not, we’ll have to resign.

  3. Going back to look at the analogy, I must admit, you have me laughing a little bit about the “burners.” Why? Maybe because I know that I have used that(and other “ministry” vocabulary) myself to describe relationships I am “working” on. Wait….There is another chuckle… Do we really “work” on people? Where do we get all this terminology? Front burner/Back burner, etc.

    But how about “contacts,” “prospects,” and other words? Why don’t we just use “clients,” “customers,” or the like? Are they people, or our project? I am not saying I have this necessarily figured out. From habit, I still hear these terms slipping out of my mouth. But I am wanting to say that I am no longer comfortable with most of the vocabulary we use, and more importantly its intended meanings. We have created our own professional jargon. It does smell like Amway.

    You’ve got me thinking.

    To get back to the “burner” analogy, I wonder if we put people on the backburner because we were ‘burning’ them on the front. We are so used to fast-cook, high-heat evangelism that more than likely we remove them from the stovetop altogether if they are not turning out like we want, or haven’t prayed the prayer yet.

    Maybe the better way to see it(the analogy that is) is that a good cook realizes not all foods should be cooked or prepared the same way. Some slow, some fast. Some simmered, some stir-fried.

    But then again, this view of balanced cooking also reveals an underlying point-of-view that people are our ‘projects.’

    Maybe we out to refocus simply on living with people. Developing our people skills. Friendship factors. Listening. Talking. Caring. Hanging out. Sharing burdens and joys, etc. All the while bringing to the table of our friendship who we are, and as the conversation moves along, sharing who Christ is in us (not with a 4 point action plan), but as the moments present themselves. If Christ is real in us, then He will come out all the time (in different bits) because He has permeated our life.

    I know I am thinking out loud now and maybe that last thought gets a little cloudy, but these analogies can, whether we want them to or not, paint a picture or an attitude we have about people.

    Did Jesus really see the woman at the well as a contact, or was she a prospect?

    Of course we all know she was “unchurched!” Oops, there is another one. I wonder if that one says more about us, than her. Are we to see people for their church connections, or their Christ connection? That is probably another blog.

    ?Thinking?

  4. These questions lead to asking what the purpose is of a vocational missionary in the first place. At least I think they do. You said, “Maybe we out to refocus simply on living with people.” As I mentioned in another post, that is what I as a pastor try to get my people to do all the time. Jesus had a few people in whom he invested Himself in the kind of relationship we’re talking about, but His job was too great to make that kind of investment in everyone. Do we just focus on the people we can build relationships with and not worry about everyone else?

    When I was a youth minister, we had a sponsor at camp who was a nervous wreck by the second day because she tried to enforce every camp rule on all 5000 students at the camp. We had to tell her to just worry about our group and let the other groups worry about their own.

    Perhaps a vocational missionary should be reaching beyond the immediate group of relationship possibilities (the woman at the well wasn’t one of the twelve, after all), or perhaps they should focus on those who show the potential to be relationship builders themselves.

    By the way, the woman at the well could be reported, for Sunday school purposes, as seven contacts: the woman, the five husbands, and the man she was living with. ;-)

  5. stepchild, you’re the missionary, right? you should be the one doing what we pay you to do. do your job. you’re the church planter, right. we give you money to build churches, right? you need to come up with the best strategy for reaching the largest number of people in your area, and implement it. i want to know that my hard earned money is going to good use, supporting missionaries who will get the job done.

    ok, that’s all bupkiss. i was just posting a comment as i would have about five and a half years ago. i really laugh at how my thinking was so skewed…and yet i am still baffled at how much i struggle to just love others as Christ has loved me.

    some thoughts on your post here: Jesus spent ENORMOUS amounts of time with his twelve, right? but one of them was “a devil,” right. we are so flippant when talking about the twelve, and about Jesus’ strategy and yet, he spent gobs of time with the man who was “doomed to destruction so that scripture would be revealed” (Jn 17:12). hasn’t anyone ever thought about why Jesus loved and invested in Judas? Or did he just pick those who he knew would accept him?

    i venture to say that God is backward from us. his ways are not our ways. and his ways are not our ways because we do not conform to Christ.

  6. i’ve been in numerous discussions in the last few weeks where we’re talking about breaking out of the old forms, and the old paradigms, and shaking loose american terminology (corporate terminology and sunday school terminology…propects, etc) that clings to us like ticks. yet Jesus did say he came to seek and save the lost. he said he hadn’t come for the righteous but for sinners.

    i think if we can develop a sensitivity to objectifying people, so that every time we speak of people in objectifying ways, we cringe; then we are on the road to genuinely loving people as people. but is the word lost really THAT MUCH different than unchurched (or any number of words we might choose to use)?

    and the sower scattered his seed on four types of soil. i’ve never read where Jesus said to keep working toward the point where we can identify the good soil before we sow the seed. (i guess 4 soils is another way he classified people.)

    i think we (me included) need to be more comfortable with the struggle all of us are talking about. struggle is part of our ongoing growth. i think if we are genuinely loving people (or at least always trying to) and don’t hide our light under a basket, Jesus will do what he wants to in us and through us.

    i think…at least, that’s what i think right now.

  7. Towhead, you kind of had me going there at the beginning of that post. I’ve actually had emails and conversations that sounded a lot like that. “What do we pay you for?”

    Wes, seven contacts in one woman- now THAT’S strategy!

    Steve, I agree that we should get “comfortable with the struggle.” That’s a good way to say it. The trouble I have is that most of my colleagues believe that we should have these things “figured out.”

    You mention developing a sensitivity to the projecty words. I think that’s a great start. The words we use really do go a long way toward shaping our attitudes about people.

    Yeah, I try to respond to comments on all the posts. Do you know of some I’ve missed? In a lot of ways, the older stuff is what I wish people would comment on. My posts on “the Task” and “Obedience as Strategy” are some I’d really some feedback on. (Hint, hint.)

  8. OK, I took a stab at Obedience As Strategy. When I get time, I’ll work on The Task.

    Some of my other comments are here:
    Whatever Happened To Experiencing God
    True Religion
    Mission Trips
    IMB Policy Clarification?

    And I’ve changed my avatar.

  9. well, this one is the real me. but who knows, some time, some place, when you least expect it, afro-boy may return.

    i tried to go back and respond to some of your replies.

  10. Stepchild, this is my first comment on your blog. I have been reading your blog off and on for awhile but I still haven’t had the time to read it all. Let me introduce myself. I am a fellow M (yes I hate the M word too!) working in Western Europe and I have been here working for a few years.

    Reading this current post almost makes me want to cry. Why? It makes me almost want to cry because I am reminded that I am not alone. You have described things I have been thinking about for ahwile. The thing is though many, many people I come in contact with around me would not buy your way of thinking. I would say most M’s I have met are very comfortable with the front and back burner way of thinking.

    For example, just the other day I had a conversation with a guy in my town who is working with college students. He is employed by a very large ministry based in the U.S. that reaches out to college students. Anyways, I asked my friend how Jim (a local university student who he had been spending time with) was doing. He told me that basically he wasn’t spending time or sharing with Jim anymore. When I asked him why not, he told me that his leadership had told him that if that people aren’t responsive within a certain time frame, then it’s time to move on. I can’t remember exactly what the time frame was but I want to say it was like a year.

    To me it seems like this attitude is very, very common in Western Europe and in missions. (Have you ever heard of the term “shedding”? In the past year I heard someone describe that “shedding” is what we need to do with people who are “unresponsive” and take up your time.) I have to admit, it can be quite overwhelming at times. Often, I feel out of place here in Western Europe where I believe things are very relational but the many of the people around me doing ministry don’t even have real relationships with local lost people and it doens’t seem to bother them. But all that said, it is very encouraging to read your thoughts on this Stepchild and to read some of the comments people are making.

    Ok, I haven’t read too much of your blog so am going to read some more before I ask too many questions. I think whatever I may ask, you may have already addressed it. I may need to make a cup of coffee though. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

  11. OK, I made a comment about The Task and All Nations.

    On the shedding thing… I don’t believe I could embrace that. I may need to expand my relationships to include more people, but just to shed someone, I couldn’t do that. Keep the door open to them, while not putting all my eggs in one basket, is something I could embrace.

  12. I just discovered your blog today. My wife and I anxiously read through it together over lunch. It was soooooo good for us to realize that there are other missionaries out there who think like us. Like the guy above, I wanted to cry. We are in another part of the world and a bit isolated (which can be a really good thing) but we don’t get a very good view of what others are thinking on these issues.
    thanks for taking the risk with this blog. I hope to meet you some day.
    Joe Missionary

  13. Steve,
    Thanks for remembering us. We appreciate it. One thing we’ve been talking about is how relationships often seem to naturally happen in cycles. Sometimes you spend a lot of time together, sometimes you don’t. In the context of a real relationship, I think that “slower” time is something God has used in our ministry to expand our relationships, as you said.

    Joe M,
    Welcome, thanks for coming around! I was encouraged by your comment. Sometimes a guys can feel pretty lonely on some of this stuff. Please share any thoughts you might have on any of this.

  14. Stepchild,

    I appreciate reading your blog. Thanks for sending me the link. You definitely have some good food for thought. I will comment on this entry now, and perhaps on some others as I find the time.

    In relation to all you say, a few Scriptures come to mind…

    1 Cor. 9.19,22. For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more…To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. (KJV)

    The Contemporary English Version says: “so that I can win as many people as possible” and “I do everything I can to win everyone I possibly can”.

    We also have the verse about “shaking the dust off of your feet”. And then also what Paul says in Rom. 15.20-21 “Yea, so have I strived to preach the gospel, not where Christ was named, lest I should build upon another man’s foundation: But as it is written, To whom he was not spoken of, they shall see; and they that have not heard shall understand”.

    As I understand these verses, there does seem to be a Biblical precedent for focusing our evangelistic efforts on those who seem to be more responsive. At the same time, it seems like the most effective way of helping people to believe in Christ and follow him is through our genuine concern for them best lived out through authentic relationships. The problem becomes when, as a result of the amount of time and energy spent on authentic relationships with people we hope will eventually embrace Christ and choose to follow him, we neglect other people who may end up being more predisposed to receiving the Good News we are hoping to appropriately communicate.

    In a Postmodern setting like W.E., we will certainly gain a better hearing for our message by means of authentic relationships. And I believe it can be successfully argued that until we have broken through the “trust barrier” by means of authentic relationships, it is hard to say we have really given the people we are hoping to see come to Christ a legitimate opportunity to truly embrace or reject the Good News we bring. In a way, this is probably true for any setting, postmodern or not, but especially so for postmodern W.E.

    So, we have to live with the tension of truly communicating the love of God in an authentic way that is going to break down “trust barriers”, and not neglecting at the same time, those who may be more open to our message. For all of this, we need a lot of wisdom, and guidance from the Holy Spirit. And, I, personally do not think we necessarily fall into unhealthy “evangelism economics” when we think strategically about how to most effectively do all of this, being good stewards of the spiritual gifts and resources God has commended into our hands.

  15. David,
    Thank you for your thoughts. I appreciate your use of the term “tension.” I often come across as an “either/or” kind of guy, but ministry in Western Europe is a balancing act, isn’t it?

    I guess I like the “Person of Peace” concept that is read into the Luke 10 passage, but does “welcome” necessarily mean “respond to the message?” I think it goes back to the tension you talked about. Either the Holy Spirit will guide us to a Person of Peace, or we need to move on.

    I’ve always believed that any relationship we have with a national is evidence of God working. For me, a national wanting to spend time with me qualifies him as a Person of Peace. Since I’m open about my faith, interest in me at the very least demonstrates interest in spiritual things. So while I want to see lots of people come to Christ, I’m not ready to initiate a “breakup” with someone just because they don’t respond. That’s what I spoke to in the original post. That said, I do believe that there are times when God leads us to distance ourselves from certain people.

    I agree that the N.T. strategy focused on certain people and not on others. But I don’t think it was the “responsive” people they focused on. I think it was the ones that God brought to them that were “welcoming.” The people they seemed to avoid were the ones who resisted them. Before I “move on,” I just want to be sure, as you mentioned, that people here are rejecting the gospel and not our methods.

    Just for the record, I want to be clear; I am not against strategy, and I am not against evangelism. The reason I’m on the field is to share my faith and to be used by God to bring people into the kingdom! I think that as we walk in step-by-step obedience to the Holy Spirit, our goal should be to bring people to Jesus.

    Sorry this is so long, but David is really speaking to the heart of what I’m struggling with. Thanks again for your thoughts. Keep them coming.

  16. stepchild,

    I agree with a sentiment you expressed above, that you would like to see more traffic on some older posts. I’m getting over seeing your blog as chronological, and my wife and I are working our way back through your archives. It’s no fair to you, I know, because those thoughts are already frozen and static, while we get to think and respond in real time.

    A couple of thoughts. I appreciate your willingness to share your struggles. In some ways, I believe that for the obedient Christian life is always a struggle. There are no easy answers. And so it’s encouraging to me to see the things you struggle with, because I also struggle with them.

    Speaking of relational evangelism, isn’t that a big part? Sharing struggles? Postmoderns like us seem more willing to admit that they don’t have the answers, and it’s in wrestling with the questions that we have the best opportunity to share Christ.

    Another thing about postmoderns, and why you’re exactly right that the “front-burner/back-burner” doesn’t work well with them: PM’s may not have a firm grasp on what they really believe, and they not trust what they hear and read, but they can spot BS (can I say that here?) from a mile away. Much better to be authentic and mistaken than to be “fake but accurate.”

  17. Publius,
    Thanks for your encouraging comments. Some people are really discouraged by the idea (the fact?) that there are no “easy answers.” For me, it takes a lot of pressure off of us to admit that we don’t have everything figured out. As a team, we’ve been talking lately about “working out our faith publically.” I agree that if we aren’t honest about both the “highs” and “lows” of our faith, we’re really being fake. People can’t relate to that, and yes, you can say BS here. That’s what it is.

    Thanks for reading, and going back to older posts, too.

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