Degrees of separation (from Jesus)

1. Kate Winslet was in Titanic with Leonardo DiCaprio
2. Leonardo DiCaprio was in Catch Me If You Can with Tom Hanks
3. Tom Hanks was in Apollo 13 with Kevin Bacon

You’re probably familiar with the game “Six Degrees of Separation (Kevin Bacon),” where one player picks an actor, and the other players list a string of co-stars and supporting actors that connect that actor to Kevin Bacon. Apparently, Kevin Bacon is the center of the film universe. If you’ve never tried it, you should. If you’re lazy, or if you don’t want to admit to watching rated-R movies, there’s a Bacon Calculator to do it for you at the “Oracle of Bacon.”

Lately I’ve been reminded of the Kevin Bacon game a lot. I spent the last week talking with missionaries from around Western Europe, and I was encouraged to hear their stories. I really had no idea what some of them were doing in their places of service (and in more than one case, I had never even heard of their place of service). Anyway, one thing that struck me about nearly every story I heard was how they related the great spiritual need they they found every day. It seemed like everyone I spoke with felt the need to tell me how lost their people group or city really was.

For example:
“We’re working with university students in Salamanca. There are one hundred and fifty thousand students there, and the city is less than point-five percent evangelized.”

“Our team is working with Cambodians in Dusseldorf, and they are the largest UPG in the world.”

It’s not just the numbers. As if work in a city of five million was somehow more important than work in a village of thirty thousand. Ok, so maybe it is the numbers that bother me. But I’ve written enough about how I don’t think we should let numbers determine our strategy. My question now is about degrees of “lostness.” Are some people more lost than others? What is it that makes missionaries measure their importance by the perceived challenge of “reaching” a bigger, “loster” people group?

Is a historically “Christian” people group closer to Jesus than a Muslim one? Maybe we should measure lostness by distance from the land where Jesus Himself walked (as the crow flies). Should we consider the ones that sin more to be further from salvation? Maybe the less civilized? I guess that biblically, we could argue that the richer nations have a harder time entering the Kingdom…

So now we’re back to the Kevin Bacon game: Are there degrees of separation from God? Are some people more lost than others? I get that some people are more spiritually minded than others, and that some are nearer than others to that point of belief that comes with a relationship with the Creator. And of course, God uses encounters with believers to draw people to Himself. But if a person or people group is separated from God, aren’t they still only one step away from Him? I believe that people are only separated by one degree from God. After all, it isn’t us that bridge the gap between them and Him. Forget Kevin Bacon, Jesus is the relational center of the universe.

22 thoughts on “Degrees of separation (from Jesus)

  1. i agree that charting lostness is absurd. lost is lost like dead is dead. only in princess bride can you be “mostly dead.”

  2. I heard the same thing. In today’s mission strategy world, it’s like we have to justify our being in a place like London or Geneva or Berlin. If I can work in a city that is .0001 percent less evangelized than you, I’m OK. The problem is that I see the numbers but don’t have any idea if they’re true. Is it based on Baptists? (could be where we’re heading, huh?) or Baptistics or on GCCs or on evangelicals or on Christians or …

    Jesus told me a parable about a shepherd leaving 99 sheep (99% evangelized) to go after the other one. I don’t think it was the number that mattered. It was the one who was lost.

  3. Someone at the meeting said that if you want to know how many people there are in a city, ask the IMB missionary in that city for the population stats, and then divide that number by half.

    I thought that was funny.

  4. Stepchild

    I hear what you’re saying, but I’m left with a more complicated problem after I consider the implications. I agree that a people group of 5 can be just as lost as a people group of 5,000. Lost is lost, and it cannot be measured.

    Yet, what do you do when you realize there is lostness all over the world and you have limited personnel and/or resources to send to the lost areas? I know our organization has committed to reaching people groups of 1,000 or more, but then that comes across as saying groups with less than a 1,000 don’t deserve as much of a chance of hearing the gospel. So how do you determine who gets the resources and/or personnel? What if you only have 1,000 workers and 20 of those say, “I’m called to reach red-headed, left-handed Albanian refugees living in Berlin?” – even though there are only 5 of those type of people in existence? Would it be better to direct those workers to an area that has more lost people, or should we trust that God has specifically called and equipped them to reach the red-headed, left-handed refugees?

    See – so many more questions than answers!

  5. Brittany,
    Good thoughts here. I’m with you- more questions than answers. If God called 20 of our hypothetical 1,000 people to work with red-headed, left-handed Albanian refugees living in Berlin, I’d say we should send them to do that. That way, we’re following God’s lead. Who knows, maybe God’s going to use the red-headed, left-handed Albanian refugees living in Berlin to impact the world?

    If we look at the numbers, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. I’m in a city of three and a half million people. But if I’m following God’s lead, He’ll lead me to the people that He’s prepared. I figure that’s why He called me here.

    By the way, do we have people working with red-headed, left-handed Albanian refugees living in Berlin?

  6. In keeping with all the “why do we do what we do” questions, here’s another one for you: why do we require career missionaries to have a seminary degree? Several front-line workers who attended the Big Gathering commented that the best way to do evangelism is to live a life that reflects biblical principles. Walk in love, truth, peace, joy, etc. and the people will be drawn to you. Such a lifestyle doesn’t seem to necessitate a 2-year course at Great Big Baptist Seminary. I also heard that rather than follow a 10-week discipleship course guaranteed to churn out the best looking new Christian, we should lead new believers to verses about the Christian lifestyle and turn to the Scriptures to answer life questions (sort of a more free-flowing form of discipleship).

    To add more confusion to this debate, I read in Galatians about how Paul prides himself on the fact that he only preached what Jesus revealed to him. “For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ” Gal. 1:12. Therefore, he did not seek out insights, opinions or theologies from other believers but relied solely on Jesus to reveal truth to him. Where in history did Christians begin teaching that to be effective as prophets, disciples, preachers, teachers, and missionaries you first had to attend formal training and sit under the tutelage of more experienced Christians? Who gave us authority to negate someone’s calling because they lack a certain diploma? Just more food for thought …

  7. Brittany,
    You’d better be careful asking questions like that one! If you must keep it up, you might want to start an anonymous blog…

    I think your question about requiring seminary is a good one. It is clear, though, that many Baptists are very concerned about false doctrine being taught on the mission field. They have set up the seminary requirement as a measure to protect against that. I think it’s silly.

    If I were cynical and negative, I would say that we as a denomination depend (to our detriment) on the separation of the professional clergy from the laity. If pastors can’t maintain a certain level of “I know more than you, so I’m the authority in spiritual matters,” they’d have to find other jobs. I believe that seminary education is a good thing, but I don’t think it qualifies anyone for church leadership or missions service.

  8. Wow, Brittany, this is good stuff.

    Strangely enough, God has actually led us to some open doors in our people group. But that still begs the question, whatever happened to “looking where God is at work and joining him.” Does that sometimes conflict with where the numbers point?

    By the way, I’ve got several diplomas and I still haven’t figured out how to plant a reproducing church in WE. Hmmm.

  9. To try to answer your question about educating those who are called, let’s look at the first five books of the NT. These books cover the gospel story and the first few years immediately afterwards. Jesus selected 12 men who were largely uneducated. What did Jesus do? He taught them every day for about 3 years. Later who did Jesus call to take the gospel message to the Gentile world? Paul. Was Paul educated or uneducated? He was one of the best educated young men of his time. In the beginning of Christianity, it seems to me that those who are called of God to spread the message were well educated before being sent out. So I now ask, why should those who are called today be any less well educated?

  10. Charlie,
    I agree that we should be educated. I just don’t think a seminary classroom is the best preparation for ministry. I like that you mention the disciples and Paul. They are opposite extremes in terms of worldly education, but they were discipled to maturity in Christ by their mentors. That’s what would make some good church planters.

    I also tried to be careful in my last comment and say “seminary doesn’t qualify” anyone for leadership/ministry. I think that should be based on leadership- more a question of gifting than formal education.

  11. Charlie

    I agree that mentorship is a great form of training – but how much of seminary education is about mentoring rather than telling? And I don’t mean to sound as though I’m picking on seminaries. I would say the same of any type of formal training. Honestly, I learned more in my first year of working than I did in my years of sitting in a college classroom.

  12. “Education is wasted on the young”

    It’s not so much a matter of whether to get college/seminary, but rather how we put it to work. I’m not sure our seminaries teach how to apply all the knowledge they give us. I went to seminary after several years of working and it gave me a different perspective on what’s important and what’s not.

    Stepchild nailed it in that we too often assume that education makes us qualified. Education (or mentoring either one) are part of the way God crafts us to be who He wants. It’s what He puts together through gifting, experience, background, and education that makes us able to do what He wants us to do.

  13. I think the big issue with seminary is that it has been more knowledge based rather than obedience based. I think this is why we have these huge “theological” debates, yet baptisms are declining in our stateside churches. This is where mentoring on the field can be an improvement over academia. Some seminary programs, like the 2+2 programs are meant to be the best of both, but the truth is we are rather spotty (i.e not very good) at mentoring young and/or new Ms but we complain when they are not ready to go “straight out of the box”.

  14. I really enjoyed seminary. I thought it was a fantastic–stretching–and growing time. On the other hand—I was in an environment with some highly creative people that challenged me in great ways.
    With that said–I don’t know how much the seminary experience prepared me for this. What I WOULD say is that it was a wonderful lesson in discipline, perservance, and submission.
    I do agree that Paul was a very educated man. That does not mean that all of the leaders had the same background. It reminds me of something I recently heard: “God intentionally makes us with weaknesses so that we would need the body.” That is not the mindset of our culture. Our culture tells us to go to a workshop so that we can be great at all things. Our culture says that everyone IS a church planter. Our culture, while beginning to open to new ideas, tends to lean in one direction on what a new church looks and feels like. I’m not being critical of any of this. I just wonder if we, at times, keep people from doing what they were meant to do because we are more interested in seeing they jump through the right hoops so they look and sound like everyone else.

  15. I would say it’s all about stewardship (both the questions about comparative lostness and education). One day God is going to call us to account on how we “invested” the “talents” that he entrusted us with. And I believe there is good biblical warrant for talking about differing degrees of strategic investment of talents. “Calling” is a very subjective thing. While I think we definitely need to take into account someone’s sense of calling from God, the church (or at least some group halfway legitimately representative of the church) also has a responsibility for helping to guide people in the interpretation and application of that calling.

  16. I cannot believe I’m wieghing in with my opinion on this. I agree with nearly all of you about the absurdity of measuring lostness, about the wisest use of the organization’s limited finance and personnel and about the subjective-but-essential nature of “calling.” I think “calling” is a funny word, by the way: I would just say “God is leading me to do this or I’m convinced before Him I shouldn’t do that.” Calling is too… christianese.

    What about this? God is doing things – and “calls” people to do things – that our organization may not be involved in. Why? because His kingdom is big and certainly way bigger than our little corner of it. Might He legitimately call people to do things which do not involve us? Might our most spiritual answer for people who say “God has called me to do such and so” be to answer by saying “then you must obey Him and we’ll trust Him to provide what’s necessary for that.” Whether it’s with us or not is a secondary (or possibly a non) issue.

    My two cents’ worth.

  17. Yeah, I’m not sure how we got into talking about seminary… oh, yeah. Thanks, Brittany.

    knnuki,
    I think you’re right about the fact that the IMB can’t (shouldn’t) do everything that people feel “called” to do. I guess my problem is when the organization changes what we “do” and don’t “do” so regularly that we end up with people on the field that don’t get our full support.

    David,
    The subjective nature of “calling” makes it difficult to rely on for strategic decisions. But I don’t think that means we should map out a global strategy based on “lostness” and then try to fill it in with personnel that may or may not fit that strategy. (I understand that you weren’t saying that, I’m just thinking through your comment.)

    Thanks everyone, for a good discussion here.

  18. I have come to understand that the purpose of any higher education is multi-faceted. The learner must not only learn exactly how to perform within a chosen field, but also how to think and reason. Building confidence in one’s ability to do a particular job is also important. If seminary had not built that base of knowledge, discernment and confidence, I wonder how many would ever take that first missionary appointment?
    Very few in any profession ever learn exactly what they need in order to do the job really well in school. We just “think” we do. Actually getting “where the rubber meets the road” is really the best teacher. The formal stuff just helps prepare for the real “education.” If we literally did what Jesus commanded, we would “save” all the lost in our town, then the neighoring town, county, state, country, before we ever set foot on foreign soil. But we know that would not work in the “real” world. All Christians would still be in Jerusalem trying to make it a “Christian City”.

  19. Hey – don’t blame me for this discussion, I just raised the question :)

    My first year of college I met a professor who previously served in Africa with the IMB. I told him of my passion to serve overseas and that part of me wanted to ditch college and find a way over the ocean to start serving immediately. He told me, “It’s people like you who go to the mission field and actually do more harm than good. Stay here, get educated, learn how to think for yourself, and then pray about whether you should go.”

    For better or worse, I took his advice. More than anything, college taught me to think for myself (much like what charliemac said). Yet I wonder what would have happened had I run with my passion rather than tempered it with rationale.

    I love all our servants overseas, but so often I see people coming over because they are being obedient to the call – yet they lack a certain zeal about what they are doing. Isn’t life, whether here or there, supposed to be an adventure of joy rather than an exercise in obedience?

  20. Brit,
    Obedience to the call got me over here (you kinda have to be obedient to get through the process) but it was/is the knowledge that this is the greatest adventure of my life that keeps me going here. I want to live my life here as a witness to my Creator, and I know that if I am doing what he wants me to do, it is out of obedience…but I have to say, it is FUN! The moment it stops being fun, it becomes just another job…
    stepchild…i don’t know how the subject of seminary came up either, but i guess it falls in the ‘obedience’ category at this point };->

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