Between 2% and Porterhouse

My team had an interesting discussion over the last couple of days. This isn’t as remarkable as it might sound, but while most people spend Christmas talking about football and shopping, our team talks about ecclesiology. Who says we aren’t committed to our jobs? (And no, there is no truth to the rumor that we deliberately discussed “work” issues in an attempt to justify paying for a turkey dinner out of our “Office Expense” accounts.)

I’ve posted before about my frustrations with communication and word definitions. It seems like every attempt we make at defining or describing what we believe (and why) is lost as the words we use are co-opted by others who use those same words to put a new face on traditionalisms. We’ve even confused ourselves as we struggle to work through the implications of what we say we’re about. Our conversation this week, for example, began with this question: When one of our friends becomes a believer, can we really disciple him/her in their existing social structure?

Conventional missionaries today have begun to adopt the terms “relational,” “incarnational,” and “missional,” but their thought on evangelism and discipleship is usually something like this: Missionaries share the gospel, nationals hear it, some reject it, others respond. Those who respond are then grouped together to form the beginnings of a “church.” Another school proposes to switch the order to “group them and win them,” in order to disciple people within community.

Our collective experience has taught us that although this sort of “winning/grouping” approach to church planting sounds like a good strategy, it actually does quite a bit to hinder the “indigenousness” of the foundation that we lay. Individual believers are separated from their natural social groups and placed into these artificial, “Christian” ones for the sake of support and encouragement. But that separation greatly reduces the new believer’s influence in the relationships he/she had, and because the bulk of his/her spiritual transformation takes place in private (church), it has little positive impact on the community. It doesn’t take long for these new Christians to be so far removed from their own culture that they need to be trained to interact with their lost friends.

So we, despite using the same words, have tried to do things a little differently. Our team’s idea has always been to disciple people from wherever they are spiritually to maturity in Christ, without removing them from their existing social environment. Our discussion this week began with a current situation. A friend has recently shown some interest in Jesus. We can see him opening up to us and to the faith we’re always talking about. We pray that he will soon be saved. Naturally, this friend lives a lifestyle that does not honor God. He is addicted to drugs and he regularly participates in “trance parties” (Raves put on by “Shaman” DJs who use techno music to entrance partygoers in a pagan spiritual frenzy that sometimes last days and days). Let’s say he becomes a believer- can we leave him in that environment and expect him to grow in his faith and be an effecting witness to the people around him?

Again, most people would say no. They would argue that this friend needs to be removed from the dangerous situation so that he can overcome the sin that has bound him, and grow in his faith. I disagree (You expected as much).

I say that the role of the missionary (and yes, this is different from what most would say,) is to serve as spiritual “life-support” for the new believer as they struggle to work out their salvation within their own cultural context. This might mean that we meet with a national believer to disciple and encourage them, but we never “invite them to church.” Instead, we pray for God to move among the new believer’s circle of friends. We instruct him/her in righteousness, allowing the Holy Spirit to convict them of sin. We encourage him/her to share their faith, and pray for the day when God moves among his/her sphere of influence to plant a church there.

But nobody does it this way. For most of us, this approach is too messy, too limited, and it takes too long. What if they never feel convicted about certain sins? What if they never know another believer? What if, ten years down the road, they’re still struggling with basic holiness and remedial theology. How long can a believer survive on only spiritual milk?

It seems to me that our discomfort with Christians who are struggling to make sense of their faith has led us to impose a behavioral conformity that ignores the personal tension that salvation brings. When drug addicts and homosexuals get saved, we require that they immediately stop being those things, and start acting “Christianly.” From the outside, it would seem that we interpret the word “repentance” to mean that upon salvation, a person must suddenly exchange public sins for private ones. You cannot be a drug-using, foul-mouthed, homosexual Christian, but an over-eating, gossip who struggles with lust just has “a few things to work on.” Is Christianity only about (openly) sinning less?

Leaving a drug addict in a circle of drug addicted friends might seem like a bad idea, but it would allow the addict to see how his newfound faith applies to his real life. It would also allow his friends to see his personal transformation first-hand and allow them to actually participate in it. The power of salvation is most evident when it contrasts with the stark reality of the situation from which we are saved. The soil in which a seed takes root is sufficient for that new plant.

Continuing the thoughts of my previous post: what we need is not more Christians trying to “reach” the “people of the world,” but more “people of the world” trying to work out what it means for them to be a Christian.

About E. Goodman

Ernest Goodman is a missiologist, writer, teacher, and communications strategist.