Retirement Isn’t As Much Fun

So I’m coming out of blog retirement. For this post, anyway. It turns out that I really miss writing through my thoughts on God’s mission. Regardless of whether or not anyone actually reads this blog, I enjoy asking the missiological questions that I don’t hear others asking. So I’m back. For now.

Also, John Piper keeps telling everyone that they aren’t missionaries.

And this guy says I’m confused about cessationist missiology (if there was such a thing).

So here we go. Again.

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Accidental Worship

It just occurred to me that over the course of my many missionary adventures around the world, I may have accidentally worshiped a false god or two.

I’ve visited temples, burial grounds, festivals, and holy sites. I’ve removed my hat and shoes, I’ve drunk ceremonial teas, eaten a fattened goat– I’ve even bowed (in greeting). I’ve always felt the tension between wanting to be respectful of local customs and, well, not wanting to worship that culture’s gods. Did any of my attempts to navigate these things amount to “worship?”

Despite my best efforts I’m sure there have been times when my respect was construed as reverence. Of course, I would never knowingly worship anything or anyone but the Most High God. And worship is a matter of the heart, an internal posture more than an external one. But what about accidental worship?

In Romans 13, Paul writes about the reality of living as missionary people among pagans. For those who are in Christ, we are free to eat, say, wear, and do whatever our conscience allows. He dwells on the example of eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols. Can a Christian eat it? Yes. Should he? Well, it depends.

Firstly, the idols are not God. They are pathetic imitations of the One True God. They have no power over us. Eating food that has been sacrificed to them, is not, in and of itself, sinful.

And yet, idols are spiritual. While hunks of carved wood and stone are not God, they do have influence. Millions of people around the world are slaves to the “rulers,” “authorities,” “powers of this dark world,” and to the “spiritual forces of evil.”(Ephesians 6:12) Idols are the charms that distract us from the treasure; they are a dangerous thing indeed.

And then, of course, there are the missiological implications accidental worship. We should take care not to do anything that might indicate to others that we might revere a weeping statue or fear a pagan goddess. This has the potential to confuse our message. At the very least, it might send mixed-signals about the sufficiency and exclusivity of Christ.

And therein lies one of the difficulties of being missionaries: knowing the culture well enough to distinguish between cultural norms and pagan rituals, which often look very similar to one another. An outsider may not immediately understand the difference between bowing upon meeting someone and prostrating in worship. It isn’t always clear whether attending a summer festival amounts to actually participating in a solstice celebration it was founded upon. During our initiation into a culture, we’re not aways taught the origins and significance of local traditions, folkways, or activities.

Lest you think that the question of accidental worship is limited to those missionaries living in foreign lands among primitive peoples, consider idol worship in your own context. Every day, people in your town make pilgrimages to the mall to pay tribute at the cash register. They get up each morning looking for ways to serve their masters: Power, Wealth, and Pleasure.  They worship the idols of family and rights and religion.

You may think it a silly question to ask whether the missionary in West Africa should attend a Santería healing ritual, or wear a henna tattoo. I would ask whether a Christian in America should go to a football game or wear name-brand clothing.

What are you accidentally worshiping?

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These are completely different, right?

Missionary Field Guide

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The Upstream Collective have launched their new book, Tradecraft: For the Church on Mission. It’s a collection of nine basic missionary skills which, according to the authors, was written for “all Christians everywhere.”

In the old days (and by old days, I mean the First Century), missionary skills were treated as basic discipleship. If you were going to be a follower of Jesus, you had to know how to join tribes, exegete culture, and build relationships. Jesus instructed His disciples to look for persons of peace and to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Being a Christ-follower was being a missionary.

But somewhere along the way, we separated out the missionary training from the rest of discipleship. It became acceptable to be a Christian not on mission (as if there was such a thing!).  The missionary training we reserved only for those who would commit to living abroad.

With Tradecraft, Upstream calls on the Church to re-integrate missionary skills back into discipleship. It’s one thing for a church to say that they are making disciples, but it’s another thing altogether for a church to make missionaries.

Tradecraft is an important book, if for no other reason than it moves beyond defining mission (as so many other books do) to focus on how to do mission. Believe it or not, there’s really very little

in the way of practical guides to mission available today. Most prescribe formulas for small-group Bible studies or consider cleaning up the local public school to be “mission.” Tradecraft instead focuses on the skills that help Christians sort through all of that and decide how best to live a God’s people among those who do not know Him.

While the authors may have intended the book to be for non-professtional missionaries and their churches, it’s actually the professionals who could use this kind of guidebook. The vast majority of international Christian workers have no formal training (or education, for that matter). Even those career missionaries with seminary training often don’t get much practical instruction. Tradecraft would be an excellent “field guide” for missionaries everywhere.

I recommend the following uses for Tradecraft:

  • Church small group studies: this is a great way for a small group to have a common vocabulary and perspective on everyday incarnation.
  • Mission teams required reading before a trip: no more ignorant missions teams! Require volunteers to read this before they get on a plan.
  • Church planting team formative study: you’re doomed to replicate the attractional, event-based consumer model unless your team thinks like missionaries.
  • Missionaries on the field: it’s like continuing education; even if you’re been around for a while, refresh your memory of the basics.
  • University/Seminary missions courses: Tradecraft fits nicely as a practical complement to Christopher Wright and David Bosch.
  • Student groups: turn students into campus missionaries by teaching missionary tradecraft.
  • Church staffs/elder boards: missionary thinking is the best way to insure that you’re building God’s kingdom, not yours.
  • A gift for missions supporters and donors: if they understand how missionaries think- why they do what they do- donors are less likely to make ridiculous suggestions or have unrealistic expectations. Disciple those who send you into being missionaries themselves!

Missionary With A Heart Of Gold

After a rocky start (and at least one use of the line, “You’re not my mother!”), the nanny comes to love the children as her own. The teacher and the marginalized student become the best of friends. The “escort” falls for her client. In each of these story lines, the relationship starts out as a job and has to overcome that fact in order to become something more.

When you’re paid to be someone’s friend, it’s not a real friendship. The fact that one of the parties involved is being compensated for his participation makes it strange. “Of course you’re being nice to me,” the other person thinks,”you have to. It’s your job.”

This is the case with professional missionaries. In essence, they are paid to build discipling relationships with people. At one time or another, all of these missionaries (at least, the socially competent ones,) struggle with this– the feeling of being fake. “Do I really love these people, or am only here because it’s my job?” And even if the missionary convinces himself that yes, he does in fact love people, and yes, he would be here even if he weren’t being paid, he then has to work to convince his hosts of that.

In order to truly demonstrate his love, the professional friend has to do something drastic to prove it. In the movies, the paid friend quits his job, gives back the money, and shows up anyway. He breaks the rules to show that the friend is more important to him than the job. He does something that crosses the line between “project” and “person” to demonstrate his love.

The question is, knowing this about the dynamics of human relationships, why would we willingly make “paid friendship” the primary mode of missionary engagement? Don’t our ambassadors face sufficient social barriers as it is?

I’m not saying churches shouldn’t support ministers and missionaries financially- the Bible says this is a good thing. But to have the vast majority of our missionary force wholly dependent on the gifts of others makes them little more than “paid friends” to those to whom they’ve been sent. The use of creative access platforms (real jobs) are often treated as a technical requirement rather than a missiological imperative.

Professional ministry is bad missiology. The Apostle Paul knew this, and that’s why he kept his day job. But the Western Church is conflicted.

This is why pastors spend 20 hours preparing for a sermon. It’s why ministers dream up programs and events. They spend time doing things that aren’t discipleship to prove to their people that the relationship part of ministry is real. It’s as if to say, “My job is organizing a good concert. My ministry is helping you become an obedient follower of Jesus.”

The solution to the side-effect of professionalization? More missionaries with real jobs. More pastors who spend at least part of their week in cubicles, kitchens, or classrooms. Having a real job communicates a lot; it demonstrates that ministry can be done by everyone, not just the professionals. It communicates the value of workplace-as-mission-field. It shows that the pastor loves you for free.

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Unmissionary

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

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The Most Important Job In The World

“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).

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Where Did You Learn About Global Mission?

I’m curious about the many different takes (and assumptions) Christians have concerning international missions. For some people, it’s a task we need to accomplish for God. For others, it’s a calling they can’t shake. Others still are content to pay others to do mission for them. Many don’t know much at all about the endeavor. My theory is this: our perspective on mission is shaped by the information we receive about mission.

In other words, we don’t learn about missions in general and then fill that in with information about individual people and places. The foundation of our understanding is never really formed at all; instead we’re bombarded with pieces of information and then left to fill in the whys and hows on our own.

So I’ve got a quick question for you:

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End or Means?

“Mission exists because worship does not.” With this phrase, John Piper begins his reformed missions manifesto, “Let the Nations Be Glad.” His assertion is simple: that worship is the goal of missions. I’ve written quite a bit about this book lately, and I’m seeing just how great an impact it has had on modern missiology. I’m thankful for Piper’s influence; he continues to push churches toward direct involvement in the Great Commission.

Nevertheless, I have to disagree with Piper’s premise. Despite the fact that he’s one of the few reformed theologians out there committed to missiology (Don’t believe me? W. Grudem’s 1200-page Systematic Theology devotes less than a paragraph to mission!), he begins with the same basic assumption that Christians have been making since the Enlightenment. This single understanding is responsible for all the places where we get missions wrong: that mission is a means to an end.

All traditional missiologies operate under the assumption that missions is how we get to “the end;” namely, vision in John’s revelation of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation” worshiping at the foot of God’s throne. From this perspective, missiology is eschatology; it’s purpose is only found in how it pertains to Christ’s return. God has shown us that this is His end, we’ve assumed that it is ours to accomplish on His behalf. Missions, then, is how we “finish the task.”

And this despite the fact that everything having to do with spiritual regeneration is solely the work of God. Has he commanded us to do something that only He can do? No! Our part is to obey in going, He handles the saving. This is why we’ve (fortunately) altogether stopped measuring missionary effectiveness by the number of salvations (and even percentages of “reachedness”), and instead (unfortunately) taken to measuring things like “engagement” and “access.” (These, we conclude, fall more squarely on the human side of the equation).

But what if mission is more than just how God accomplishes His purposes in human history? What if mission is the chief end of humanity?

God has revealed Himself as a going God. He intentionally left his place at the Father’s right hand to join human history to be a missionary among us. It was in His going that the Father is glorified. Every interaction between God and humanity recorded in scripture ends with God sending the ones to whom He reveals Himself. “Go… to the land that I will show you.” He goes, and sends us. “and sent them on ahead of him… where he himself was about to go.” “Because He is a going God, we are going people.

There is no Christianity apart from the going. We go from wherever we were when God found us to wherever He leads next. We go to serve, to preach, to heal, to love,  and to “sin no more.” “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” “Go and make disciples of all nations.” There is no “stay and worship Me,” in the Bible, only “go and worship Me.”

My point is this: the spread of the gospel to all nations is not the goal of mission, it’s the result of it.  If we are obedient to the commands of our Lord, we will be going people- actively proclaiming the gospel through word and deed in “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Piper and others get it wrong when they say that God is glorified when people bow before Him in an end-times worship service. No, He is glorified when people go in His name.

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When A Missiologist Plants A Church

Earlier this year, my friend, Ed Stetzer, planted a Grace Church in Hendersonville, TN. In addition to being a church planter, Ed is a missiologist, research expert, and prolific author and blogger.

I imagine there’s added pressure, and not a small amout of scrutiny, when you’re a well-known missions and church-planting teacher, to plant successfully. I wish Ed and Grace Church the best as they continue to develop gospel ministry to the people of Sumner County, and I don’t want to add expectations.

It is interesting, though, to look at a missiologist’s approach to planting a church in the United States.

I encourage you to pray for Ed and the Grace Church leadership team. Beyond that, follow them on their journey. They are very deliberate about being connected on social media, and Ed is very approachable on his blog. Please feel free to ask him questions. It’d be a shame for us all to miss the opportunity to learn from the decisions he’s making along the way.

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The Spirit Incommunicado

Though the anthropological approach to mission was proposed and made popular by decidedly non-Calvinist leaders (R. Winter, D. McGavran), reformed thinkers such as J. Piper and J.D. Greear have adopted the philosophy and developed missiologies around it. For those who believe that the eternal destiny of human souls depends on the Church’s evangelistic efforts, it makes sense that they would want to “expect great things from God and attempt great things for God.” But for those whose theological persuasion alleviates that burden of guilt, the anthropological approach might seem like a non sequitur.

The discussion has been happening among the different tribes on the interwebs, but it’s still relatively unexplored. Until J. Piper’s book, “Let the Nations Be Glad” hit the scene back in 1993, reformed Christians were seen as the foil to the Church’s fulfillment of the Great Commission. In focusing on the supremacy of God’s glory as the basis of global mission, the reformed found the key to human involvement in God’s predestined activity. “Reaching unreached ethnolinguistic people groups” became the point of cooperation for Christians of various theological perspectives.

Henry Blackaby teaches that Christians should follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit and get involved where they see Him at work. Most in the missions world emphasize the importance of an individual’s “calling” to missionary service. Many in the reformed camp ridicule these positions, claiming that looking for such guidance from God amounts to seeking “extra-biblical revelation.”  They say that we get all the guidance we need on mission from the scriptures. That the Spirit-led missions of Paul, Peter, Phillip, and the early church were unique to that early time in the Church’s history, and in no way normative for us today. (EDIT: Tim Challies’ recent series makes this argument) After all, they say, who is a missionary today to compare himself to the Apostles? God doesn’t have a “specific” will for our missionary service, they say. Instead, they propose that our involvement be motivated by our reading of scripture, our obedience to the Great Commission, and our application of wisdom.

It takes some theological leaps to arrive at the conclusion that after commissioning the church to make disciples in all nations, God went incommunicado.

Firstly, all of the Biblical examples of the church on mission were Spirit-led. Jesus sent out the 72 and told them that they would know they were in the right place when “their peace rested” there. Peter was led by a vision that challenged his understanding of the gospel. It “seemed good” to the Jerusalem council to send disciples to the missional church at Antioch, but it’s clear that what “seemed right” to them was heavily informed by step-by-step guidance from the Holy Spirit. Paul and Barnabas were sent out from the Antioch church when the Holy Spirit spoke to the congregation, calling out the two men as a they worshiped. Yes, all of these were historic “firsts” for the church. But if the Apostle’s utter dependence on the Holy Spirit wasn’t meant to be normative for the church on mission today, why doesn’t God provide us with examples who were strictly canon-led?

If there really isn’t any further direction from God when it comes to our participation in His global mission, it makes sense that we should hold tightly to a framework that “seems good” to us. It’s understandable that we would extrapolate a goal and then devise a plan to complete the task. But then we’re left to split hairs over Christ’s understanding of “ethne” and what to do about the Unreached People Groups who have already become extinct (without, to our knowledge, ever hearing the gospel).

But if you believe that the Holy Spirit (who lives in us) is not silent today, we must allow Him to orchestrate our efforts- even when they contradict the strategies we’ve developed out of our interpretation of scripture. Here’s how this plays out practically:

  • Sending: The church must only send those who have been called. This calling is made by the Spirit and affirmed by the local church. Even if someone meets all the criteria for service, we cannot assume it is good to send him out.
  • Strategy: Statistics and ethnography are good tools for us as we organize our resources, but ultimately we must do what the Spirit leads us to do- even if it doesn’t fit our expectations. If God leads us to minister among a “reached” people, we must be willing to obey.
  • Evangelism: Knowing that people are moved to faith by the Holy Spirit, we should be in constant communication with Him. Because He knows the “hearts of men,” He knows what we should say and when. He knows whose hearts He is preparing. Mission happens on His time, not ours.
  • Church Planting: Unless the Lord builds the house, we labor in vain. As we make disciples, churches are formed. But what those churches should look like, what they should redeem and what they should reject, must be done according to scripture as illuminated by the Spirit. Otherwise, we get contextually inappropriate expressions of church.

Does God have a “specific will” for us as believers? I don’t know. Should we ask Him for guidance in every little thing? Probably not. But when it comes to our obedience in His mission, the pattern is clear: With an attitude of worship and humility, we should do what “seems good” while listening for His guidance and watching for the circumstances of His providence. This isn’t looking for “extra-biblical” revelation, it’s relying on the Spirit of Jesus for the interpretation and application of His Word.