Fish Out Of Water

largeEvery time I dip my toe into the social media stream I’m faced with it: Christians fixated on sin. They complain about the evils of American culture. They wring their hands over encroachments on our rights. They decry rampant moral decay. “It’s bad out there!” they shout. “We’re losing ground!” they warn. Of course, they’re right. The world, including the United States of America, is hopelessly lost without Jesus.

Unfortunately, complaining about your mission field is an especially unmissionary thing to do. It shows that there are still many influential American Christian leaders who mistakenly see themselves as “at home” rather than in the sinful, gospel-impoverished, ends of the earth.

When a missionary arrives on the field to make disciples among an African tribe, he doesn’t complain about their lostness. He does something about it by sharing the good news through word and deed. To do anything otherwise would be like complaining  about a dead man’s rotting corpse. Sin is the the disease, both the cause and the symptom– and it’s the reason we’ve been sent as agents of God who heals by forgiving.

A few weeks ago, Trevin Wax wrote a post on his blog at The Gospel Coalition about his Observations about Younger Southern Baptists. In it, he wrote:

When I talk with younger Southern Baptists, I get the impression that the landscape has shifted to the point they expect to be a minority. Therefore, the strategy becomes more about preserving space for Christian morality and less about enshrining our views in law. This is a generalization, but I think there’s truth here: Older Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Israel. Younger Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Babylon. That’s a significant shift, and it leads to a different tone.

This well-written observation of Trevin’s is exactly right, and while he attributes the shift as haven to do with generational differences, it’s really about mission. These “younger” Southern Baptists (and many more from other traditions,) are doing a better job of thinking and acting like missionaries than their forebears. They recognize that as Christians, even if we were the social or political majority, we are necessarily outsiders. When you get this, living on mission becomes obvious. When you don’t, you miss the trees for the forest, the fish for the water; or, in this case, the sinner for the sin.

Of course there is a place for calling sin what it is. There’s a need for the prophetic. But focus solely on sin, and you only reinforce the perception that Christianity is nothing more than a list of things to do and hate. You build an isolationist faith that is contradictory to the nature of our life in the Sent Son.

We are not at home, brothers. It’s time we started acting like it.

Overcoming the Distance

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Mission is overcoming distance.

Sin separates people from God. This is a spiritual distance that leaves men, women, and children without hope. The Father overcame this distance by living among us and defeating sin through His life, death, and resurrection. God’s people join His mission in overcoming the spiritual distance by proclaiming the Good News for the nations.

Mission also faces the problem of physical distance. It requires overcoming the geographical barriers that separate God’s people from the rest of the world. How can they call upon Him if they haven’t heard? How will they hear unless someone proclaims? Who will proclaim unless they are sent? In order to make disciples, we must go. Sometimes this means getting on a plane, but opportunities to close the physical distance are all around us. We cannot join God’s mission and stay at home.

Which brings us to another distance that must be overcome: cultural. Oftentimes, “the nations” are right next door. Yet because of values, language, and worldview, we face difficulty in relating to people who are different. Cultural distance keeps “Unreached People Groups” being names on a list instead of being our friends, coworkers, and neighbors. Our obedience requires that we move beyond “us” and “them” and into discipling relationships.

In Jesus’ time, social distance was the difference between the “woman at the well” and a Samaritan. Today, it’s the difference between seeing people as “Illegals” and recognizing them as “Lost Treasure.” Social distance is crossed when God’s people deliberately move out of the comfort of homogeneity to live among those who do not share our privilege, advantage, means, or perspective.

Mission cannot be done remotely. There is much distance to be overcome. But as God’s sent-out-ones, we must cross spiritual, physical, cultural, and social barriers with the gospel. This is the mission of the church, and if you’re not involved, you’re not a true disciple of Jesus.

On Critiquing Methodologies

I would imagine that few of us, upon arrival in a foreign country that we know nothing about, would presume to critique the efforts of a missionary who has been faithfully ministering among the people there for years. He knows the language, we do not. He spends time with nationals. He has studied local customs and listens to local news.

So when said missionary determines that the best way to make disciples among his particular people group is to launch gospel tracts out of a cannon fashioned out of bamboo, we defer to his expertise. When he insists on wearing nothing but a loincloth yet looking no one in the eye, we bashfully accept. His no-ministry-after-3:30pm policy might raise our eyebrows, but we trust that he knows hat he’s doing. After all, the missionary knows best.

Back home, however, we aren’t so demure.

We criticize ministers who give away iPads to get people to come to church. We mock churches who print coloring books that instruct children to follow their pastor without question. We judge Jumping for the King as mere spectacle. Why do we feel so free to criticize? We see ourselves as experts in American culture.

But are we experts in every American population segment? How well do we really know the redemptive power of the iPad among middle-class white people in small Southern towns? Are we all experts in cult-building among upper-middle-class materialists? Just how many of us are willing to live among the tribe of patriotic motorcycle jumpers from the 1970s?

Forgive my sarcasm. I’m really not trying to be mean.

I’m trying to make 2 points here:

  1. Different people groups and population segments require different approaches to ministry. The missionary principles of contextualization and indignity call for us to meet people where they are and promote discipleship in their culture.
  2. Point #1 does not excuse every ridiculous thing someone wants to do in the name of ministry.

If all of God’s people thought and behaved like good missionaries and if we all got the gospel, we would rightly trust that every approach was wise, prudent, and obedient. Unfortunately, the gospel is often lost translation, and we are often very bad missionaries indeed.

The way to build one another up in the Lord, I’m convinced, is to ask questions. “Is this pointing people to Jesus?” “How are our means affecting our message?” “What’s with the coloring book, dude?” These are the questions that we need to be asking.

Once I was “confronted” by a well-intentioned American pastor who wanted to know why I would waste time getting to know any nationals in our work in Europe. “You really just oughta preach the gospel to these people once. If they don’t want to listen, that’s on them,” I remember him saying. Was he wrong to ask us why we did things the way we did? No. Was he reacting to our methods in an unhelpful and way? I certainly thought so.

As God’s people on God’s mission, we need one another. We need others to encourage us in our work and to ask us the hard questions that make us think (and rethink) through our methodologies. Who are you to question a missionary’s approach? A co-laborer in Christ’s mission, that’s who. But when we question, we need to do so in love.

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By the way, be sure to click over to Trinity Bible Church’s site, where Pastor Bolt has responded to my response to his response to an old post of mine.

Unmissionary

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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

The Most Important Job In The World

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“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).

Words, Symbols, and Pictures

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Though I’ve finished with my series on the scripture translating The Seed Company, I can’t stop thinking about the importance of translation to mission.

Early Spanish and French “explorers” (their countries refer to them as “missionaries,” others call them “conquerors”) traveled to the New World to expand kingdoms- both God’s and their kings’. Not being able to communicate verbally, the Catholic explorers used the pictures in their Bibles to share Christianity with the natives. When all you’ve got is one picture of a mother holding her child and another with her crying at his feet as he hangs on a cross, you end up with a syncretistic Virgin Mary cult.

Mission is translation. Taking the gospel from one context (the one in which you received it) and translating it into another context (that in which you find yourself) is the human aspect of mission.

Translation into written languages is a challenging enough, but translating the gospel into a culture that has no written language can be extremely difficult. The language must be learned by the translator, codified with the assistance of nationals, and then taught back to the people. The process takes a very long time and requires persistence, creativity, and skill.

Since we’re all missionaries, we’re all translators of sorts- taking the gospel from the Christianized context in which we received the message and translating it out to those around us who do not know Christ. What you may not recognize, though, is that many of the “tribes” we work and live among are post-literate.

A group is post-literate when images, or symbols becomes their primary mode of graphical communication. Post-literates may technically be able to sound out words on a page, but they understand and retain little of what they’ve “read.” They have become so used to bullet-points, excerpts, and snippets that their eyes do not track from one line to the next in large blocks of text. autocorrect has supplanted the ability to spell. Acronyms, emoticons, and avatars have replaced the written word. Reading is becoming a lost art.

In some ways, our efforts to accommodate post-literacy has perpetuated and even caused it. Everywhere you look you can find evidence of reading-attention deficit disorder. News articles became blurbs on a ticker and 140-character status updates. Restaurants traded descriptions of dishes for depictions of them. Churches replaced pew-back Bibles with Powerpoint slides. There are “universal” symbols for peace, laundry, and gay pride. We communicate concepts not with words but with symbols. No one has to write the word “recycle” because we all know that the triangle made of three arrows means “plastic, paper, and glass go here.”

The answer to post-literacy may lie in missionary strategies among the pre-literate. Where people have no written language, missionaries tell the gospel through story. Rather than spending time teaching people to read, Christians are relaying the story of God’s interaction with humanity through simple, memorable, and easily-retold stories. This, of course, is how the Torah was handed down through generations, and how the gospel was retained through the early spread of Christianity, the Dark Ages, and the the 1970s.

Will this work to effectively share the gospel among the post-literate? I think it can, but we must improve our story-telling abilities. As we leave the realm of Bible translation for a more subjective scripture storying, we begin to compete with the best tales and tellers a culture has to offer. As we’ve seen with the mainstream public’s indifference to film and audio adaptations of scriptural events, non-believers are more used to being entertained than challenged. I’m not suggesting we try to outdo Hollywood, I’m saying that we can’t depend on Charleton Heston anymore.

Any discussion of scripture translation is incomplete without addressing post-literacy. While we must preserve both the words of scripture and the ability to read them, we must also be prepared to share the gospel with those who do not and cannot read.

Piper, Frost, and Hirsch

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I’ve long been a fan of Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost. Their book, The Shaping of Things to Come inspired me toward exploring a missional approach to missiology. I know these men personally, and they are some of the most thoughtful, articulate, and creative thinkers around.

John Piper recently wrote a post on the Desiring God blog blasting Frost and Hirsch for a section in their newest book, The Faith of Leap, that suggests that God took a risk in entrusting His mission to humanity. I encourage everyone to read both the book and Piper’s rebuke.

It would be more than Piper did.

Piper’s post was accompanied by a short video of him explaining his motivation for writing. In that video, he explains that “the guys at Desiring God” had asked him to to respond to the paragraph in question. He hasn’t read the book, or apparently, the paragraph in context. This is not helpful.

Clearly, this is a part of Desiring God’s media strategy- generate controversy by having John Piper “respond” to out-of-context excerpts in an effort to generate traffic on their site. I’m sure it worked, because here I am writing about the whole thing.

I’m frustrated with John Piper’s MacArthurian need to condemn and repudiate what others are saying. Hirsch and Frost are not part of a movement to deny God’s sovereignty, and we don’t need Piper to be our watchdog. Furthermore, as with his Tweet about Rob Bell, he continues to come off like a mean old man rather than a wise and loving shepherd. Heaven forbid the man should ask a question rather an assuming he understands which heresy box everyone else falls into.

Nevertheless, John Piper is right about The Faith of Leap. In the first chapter, Frost and Hirsch express a desire for what they refer to as a “theology of risk.” They explain that traditional evangelicalism doesn’t have much room for the idea that God takes something of a risk in his relationship with humanity. They are right- there isn’t room for that.

God took no real “risk” in determining to use human means to spread His gospel. There’s no risk because there’s no chance beyond His control that his mission might fail. God will accomplish His purposes, and He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything. If His plans depended on us, they would certainly fail. If the eternal destiny of the nations depends on us, they have no hope. That is the good news, after all, that our hope is not in our own works nor in the faithfulness of others, but in the completed work of Jesus on the cross.

So when Frost and Hirsch say that God seems to have taken something of a risk on us, they’re wrong. Except that they are exploring the tension that the church inevitably finds on mission: despite God’s sovereignty, I am free to disobey. And I do disobey (usually not intentionally, mind you). If God has elected to save an individual and I have the opportunity to be the means by which He reveals Himself to that man, I can opt out.

Let’s be clear- opting out isn’t a wise or safe thing to do. As my friend, Michael Carpenter points out over at his blog, just ask Jonah. When we fail to follow God’s leadership, be it out of rebellion or ignorance, we miss out. We miss the blessing of doing exactly what we were saved to do.

Which is why Piper’s critique rings hollow; condemning the idea of risk without acknowledging the tension between God’s sovereignty and my depravity is disingenuous. Frost and Hirsch aren’t trying to write a new theology, they’re exploring the “foolishness” (by human standards) of a God who would choose to use imperfect messengers like us to call the world to Himself.

John Piper and Frost/Hirsch aren’t coming from the same perspective (theological or otherwise.) But Piper would do well to read Frost and Hirsch. It might help him reconsider his divisively abstract and distractingly ambiguous standard of “that which brings God the most glory.”

A better way to handle the situation would have been to sit down with the authors and ask them about the offending paragraph. Desiring God went to the trouble of filming a video, why not include a bit of a response from Alan and Mike?

Christianity Out Of Context

Regarding the Upstream Collective’s Jet Set Vision Trip:

For some of the participants, this trip to Europe is their first experience of Christianity in context.

You see, though they apply to all peoples of all times, the words of Jesus were given to particular people in a particular time. He spoke in such a way that His listeners immediately understood that what He was saying was radically upside-down from what the world had been saying.

The American church, however, lives in a world that is completely opposite of that in which Jesus taught. It’s no wonder, then, that believers in the U.S. have such a difficult time applying Jesus’ words.

When Jesus spoke about war and kingdom, his audience was surrounded by an occupying army. In America, we are the occupying army.

When Jesus advocated the payment of taxes, it meant supporting a government that was hostile to His listeners’ way of life. We, however, enjoy freedom, tax exemption, and government influence.

The promise of a Comforter is a tremendous source of hope– assuming you know and understand discomfort. Many Americans have never been truly uncomfortable in their lives.

Jesus declared that His followers were “not of this world.” Peter reminded the early church that they were “strangers and exiles.” Many American Christians have never even left their home towns.

It’s harder to make sense of Christianity when “we” are in the majority. When the norm is to go to church and “love” your neighbor, Jesus’ words seem, well, normal. We get caught up in the material, the temporal, and the cultural. We build buildings, fight for our “rights” as Christians, and become indistinguishable from the rest of society.

Throughout time, Christ-followers have tried to remedy this sort of contextual incongruity by artificially re-creating the hardships of the first Christians. That’s why monks take vows (of poverty, celibacy, and silence), and cult-members whip themselves; they’re trying to better understand Jesus. And they’re misguided religious legalists. But originally, the Jesus understanding part.

A poster platered on a wall in Prague

Prague is the epitome of the post-Christian urban center. Empty cathedrals, celebrated pluralism, enforced relativism. The previous generation’s false gospel has been rejected in favor of the idols of progress, materialism, unity, and self-expression. Evidence everywhere of humanistic enlightenment and little to no gospel witness to speak hope into the city.

We’ve long talked about how a look at the European worldview is a glimpse into the future of America. This has become even more clear in recent years. Some have lamented the cultural shift in America away from its Judeo-Christian roots. Others have gone to great lengths to create artificial “kingdoms,” rules, and drama in their attempts to relate to Jesus (also misguided religious legalists). As it turns out, the bad news is actually the good news. Finally, Christians are finding themselves “right-side-up” in American culture. We’re starting to have to operate as the outsiders that we were always meant to be.

I believe that Christians, just in order to actually be Christians, must pursue life in the margins, where we’re the minority. Where we suffer persecution, opposition, and intolerance. Where we don’t have money, influence, and privilege. This is the mission field.

For some of the leaders on the vision trip, this is their first time out of the country. But even more importantly, this is their first step out of Christendom and into the context that we as Christians were meant to live.

It’s All In How We Fight

It’s a classic storytelling device– even in times of war, there’s a line the good guy won’t cross. Bad guys will construct an elaborate tank that will slowly fill with water and drown the hero; when he finally breaks free of the trap, the hero hands the villain over to the authorities rather than sticking him in the death machine. There are some things a good guy just doesn’t do.

That’s why the world was outraged by the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq; the U.S. had subjected its prisoners to horrors only perpetrated by bad guys. How you fight tells a lot about your character.

So it’s ironic, then, that followers of Jesus can be some of the worst fighters of all. Observe any online discussion or theological debate among believers and you’ll see a race to the extremes: moral outrage, demonization of the opposing side, slander, lies. We’re often the first to cross the lines between civil discourse and outright verbal abuse.

How we fight says a lot about our God. To a world that’s watching our ongoing wars of words, God is a manipulative, back-stabbing liar who deliberately takes people’s words out of context and compares everyone to Hitler. When those who call themselves God’s people are so quick to reach for the verbal nuke button, it makes sense that others might see Him as less than gracious.

I’m not saying we should agree with everyone, or that there’s nothing worth fighting for. It’s a simple question of tactics for disagreement: what is the line we’re not willing to cross (even if it means losing an argument, or looking weak) in order that people might see Jesus in us?

A Shocking, Scandalous Message

Joel Osteen was recently a guest on CNN’s Larry King Live Piers Morgan Tonight, where he was asked about his stance on homosexuality (clip here, entire segment here). Joel answered, in a round-about way, that he agrees with the Bible, and that the Bible was clear about homosexuality being “a sin.”

Outrage ensued. Joel was labeled “judgmental” and rebuked for “imposing his beliefs on others.” It was as if the audience had never heard a follower of Jesus communicate the belief that homosexuality is less than God’s best for humanity. Even couched in Osteen’s obliviously earnest grin, the Christian perspective on a social issue is foreign to the masses.

The truth is, it’s quite possible that millions of Americans have never heard that God has a different plan for humanity. They may never have heard a Biblical understanding of sin. Despite access to the Bible online, a church on every corner, and evangelists on TV, a great many people have never heard the gospel.

It would shock them that entry into heaven isn’t based on how good or bad we are. That God has interacted with humanity personally since the beginning of time. That Christianity isn’t about living like Jesus, it’s about dying to our sin-filled selves. The sad fact is that millions of people around us have never heard the gospel presented to them in an intelligible, coherent, and personal way.

The gospel is a shocking, scandalous message. We can never find redemption apart from Jesus. It’s offensive, really. Unfortunately, most people are not offended by the gospel because they don’t hear it.