We’re In The Lord’s Army

Six people were killed on Saturday, and thirteen injured, when a gunman entered a townhall meeting held by Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D–Arizona), and opened fire. The congresswoman was among the injured. Today, politicians are calling for an end to gun rhetoric that has become popular among pro-gun public figures such as Sarah Palin and others. Each side, of course, blames the other.

Some are saying that the shooter was incited by the militaristic rhetoric of conservative pundits. While the gunman’s motives are yet unknown, the discussion got me thinking about some of the militaristic terminology we use in missions today. We “mobilize” missionaries when we mean to “send them out.” We “enlist” the “support” of “prayer warriors” as we “strategically” “engage” the people of our “target” audience. Might the words we use lead some, both believers and unbelievers, to come to the conclusion that Christians are warring against non-Christians?

The problem with thinking of ourselves primarily as “Christian soldiers” (rather than “Christian peacemakers”) is that we’re always looking for someone to fight. The spiritual enemy is very real, but we’re easily distracted by the human ones (both real and suspected). The Bible includes militaristic imagery (Ephesians 6 tells us to “put on the full armor of God”), but it’s clear that our war is a spiritual one. In the scriptural analogy, unbelieving peoples aren’t the enemy, they’re the captives.

I’m choosing to replace the militaristic terms in my missions vocabulary with words that better communicate my intentions. In any land, among any people, I mean no harm. I’m not that sort of soldier. I’m here to bless, reconcile, and bring peace in the name of Jesus. That’s my mission (okay, so that’s one military word I may have to keep!)

Christian Christmas in Christian America

I’m still thinking about the ongoing controversy among cultural Christians over whether secular businesses greet them with “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” A comment from Seminary Wife on my last post has got me thinking:

The Christians who are worked up over this are spoiled.

In the Middle East, Christians suffer persecution. In central Asia, Christ-followers are killed. In China, Christians meet secretly. In America, their greeted with indifference at the mall.

When you’re in the majority, you get used to having things your way. The problem is that Americans decided (some time ago) that they didn’t want to act like Christians. The Christians, however, didn’t seem to notice it until they were greeted with “Happy Holidays” at the Gap.

The Bible says, “Bless those who persecute you.” I’m not familiar with any passage that reads, “Take offense at those who insult your sense of entitlement.”

As I celebrate Christ’s birth this season, I’m choosing to feel compassion for (not frustration with) those who won’t acknowledge that Christmas is about Jesus. I hope you will, too.

And pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ who cannot openly celebrate with us. Pray for those who are losing their lives, even as we lose a bit of our comfort.

Merry Christmas.

God Is Most Glorified When Wal-Mart Says Merry Christmas

Is God pleased when a non-believer says “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays?”

Lots of people (mostly in Texas and Florida) seem to think so.  First Baptist Church, Dallas recently launched GrinchAlert.com, (HT) a website that posts user-generate lists: businesses that greet customers with “Merry Christmas” make the Nice list, while “Happy Holidays” earns them a spot on the Naughty list.

Nevermind that the idea of Naughty and Nice lists come from the secular Santa Claus myth. Forget that the Grinch is a (trademarked) character in a secular Christmas children’s story with a dubious humanistic moral at the end. Pay no attention to the overt consumerism displayed on the site. What’s especially troubling about this campaign is that these people actually believe that God is somehow honored by Christian-targeted marketing.

I blame John Piper.

I’m sure Dr. Piper would never advocate for something like GrinchAlert. But I can’t help but think that this sort of “boycott lost people for not acting like Christians” mentality has some relation to Piper’s assertion that the greatest good is whatever brings God the “most glory.” While I don’t disagree with his premise, I’m pretty sure we need to clarify what we mean by “good,” “glory,” and, well, “God” for that matter. Otherwise, we get GrinchAlert culture warriors who care more that people act like Christ-followers than that they would actually become Christ-followers because it, you know, brings glory to God.

Is it a “win” for Christians if secular businesses say “Merry Christmas?” Is that part of our mission on this earth? Is a coerced profession of Christmas our mission? I’m no expert in degrees of God-honor, but “If you don’t say Christmas we’ll go elsewhere to buy the Chinese-made junk we don’t need” doesn’t seem like it’d be that high on the list.

It all comes down to marketing. The reason Starbucks insists that its employees greet customers with “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is that they want to make money.  Their audience isn’t just Christian Christmas-celebrators. “Happy Holidays” covers everyone- Christians, Jews, Qwanzaans, and atheists who don’t believe there’s anything to celebrate, but still take a couple days off work this time of year.

The other side of the question remains: is the non-believer brought any closer to belief by saying, “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays?” Will the clerk at Borders know Jesus better if we include his store on the Naughty list?

By the way, my favorite comment on the GrinchAlert site?

“American Airlines: Excessive use of “holiday”, no mention of Christmas. With a name like American Airlines, come on.”

What They Think Of Us

For a while there, if you wanted to sell books to Christians you just needed to write one that explains what non-Christian people think about church people. In UnChristian, Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons break the news to evangelicals that Christians are seen as too political and being anti-homosexual. Jim and Casper Go to Church is an atheist’s commentary as he visits some of America’s more influential churches. They Like Jesus But Not The Church is the result of Dan Kimball’s interviews of several people from his community about what the Church looks like from the outside. I’m not against these books. In fact, their content has provided many of us with more authoritative data in support of our warnings to those who are entrenched in the traditional structures.A few years ago, I wrote a post about how non-Christians don’t hate us, they nothing us; and that’s actually worse.

Nevertheless, someone else’s stories will only get us so far. We cannot depend on Jim, Casper, Dan, Dave, or Gabe as our only insight into the mind of unbelievers around us. It’s our job to know what they’re thinking. To be self-aware enough to know how we come across to them. This is the work of the missionary- to effortfully know the people in our communities well enough to know what they think about Jesus, and then to do what we can to challenge their wrong assumptions and walk them through the offense of the gospel.

But rather than see ourselves as Calebs and Joshuas, we’re content to pay strangers to be our spies. Rather than exposing ourselves to what shapes peoples’ thinking, we build our apologetics around what others tell us that non-Christians think. Like a grade-school cheating ring, we’re content to let Mark Driscoll read The Shack for us, and for some other guy to Break the DaVinci Code on our behalf. And don’t even get me started on those of us who depend on daily indoctrination by talk radio propaganda to tell us what “they” think about “us.” Allow someone else to do your homework for you for long enough, and you lose the skills you were meant to learn in the first place.

Without access to real connection to faithful Christians, outsiders are left to outsource their “research” of Christianity. In our absence, they learn what they think they know about us from the haters, celebrities, clowns, and extremists who speak on our behalf.

The only way to truly know the people in our communities is to spend time with them. To move beyond the stereotypes and caricatures and into real interaction that allows dialog and love. If you really want to know what “they” think of “us,” you have to ask (and listen).

Ed Stetzer Is (Probably) Not Your Pastor

At the “amen” of the closing prayer, the man bounded up to the stage with a satisfied look on his face. “Dude, you really brought it just now!” he exclaimed. “That was just what we needed to hear!” The Dude in question was Ed Stetzer, missiologist, author, preacher, researcher, and popular Christian conference speaker. The excited guy from the audience was going in for the hug when he uttered some very telling words: “Thanks for being a pastor to all of us.”

Ed had no idea who this guy was. Not because he’s especially forgetful (he’s a human Wikipedia of missions and the church), and not because he’s bad with names (he isn’t– except maybe with mine). The problem was that Ed had never actually met this man who was clearly his biggest fan. (Though anyone who knows germaphobic Ed would know better than to actually touch him.)

Ed Stetzer is everywhere. He spends lots of time on the road, speaking at conferences, teaching in seminaries, and consulting with various organizations and denominational groups. He puts out several books each year. He blogs regularly and Tweets like a spambot. His brain never shifts out of overdrive. I’ve seen him answer text messages while making a keynote presentation without ever missing a beat. Despite his crazy travel schedule, he’s home every weekend to spend time with his family and preach at church every Sunday.

It would be easy for anyone who reads his stuff and sees him speak a couple times a year to feel as though they knew Ed. His commitment to biblical truth might even make some of his fans feel as though Ed was their pastor. He’s not, and he doesn’t claim to be. Neither are any of the other two dozen or so other big names in evangelical circles. Unless you go to their churches (and in some cases, even that won’t do it), authors and conference speakers aren’t your pastors.

A pastor knows you well enough to preach the gospel into your community of faith. He holds you accountable for your missteps and encourages you through the rough patches. As described in 2 Timothy 4, a pastor is more than just a presenter of gospel teaching, he’s a shepherd who supervises your spiritual formation. The conference stage, book, (and, in many cases, the megachurch pulpit) serve as two-way mirrors; allowing us to be taught without being seen, to be preached to without being cared for.

We need thinkers, teachers, authors, and speakers. On the corporate level, leaders like Ed Stetzer are the people who drive the conversation and inspire with new ideas. They teach, equip, and challenge us publicly. They speak on our behalf. But believers need more than just sound instruction. Every Christian everywhere needs a pastor who knows them and speaks into their lives personally.

Ed Stetzer isn’t your pastor. Neither is Francis Chan, John Piper, or Matt Chandler (unless, of course, you go to their churches.) If you don’t know who your pastor is, you need to find one. If you don’t know of any in your area, ask Ed Stetzer– he probably does.

On Church Planting

I love church planters. They really are a unique breed. Anyone who would launch out on their own to navigate the waters of societal indifference, institutional competition, and sustained discouragement  in efforts to start a church deserves some respect (Or pity. Maybe both.) I get to meet a lot of church planters from across the country, and they are invariably passionate and highly motivated.

I always ask how far into the process a planter is. The brightest-eyed always answer in terms of months; the more haggard of the bunch in years. Others still will answer in depth, as in “About up to here.”

I never ask how many people participate in the church plant. I think it’s a terrible question that only perpetuates the “numbers= success” mentality. I love to ask planters about the challenges they’re experiencing. Most are struggling in some way or another, and many don’t have anyone to talk to about those struggles. You’d be surprised how many of them have no peers to talk to about behind-the-scenes ministry-related stuff. Lots of them have wives that just aren’t into the whole thing. Most are struggling financially. Assessment and accountability can help with some of these things, but you’d be surprised how much springs up only after the planter is well into the church planting process.

On the international mission field, those who work among the unengaged, unreached people groups in undeveloped places are considered the “elite forces” of the missionary world. They work under constant opposition, threat of persecution, and with daily physical hardship. Theirs is important work, but not because it’s difficult. The value in their service is their obedience, not their sacrifice.

As much as I love church planters, I don’t like the way we’ve glamorized what they do. When we treat church planting as the ultimate accomplishment in Christian ministry, we make it into something that actually competes with our obedience. People who have no business planting churches pursue it for the sake of the challenge and the status it brings. Others walk away from ministry completely when they don’t see the results they were expecting. For every Rick Warren and Mark Driscoll there are hundreds (thousands?) of, well, me.

I worked hard for several years to plant a church (actually, a movement of churches) in Western Europe. I had a great team, good accountability, a sound plan, and a passion for God’s church. Through our work, we saw lives transformed, community formed, and the gospel proclaimed among unreached people. In the end, we didn’t see God do what we thought He was going to do. I certainly couldn’t plant a church and God, for whatever reason, didn’t.

You may be surprised that I don’t feel like a failure (anymore). I learned a lot through my experience, and I know that my obedience matters more than my accomplishments. I realize that my plans and strategies don’t guarantee results. I also came to realize that I’m not a church planter. In fact, none of us are. God plants and builds His church. We’re just the means by which He doe it.

Networks, Initiatives, Conferences, and Movements

It seems that everyone either has a network or is starting a network. A couple years ago, we started the Upstream Collective, a group of churches that think and act like missionaries. We looked around and didn’t see anything like it. We thought we could help. We saw a need, and we set out to meet that need. We thought we were unique. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones.

Timmy Brister recently launched the church-centric PLNTD Church Planting Network. The GCM Collective seems to be a splinter group of more missional-leaning Acts 29 leaders. Missional Network is the North American Mission Board’s appropriately-named network of missional churches. Missional Church Network, on the other hand, is mostly just a really good website, and not to be confused with the other Missional Church Network, which isn’t very missional at all, and is in fact, a very bad website.  Ecclesia is a “relational network of churches, leaders and movements that seek to equip, partner and multiply missional churches and movements.”

And there’s that word, movement. According to its website, EXPONENTIAL isn’t just a conference, it’s a movement. Allelon is a movement of missional leaders. Alan Roxburgh has his own Missional Network, which isn’t a movement, but is a catalyst. Catalyst started as a conference and now wants to be a movement. Erwin McManus’ Mosaic Alliance is not the same as his joint venture with Dan Kimball called the ORIGINS Project. ORIGINS is an event, network, and  community (all rolled into one) that will feature Alan Hirsch, who this year is launching his Forge USA Network and Future Travelers, a vision trip initiative not unlike our own Jet Set Vision Trips.

These networks are characterized by their presence and the personalities behind them. Their websites (for the most part) feature sharp graphic design, professional-quality logos, and quality writing (nevermind that we’re all drowning in jargon). The majority feature photos and bios of the writers, bloggers, speakers, thinkers, and Christian micro-celebrities that founded or endorse them. You really can’t separate GlocalNet from Bob Roberts, or have lifechurch.tv (also a network) without Craig Groeschel.

Networks are on the rise, and have replaced denominations for identity and influence. Local denominational entities may be responsible for funding most of the churches that are being planted today, but few of those new churches actually want to associate with those denominations. The result is lots of Mosaics, Journeys, Sojourns, Ecclesias, and Life(something)s, and fewer First, Second, and Third Baptists Churches being planted. This is why most of the more successful networks are sponsored by denominations, and why most new denominational efforts are being branded as “networks” and “movements.” (It’s important to note that those issues that divide conservative evangelical denominations are the same issues that prompt the birth of new networks: women in leadership, personalities, money, methodology/style, and power/influence.)

The prevalence of networks also reflects a further fragmented church. We used to have dozens of denominations, not we have hundreds of networks. Some of these groups are only loose affiliations- Founders Ministries has become the informal association of reformed Southern Baptists- while others, like churchplanters.com, are pay-to-play. Many networks, such as SendNYC and Austin-centered PlantR are local. Others fancy themselves global (yes, that’s Mosaix with an “X”). In all cases, churches describe and identify themselves by their network affiliations. There are even networks of networks.

The question remains: do we need all these networks? Is it good for a church to describe itself as “an emerging, purpose-driven, organic, simple, missional, incarnational, gospel-centered, Southern Baptist member of the Acts 29 Network?” To what extent are we all just competing for the attention (and dollars) 0f the same audience only to do (more or less) the same things?

Jesus the Missionary

0700B_032Believers often look to the life and ministry of the Apostle Paul as the model for missions. He did, after all, travel around telling people about Jesus and leave a trail of networked churches in his wake. But Paul isn’t the best picture of a missionary.

Paul didn’t seem to0 concerned with contextualization- mostly because he stayed within his own context. Sure, he moved in and out of different societies: Jews, Gentiles, Greeks, Romans. But these were the subcultures he lived among well before his call to mission. We don’t see Paul having to learn different languages, for example, his Hebrew served him well among the Jewish community, and his Greek allowed him to communicate everywhere else. He traveled within the Roman Empire, where, as a Roman citizen, his was the dominant culture. For the most part, Paul was already a member of the tribes he ministered to. That’s not to say that he wasn’t a missionary; let’s just consider him more of a “home” missionary than a “foreign” missionary.

The best example of a missionary? Jesus.

The Incarnation was the greatest mission trip ever. When the eternal Word became a human being, He left His home to live in a very different place in order to communicate God’s love for mankind. He didn’t hang on to his divine cultural identity, instead he traded it for the humiliation of being a helpless human child. We consider it “extreme” when an American missionary adopts indigenous dress; I wonder how long it took for God to get used to the confines of the human form. Some missionaries spend years learning the local language- Jesus probably took what, two, two-and-a-half years? He didn’t even have a foreign accent!

Jesus’ whole life was about context. When He was tempted by the Enemy, he could have smited (smote?) him with lightening bolts from His fingers, but He didn’t because that’s not how we did things in human culture back then. When He was nailed to a cross, He could have given the signal for a million angels to swoop in and take Him down, but He didn’t, because He thought it was important to suffer on our terms. Without the credibility of being recognized as God, Jesus entered the human conversations around religion, social norms, philosophy, and politics. He did this so that we would believe in Him.

Of course, Jesus also gave humanity glimpses of his culture of origin. He healed and forgave people, and He bucked even the most deeply ingrained customs if they contradicted His message. Jesus stood up against social inequality, dead religion, oppressive leadership, and political ideologies. He followed our rules for things like time and space and the need to breathe air so that we would be able to relate to Him and begin to understand what He was saying. He played the part, but only until the time was right.

At just the right moment, Jesus broke the cultural rules. Big ones, too- like death and gravity and walking through walls. He did this because it was time to show that was was, indeed, not from around here. He had come for a reason, motivated by love and a clear mission. That makes Him the best missionary of all.

Merry Christmas, dear reader.

What are the Alternatives?

Sitting in one Starbucks, looking across the street at another.

Sitting in one Starbucks, looking across the street at another.

Most of the time, when people make decisions, they’re not really choosing from among all the options. Call the filters, call them limitations; but things like popularity, availability, accessibility, cost, visibility, availability, and ignorance all come into play- narrowing the field of choices to (usually) just a few. Many of us who would like to see things change find ourselves pointing out the problems of a broken system. But those who are involved in the system, especially those who are invested in it, tend to stick with it because they don’t see any alternatives. The current, broken system is better than nothing, right?

  • Why do so many churches treat missions as just another program of the church?
  • Why do we pile kids into a church van, drive to an Indian Reservation to do Backyard Bible Clubs and call it “missions?”
  • Why are so few churches actively and directly engaged in planting the gospel among people who don’t know and believe it?
  • Why do missionaries treat partner churches like volunteer labor or children to be babysat?
  • Why do some only consider ministry among “unreached” people groups to me missions?
  • What are the alternatives? In each of these cases, churches and individuals act according to what they’ve been taught. They do what others are doing, they do what they think they can. They go where they think finances, prudence, and church leadership will allow. They spend what they think they can afford. They act when they think it will help them. They don’t always even know why they do what they do (and don’t don what they don’t do.)

    We need alternatives. We need to know about churches the orient their entire existence around the mission. About the value of humanitarian trips to our obedience as believers. That the Great Commission is the church’s responsibility. How churches can do so much more than paint houses and prayerwalk. That the people groups of the world are not static, and that obedience is the best  strategy. If we don’t know, it’s unlikely that we’ll do anything different.

    Real Christians are Going Christians

    5059-27548I spend a lot of time thinking about how we market missions. I know there are lots of people out there trying to advocate for unreached people and raise support for missionaries working among them. But usually, it seems that missions marketers (they prefer the word “mobilizers) appeal to the “doing” side of things. They cite statistics and show pictures of unreached peoples in an effort to motivate people to action.

    What I rarely hear, though, is the “being” argument for missions. That followers of Jesus will constantly be frustrated spiritually until they get on mission. You’re not a real Christian unless you’re a going Christian.

    The value of marketing missions as “being” is that it moves us away from worldly metrics (how many, how difficult, how lost), and toward Godly ones (obedience, Christ-likeness, prayer). Missions as being helps people understand who they are in Christ. It establishes a posture for every aspect of life. Framing the conversation around being changes the way we think about missions. Instead of focusing on what missionaries do (construction, medical care, preaching, evangelism), we can focus on who missionaries are (sinners who obediently move in and between cultures to incarnate the gospel). We often hear “I don’t want to do that” but rarely would someone say, “I don’t want to be that.”