Reintroductions

Coca-Cola CanThey say that Coca-Cola is the world’s most recognizable brand. No matter  where you go in the world, chances are that you can get the familiar caramel-colored fizzy drink. Coke is everywhere.

Coke doesn’t taste the same in every country, though. They adjust the flavor based on local tastes. In Europe, the cola is less sweet than its American counterpart. In Thailand, from what I understand, it’s much sweeter and less fizzy. The one thing that keeps the soft drink recognizable around the world is the familiar red label.

Well, mostly red. Years of market research and competition with Pepsi (and about a hundred others) had led the makers of Coke (I’m thinking these were committee decisions) to gradually change the packaging. The idea was probably to make the brand appear “hip” and “cool.” They added swooshes and swirls, bubbles, gradients, coupons, and sports logos. Soon, the can blended in with all the other soft drinks and energy drinks vying for the consumer’s attention.

Last summer, Coke got back to the basics. They reintroduced the familiar red can. Solid red with white lettering and the “dynamic ribbon” graphic they’ve used since 1969. The change finally made it to Western Europe last month. I recently read an interview of The Coca-Cola Company’s European President. When asked about the change, he replied, “We’re Coke. We’ve been around forever. We’re not fooling anyone with flashy graphics. We’re proud of our product, and the new (0ld) look represents that.”

Consumers raved over the return to the classic look. They are finding beauty in the simplicity, and the value in the recognition of the brand’s heritage.

Of course, there’s a lesson to be learned here. Whenever we talk about contextualization of Christianity, some people assume we mean dressing it up to look like the culture. We don’t. We mean giving people the essential ingredients of the faith, and allowing them to prayerfully determine the formula. The packaging doesn’t really matter so much.

But what we’re finding is that Christianity, like Coke, has been around a while. Not everyone is a fan, but most have had a taste if it. We’re not introducing the gospel, we’re reintroducing it. This means that there’s a long history to acknowledge. The challenge is to identify with our heritage in a way that allows us to overcome our failures.

Remember “New Coke?”

Getting Lost In The Story

Why do millions of people around the world tune in every week (many are even willing to pay for it) to watch a convoluted, (half-baked?), confusing serialized television show about plane crash victims stranded on a mysterious island?

The story.

Questions. Unexpected twists. Attention to detail. Artistic nuance. Mythologies. Love. Danger. The unknown. Intentional lack of resolution. Good and evil. The Supernatural. It draws people in and it hold their attention. It evokes a response and inspires creativity. Communities are built around it.

Contrast that with most presentations of the gospel “story.” A neatly packaged presentation that is clear, concise, and full of answers. A “subjective” third-hand account where the allegorical dots are connected by lines of propositional truth. It does little to intrigue and works to leave nothing unexplained. Our story sounds tired, contrived, and commercial.

We have a lot to learn about being storytellers.

Changing Channels

From the early days of television through the 1970′s, there were three television networks. They had no competition and total control over what Americans watched on TV.

Then came cable. 24 hours a day of news. Sports. Movies. Weather. Home shopping. Music videos. They focused on smaller markets, but gave people what they wanted to watch. Suddenly, people had choices. Satellite expanded the television universe to micro markets. The soap opera network. The game show network. Do-it-yourself home repairs. Extreme sports, classic sports, international sports. Poker.

Now the internet. YouTube. iTunes. Sidereel. Anyone can watch whatever they want, anytime. And not only watch, but connect with other fans and create their own content.

This is happening with mainstream Christianity as well. Splinters, spin-offs, and startups dot the landscape of American Christianity and provide an infinite number of ways for churches to connect and cooperate. Exclusivity is passé; most of the churches involved are aligned with multiple networks. “Loyalty” is redefined; churches maintain these associations only as long as they serve their intended purposes. Christians used to connect via centralized “broadcasts” such as denominations, personalities, or geography. Now they’re connected via the “cloud;” allowing them to partner with others according to their beliefs, worldview, practice, politics, and interests. Some are pretty unique. Others are nearly identical.

The Southern Baptist Convention is NBC in the 1960′s. Now there are hundreds of ways for likeminded believers to connect with one another. The Founders movement. Purpose Driven. Mosaic. Allelon. Acts 29. Glocal. The Missional Church Network. CBF. New Baptist Covenant. Emergent. The Antioch Church Network is a new channel to watch.

Why does all this matter?

Because it all comes down to influence. You don’t need to be the president of anything to change everything for some people. Steve McCoy is a nobody in his church’s denomination. To artistic, reformed-leaning, music-loving, post-denominational bloggers, he’s a rock star. Follow his blog for a little while and you’ll understand.

And because if you’re dependent on one of the old broadcast TV-style networks, you need to find some new ways to connect.

The Identity Business

Sure their computers are prettier and crash a lot less than everyone else’s, but Mac users are more than just adopters of an alternative operating system. They’re members of a club. If you’ve ever been evangelized by a Mac user, you know what I mean. It’s more than a computer, it’s a way of life. Mac users look at the world differently than PC users. They dress alike and hang out in coffee shops. All it takes for entry into the club is a thousand dollars (the cost of a MacBook). 
Apple isn’t just selling hardware and software; with every shiny new iPod and Mac they’re selling identity. 
Mark Driscoll is selling the same thing (for a lot less, though). You can see his admirers and devotees planting churches across the country. They’re bold, they’re sarcastic, they’re unashamedly reformed. They major on the majors, like good theology, social action, and character. They drink, smoke cigars, and watch a lot of movies. They have iPhones, blogs and Flickr pages. They are unimpressed by denominations and traditions, and there are likely one or two of them planting churches in your area
Sure, you could call members of Driscoll’s tribe or the Mac Club “followers.” You could criticize them for not being unique or original. 
I say, why aren’t more of us providing identity? People are looking for a way to make sense of their world, a way to understand who they are in relation to everything else. In Christ, we have that identity. 
I think that would be good news for a lot of people. 

Takes One To Know One

As I talk with other Christians about life and society and current events, it strikes me how suspicious we are of everyone. The atheists have taken over the public school system. The homosexuals want to turn all boys gay. The Mexicans are invading. The Muslims want to outlaw Christianity. Universal health care is communism. Don’t watch The Golden Compass. The Mormons own Coca-Cola.

We’re certain everyone is out to get us. Everyone surely has an ulterior motive and a hidden agenda. 
Of course I’m aware of the scriptural warning about the dangerous activity of our spiritual enemy. I know that we aren’t safe. We have good reason to be watchful, wary, and wise.
But I’m also wondering if our paranoia might be due, at least in part, to that fact that we aren’t always the most up-front about our agenda. Maybe we distrust the people and organizations around us because we have a long history of misleading people about who we are and what we really want from them. 
We’re not just knocking on your door to say thanks for visiting our church; we want you to pray a prayer of salvation. You’re invited to our fellowship, but we’ve carefully planned it as an entry point for you to join our church. We ‘re only giving out coats and blankets as bait to get you to sit through a sermon.  
Why is it okay for us to do it but scary when others do? Does it make a difference just because we’re right?
I wonder what would happen if we were totally up front and honest about our agenda. What about giving up our agenda altogether?
 I suspect it might lead us to abandon many of our methods, approaches, and techniques. 

I’m Not Doing This For You

So I’ve had a couple of inquiries about the “new” “trend“(it’s really neither, but more on that later) away from full-time, professional missionaries and toward volunteer and short-term mission endeavors. I’ve made no secret of my own discomfort with being a professional missionary, so some of my readers ask if I’m excited by the potential shift toward an alternative that might facilitate broader involvement.

I’m not.

What I do is not something you can do on a week-long visit to the Old World, no matter how many language-courses-on-tape you’ve listened through. The cultural immersion required for relational and incarnational ministry is a long-term investment. I believe in the short-term involvement of volunteers, and I expect divine appointments through which God can affect tremendous change, but I believe that hit-and-run evangelism will not communicate the gospel to Western European peoples better than sharing life with people over time. We need both long and short-term people on the mission field in order to be effective in contextually-appropriate ministry. I’m not special, but I’m here.

With that said, people (especially those who support me) need to realize that I’m not doing what I do so that they don’t have to. Sending money to me (through my organization, of course) is not what you get to do instead of being a missionary yourself. The Commission is not one you can or should hire out, and I’m not your stand-in. In fact, if you give to missions for any reason other than obedience to God, please stop. We don’t need your money.

A missions organization asking about the “trend” toward volunteers is like a travel agency asking about the “trend” of customers using the internet to make travel arrangements. The democratization of missions activities means that the professionals no longer have a corner on the market. We need to take extra measures to spell out the benefit (relevance?) of career missions. If people don’t see the point, or see better way (say, missional expatiratism, or incarnational immigration?), of course they’re going to pursue it.

Heck, if we’ve got professional missionaries wondering about the validity of professional missions, maybe we’re not doing a very good job of rationalizing our system.

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.

Welcome To The Big Show

A key element to many (most?) church planting strategies is what I call “The Draw.” The Draw is an attempt to attract and engage people, usually in the form of some sort of event. A concert, a game, some kind of activity for the kids… anything to gather people so that interaction can occur. I’ve heard of church planters talk about organizing sports tournaments, throwing pizza parties, and bringing in a group of mimes to perform in the town square.

Events can be pretty expensive, and usually require a lot of hard work to put together. Add to that the governmental bureaucracy found in most Western European countries, and putting together an event can take over your life.

Unfortunatley, we waste a lot of time, money, and energy on events that seem like a good idea. They might even attract masses of people. But what then? Preach the Gospel over the sound system and call it good? Hold an Altar Call? Most of the time, big events fail to get us any closer to a personal interaction with lost people that door-to-door cold calls. Five hundred people come to your Sandi Patty concert. Maybe you get their names and contact info. What next, “Spamming for Jesus?”

And now, dear reader, you are likely anticipating a diatribe of disparaging remarks about events and those who organize them. You know: “What’s wrong with you people, don’t you know that mimes are scary?” or “Bringing in a group of High Schoolers to perform a series of offensively trite “Christian”skits in the mall is lame.”

But not this time, reader. I’ve learned that there are better ways to challenge the tactics of my coworkers than spouting off, “What on God’s green earth made you think it was a good idea to pass out ‘Jesus Hearts You‘ yo-yos on the Metro or bring in Kirk Cameron to autograph copies of Left Behind DVDs?”

No, this time, I’m going to be affirming. Today I offer encouragement.

Events aren’t always a good idea, but they aren’t always bad, either. I understand that you’re desperate to meet people with whom you can share the gospel. I understand how hard it is to break into the existing social structure, especially when you’re a professional missionary with poor social skills. Believe me, I know.

Why not try to keep events small and personal? Instead of renting out a concert hall, try your living room (or better yet, someone else’s?) Instead of shelling out the big bucks to bring in Mercy Me, why not invite a local musician? Events can be great tools for building relationships that extend into local social structures. Throw a party, and invite a friend to invite his friends. There’s power in the interaction of a lost person with a believer. It’s easier to love people from close-up.

How about doing everything you can to avoid the “bait and switch?” Don’t put together a movie night that is actually a presentation of the Jesus film. If any of the people you invite have actually seen a real movie, they’re either going to question your taste in movies, or feel totally deceived. Don’t call it “open discussion,” “free to all,” or “Family Fun Night,” if it isn’t any of those things.

We’re learning the importance of getting involved in activities that are already going on in the community. If you go to a movie with national friends, you could have a great opportunity to pick out Truth from the film and talk about it over coffee afterward. Through this we’re finding that our host culture is full of Truth and wisdom and indirect references to the Creator. Tapping into that really goes a long way toward presenting the Gospel not just as “We have a message for you and your people,” but as “Hey, look, we’re part of a Divine Conspiracy, in which God is using all of creation to call you to Himself.”

The Draw is good, just be sure we’re doing it on the right level. I say, keep up the events. Let’s just be sure that we keep things as real, honest, and personal as possible.

They Nothing Us

I spoke with a friend the other day who is constantly on his guard against what he perceives as a secular aggression against him as a Christian. In other words, he’s concerned that adulturers, homosexuals, drug users, and democrats all hate him and are out to take away his freedom. According to him, they all have an anti-Christian agenda and want to actively recruit our children, impede our ministries, and make us look bad.

I am aware that we as believers have serious opposition. I know that we face an enemy that doesn’t rest in his campaign against us. However, I know many non-Christians. I even know some anti-Christians, and a couple of gays. I’ve had long conversations with them about my faith. Guess what? The vast majority don’t hate us.

They nothing us.

See, for a person to hate another person requires something. You’ve got to put some energy into hating somebody. It costs you something. Hate means you care, just not in a good way. All of the nonbelievers I know do not even think about Christians, much less care enough to really hate us.

Most of the lost people I come across expect to be judged and persecuted by the people who do call themselves Christians. Some don’t even know that serious followers of Jesus even exist.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be on our guard. I’m just not sure we really understand who our enemy is.

Kill Your Church

Steve McCoy killed his Missional Baptist Blog last week. It was a great forum for missional folks to connect with likeminded people and discuss everything from theology, ministry, culture, and whatever else we wanted. I am thankful for Steve’s hard work in maintaining it, and always keeping the discussion fresh and interesting. While I admit that my favorite comment threads were the ones where some wacko would come in and make a couple of crazy remarks and Steve would end up banning him, I think it’s really cool that he shut it down.

Why? Because he says that it served its purpose. His blog networked many of the missional leaders in the States and on the mission field. We’ve worked together to define what we’re about, and we’ve shared ideas of how that might look in the real world. Now, most of us have our own blogs, many of which feature the same comments we were making on his site. Missional Baptist Blog had done what Steve set out to do with it, and now it is time to move on. I think we could learn something from that.

What if all the pastors that read his blog stood up in front of their churches this Sunday, and instead of preaching a sermon, simply announced that they were going to let the church die? Something like: “Folks, I have an announcement to make. We’re selling the building, and I’m getting a job at Home Depot.” I think it would be a great thing. I’m wondering if most of our churches haven’t already reached their expiration date.

Has your church built up leaders? Do you have a real spiritual family that is missionally active in the community? Have you subdivided into Bible Study groups or cell groups? Maybe it’s time to shut everything else down. You don’t need a building. You don’t need professional ministers. You don’t need any of the programs that you’ve got going on. If the system that you’ve maintained has served its purpose, shut it down.

I believe that this sort of thing is what it would take to make “Christianity” as we know it in the 21st century make sense for me, and I don’t think I’m alone.