What’s It Gonna Take?

One of my biggest pet peeves is hearing someone from the IMB (usually it’s someone in leadership) say, “What’s it gonna take to get the job done?”

Now I’ve gone through my thoughts about the “Unfinished Task” in previous posts. As far as I can tell, “the Task” we’re called to is nothing less than a step-by-step following of the Holy Spirit. But the IMB has scrapped that for something more practical. It’s like we read the instructions Jesus gave in Matthew 28:18-20, and we say, “Ok boys, you heard Him. All nations. Let’s get the job done!” It started in the 1976 with “Bold Mission Thrust,” a massive campaign the IMB launched to “Evangelize the world by the year 2000.” (Followed by “A Church for Every People by the Year 2000″ in 1980, “Strategy to Every People” in 1984, “One million native missionaries” in 1986 and “Decade of Evangelism” in 1990.) Like all of the Y2K Doomsday Prophets, we don’t really talk about this any more. These fund-raising campaigns (our strategies have proven that they were never really goals after all), did little to advance our overseas ministries, but they went a long way to giving Southern Baptists across the country a false understanding of missions.

All along we’ve set ourselves up as the missions experts, and told people that missions is about “reaching” people. We’ve developed mathmatical equasions for calculating a people group’s “need.” We ignore places in the world where God is working in ways we can’t use to raise money. We plaster pictures of needy dark-skinned people in the “-stans,” and tell the people in the pew that it all depends on us. We settle for evangelism because disciple-making (church planting) is too abstract and hard to measure. We worship missionaries as “super-Christians,” perpetuating the lies of professional clergy and highter callings.

Now we’ve decided that God’s goal is to “reach” every nation in the world (apparently not by the year 2000). We’ve gone to great lengths to develop strategies to get us to that end. We’ve even calculated how much money, how many people, and how long it’s going to take the IMB to fulfill this task. The problem is that we’ve made a “goals and action plan” project of God’s call to ongoing obedience.

What’s it gonna take? Us admitting that our human-centered understanding of missions and our plans for doing it are prime examples of us getting ahead of God. If we want to be involved in what God is doing around the world, we’re going to have to stop assuming we know what God is doing and that we know the best way to “get it done.” It’s going to take our churches (not our organization) sending people who are committed to going where God calls them and doing what God leads them to do, even if it doesn’t seem to fit our strategy.

Finally, why aren’t we suspicious of the extremely pragmatic nature of our question? Asking “What’s it gonna take?” is focusing on the end, ignoring the means. I believe the same sort of thing happened when Jesus talked about His kingdom and Peter reached for his sword.

Can I get some feedback here?

True Religion?

When a person comes to faith in Christ, there is necessarily an immediate and ongoing response. There are certain things they can continue to do. There are other things, however, that they cannot continue to do. And then there are things that they can continue to do, but now with a new motivation. For example: a hard-working father in Barstow, California enters into a relationship with God through Jesus after years of church attendance. Immediately, he is convicted about his materialism and selfishness. These things, he recognizes, he must leave behind in order to follow Jesus. He is also aware of his need to read the Bible and speak to God through prayer, habits he had never picked up despite years of good instruction from his pastor. There are other things in his life, that he will continue to do, but now for new reasons. He should continue work hard and do his best, but not out of a desire for social status or material goods. He needs to keep spending quality time with his kids, but not in order to avoid the embarrassment of an unruly child or to make up for unkept promises of the past. His new motivition to continue all of these behaviors is Jesus. This response is one that happens over time. As we mature in the Lord, we become more like Him. He teaches and stretches us and shows us those places in our lives that need to be developed and changed.

We see this pattern pretty clearly in the case of a churchgoing American: repentence, then the ongoing process of sanctification. But what about a Muslim or a Hindu? If someone from a Buddhist cultural background comes to faith in Christ, can he continue identifying himself as Buddhist? This question is one that missionaries are faced with all over the world. IMB personnel struggle with it on a daily basis.
I believe that there is only one way to God and life in Him; it is Jesus, not Christianity, that provides access to the Most High God. So would I have a problem with an Indian believer who, after being reborn in the Holy Spirit, continues to call himself a Hindu? No. But I’m certain that the Board would not agree. IMB leaders are rumored to be considering a poliicy that would require our personnel to stop using the word “Allah” when referring to God. Allah, some reason, is the Muslim God. Nevermind that it is the Arabic word for God, or that the works-based religion traces itself back to the same Yahweh of the Hebrew people.

I guess the question is this: Did Jesus come to start a new religion? I don’t think He did. I think He fulfilled a religion, and permitted those whose cultural identity was wrapped up in it to continue practicing it. In Acts, we read that the first “Christians” continued meeting in the synagogues. For them, their national identity was Judiasm; it was not unlike the cultural Catholicism found throughout Europe or the cultural Christianity common in the U.S.

Did Jesus intend for His followers to build the spiritual family into an institution? I don’t think so. Sure, He instructed them to do certain things, and to avoid others. There were certain traditions, like a communion meal or baptism, that He seemed to expect us to continue. But I can’t help but wonder how He would feel about joining some of the Southern Baptist churches in the States. I don’t mean to say that our way of doing church is wrong, I’m saying that congregational cooperations are a cultural construct, and that we ought to recognize them as such. Being a follower of Jesus is, after all, about a relationship, not a religion, right?

What is the Gospel?

All believers know the good news about Jesus, and most are able to sum it up in a few phrases. “Jesus loves you and has a plan for your life… All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” These things are true, and part of the gospel, but they are not the gospel. I once had a discussion (read: arguement) with a friend over “sharing the gospel in its entirey vs. sharing it in bits and pieces.” You can imagine how it went: he was of the opinion that due to the urgency of the message, and the uncertainty of our immediate futures, we ought to make the most of every opportunity to share the complete gospel with every person we could. Mostly, I disagreed with his interpretations of the concepts of urgency, opportunity, and gospel. Yes, we are in the last days of life as we know it, and time is short. Yes, we need to be ready at all times to give a reason for the hope we have, and make the most of every opportunity. But how much information must a person know in order to be saved? What is required understanding for a follower of Jesus?

No, the gospel is not information. It is a person. Jesus. He is the way, truth and life. A person knows the Most High God by meeting Jesus. Telling other people about Him, no- introducing others to Him is a huge part of who we are. But loving people unconditionally is sharing Christ. Feeding the hungry and caring for the sick is indeed being Jesus to people. It is incarnation of the Word.

Are You Saved?

I think the best way to handle the tough call of whether a person is saved or not is to not try to answer it. “Judge not, lest you be judged” is usually quoted by judgemental people as they pass judgement on someone. “I’m not judging you,” they like to say, “God is.” But I read where Jesus tells us that we’re going to be surprised when we get to heaven at who isn’t there that we expected to be and who is that we were sure would never make it. Again, there is not salvation outside Christ. But who are we to know the heart of a person? I believe in the fruit of the Holy Spirit, but I’ve met a whole lot of really good Mormon folks who are trapped in works and religion, and don’t know Jesus.

So how does this translate into missions? Well, if we stopped counting the number of salvations (or baptisms), and instead focused on disciple-making, it really wouldn’t matter where someone was spiritually. Our task, then, would be to take people in whom God is working from wherever they are to maturity in Christ. Salvation would happen somewhere along the way, but as a matter between each individual and God Himself, it might not happen according to our schedule. This way, we don’t change our focus between pre-salvation “evangelism” and post-salvation “discipleship.”

In preaching only an evangelistic message, we inadvertantly change the message itself. We present a Christianity that is about saying a prayer, asking Jesus into our hearts, or even repentence. Salvation is not the goal, it is the beginning! A relationship with Jesus is one that radically canges every aspect of our lives. Why would we present a simplified, reproducible message that avoids talking about the fullness and beauty (and indeed, difficulties) of living as redeemed people in a fallen world?

Mission Trips

Maybe it’s our affinity for convenience that has led us to settle for marketing-campaign dissemination of information over the long-term disciple-making relationships Jesus modeled with His disciples. But discipleship is not sharing information, public discourse, or debate. It has little to do with the materials we have available, and is not quick and easy. Discipleship is a relationship. In fact, the Good News is a relationship. The gospel itself is a relationship, and relationship is the context through which it must be shared.

The way I see it, Christians have been intrepreting the “Great Commission” to be a call to evengelism, and they’ve been responding to that call by doing missions and going on mission trips. These are usually intentional forays into the world, where Christians leave the comfort and safety of their subculture in order to take the gospel to lost people. They prepare a “program” and memorize their gospel presentations. They put together skits and songs. They collect cotton balls and toungue depressors for craft time. They raise money.

The mission trip mindset is one that I’m less and less comfortable with. It’s all about a “come see” event that often resorts to bait-and-switch tactics in order to share our message. I’ve seen people use clowns and puppets, music, sports, even food to get people to come and hear. When I participated in the Summer Missions program at Gano Street Baptist Mission Center in Houston, Texas, I had the opportunity to really help people in need. I remember really trying to learn Spanish so that I could communicate with the people in the neighborhood. We drove a big truck through the slums distribuiting day-old bread that hed been donated. All we had to do was drive slowly and shout out “Pan!” The Spanish word for bread had people running to the truck for something to eat. We gave out clothing to people who need it. There was a huge clothes closet at the mission center, and I was always overwhelmed by people’s gratitude as they left with new clothes to wear to work and school. We played with children during the day so their parents wouldn’t have to leave them alone while they went off to work. In reality, it was glorified babysitting, but we did it because we wanted to love the people of Houston. We really did love the people we were ministering to, but sometime during every act of service we required that the people listen to a presentation of the gospel. For them, it was a hoop they had to jump through in order to receive the help they needed. For them, prayer time was waiting for the “Amen” so they could rush home and fill their stomachs, brush their teeth, or put on their new clothes. We thought we were sharing Jesus. Looking back, I think we were probably standing in His way.

“Let your light so shine before men,” the verse goes, “that they might see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” As I think about it, Gano Street Mission Canter, and many like it around the world have done tremendous work in selflessly ministering to people in need. They’ve done it in Jesus’s name. I just wish they didn’t always feel this need to tack the sermon on to the service. I think that selflessness and altruism and brotherly love are all supernatural things- not natural to humans but a result of God’s intervention. Our good works are evidence of God’s work in our lives, and that incarnational “picture” of Jesus really doesn’t require that we add the caption “This selfless act brought to you by Jesus.” I’m not saying that we souldn’t be quick to mention His name, nor that we sould leave any ambiguity as to why we do the things that we do. I’m just saying that “it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance.”

A group of volunteers once came to a major European city on a mission trip. They had prepared a series of dramatic skits that they hoped would allow them to share the gospel with nationals despite the language barrier. You might be familiar with the skits; each portrayed sin as the problem and Jesus as the answer. One used a cardboard box to show how sin can trap us; another showed how people often ignore Jesus throughout their daily routine. Several had actors pantomime smoking and drinking in an attempt at depicting the depravity of unbelievers. You might imagine how the drama troupe was received. Without some cultural and linguistic translation, the Gospel was not communicated. Worst of all, the good news message was somehow changed from “Jesus is Life” to “God hates people who smoke and drink.” For the European audience, it was hardly good news. While they did make the volunteers feel good about their efforts, the trite and cheesy skits only served to reinforce the perception of Christianity as irrelevant and powerless.

Passion

I believe that “lostness” is a dangerous motivation for missions, but so too is the common concept of our “passion.” I remember the first time we spoke in a church after our appointment with the International Board. I asked the pastor what he thought his church needed to hear from us as we shared about the exciting things God was doing around the world. His response was, “Son, just let them see your passion.” Since that time, I’ve seen the word become a vital part of the missionary’s vocabulary. “Passion,” once a word closely associated with carnality, is now used as definitive proof of one’s calling. (“I can tell you’re called to missions- we can just sense your passion for the lost.”) But what about our passion for God Himself? Can we safely replace our First Love with a passion to do His job for Him?

If we allow our “heart for the unreached” to guide us, what happens on a day where we just don’t feel much passion? Not to say that God can’t give us passion, or even use that to place His very call on our life to full-time service. But as a motivation for our work, human emotions can be pretty unsteady. Desire, love, compassion, and guilt are all emotions that come and go. It seems that a heart sensitive to the will of the Spirit of God would be much more dependable than a heart for a people group. Such a motive then frees us from the pressures of human-centered plans. Instead of asking God, “Give me a heart for this person,” or “Help me to reach this people group,” we would ask Him, “Please guide me in this conversation,” again allowing Him to dictate the strategy and the audience.

When we first arrived in Western Europe, our passion for ministry was quickly replaced by fear and frustration; obviously, neither were from God. I know that people are people wherever you go, but these people seemed so… so… foreign. They were totally oblivious to the people around them, customer service was a joke, and they bought food in the grocery stores that looked just as it did when it was alive. They seemed backward and stubborn and worst of all, they didn’t seem to appreciate that we had left the comforts of suburban California to come share with them the most imortant thing they could ever hear. I’m not sure passion even made it past the airport.

What if God’s missionary calling isn’t to a people group or a job or a position, but to an ongoing, total step-by-step obedience to Him? If that were the case, the “Unfinished Task” isn’t finishable at all. Could it be that our task is not to reach the unreached for God, but to be obedient to Him as He reaches them? The difference is more than semantic. The task, then, would be to remain so plugged in to Him, so in tune with His Holy Spirit, that we would go wherever we are called and do whatever we are led to do. Instead of limiting the number of missionaries we’ll send to Africa, we could post every job request and let God call His workers to where He’s working. What if, rather than sending any and all willing persons to the mission field, we closely examined God’s call on their life and how he has equipped them to fill that role? Then God would determine the strategy. We wouldn’t have people who don’t really know what God wants for them going to China just because that’s what we tell them to do. We wouldn’t have people focusing on the Muslim world just because there aren’t any churches, and no missionaries to India just because they felt sorry for the people starving there. We need to be careful that we don’t get ahead of God in our zeal for what we think He’s doing.

Calling

When we first started dialoguing with the IMB about becoming career missionaries, they really drove home the fact that we needed to be sure of our calling. We were asked to describe the occasion of our individual call to missions, and then we were to relay a time when that call was affirmed. We had to write out the experience. We had to answer questions about it. Some of us were asked to clarify the language of our call. To be hired by the Board, you have to be called. Why all the emphasis on calling?

Someone without a clear sense of calling won’t last on the field, they say. The Missionary in Residence shared about the importance of his call. “During those really tough times,” he said, “your call is all you have to hang on to.” The message is that the Board is going to great lengths to be sure you are called, so that they can support you and make it possible for you to follow it. Through all of this checking and double-checking of calls, it is never suggested that there might be some callings that fit in the Board’s strategy and others that don’t.

Although it is clear that the IMB goes through seasons of different emphasis, they have never said, “We’re a 10/40 window only Missions Sending Agency.” They continue to identify themselves as a global sending organization. “All the peoples of the world” they say. And so, knowing that my wife and I felt called to Western Europe, they hired us. Without giving us a heads up on the fact that we would not enjoy the Board’s fullest support, they sent us to Spain, apparently hoping that God would change our hearts and ask to be transferred to a “real” mission field like the China, “The Muslim World” or India.

I understand that an organization such as ours must have some corporate direction. As an agency, we need to be, at least at some level, unified in our strategy and vision. The IMB has a responsibility to send people that represent our convention’s churches. But our organization does not take a popular vote to decide its strategy. We rightfully allow our people in the field to be experts in their respective cultures and ministries. All the while, our massive promotional efforts work to educate Southern Baptists about missions and about the organization itself.