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.

When A Missiologist Plants A Church

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

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

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

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

If You Thought Like A Missionary…

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Joseph Plumb Cochran, Presbyterian Missionary to Iran, 1848

If you thought like a missionary, the word “church” would conjure images of people, not buildings.

Your plans for the year would be limited only by your creativity, not your available funds. You’d have a plan for what happens after you’re gone (a plan that could be implemented tomorrow).

You’d worry more about getting things right than being right. You’d know that every decision you make along the way has far-reaching implications for the work. Missionaries think about the long-term strategic consequences of decisions like establishing elders too soon, dividing up families for Bible study, and growing one large church vs. starting several smaller ones.

Church planting would be more than just starting a church and being its pastor; it would entail discipling indigenous leaders and pastoring through them.

You’d exegete your cultural context, not consume it. What you learn would inform what you do, because indigeneity would be a goal of your work.

You would love your city, but never quite feel comfortable in it. Something would always remind you that you are a stranger, pilgrim, and at best, an acceptable outsider.

Your church would understand that it’s only a part of what God is doing around the world. There’s a lot to learn from believers of other times and in other contexts. Global involvement cannot wait until local work is mature.

Your team would spend more time listening to the Holy Spirit than listening to you.

Your family’s active involvement would be vital to your ministry. Missionaries, at least the ones that last, include their spouse and children in building redemptive relationships.

The people you’re ministering to would have your mobile phone number. The real one.

Your stories would be current, first-person, and self-depreciating.

You would be keenly aware of the depth of your inadequacy, the dangers of the spiritual reality, and the blessing of God’s gracious provision.

You should become a missionary.

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.

I Hope You’re Paying Attention

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While I’m on the subject of the Upstream Collective’s Jet Set Vision Trip to Prague an Budapest, I’d like to point something out: this is not more of the same. This trip is different.

I’ve already heard from a few workers on the field about the trip. As I mentioned in my last post, many are (justifiably) skeptical. A “Vision Trip?” they ask, “isn’t that just pandering to their consumerism? Aren’t you just bringing them over here to shop for their next mission trip?”

In short, my missionary friends, no. This trip is different.

Firstly, this is not a group of self-important, prima donna pastors on a promotional tour/vacation to Central Europe. The leaders on this trip are missional thinkers who are genuinely interested in leading their churches to be on mission abroad. I know many of you have put lots of time and effort into trying to “mobilize” churches to your field and work among your people group, but these leaders don’t need to be convinced of the importance of mission, or of their churches’ role at the center of it.

Secondly, when it comes to engaging unbelieving people with the gospel, they understand the need for incarnational, culturally-appropriate approaches. These guys aren’t going to come in with their “tried-and-true” methods and look for somewhere to implement them. You won’t get mimes in the mall or puppet shows in the park with these churches (unless that’s what God tells them to do!). They recognize that field workers have invaluable experience, cultural insight, and devotion. They don’t presume to know the best way to do ministry in your context. They’re here to learn.

Thirdly, these are leaders who take seriously their responsibility to lead their churches on mission. They’re not looking for opportunities that would most benefit their people, but they are looking for the Spirit’s guidance on their overseas involvement. The trip is not about shopping around for a partnership with the coolest missionary they can find, and they’re not impressed by all the insider jargon. They are truly looking for where God is working, and how their churches might fit in to that. A Jet Set vision trip isn’t a conversation between pastors and missionaries. It’s a conversation between God and their churches. Try not to get in the way.

Because the leaders on the vision trip are different from the usual missions tourists, they must be treated differently.

 

They want to part of a big-boy conversation. These are practitioners, not newbies. They want to talk about missiology, strategy, and methodology. They don’t need you to baby-sit them, and they know when they’re being “prayerwalked” because you don’t know what else to do with them. When they ask why you do or don’t do things a certain way, they’re not questioning your competence. They’re looking for a dialogue. (In case you’re not aware of this, dialogue is big among the missional set.) They will consider what their churches might have to offer in a given situation. These are not “volunteers,” they are partners and peers on God’s global mission.

That said, they will evaluate the ministries they encounter through the lens of scripture. As pastors and leaders, it’s their job to ask whether what we’re doing is God’s best. Missionary, if you can’t handle a bit of scrutiny, you need to check your pride. This is true accountability, and it’s a good thing. Would that all missionaries on the field had a high level of direct church supervision.

Finally, the Jet Set Vision Trips are not about the cities they visit. Those places are just the background, the classroom, for an intensive missiological discussion. The trip participants aren’t there to learn about how you’re being a missionary, they’re learning about how their churches can be missionaries. Practitioners like Michael Frost, Ed Stezer, and Daniel Montgomery are gifted communicators and vision-casters (and frankly, better than most of you at relating to, challenging, and inspiring these church leaders). Their participation in the trips keeps things from being about any one particular city, people group, or setting.

So the good news is that there are churches who “get it.” And not just a few. You just didn’t know about them because they’re not coming through your channels and programs. The bad news is that if you want to partner with these churches, you’re going to have to adjust the way you view their participation.

Missionaries, I hope you’re paying attention. These churches are the future of mission, and that is very good news indeed.

Something to Prove

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So the Upstream Collective is leading another of its Jet Set Vision Trips, this time to Prague and Budapest. I encourage you to follow along over at the Upstream blog, and on Twitter under #js2011.

Vision Trip, or Missions Tourism?

But I want to mention something that the trip leaders aren’t likely to. Something that most field workers would like to say, if they weren’t worried about offending churches or losing partnerships or support:

Churches, you’ve got something to prove. And no pressure, but this might be your last chance.

See, missionaries on the field are skeptical of your supposed interest in the work. And not without reason.

Nevermind the Great Commission. It takes a celebrity to get you to come to the field. You’ve been ignoring the Holy Spirit’s guidance for years, but when Ed Stetzer or Michael Frost come calling, you’re all in. And what happens when the next trip is to Tokyo? You forget all about Prague, Budapest, and the missionaries you met there.

Which brings me to another point: Rome? Marseille? Barcelona? London? Paris? It’s not hard to find pastors who would be willing to sit around in coffee shops in these European cities. Try Bangkok or Mumbai– those cities will get you out of your comfort zones. If the goal is to challenge the way you see church, God, and mission, these are the cities you need to visit.

Let’s be honest, there have been some complaints about the attitudes of past Jet Set Trips toward the missionaries who hosted you. Kind of a know-it-all condescension. No doubt this comes from your “success” in planting and leading churches in the United States. But surely you recognize that “what works” back home doesn’t necessarily “work” in other contexts. Even if your methods did actually work here, the truth is that we really don’t want to import a spectator, resource-intensive, attractional American megachurch model. Setting up franchises is not our goal.

Missionaries around the world are watching these vision trips, looking on with curiosity and cynicism. They hear you say that you want to be actively involved in all aspects of the mission, from selection to training to strategy. But no matter what you say, those missionaries don’t believe you. The truth is that they haven’t actually seen churches doing those things (at least not very well, anyway). So forgive them if they’re a little jaded, but they’ve heard all this before. Now, they’re just looking for reasons to write you off.

So you see, dear pastor and church leader, you’ve got something to prove. You say you’re serious about God’s global mission, but we want to see it. We want to see you lead your churches to think and act like missionaries, so that when you do come to the field, you come as peers– partners on mission– rather than as consumers, shopping for the next big thing.

Everyone’s heard all about your “missional” approaches to ministry. About how you’re concerned with incarnation and contextualization. But it’s time to put up or shut up. If you’re truly serious about your role as sending and being sent, let’s see it. We want to hear you asking the difficult questions. Let’s have some informed discussion about world events. Let’s consider together how we might engage people in redemptive relationships and proclaim the gospel to all.

You want to be on mission? Prove it.

Francis Went First

Last year, Francis Chan left the Southern California megachurch that he planted for reasons that weren’t clear to anybody (including Francis). Last Fall, he announced that he and his family were heading to Asia to visit the churches there and to get an idea of what God is doing around the world.

Mark Driscoll thinks Francis is crazy for walking away from his Cornerstone. Francis says he left his church because he wants to live a life that fits in the context of the Bible. His point is that leaving a healthy ministry and the comforts of home in order to be part of what God is doing is a relatively tame move in light of scripture. He jokes about how his life would fit into the New Testament: “James, killed. Peter, imprisoned. Francis goes to Asia.”

I’m proud of Francis and his family. Not because we need to seek out suffering. Not because we’re in a race to see who can “give up the most for Jesus.” But because they have stepped out in radical obedience, even when others didn’t understand.

Francis didn’t want his church to depend on him. He didn’t want his audience to think that planting a church in an affluent suburb was the standard of success. But now, more than ever, I wish they would imitate him. As a prominent pastor in the U.S., Francis is doing something that others should consider. Rather than building a kingdom, why not plant and move on? Why not leave what you’ve built in order to have your worldview influenced by first-hand accounts of what God is doing outside your cultural context? Why not venture out beyond a short-term mission trip to allow believers from other parts of the world to influence your perspective on faith, church, culture, money, and life?

Francis didn’t do anything crazy, he just went first.

Who’s next?

A Cynical Moment

While most bloggers out there are starting the new year with a positive and hopeful outlook, I’m starting with what some may call a cynical (I say realistic) moment.

Most churches are woefully unengaged in God’s mission, and this won’t change in the coming year.

There are too many “experts” using the word “missional” to refer to traditional missions or serving in the local elementary school. Without a radical shift in the basic understanding of what it means to be on mission, we’re just doing more of the same.

There are too many books out there with no real solutions, no new ideas. Yes, I’m aware that there’s nothing new under the sun. But there’s a whole lot we can do differently that would result in us being better missionaries. The practitioners tend to be left without a platform from which to share what they’re seeing God do.

There are too many missions organizations that treat non-professionals like a necessary nuisance. Until churches own the Commission and we’re all peers in God’s mission, churches will not learn to see themselves as missionaries.

There are too many churches that waste money on buildings, property, events, and staff. Our priorities are made clear in our spending habits, and most churches don’t care at all about anything but themselves.

There are too many believers who have had short-term missions experience that left them thinking either 1) they completely understand missions, did their time, and now they’re experts in the field, or 2) missions isn’t for them. A system with these results is broken.

There are too many more titillating things to read about besides the great spiritual need all around the world. It’s too hard to prayerfully read up on the Christian church bombing in Egypt when there’s another really good article on the latest iPad killer.

So change isn’t likely this year. There’s too much opposition. Too much noise.

Happy New Year.

Fortunately, most churches don’t have to get it in order for God to do great things among us. The few who will obediently turn outward and engage the world in redemptive relationships will be God’s means to the spread of the gospel and the planting of indigenous churches. The ones who know they have nothing to offer are the ones through whom the world can more clearly see Jesus.

This year, I’m not going to stop talking about missions; about our privilege and responsibility to translate the good news into every culture in which we find ourselves. I’ll continue to geek out on missions strategy and bridges to sharing the gospel. Lord willing, I’ll continue to be part of this ongoing conversation among those who are on mission (or at least want to be).

The Minister of Missions

Some churches divide pastoral responsibilities across specialized staff positions. There’s the Youth Minister, the Children’s Minister, the Ministers of Education, Music, and Missions. Many churches have Ministers of Media, Ministers of Technology and Ministers of Parking. There’s a Minister of job for just about everything. It’s like the cabinet of the French government.

But when economic times are tight, those ministries deemed “nonessential” are the first to be cut. Like the public school that cuts art and physical education in order to save some money, churches respond to lean times by combining ministries (if the football coach wants a job, he better be able to teach natural science) or by transitioning certain ministries into “lay” positions. And no, the Volunteer Director of Middle-School Ministry doesn’t get an office.

Of course, in a specialist structure, there are consequences to “cutting” the funding and support for a particular department. Getting rid of gym class doesn’t just happen to coincide with skyrocketing childhood obesity rates. Cut the music program, and you will get Lil Wayne in the Top 40.

It’s no different in churches that employ this same structure. Cutting the “Minister of Outreach and Evangelism” without completely changing the way church people think about outreach and evangelism will result in a church that neither reaches out nor evangelizes.

(Side note: if you’ve got the money, you may want to look into hiring a “Minster of Nutrition and Exercise.”)

These days, most Ministers of Missions are selling insurance or cars. But the churches that laid them off haven’t done anything to move away from the ministry specialist structure or to replace them with so much as a web app. If your specialist-style church has a Minister of Security but no Minister of Missions, you’re telling your people that security is more important than missions. The result is church people that know little about missions, culture, or geography, but feel a bit safer in the pew on a Sunday morning.

If your church is of the specialist sort and doesn’t have a “minister of missions,” then you are the minister of missions. Take responsibility; tell stories of what God is doing around the world, remind your church people that they have been blessed to be a blessing. Don’t be afraid to challenge the Minister of Coffee when it comes time to vote on next year’s budget.

How It Is/How It Should Be

The church on mission has a unique challenge: to be both a model of meeting people where they are (contextualization)  and a picture of what redeemed community should be (a glimpse into the Kingdom).

On the one hand, the church must do the work of the missionary, translating message and power of the gospel into local culture. Every local church should be an indigenous expression of Christianity. In order to demonstrate the power of salvation, the redeemable aspects of culture should be retained. Unbelievers should not look at the church and see something wholly other. They should not be so frustrated by our presentation that they cannot hear our message. Instead, they should see in us a clear example of what it would be like if someone from their own culture were to know Jesus. Our model is the incarnation of Christ Himself.

On the other hand, the church is to be a picture of that which is not yet- the kingdom of God on earth. In Christ, we are equal, free, and empowered. We are to demonstrate that to unbelievers in order for them to understand the transformational power of life in Christ. Unbelievers should see the brokenness of their systems in comparison to the peace, unity, hope, and love we know as the body of Christ.

So here’s the difficulty: if your church is located in an affluent suburb, your parking lot might be full of bank-breaking luxury cars during worship. But at some point, discipleship requires an examination of values, stewardship, and spending habits. People must be discipled out of their preferences into Christ-likeness. What would Jesus drive?

This tension is rising to the forefront in evangelical circles. David Platt’s book, Radical, is making waves for its call to abandon material things for the sake of the Kingdom (apparently a novel idea these days). People think that Francis Chan has gone off the deep end because he resigned as pastor of his church and is moving to Asia. These guys started with how things were (large churches in affluent areas) and are moving toward how they should be (following Jesus with reckless abandon).

Believers are called to both: we must engage culture and demonstrate its brokenness by publicly living in the Way. How is your church doing both? When outsiders look in, do they see something that is strangely familiar yet clearly different? The tendency today is to be the opposite: to be quick to point out all of the ways we’re different while proving with our every action that we’re really just the same as everyone else.