Virtual Missions

Not so long ago, internet chat rooms were mostly populated by perverts and turbonerds. The current generation of young adults, however, has moved into the neighborhood and changed the rules. They’ve never known life without computers. For them, meeting people online is a normal part of life. They have real and meaningful relationships with people that they only know virtually.

Why not plant online churches as part of our global missions efforts? I’m not talking about evangelistic websites, comment-thread debaters, or hordes of E-vangelists copying and pasting Bible verses into site guestbooks. I mean commissioning real missionaries to engage unbelieving people in every corner of the earth through the internet. I believe that real churches could be planted through virtual efforts that mirror our real work on the field. Contextually appropriate gospel presentations. Relational discipleship that is both practical and biblical. Indigenous worship among communities of committed believers.

All it would take is a little training of committed cybernauts and some time. “Virtual Partners” could start to see their MySpace, Facebook, and Flickr pages as platforms to engaging online social circles. Blogs and message boards are great forums for the exchange of ideas and sowing of the gospel. Affinity-based websites are visited by people from all around the world. Social networking sites make it easier than ever for people to connect.

Some might assert that the anonymity of the internet makes true intimacy impossible. That may have been true in an analog age, but these days, people welcome the anonymity as security to share their most personal thoughts. Others might be concerned that comment threads on public blogs and boards are a poor place to have meaningful conversation because there’s so much room for misunderstanding. This isn’t so much a problem for lifelong internauts. They are adept at concise, meaningful (to them and their kind) conversations in multiple ongoing and overlapping encounters.

Globalization has made English (well, a form of English) the common language of the world wide web. That makes initial contact with different people pretty easy. Why not have partners start their ministries by finding a national to teach them the language of the focus people group? People group research would take on new meaning if the source material was a member of the people group in question.

I’m working on a couple new job requests. I’m looking for some new people to be full members of our team who only come and visit a couple times a year. They’ll go through orientation, learn language, and build relationships with people here through the internet (without quitting their day jobs). If you’re interested, send me an email.

Does Culture Count?

A key element of our missiology is our understanding of what heavenly worship will look like. This will affect the degree to which we value the individual cultures of the nations. It seems that most of us tend toward one of two extremes. Of course, I simplify here for the sake of discussion.

  • Multi-cultural Church: A people group’s culture is of eternal significance in that the unique attributes were built into it by God and that He is glorified by an expression of faith and worship through that cultural lens. In other words, people can and should be discipled within their own culture because God wants to be worshiped by different people in their different ways. In missions, these are the folks who go to great lengths to learn their people group’s language and customs, and make efforts to blend into the culture in order to minimize the differences between them and the people. Most of the questions about what the church should look like are left to be answered by new believers.
  • A-cultural Church: There is a biblically-mandated “culture of the church” that runs contrary to the culture of the world. A people group’s culture is therefore not something that should be respected, as most of it needs to be “taken off” upon salvation. In missions, these “a-cultural church” church planters tend to worry less about losing their American accent or living like the nationals, and rely more on the power of objective truth of the gospel as they share it with people who are different from them.

I’m sure that you find your own opinion somewhere in-between the “multi-cultural church” and “a-cultural church” positions. Nearly all of us would say that a church should be indigenous- that it should be contextually appropriate to the culture. People should not have to learn English or wear western clothing in order to hear and understand the gospel. When it comes to “the nations,” most would lean toward the “multi-cultural” understanding of the universal church.

On the other hand, we understand that the church is necessarily marked by a distinct “Kingdom culture” that often conflicts with societal norms. Equality, unity, compassion, discipline- the culture and values of the church make it stand out from the world. We cannot be judgmental, controlling, greedy, bitter, or materialistic, no matter how ingrained these vices may be in our culture. Jesus sums up the “culture of the kingdom” with a lot of His, “You’ve heard it said… but I say…” comments. The church’s culture is not natural to sinful humanity. It is counter-cultural.

So we see that we need some good balance of indigenous and Kingdom cultures in the churches we plant. Consider, however, the West. Whenever the conversation turns to church planting in a postmodern, post-Christian context, people seem to run to the “a-cultural” extreme of the argument. “You can’t be postmodern and a Christian” some would say. “They cannot use words that we consider to be profane,” they say. “They must dress appropriately” they think, and “if they’re ashamed to call it a church, than it isn’t a church.” (These, by the way, are near quotes of what I’ve heard missionary colleagues and supporters back home say whenever I try to discuss what the indigenous church might look like in Western Europe.)

In Revelation 7, John recounts the vision God gave him of multitudes worshiping Jesus. The countless hoards of people, John writes, were “from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. ” For many of us, that same vision is what drives us today, together with the desire to be part of what God has said is certain to happen. We want to see the diversity of God’s children unified in worship. But not everyone sees the value and beauty of culture, especially when it comes to missions in a culture that seems near to our own.

I believe that the indigenous church in Western Europe, made up of mature, faithful believers, will look very different from the traditional churches that can be found here today. I believe that a follower of Christ in this culture will think very differently about gender roles in the church, alcohol use, experience of real supernatural activity, and celebration of worship, fellowship, and community than most of the churches that send me. I think that’s okay, because to me, culture counts. It’s the “language” we use to understand and relate to the world around us, and it allows us to worship God in a way that is real and meaningful to us.

The CPM Storm

In keeping with my complete inability to leave well enough alone, I’d like to illustrate the point of my last post. Some of you will be surprised to learn that there was, in fact, a point to my last post.

“Church planting movement” is the term we’ve adopted to describe a phenomena in which many, many churches are sort of spontaneously planted and those churches quickly turn and plant other church-planting churches. In many ways, a CPM is like a storm (or an earthquake, or a drought, or any other “act of God”), in that it is something only God can do. We cannot cause a CPM to happen any more than we can cause a tidal wave or instigate a hurricane.

It makes no sense, then, to set as our goal something that we cannot do. Yes, I’ve heard about the importance of having a “God-sized” vision, but a vision and a goal are not the same thing. To continue with the illustration:

We can prepare for a storm. When the weatherman warns us and the sky turns dark, people run to the store and buy water, plastic, duct tape, and granola bars. This is how many of us “prepare” for a movement of God, CPM or otherwise. We get a hint that God is working somewhere, and we rush to get ready. We write requests for volunteers and we notify the prayer networks that we’re going to need extra coverage. We put unresponsive people on the back burner and concentrate our energy where the action is. The problem, in my opinion, is that rushing to facilitate a CPM is not the kind of strategy that called people should depend on.

Why not? Because only God knows when and where He’s going to make it rain, and whether it will be a slight drizzle or a torrential downpour. I think that’s why he called me to Western Europe well in advance of whatever it is He’s going to do. This wasn’t a “priority” area for the IMB. There were places with more “strategic significance” and higher “concentrations of lostness.” But He know what He was doing, and I trusted Him, even though I haven’t seen the results I’d hoped for.

Which brings me to another type of readiness that we should consider. It’s the long-term, not a cloud in the sky, “wait for it… wait for it…” sort of approach. It is modeled for us by Noah in Genesis 6-8. When people saw this old man building a giant boat in the middle of the desert I’m sure they called it insanity. I think we should apply it to missions, and call it “nonstrategic obedience.”

God gave Noah a vision of the deadly waters that would flood the earth. That was something only God could do. Noah’s goal, then, was not to create a storm, but to build the boat. His goal was a big boat full of the people and animals God told him to take inside. His strategy was to build the boat exactly according to God’s detailed instructions.

Church Planting Movements are a vision, not a goal. Proclaiming the gospel, teaching people to obey, living as incarnational witnesses- these are goals. Our strategies need to get us to these goals. Focusing on Church planting movements distracts us from doing the things God has instructed us to do because we assume that we know how God wants to take us to the vision He’s given us. We start to see our goals as means. We should make disciples because God told us to, not so that we can facilitate a greater movement.

Getting ahead of ourselves (and God, if it were possible) is pretty common for us. We love people in order to share the gospel with them, and we share the gospel with them in order to plant a church. We plant a church in order to start a CPM, and we do that in order to “finish the task” and glorify God (and bring Jesus back). I say, let’s let go of all the “next things” that we think may happen. Let’s focus our attention on who God has brought us today. Let’s obey regardless of whether a CPM starts or not. It would be like building an ark whether the floodwaters came or not.

Now I’m left with the question of the vision. Are we sure that God told us that He was going to start church planting movements all around the world? How long do you suppose Noah would have worked on the ark without seeing evidence that God was getting ready to bring the storm? How long will our people (trusting the vision as it’s been cast by our organization) continue to pursue a church planting movement before they should start to question that vision? If it’s from God, we should never give up. If it’s just a good idea, we should change course immediately.

Where Are The CPMs?

Our regional (and organization-wide) mission and strategy is to “facilitate a Church Planting movement among people groups and/or population segments greater than 100,000 people and less than 2% evangelized. In past posts, I’ve taken issue with the definitions of “people groups” and “evangelized,” and I’ve voiced my confusion over the seemingly random numbers that guide our strategic decisions.

My question today is this: where are the church planting movements?

Church planting movement (CPM) is a term the refers to those instances in which multiple church-planting churches are planted among a people group. Such an occurrence would certainly be an act of Almighty God, and would transcend any program or campaign that we could initiate. This is how it happened in certain parts of Asia fifteen years ago.

Eleven years have passed since the CPM strategy was adopted by the board. Faithful men and women have poured their lives into the people to whom they’ve been called. They have been trained, equipped, led, encouraged, and prayed for. They have learned language(s), adapted to culture, and made efforts to partner with other Great Commission Christians in an effort to facilitate a CPM. Despite all their efforts, the IMB’s missionaries to Western Europe have not yet seen such a movement.

Where are the CPMs?

Everyone seems to have a theory as to why we haven’t been effective at fulfilling this vision. “We don’t pray enough,” many have said, or “we’ve gone about it the wrong way.” Some have suggested that we haven’t cooperated enough, others say we’ve cooperated too much. I’ve heard our current situation blamed on poor language skill, not enough “broad seed sowing,” and sin.

These theories are usually followed up with solutions. A book to read. A model to study. A formula to follow. We need to fast, pray, repent, work harder, or bring over more personnel. “If we only had 50,000 more people praying, then we’d see a CPM.”

I refuse to believe that the reason we aren’t seeing Church Planting Movements is that we just haven’t gotten it right yet. I’m tired of seeing good, faithful people feel pressure to produce something that is totally out of their control. We have people on the field that feel like complete failures because they haven’t seen God re-create what He did in Asia, and it weighs heavily on them. It’s time to re-evaluate our strategy and goals.

Get Out Of The Way

I’ve posted about this before, but I’ve been hearing and reading a lot about “contextualization”of the gospel. If you’ve every read my blog before, you likely know that I believe that we the church should do all that we can to minimize the cultural differences that hinder the communication of love and truth to the people around us. If that’s what you mean by “contextualization,” then call me a “contextualizer.” The more foreign we are, the more foreign our message will seem. Context is important.

The other day I spoke with a friend who was concerned after reading my post “The Uncanny Valley.” This friend thought that I might be too caught up in trying to make Christianity “hip” or “cool.” I clarified my opinion for him, and we agreed that “contextualization” in the sense of trying to make Jesus seem “cool” is really a bad idea. The reason it’s bad is simple: we’re not cool. Especially this friend I was talking to.

There is a difference, then, between cultural translation of the message, and assuming the cultural appropriateness of a model or practice of the faith.

That’s the problem with models of church or ministry or evangelism; they’re only good during the life of the cultural context for which they were designed (and usually, not even that long.) The rate of change is so great these days; subcultures and population segments are moving “targets” (forgive me for using the word). I believe we should model (insofar as we’re able) what life in Christ might look like in our cultural setting, but we’ve got to remember that the best people to decide what church might look like in any given culture are the people of that culture.

I have been targeted by many Christians. Churches tailor their programs to meet my needs without bothering to ask what they are. Bible study resources are written for my demographic in order to help my walk. Evangelism experts call me ineffective, and blame it on my laziness for not going, my fear for not being bold enough, or my ignorance for not figuring out the “5 Simple Steps to Effective Soul-Winning.” I identify with the people most of you call “targets” and “contacts.”

If you’re comfortable with your current expression of your faith, good for you. I’m not; but please don’t think I’m asking you for help with that. Stop trying to make church relevant to me. Teach me what the Bible says about church, and get out of my way. My friends and family will wrestle with the cultural implications. Teach me what you understand to be God’s directive concerning leadership, worship, gifts, and service; leave it to us and the Spirit to work out the practice. Train me in truth, but don’t expect me to look, act, dress, talk, or think like you.

Thank you.

Arts and Sciences

We read church planting books, we go to seminars, and we study models, strategies, and formulas. We are driven by statistics of measurable lostness, reached-ness, and saturation. We calculate number of personnel, availability of resources, and total cost involved.

When it comes to missions, as with the rest of Christianity, we’ve tried to make a science of what is essentially (and necessarily), an art.

According to the unquestionably reliable Wikipedia,

Art: “…is the product or process of the effective application of a body of knowledge, most often using a set of skills…”

Science: “…is an attempt to explain the complexities of nature in a common, known and replicateable way.”

While I’m not entirely certain that “replicateble” is even a word, I am convinced that the scientification (also not a word) of missions is the main factor that keeps us from knowing and participating fully in what God is doing around the world.

Most of the great artists in the world started as apprentices to great artists, not to great art teachers. Art lessons begin with philosophy; the master instills in his student a vision of why he creates, and then goes on to share how he creates. But a student will never be considered himself an artist so long as he is content to only copy the master’s work. No, he’s got to take what he’s learned and use it to express his own creativity, applying the master’s wisdom while creating a work that is uniquely his.

Discipleship cannot be taught in a classroom. Reading a good book by a proven and experienced church planter is not enough. We need mentors. We need current practicing disciple-makers to be teaching and leading others as they make disciples.

If I could have a conversation with someone of the IMB’s Board of Trustees, this (among other things) is what I’d say. We need to radically rethink our approach to training and equipping disciple-makers. The bar has been set way too low. It isn’t enough to have a seminary degree or to have signed the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. We need to be mentored. We need leaders who are currently in the thick of cross-cultural ministry to guide us in wisdom and that long-lost art of missions.

Until we have such a network of relationships, we will not be able to guarantee the theological integrity of our work. We will continue to be criticized by seminary professors and denominational politicians. We will remain on the sidelines of what God is doing around the world because we are debating the science of Christianity and mission while the artists are being used to build the Kingdom.

It’s My Job

I have devoted the last four years of my life to the study of a language and culture that are not my own. When I started, I thought of these people only in stereotypes and generalities. Every new observation or bit of insight was applied to the whole. “Everyone here,” I can remember thinking, “hates me because I’m an American.” To me, the rude guy at the gas station represented an entire nation of rude people just like him. The poor customer service at the post office meant that it didn’t exist anywhere in the country. Ok, so maybe some of my observations were universal.

Life in another language is like taking a cold shower. The best way to start is to just jump in all at once. Even then, you don’t enjoy it. We say that we get used to it, but really we just become so numb it doesn’t bother us anymore. It takes about a month to get over the feeling that everyone around is talking about you. Another month before you can tell the difference between angry shouting and just regular talking. Every week after that, your chances increase that you’ll get what you think you ordered in a restaurant. I love picture menus, even though the food never really looks as good in person.

So now I know stuff. I know that I’m not the only one that the waiter is rude to, and that the person I’m meeting will be late, but if I am, I’ll get a text message asking where I am. I can really notice how much I’ve learned when new people come. Volunteers can be pretty oblivious, but other missionaries are the best barometers of cultural acclimation. I love the feeling of knowing what’s going on while the new guy is totally lost. I replace “When I was your age…” with “when I first got here…,” but otherwise, I’m the wistful old man of our team. All I need now is a rocking chair (and a porch), and I could keep you up all afternoon telling stories of times when I put my foot in my mouth or accidentally called a police officer a woman to his face.

I continue to study because it’s my job and I’m fascinated by it. I love learning why people here do what they do. Especially when they don’t even know. In a way, all this study, all this intentional living amongst these people makes me a bit of an expert. I’m not trying to sound proud or anything, but I most likely know more about the people to whom I’m ministering than you do. (Easy for me to say since I haven’t exactly told you who the people are.) Odds are that you’ve never even met someone from my people group, much less turned down the alcoholic beverage he offered while sitting on his sofa watching home videos of his niece’s Confirmation.

So that’s what I bring to the table. I’m not a good public speaker, and I don’t know how to play any musical instruments. But I have cultural insight that is unique to the people I work with here in Western Europe. I can tell you how someone from this city might respond to a gospel presentation. I know how they are likely to view us as outsiders, and I’m familiar with their felt needs. I have seen glimpses of the Church in this culture, and it doesn’t look very much like it does in American culture. In a lot of ways, that has been the payoff for all the work and stress of living in another culture; to see the Church in a different light.

Thank you for supporting us to be students of these different cultures. Thank you for trusting us to represent Jesus among people that aren’t looking for Him. Thank you for allowing us to translate the gospel into these cultures and plant indigenous churches that worship God in their own languages. Thank you for providing a way for me to do what I’m called to do.