The Counterintuitive Church (pt.7, Impractical Spaces)

Previously: Impractical Worship

Megachurches don’t just happen. And they’re certainly not the inevitable result of God’s blessing. They are the results of decisions throughout the lifetime of a church. Say a church plant starts out with three couples meeting in a living room. That’s six people meeting regularly to worship God and be a local expression of His body. Say that group, through evangelism, transfer, or gimmickry, grows to two dozen. Twenty-four people can fill a living room. Add kids or guests, and the space is full, right?

Most churches that find themselves in this situation do what makes sense; they find a bigger place to meet. They rent a theater, they meet in a public school, they lease a storefront. This move brings a new set of challenges- the bigger space makes it harder to hear, so the growing  young church buys a sound system. As more people come, the church introduces a video projector (in case anyone doesn’t remember the words to “Lord I Lift Your Name On High,” and to show the scripture text for all those who forgot to bring their Bibles.) Staff members are hired to keep up with all of the people. Bylaws are written.

The church grows, filling the space, and is faced with another decision. Naturally, they embark on a building program to raise money to buy some land in the suburbs and build a multi-use facility. This, of course, requires an upgraded sound system, an increase in staff, facilities maintenance, the Disneyfication of the children’s ministry area, and a logo for each of the church’s ministry programs. Then come the satellite campuses, video venues, and nationwide franchise networks.

A series of decisions, each seeming quite sensible, that solve the “problems”that a church might face. But what if a church, at any point along this path, chooses otherwise? What if a church deliberately decides not to rent a bigger space? What if they refuse to go into debt? What if they wait to raise up leadership from within? What if they intentionally do the counterintuitive, impractical thing every step of the way?

The Impractical Church doesn’t build a building. Ever. Instead, it meets wherever its people live- in their homes, hangouts, restaurants, parks, pubs, libraries, break rooms, basements, parking garages, and empty church buildings of dying congregations. They don’t pay to rent these spaces- they hardly even have to ask to use them. These are the spaces they move in every day. By paying taxes, punching time cards, and spending time and money, they’ve earned the right to use them. They find favor with the people who manage and own the spaces.

They show up to the same neighborhood coffee shop every day for two years. They’ve taken spiritual responsibility for the others who use the space. They’re on a first name basis with the owners. They start to meet one-on-one in the corner. Next as a small group during a time when business is slow. Maybe a waiter gets involved. Soon, the manager is turning down the music so the group can hear one another. Next thing you know, the group is offered keys to the back door and invited to stay after hours so they can have some privacy.

Call it the Friendly Takeover.

The public nature of their meetings challenge the church to apply their faith to their everyday lives. They’re forced to be the Church in context of the local community. Their small size insures that they remain personal, relational, and free of the overhead that burdens other churches. This church is sustainable and truly local. It is indigenous to the neighborhood. They manage growth by planting more of these churches, each interconnected and accountable, but with its own leadership and the freedom to adjust the form and location.

It takes time to expand the Kingdom by filling the impractical spaces, but taking shortcuts has cost us.

NEXT: The Impractical Churches Among Us

Vocabulary Test

Not Biblical, no longer helpful:

-”the 10/40 window,” “last frontier,””edge of lostness.” When the world was two-dimensional (and to most Christians, that was until very recently…), it made sense to think of people as places on a map and to put them into categories (population, religion, demographics, reached-ness, number of churches, accessibility, etc.). Today, people defy taxonomy; the world is dynamic. Tribes used to be discovered in uncharted corners of the world, now we’re discovering them hiding in globalized urban centers and on the internet.

-”Nations.” Yes, the Bible uses the word “nations.” But missiologists (actually anthropologists) have defined the therm to mean, “ethnolinguistic people groups.” But were there really people from every ethnolinguistic people group present on the day of Pentecost? What about third-generation Muslim immigrants in Paris?

-”Reached/Unreached.” As the church rediscovers her role as incarnatioal (rather than attractional) image-bearers, people are realizing that it’s better to go where God leads (through relationships, gifting, opportunity, interest, connects, etc.) than to engage a people simply because they are “unreached.” God orchestrates the church’s strategic missional engagement, so we need to forget what we think we know about who is “reached” and who is “unreached.”

And then there’s the ambiguity of the concept of “reaching” people….

It’s time to replace the old missions vocabulary with a new one.

Reached

What do we mean when we talk about “reaching people?” Is it the same as telling them about Jesus? What makes a people group “reached?” Having heard the gospel? Having access to it? Having a viable church planted among them?

The IMB’s current strategy is to “engage” (send missionaries to) people groups that we classify as “unreached” (less than 2% evangelical) and that also have populations of 100,000. Using the 2% rule, there are thousands of unreached people groups that number lower than the 100k minimum. Nevertheless, the IMB does not actively seek to send missionaries to work among these smaller groups. Why not?

It seems to me that these numbers were picked by IMB marketers to provide a goal for our organization that was ambitious, yet attainable.

Thoughts On The Task

Every six months or so, I have to post my thoughts on “the missionary task.” In my opinion, this is the single most important topic that no one is talking about. In another attempt to incite some discussion, I’ve also posted this to the Church Planting Forum.

Below is an outline of my current thoughts on “the Task.” Please forgive my over-use of quotation marks.

Since my appointment and move to Western Europe, I’ve wrestled with the conventional understanding of what has come to be known as “the Missionary Task.” I’ve prayed about it, read about it, googled it, and blogged about it, but there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of discussion on the topic. I’m sure this is due to the fact that most of us (Christians, that is) already have the thing clearly sorted out in our heads.

I begin by admitting that my current perspective on the subject is likely wrong and would certainly be improved by some honest discussion with brothers and sisters who are obediently participating in the task. My question is simple: what is the nature of “the task?”

The question is important because most of us are heavily involved in ministries that have been planned around a particular understanding of our calling, goals, and purpose. “The Task” is the missiological idea that has led us to concepts such as the “10/40 Window” and “Frontier missions.” It’s led us to move our focus and resources from “reached” areas (despite the harvest) to “unreached” ones. It’s led us to rely heavily on statistics and models for our missions strategies. I’m not sure we’ve got it right. Here’s why:

-The Great Commission is a call to Go and make disciples. Does it necessarily have to be a “finishable” task? When I was a kid, my mom was always telling me to make my bed and pick up my room and eat my vegetables. Turns out she wanted me to do it every day. It would have been silly of me to say (as I’m sure I did), “Mom, I’m almost finished with the task you assigned me.”

-Some of you will want to pull out your Greek lexicons and start chanting, “ponta ta ethne” or something like that. I see the use of the term “all nations” (Matthew 24:14, 28:19-20, Luke 24:46-47) as a descriptive term, not a prescriptive one. Here’s a blog post about this.

One verse that also uses the “all nations/every nation” terminology is this one that tells about the Day of Pentecost:

“Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nationunder heaven.” -Acts 2:5

I find it odd that this one doesn’t usually figure into the discussion. Does it mean that there were literally Jews in all nations? Or is it saying “of the nations in which there were Jewish people…” If the former is true, the “task” was completed at Pentecost!

-To me, the concept of a “Final Frontier” assumes a static world. I blogged about this here. There are new people groups being born all the time that have their own unique languages and cultures.

-It also seems to assume that once a nation is “reached,” it will always remain so. I work in Western Europe where in many ways, our work is to reintroduce the Gospel to people who are inoculated against it.

-As far as I can tell, “the Task” we’re called to is nothing less (and nothing more!) 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, “Okay folks, you heard Him: All nations. Let’s get the job done!” I address the question “What’s it gonna take?” here.

-It seems to me that we can fulfill the task (obediently going as God leads), but we’re not really going to “complete” it. I’m okay with that, because I think it requires us to be more dependent on Him, instead of developing some game-plan to finish something that He never assigned. A task of world evangelization isn’t enough, in my opinion.

These are, roughly, my thoughts on the subject. I’ve always wanted someone to discuss these things with me, and to clarify my thinking where possible. What do you think?

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.

That’s Not What I’m Saying

This is part 76 in my long-running series about word definitions…

Whenever someone shares a fresh perspective, or wants to challenge the status quo, he or she is bound to be misunderstood. It starts like this:

Copernicus:
“Hey guys, I’m thinking that maybe the Earth isn’t the center of the solar system.”

Well-Intentioned Misunderstanding Guy:
“So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.” Joshua 10:13

Misunderstanding Guy #1:
“Are you saying that all of the astronomers that have gone before you are stupid? How arrogant!”

Misunderstanding Guy #2:
“Oh, so you’re throwing out the entire concepts of planets, then? I suppose we’re all floating around in space on figments of our imagination, then.”

Misunderstanding Guy #3:
“You’re a liberal.”

Misunderstanding Girl:
“Why are you so negative all the time?”

Misunderstanding Old Guy:
“When I was your age, I used to think the Earth revolved around the Sun, too.”

Misunderstanding Guy #1(again):
“I defy you to prove your theory.”

Anonymous Misunderstander:
“Yeah, but the Earth is still round.”

Of course, I’m no Copernicus. While I realize that what I write here is neither fresh nor challenging, I run into the same sorts of trouble. Say I question a commonly held missiology. Someone is bound to accuse me of being proud or ignorant or both.

The worst part of the misunderstanding game is having to preface everything I’m trying to say with everything that I’m not saying. People read one bit of a post and jump to conclusions. If a key word is used or some vaguely familiar reasoning is appealed to, the labels come out and the communication ceases. That’s why we can’t talk about miracles without adding the disclaimer: “I’m no Charismatic, but…”

“I affirm the Baptist Faith and message, but…”

So someday, I’m going to put together a book that contains all the things I’m not saying. By questioning the wisdom of a rule, I’m not being disrespectful of those who set the rule. When I say that we need to live out our faith, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t tell people about Jesus. Don’t get upset when I write “I’m uncomfortable calling myself a missionary” or “I don’t go to church” until you know (or at least have made an effort to know) what I’m actually saying.
If you have a question, please ask! That way we can discuss what’s being said, instead of arguing over what isn’t.

Vocabulary Exchange

It’s time to change the lingo of missions. (Including the word “missions.”) Really. Hardly any of the words that we use to talk about cross-cultural ministry accurately describe the work of our people on the field. Many of our words actually work against us. Take, for example, the idea of “reaching” people. What does that mean? I know what we mean when we say it (at least I think I do…), but I’ve heard it used to describe many of very different activities. The term is too ambiguous to allow for any sort of meaningful communication.

When we say “missions,” we make it sound like we’re part of some military operation. Yeah, I’m aware of the war analogies and imagery in the Bible, but using militaristic words like “target,” or “strategy” only go to reinforce the erroneous mentality that people are our enemies, and that we’re here to either “hit them and run” or stay as an occupying force. Neither is good missiology.

Instead of the role of “Strategy Coordinator” what about “Contextualizer?” Or “Cultural Translator?” These sorts of terms better describe the real work of a missionary, and they leave out the militaristic/political word, “strategy.”

“Church Planter” would be okay if we were talking about God.

“Evangelism.” For the vast majority of believers today, it seems that the word “evangelism” has come to mean “preaching a summary of the Message.” I think it’s sad that we’re not creative enough to come up with a word in our own language to describe the process by which the Good News culturally translated, shared and received. On our team, we use the term “Sharing Life” to refer to this process. We work to get involved in people’s lives, knowing that as they get to know us, they will also get to know our Savior. We live in such a way as to support everything we say about Jesus so that (hopefully) it all makes some sense to them.

“Volunteers.” Technically, this one is appropriate, since we use it to refer to people who come to work with (for) us at their own expense. I’d prefer the word “partner.” A volunteer is someone who is doing you a favor. A partner is serving out of obedience, and therefore has equal stake in the work of the ministry. The term also helps narrow the difference between the professionals and the laity.

The biggest reason to change our missions vocabulary is that it isn’t biblical. Why don’t we call our “M’s” “Disciplers?” or “Disciple-makers?” Maybe something like “Proclaimers” to describe the ongoing announcement of the kingdom. I like “Workers;” not as a substitution for “missionary,” but as a good way to describe God’s people doing what they were created for, and doing those things that cause the people around them to glorify the Lord.

A new vocabulary would help shape our general attitude toward the Commission.
I think it would also help us do a better job of communicating what we’re doing on the field, and what God is doing among the people of the world.

What “missions” words would you change? What replacements would you suggest?

Jesus, the… Liberal?

For the last few days, I’ve been reading about Jesus in the Gospels. (I got the idea from Mentanna) I’ve been thinking about how all followers of Jesus see Him through their own cultural lenses. All of them. And I’m struck by the idea that our different interpretations of Jesus can be so, well, different.

Reading just the Gospels has challenged my perspective on Jesus. If you read about Jesus without reading the rest of the Bible (not that we should…), you would likely get, well, a different Jesus. You might get a Jesus who is:

Pro-taxes (Render unto Caesar…) Matthew 22:21
Concerned about helping the needy (Especially widows and orphans) Matthew 25:40
Anti-violence/war (Turn the other cheek) Matthew 5:39
Anti-religion (Rebuked religious leaders) Mark 12:38-40
Concerned with Personal Health (Healed the sick) Mark 8:22
Against Unethical Capitalism (Money-changers in the Temple) Matthew 21:12
Remained in the Jewish tradition (His religion was Jewish, not Christian) Matthew 12:35
Made and Drank Alcohol (Cana Wedding) John 2:1-11
Grace instead of Judgement: Luke 6:36-38
Forgiveness over Justice: Luke 6:28-30
Told stories instead of preaching sermons: Matthew 13:34
Left the meaning unclear: Mark 10:4-11
Never planted a church…

This Jesus would be called a “Liberal” by some believers today.

Anyway, just an observation. I understand that we should look at all of Scripture, but I’m wonder how much of the “Christian religion” is based on the teachings of Christ.

A Package Deal

Lately I’ve been accused (and by “I,” I mean someone else entirely, but with whom I mostly agree) of wanting to “pick and choose” from contradictory “systems” of belief. The accusation sounded a little bit like this:

“Your concern for social justice is clearly “Social Gospel.”
Your anti-death penalty stance is taken from the Liberal’s political agenda.
Your references to God’s sovereignty in salvation sounds very Calvinistic.
You talk about postmodernism as though you’ve really bought into all of it.
You quote R-rated movies like someone who is well acquainted with worldly things.
Your environmental concerns put you in the company of hippies and tree-huggers…”

Ok, I’m sure you get the point, but it goes on.

“And all of the above sounds just like that Blue Like Jazz guy, so you’re one of those.”

Or, even better (worse?):

“You may not recognize it, but I’ve seen all this before. It’s just the same old liberalism dressed up in new, trendy clothes.”

Where do we get the idea that everything comes as part of a package? (Ok, so I’m pretty sure I know where we get it, I’m asking for the sake of discussion.) Why do we have to put everything in neat little categories? Even more importantly, why do we assume that belief in one aspect of a system means adherence to the whole thing?

I’m really into the idea of redemption lately. I’ve seen God take things that were clearly not God-pleasing and turn them into beautiful instruments of praise. To me, that should be our standard for picking and choosing. Environmentalism is good stewardship of creation. I that’s a redeeming quality, whether the “issue” is associated with nature-worshippers or not.

Just for fun, here are some more things I believe in. I am:

-Pro-life because I believe that life is sacred. (Not just criminally innocent lives, but all life.)
-Pro-peace, because I am pro-life, and because peace is evidence of the Spirit.
-For engagement of culture, because Jesus’ incarnation modeled that for us.
-For immigration, because the places people come from aren’t always good places for them to live.
-For church/state separation, because it might not always be “us” in charge.
-For freedom of expression, for the same reason.

Just Asking

I recently attended a conference workshop where the speaker asked a lot of questions. She was talking about postmodernism (yeah, we still have to have the “Postmodernism” talk every time we get together), and sharing from her experience with a postmodern European guy. She presented their interaction as a case study, to illustrate the challenge of cultural translation of the good news. After she told her story she, for the sake of discussion, asked her audience: “So what would you do if you were in my shoes and ministering to this postmodern European guy?”

And then it began.

Instead of taking the speaker’s question (she is an excellent communicator, by the way) as a conversation-starter, they heard her asking for advice on how to handle the situation. Never mind the fact that the speaker was asked to speak because of her wisdom and experience in ministry to postmoderns. Never mind that she had already been ministering to this individual for some time. People actually raised their hands and offered their answers to her “problem!”

“Have you tried confronting him about his sin?”
“You should give him a copy of ‘Evidence That Demands A Verdict.’”
“I’d move him to the back burner and look for someone more open to the gospel.”

I’ll admit that I was secretly comforted by the response the speaker received. I’ve often found myself in the same situation; asking questions to inspire discussion but met with words of advice from an oblivious audience. Until now, I thought it was me.

Now, please don’t hear me say that I don’t want or need the wisdom of others. I, of all of us, certainly do. But there’s something disheartening about interactive discussion being shut down by a know-it-all. More than the answers, I think it’s the attitude that ruins things. It’s the “I’ve already got these things figured out. I’ll go to the trouble of sharing the solutions with you, but I won’t venture to honestly revisit the question.” You can almost hear them saying: “Look, I gave you the answer. I solved your problem. If you spend any more time talking about it, you’re a fool.”

But what that says to people like me (as if there were more than just me) is that the know-it-alls don’t really have it figured out at all. They have a working “solution,” and either for fear, laziness, or ignorance, won’t suffer questioning it again. I never want to be that guy. But for some reason, our subculture often seems to hold “that guy” up as the leader.

I am encouraged, though. It’s been a long time since “that guy” has been invited to lead a workshop.

I say, let’s ask questions. Even the ones we answered a long time ago. Especially the ones that are scary to ask. Let’s, for the sake of discussion, re-ask questions about God and His people from the perspective of know-nothings. I think there’s a lot to be learned by asking questions. Don’t you?