YWAM Calling

Welcome to the Communications, Misunderstood tour, where I offer unsolicited advice on the communications strategies of different missionary initiatives.  I’d like to start  with an organization with an unquestionable track record of missions sending.

This year, Youth With A Mission celebrates 50 years of sending young, mostly untrained, volunteer missionaries around the world. These guys have the reputation of being radical– while other groups are making plans and raising money, YWAMers (as they like to be called) will be among the first to move into an area and make the most of every opportunity.

Why start with YWAM? Because they have put a lot of work into establishing channels of communication. There are lots of groups with bad websites and no plan. But communication is much more than having a cool website (they do) or using Twitter (nearly every day). YWAM is the sort of organization that doesn’t have to dream up stories to tell– they’re out there making new ones every day.

While YWAM is certainly getting the job done on the field, their survival as an organization depends on their ability to communicate with their supporters, recruit new volunteers, and raise awareness of the tremendous need for what they do. This is a big job, because YWAM does just about everything a missions agency can do, from Mercy Ships medical ministries to discipleship training courses to sports ministries.

Entry into closed-access countries they can do. Building a fiercely loyal family of unstoppable volunteer missionaries, no problem. YWAM’s biggest challenge is how to communicate with supporters and potential missionaries all that they’re seeing God do among the peoples of the world.

Before we evaluate YWAM’s approach to communications, I want to point out the value of its people. As an organization of 16,000, YWAM doesn’t just have a single voice, it has thousands. Add in alumni, supporters, and lives touched, and they have the potential to saturate the media with stories of God’s global activity. The potential is tremendous.

In my next post, we’ll take a look at YWAM’s website, ywam.org.

Communication, Misunderstood

A big part of my work with the Upstream Collective is in the area of communication strategy. I strongly believe that how we communicate determines what we communicate. (Some might call this marketing, but for my audience, that wouldn’t be good, um, marketing.) We live in noisy times. Everywhere we go, someone is trying to get our attention and influence our behavior. What makes one voice stand out from the rest? Good communication is the difference between a successful ministry or nonprofit and a failure.

This blog is a communications strategy. The voice, the persona, and the topics have all been selected as a means to communicate a certain message to a certain audience. (To what degree this has been successful is open for debate.) Nevertheless, have come to appreciate the art and skill of communication.

There are three types of communication: good, bad, and non-existent. Each can be effective in sending a message, but more often than not, organizations don’t choose the best type for their needs. A hokey website is bad communication, but most nonprofits think they don’t have the time or resources for something better. There’s really no excuse for a ministry to have no web presence whatsoever, but you’d be surprised how many find themselves in just that situation.

Unfortunately, the organizations that excel in communications tend to do so at the expense of their actual work.  The groups that are really getting something done on the ground are usually extremely focused on getting the job done. Promoting that work to partners and supporters tends to be neglected because most organizations just don’t have the time/money/know-how to communicate well. This is why missionaries still use old-school prayer cards and monthly newsletters, and why so few of them have great blogs or hold regular Skype conferences. It’s also why most of the attention goes to the nonprofits with the coolest websites (even if you can’t tell what it is, exactly, that they do).

At times, I’ve written to missionaries about the importance of communication. At conferences, I’ve explained the importance of social networking and taught workshops on setting up blogs and using Facebook and Twitter. Lately, I’ve done quite a bit of consulting with various nonprofits, ministries, and businesses on how they might develop more appropriate and effective means of communication. Some just don’t see the point. Others really have a desire to be better communicators, but they’re intimidated by the technology. Most are just too caught up their work to follow through.

Poor communication, not the economy and not apathy, is why ministries are struggling with isolation and lack of support.

So I’m starting a new series. In following posts, I’ll feature organizations that I consider to be peers in ministry and offer my completely unsolicited (and possibly unwelcome) advice regarding their communication strategies. I’ll provide some constructive feedback where necessary, and suggest possible solutions that each group is free to use if they so choose. My goal is not to embarrass or criticize, but to encourage and help. Please stay tuned for the first installment of the Communication, Misunderstood Tour.

Access Isn’t Everything

This is my 8th post in a series on developing a new missiology.

Previously: A Global Wave

Many have taken to using “access” to the gospel as the criteria for missionary engagement. From their perspective, people groups who do not have access to the scriptures, need more of our attention and resources than those who do.

Starting with concerns about “access” is assuming too much.

In Acts 8, Philip is led by the Holy Spirit to cross paths with an Ethiopian official. As Philip joins the official’s cavalcade, he sees that the Ethiopian man is reading the scriptures from the book of Isaiah. Philip, likely looking for a way to start what I assume might have been an awkward conversation, asks whether he understands what he’s reading. “How can I,” responds the Ethiopian, “unless someone explains it to me?”

Here is an example of a man (from an unreached people group!) who had access to the scriptures. Granted, he didn’t have Paul’s (yet-to-be-written) letters before him, but here was an Ethiopian man with reading an explicitly Messianic passage from the book of Isaiah in a language he could understand. Yet he did not understand.

The Ethiopian needed someone to explain it to him. So the Lord’s messenger sent Philip. Just as Romans 10 asks (somewhat rhetorically), “How can they call on one in whom they do not believe? How can they believe in one of whom they have not heard?” Connection to Jesus requires more than just information about Him.

What seems like “access” to you and me– scriptures in the heart language, tracts, churches, the presence of witnesses– might not, in fact, be indicators of access at all. The information is only part of the equation; the personal communication of the gospel is what makes it all make sense. Without an incarnational presence, it is entirely possible for someone to have heard an explicit “gospel presentation” and yet still have no access to the good news at all.

Anecdotal evidence of this abounds. Missionaries discover a previously-unknown tribe in a dark corner of the world. They are met by a tribal leader who has read the Bible and has been praying that God would bring someone to explain it to them. Muslims in a village in a closed access country devote themselves to prayer and fasting during Ramadan. During this time, the men of the village all have the same dream: Jesus appears to them and tells them to follow Him. They send for a Christian to come explain it to them. Of course, these stories cannot be proven to have happened. Otaku in Tokyo who have developed their own language, culture, and worldview, but have never heard the gospel despite spending most of their lives online.

And my favorite story: Missionaries stumble upon some people in a city that claim to be believers. The missionaries ask about their salvation- when it took place and how. The people aren’t exactly sure about all of that. So the missionaries explain the gospel to them, and twelve men believe and are baptized. Of course, this story is from Acts 19:1-7, and it shows us that when it comes to mission, access isn’t everything.

Following the Holy Spirit is.


This is post #4 in a series on developing a new missiology.

In my last post, I summarized the origins of the current popular understanding of missions. People group thinking, as I call it, hasn’t been all bad. But neither has it been all good. This, I suspect, is due in large part to the fact that is isn’t entirely biblical.

For starters, the concept of “people groups” is easily read into scripture, but may not be explicitly found there. Sure, one can make a case that when Jesus told His disciples to go to “all nations,” He really meant “all ethno-linguistic people groups.” But did Luke mean the same when he wrote about Pentecost in Acts 2:5, saying that there were “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” present? Surely not.

When Paul and Barnabas were sent out by their church, (First Baptist, Antioch, naturally) Acts 13 says that they were sent by the Holy Spirit “for the special work” to which He had called them. There was no mention of people groups or um, reaching anyone. Their strategy was to follow the Spirit’s leadership. As they were led, they proclaimed the good news. Even after they shifted their focus from Jews to gentiles (again, per the Spirit’s direction), their strategy never resembled the “adopt an unreached people group” approach so common today.

My point is that “all nations” is not necessarily a firm foundation on which to base our missiology. Other than Greeks and Jews, there is little evidence that Paul and the other apostles used the concept to organize their missionary endeavors. Furthermore, if people group thinking is based on a “new” understanding of the ancient Greek, (and far be it from me to disagree with John Piper… but), it’s one that ignores the reality of a dynamic, changing social structures. The reality is that people groups die out, merge, and emerge all the time. More and more, formerly “reached” groups are falling back into the “unreached” category. Unfortunately, people group thinking doesn’t have room for anything but a static world.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that people groups are a great way for us to organize our missionary efforts. I agree that different peoples need different kids of ministry and communication. The concept certainly isn’t anti-biblical, but it isn’t explicitly biblical. We put people groups into categories of “reached” and “unreached”– categories not found in scripture. Furthermore, the professionalization of missions has led to the development of complex taxonomies that measure “reachedess,” “receptivity,” and “degrees of evangelization.” Jesus concluded the Commission with the promise to be with us always, but we really don’t need Him because we’ve got it all figured out.

So the missions community is busy trying to convince people that no, God isn’t calling them to South America or to Western Europe, and are they sure God didn’t mean Indonesia? We talk about “engaging” people groups as though they were squares on a chess board just waiting to be occupied by the missionaries we move about like pawns. We allocate resources to the “hard places” because we expect God to work there, nevermind where He may, actually be leading us to go.

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of people group missiology is that it replaces the Great Commission mandate to “make disciples” of the nations with “reaching” them. This subtle difference has has widespread ramifications. Now, we talk about missions as though the goal was to “reach” people or to “finish” the Great Commission. The mission is not to “reach unreached people groups,” it’s to “make disciples of all nations.”

The truth is that our responsibility to go does not end. Not when the last people group is “reached.” Not when every city has “enough” believers to take responsibility for their own. Not when everyone has had a “chance” to hear. No, our calling is to nothing less that ongoing, radical obedience to the Holy Spirit. Thankfully, it’s not our job to determine what course of action will bring God “the most glory.” God has lets us know what He want from us, and it’s not measurable, finishable, or easily managed. He wants us to obey Him. When His leadership contradicts our strategies, I say we should go with God.

To be clear– I appreciate the work of the missiologists and practitioners who have gone before. I don’t in any way claim to know more than they. But the Unreached People Group philosophy held by groups like the Joshua Project and others isn’t the only way to understand missions. In fact, I think there is a better and more biblical way.

NEXT: If not Unreached People Groups, then how should we go about doing missions? What is the mission, and how might we organize ourselves for obedience? My solution? Callsourcing.

Unreached (Again) People Groups

Is New England the new “American missional frontier?” Vermont pastor Jared Wilson thinks so. He writes about it in a recent post on the Resurgence. Wilson points to statistics showing that the Northeastern U.S. is the least churched region in the country, and that existing churches are not thriving. “New Englanders have little desire for anything to do with Christianity or church,” he writes. “Even those who have it have little opportunity to explore it.”

I agree with Jared. And my friend David Phillips. We need to focus more attention and resources on church planting efforts in New England. For too long, the Northeast has been neglected.

I’m fascinated by how familiar Jared’s post sounds, so similar to posts I wrote here while I was in Western Europe. More and more, there are places like Europe and New England that have returned from Christian influence to the status of “unreached.” This isn’t a case of “my people group is loster than yours,” it’s a heartfelt call to action by someone who God has called to service.

To be sure, chasing the least-reached regions of the United States is like trying to put out flareups after a wildfire. The west coast, the southwest, the east- each are defined by their sins ans spiritual strongholds. Vegas rife with debauchery. Seattle stricken with irresponsibility. San Francisco overrun with homosexuality. Boston filled with post-Catholic angst. The Bible Belt rife with cultural Christianity and political moralism. All of these places need the freedom that is only found in Christ.

What we’re seeing is the rise of a new category of missions. Some missionaries focus on unreached people groups. But God is raising up faithful people who recognize that “reached” isn’t a permanent status. Just as the gospel comes to a people through the obedience of some, it can soon be forgotten through the disobedience of others.

Surely some would say, “New England! The birthplace of the Great Awakening? They’ve had their chance!” To them I would ask, is our task to give everyone a chance to hear, or to proclaim the gospel where it is not proclaimed and cross cultures as we’re led by the Spirit? In the present age, unreached people groups are constantly emerging.

Love Your Filthy, Disgusting, Sinful City

I meet lots of pastors, church planters, and Christian leaders in my travels. Usually, “Where are you from?” comes only after, “What’s your name?” If you’re planting a church in inner-city Pittsburgh or rural Oklahoma, I’m going to assume that it’s because you feel called to that location. I’m not here to judge, but what other reason could you possibly have to live in Needles (which probably shouldn’t count as “California”) or Kentucky (which probably shouldn’t count as the “United States”)?

How you talk about your city says a lot about how you see it (and how you see yourself in relation to it).

“We have the largest homosexual population after San Francisco.”

“Most violent city in America.”

“Worst traffic in the country.”

“Most unchurched.” “Least evangelized.”

“Highest percentage of (_insert sin/vice/malady here_).”

If God called you to live in and love your city, why can’t you tell me anything good about it? Why not tell me about how creative the people are? Or how active? I’d like to hear about how friendly people in your town can be, or generous, or hospitable. I’d know you loved your city if you lead by bragging about its commitment to literacy, its efforts toward public health, or its fascination with high school sports. Tell me about the great food, the well-kept parks, or the quaint downtown. You say you love your city. Don’t you want me to love your city too?

My perception of many cities was colored by your description long before I even visited them. Houston and Amarillo smell bad. L.A. has gangs and traffic. Everybody in Tennessee is a narrow-minded bigot. Detroit is falling apart. Seattle is lazy (I just made that one up), and the gays are taking over Minneapolis. You don’t get extra points for living in a place you hate. The value of your presence isn’t determined by the lostness of your city.

Your focus on the negatives says a lot about how you engage the people of your city. Are you for them, or against them? Do you see them as guilty sinners (they are), or as powerless slaves? (They are.) Do you see the creative spark that God put in every human being? Do you see value in their existence? If you do, I can’t tell, because all you’ve talked about are the challenges and obstacles.

How do you talk to the other people who live in your city about your city? Say you’re watching your kids at the playground, talking to some of the other parents. Do you sound like someone who wants to be there? In line at the bank, do you come across as someone who loves your city, or someone who’s afraid of it?

Next time we talk, I’m going to ask you about your city. If you don’t have anything good to say, I’ll encourage you to move.

The Very Worst Missionary, The Very Best Blog

I’ve often written about the importance of good communication from the mission field. You’d be surprised, though, how many missionaries I meet that don’t even know what a blog is. Many of those who do have blogs are forced, fake and over-spiritualized. I won’t name any names here, but I could.

Let me point you to Steve and Jamie Wright, or, as they’re known in the blogosphere, El Chupacabra and The Very Worst Missionary. Theirs are perhaps the best examples of missionary blog anywhere. Really. They write regularly about their daily lives in Costa Rica, turning the mundane into witty, fun-to-read insight into the lives of the missionary. They use healthy doses of unsettling candor, biting sarcasm, earnest confession, and self-deprecating humor that make readers feel as though we’re right there with them, caring for kids in poverty, struggling with Spanish, and not flushing toilet paper down the toilet.

If more missionaries wrote like this, we’d have more and better missionaries on the field. Seriously. Everyone would have a more realistic understanding of what a missionary is and what life on the field looks like on a daily basis. The horror stories would weed out the tourists. The full disclosure would demystify the role while making it attractive to accessible, creative, brave, and interesting people.

The best thing is about the Wrights is that they’re interesting. These are blogs you want to read. People you want to know. They point you to Jesus and make you want to be in community with believers like them.

Steve and Jamie, thank you for writing. Thanks for opening a window into your lives, and for being obedient to what God has told you to do.

Be sure to bookmark/RSS both blogs. Also, you can follow Steve and Jamie on Twitter.

Bible Stories

Growing up in church, kids always got special treatment. At my church, for example, there was some unwritten rule giving all adults in church “special” permission to “discipline” us as though we were their own kids. Doyle Braden was an arm-grabber, as I recall. Mr. Lettow would flick the backs of our heads. Sean’s dad pinched ears. Hard.

I digress.

Church kids didn’t have to listen to sermons. We were allowed to draw on the backs of bulletins and take naps. The sermon was for “grownups.” The kids, well, we were told “Bible stories.”

I remember my Sunday School teacher pulling out the flannelgraph and using felt-cutouts of camels, caves, and men with beards retell (okay- summarize) the stories of the Bible. Noah and the Ark. The Fiery Furnace. The Good Samaritan. Great stories, all told in kid-friendly ways. You know, like on Sesame Street.

And that was the problem. Our little kid brains had a hard time telling the difference between Bible stories (which, I presume our teachers believed to have really happened or, in the case of the Samaritan, to have really been told by Jesus) and every other story we had been told. After all, David and Goliath had a giant, but so did Jack and the Beanstalk. Jesus was resurrected by the power of God, Sleeping Beauty was revivified by the Kiss of a Prince. To us, it was all kind of the same.

To make matters worse, our teachers often oversimplified the stories, diluting them into moralistic tales that they were never meant to be. Adam and Eve, Jacob and Esau, and Achan, taught us that is was bad to tell a lie. David and Jonathan showed us that sharing made us a good friend. Jonah was a lesson in obedience. Sunday morning Bible stories were like lo-tech Saturday morning cartoons. Only boring.

Looking back, I recognize that each “story” was an opportunity to share the gospel; to demonstrate our need for a savior and to recognize God’s provision in Christ. But instead, we learned that sharing and using good manners made Jesus happy. As we grew up, those stories were left behind for more practical topical Bible studies and the abstract “meat” of Pauline theology.

Of course, we eventually learned that The Three Little Pigs, The Seven Dwarfs, and all the other protagonists in our childhood stories weren’t real. How were we to know that their Bible story counterparts were?

I suppose what I’m getting at is that we need to be careful how we communicate things. The Bible isn’t God’s Cautionary Tales. Sure, there are lots of examples in the history of the Creator’s interaction with creation, but there’s more to it than that. Everything recorded in the text points to humanity’s relationship to God, made right only through the life, death, and real resurrection of Jesus. The way we talk about that history will affect how it is understood by those we tell.

A Way and The Way

Oftentimes, our modern need to be right can lead us to put the gospel in the box of our apologetic. The problem with doing this is that we can miss the implications of the gospel. We ignore what it can mean for what we’re sure it must mean.

A good example of this is our use of John 14:6 to underscore the exclusivity of Jesus as savior. He claims to be the way, the truth, and the life; we tend to add emphasis to the the. We want everyone to know that Jesus is the only way, the only truth, and the only life.

The problem is that in our efforts to underscore this universal truth (and it is, no doubt, universally true), we loose some of the “good news” found within. The good news isn’t that Jesus is the only way, but that there is a way at all. That in God’s grace and beautiful plan, He provided a way for us to see and to know Him. For those who have tried to reach God through the many “ways” that the world offers, to anyone who has no hope that such a way even exists, this is truly good news!

That Jesus is the only way, that’s actually the “bad news” side of the gospel. It’s the truth that our idols don’t, won’t, and can’t save us. It’s the offensive, stumbling block that make many rich young rulers turn and go away sad.

My question is this: Are we so focused on communicating the exclusivity of Jesus that we fail to communicate the amazing truth that there is a Way at all? Yes, Jesus is the only way; but by starting the conversation with this, are we insuring that people don’t hear that He is A way to God?

Are we so afraid of syncretism (people trying to fit Jesus into their own pagan frameworks) that we err on the side of sabotaging the effective communication of the gospel?

Beware False Friends

No, I’m not referring to that guy you’ve known since Jr. High that only calls when he needs something (though, come to think of it, watch that guy). “False Friend” is a philological term that refers to a word in the language being learned that sounds similar to a word in the student’s own language. A word that sounds familiar doesn’t always carry the same meaning as its homophone (er, soundalike).

For example, the English word, carpet sounds similar to the Spanish word, carpeta (file folder), but the words do not have the same meaning.

The word bad, in German, means bath or spa. (And, incidentally, in 1980s America actually means good.)

The French love when Americans use the word journée when they mean voyage, but then French are known for their sense of humor when it comes to language.

Of course, the concept doesn’t only apply to language. When people of one culture see something that seems familiar in another culture, it’s easy for them to assume they know what’s being done and why. Two people shouting in each others’ faces on the street corner? In Italy that’s long-lost friends happy to see one another. Men walking down the street arm in arm? Not necessarily homosexuals. Ear-to-ear grin? In Asia, it could mean someone’s embarrassed.

Outside your home culture, people don’t see Jesus in you because you don’t smoke, drink, or use foul language. Idol worship doesn’t always involve statues and incense. Animism doesn’t always express itself in grass skirts dancing around a fire.  It turns out that paganism can look a lot like Christianity (and vice versa). Evil doesn’t always wear black.

In order to incarnate the gospel in a culture, you’ve got to do your homework. Cultural exegesis and immersion are key to understanding the bridges and barriers to the gospel. To the question “What must I do to be saved?” Jesus gave various answers.

In post-Christian America, all mission is cross cultural. The culture of your city is not yours. Beware of False Friends; your assumptions will ruin your potential to communicate the gospel in a way that actually communicates the good news. Online relationships may not be “real” relationships where you come from, but they’re the most influential for millions of people around the world. Don’t let the rhetoric of the narrative offend you into isolation. When fighting to define words, concepts, or institutions, choose your battles carefully lest you start to see the people you’re supposed to love as your enemy. Start every conversation with a question.