Watch Your Language

You shouldn’t compare ministries. If we’re all obediently doing what God leads us to do, such comparison shouldn’t even enter our minds.

Nevertheless, we compare.

Consider the words we use when we describe the work we’re involved in. We always seem to point out the huge population of the cities we work in. We spout statistics of “lostness” and “reachedness,” to the thenth of a degree. We talk about how hard it is, how dangerous, and how little we have to work with. No running water. No internet access. No movies in English. No peanut butter.

Boy, do we have it tough. We’re really suffering for Jesus.

James 1:2 tells us to count our trials as joy.  2 Corinthians10:12 says, “Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding.”

Some might say, “We don’t mean anything by it.” But what’s the use then, in bringing these things up at all? To guilt people into supporting our work? To receive recognition for our sacrifice (See Matthew 6)? To obey is better than sacrifice, right?

Are we searching to validate our work? Relate the story of how God is orchestrating the expansion of His kingdom. Are we wanting to connect with other believers? Tell of the redemptive relationships you’ve made. Feel the need to convince people of the great spiritual need all around us? Forget about it. If the daily news and ongoing interaction with unbelieving people hasn’t convinced them, your story won’t either.

If God led you to minister to a people, that ministry is valid, important, and right. It needs no justification.  Talk about your ministry, but talk about what really matters. Refuse to compare your ministry to others.

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.

To My Missionary Colleagues

Dear Missionary (or “Believer Actively Working Toward Building the Kingdom,” for those of you who don’t like or use the word, “missionary”),

Although I like to think that my entire blog is written with you as its intended audience, I realize that my thoughts here can sometimes come across as talking about you rather than to you. With this post, I offer a word of warning, and I’d like to be clear that it is intended for you.

A broad base of spiritual, financial, and emotional support is vital to any missions endeavor. If you don’t have that support, you’re left alone, discouraged, and in potentially dangerous spiritual territory. I imagine that all of you know this, and most of you put the necessary time and energy into building and fostering such a support base.

Nevertheless, you must do more to communicate what God is doing in, through, and among you on the mission field.

In times past, most churchgoers only knew (or, at least knew of) one missionary. There simply weren’t that many people leaving home to live in intentional, incarnational ministry in a foreign context. If a Christian was thinking about missions, odds were that he was thinking about you.

But things have changed. The shrinking of the world, combined with a renewed emphasis on volunteerism and short-term service, means that many believers know many different missionaries personally.  It’s likely that you aren’t the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of international missions. Sure, you’ve faithfully sent out your prayer newsletter each month, but there are hundreds of other people/organizations with beautiful websites, custom graphics, and full-time content writers.

The truth is, there are just too many voices out there calling for the attention of the people in the pews for you to keep up with. Charities. Youth programs. Political causes. Social issues. Physical needs. The newest Bible translation and accompanying study guide.  You’re just another voice, asking for prayer, money, and a mention in the church bulletin on your birthday.

So what can you do about it? How can you possibly compete with powerful videos, gimmicky gifts, and flashy four-color brochures? Here are some ideas:

  • Be personal. I want to read about how hard it is, how you feel, and how you interact with people. If you only write about random people I don’t know, it’s hard for me to care. Tell us about your struggle to meet people, your doubt, and your loneliness. Chronicle your family’s adventures, your host culture’s traditions, and your personal interactions with God. (I know many of you are concerned about security, but this might be the motivation you need to work out your access platform.)
  • Use social media. Letters were okay when everyone communicated via letters. Now, a letter only serves to remind us that you’re not connected to “real life.” Real life for us is instant, interactive, and short.  You really need to be using using tools like Twitter, blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. If you want us to remember you and your work often, communicate often, and in ways that remind us that what you’re doing there isn’t disconnected from what we’re doing here.
  • Be creative in your communication. Post photos. Upload videos. Record a podcast. Publish a comic book. Produce a weekly online radio show. Make an iTunes music mix, print t-shirts, put together a desktop widget. Do something to insure that your relationship to the people who support you is interesting, relevant, informative, and encouraging.
  • Ask for input. If your communication with people back home is limited to sermonic Bible study notes and pictures of your kids, it’s hard to know what to say back to you. But if you ask for opinions, insight, ideas, or critiques, I’m more likely to respond and interact. If I respond and interact, I’m more likely to think about you every once in a while.
  • Speak prophetically into what’s happening Stateside. There is a broad conversation among churches and church leaders about being missional. (Missional, in case you’re not familiar with the term, refers to an intentional Christian lifestyle that incarnates the gospel into one’s cultural context. It’s the opposite of “attractional” ministry and “forays into the world” mission trips.) Of all the voices in the missional conversation, few (if any) belong to missionaries. If you’re not participating in the conversation, you’re missing a huge opportunity to speak into a massive and influential Christian movement. And the movement desperately needs the influence of those who are planting churches cross-culturally.

Also, the church needs to learn missiology. Where do they learn about missions? From you. But if you’re neglecting your duty as a teacher and advocate, they’re left with Joel Osteen, Mark Driscoll, and Al Mohler (none of whom are/were/think like missionaries.) In order to participate in what God is doing around the world, they need to hear what you’ve experienced.

Please, consider your strategy for communication with your supporting churches. You need them, they need you, and we’re all missing out on what God is doing when we aren’t unified. It doesn’t take a lot, but you have access to the tools that can connect you in real ways to the body of believers that sends you.

Thanks for reading. Please send me links to your streams of communication. I’d love to follow you!

What Works vs. What’s Best

I’m convinced that ministry these days is far too pragmatic. Missionaries desperate to see tangible results busy themselves searching for “what works.” Missions strategies and approaches to ministry are almost always based on whether or not they seem likely to produce results.

On a pretty regular basis, I receive advice from colleagues and supporters on how we should proceed in ministry. They usually begin with “I think I have an idea that would work in your context…” They’re probably right. I’m sure that there are many things that would “work” here. But I’m not only looking for what works.

I’m looking for God’s guidance. If something I do results in bad fruit, it’s obviously not of God. But in order for me to participate in  the production of fruit (fruit that will last), I must be obedient. Sometimes obedience makes for some effective ministry. Sometimes, the fruit is not so obvious, and the allure of measurable results is a temptation away from doing what God leads us to do.

So when I read about believers who justify all sorts of nonsense by saying, “Hey, it works.” I get frustrated. When missionaries develop their strategies based on what might “reach more people,” they have gotten ahead of God.

Rarely does God do what would, by our standards, be the most efficient, effective, or wise. Seriously. Look at the scriptures. Rather than writing them out himself and giving humans magic decoder sunglasses, He chose to use regular people.  Time and again, He limited Himself, He held His tongue, He left things vague. Jesus let people believe He was a fake when He could easily have proved His might. If God never values “effectiveness” or “efficiency”, why do we?

Talking About God

Talking about Jesus can be a strange thing to do. Sometimes, when speaking to an unbelieving friend, I make passing mention of Him just to gauge their reaction. A knowing nod makes me feel at ease; I’m put on guard when I note a disapproving purse of the lips.

I try never to assume that people know Him like I know Him. But that means talking about Him as though I were trying to set someone up on a blind date with Him. “I know a guy who’d be perfect for you!”

My tendency these days is to use a certain level of informality when I talk to God. I don’t mean any disrespect, sometimes I just want to remind myself that He’s a real person. I pray with my eyes open. I’m not afraid to sprinkle in questions, suggestions, or frustrations. But I always wonder if doing that in public might be taken the wrong way. I’m also learning to deal with my own baggage when it comes to talking about Him. I try not to use clichés (“the Man Upstairs”) or foreign languages (Jahovah Jireh), and I’m careful to explain what I mean when I say whatever it is I say.

There’s a strange pressure when the people around you learn about God through your relationship with Him. I want to differentiate my God from all the other ones out there. He’s not impersonal. He doesn’t care about the stuff that most people think He cares about.  How do you introduce people to someone they think they’ve met (and are sure they don’t care for)?

Learning the Rules

Nearly anyone can live abroad. But incarnation is about more than just location. Successfully entering a culture that is different from yours requires that you learn the rules. If you’re trying to influence across cultures, the rules are crucial.

Society is made up of rules. There are rules for how a person should act in a given situation. There are rules for personal interaction, managing your money, and the volume of your conversation in public. There are rules about when it’s appropriate to make noise in your apartment building. There are rules for seating on the bus. What you wear, where you walk, how you order your coffee; there’s a rule for everything.

There are always consequences for breaking the rules. At best, being a rule-breaker will get you labeled (foreigner, rude, ignorant, proud). At worst, failure to follow the rules will get you removed from the community altogether. (Okay, so maybe that’s not the worst thing that could possibly happen, but you get my meaning here.) This is why many missionaries are marginalized, ignored, or “persecuted.” It’s not their message; nobody’s hearing that. They don’t have a voice because they’re trying to apply the rules of a culture two thousand miles away (or two thousand years ago) to their host culture.

Learning the rules can be very difficult, because they aren’t posted anywhere for you. No, you have to do your homework if you want access. The shortcut of mimicry will surely have you breaking all of the rules. You can’t deduct the rules by observing how insiders live. Often, their behavior seems to contradict their rules. There’s probably a rule about that. The rules are not the same for everybody. Even if you’re language-capable enough to ask, no one would be able to tell you all the rules because those who operate inside the culture assume that everyone shares their perspective on things. They don’t know that the rules where you come from are different from theirs. But you do. That’s the first thing you learn on the mission field.

Lifesavers and Letter Writing

LifesaversI hate when people give advice about evangelism. “What you need to do,” they start, “is buy a five-pound bag of individually-wrapped Lifesavers candy. Then, print about five hundred business cards with the plan of salvation on the back. Staple a lifesaver to each of the business cards, and ask people if they’d like a lifesaver. When they say yes, (because, I mean, everybody likes Lifesavers, right?) then you tell them that you’d like to give them a REAL lifesaver. Then you tell them about Jesus Christ.”

Okay, so that story isn’t mine. But a friend actually had a well-intentioned church member share this bit of evangelistic wisdom with him. It “works” for this guy, surely it would be equally effective in any setting. People can’t resist a “hook” like that. If they had Lifesavers in Jesus’ time, He would have used them, too.

Did I mention that I hate when people give evangelism advice?

So here’s my advice. If you’re a fairly healthy, socially adept individual, please move on; this advice isn’t for you. But if you were raised in church, you’re likely as socially awkward as I am. You might need this.

Sometimes, the hardest part about talking to someone about Jesus is bringing it up. Since we were raised in a sheltered subculture that didn’t help us make connections between our faith and “real life,” we often have trouble expressing ourselves on spiritual matters without resorting to clichés and religious words that don’t really mean anything to anyone outside our circles. To make matters worse, we’ve been trained to talk to strangers about Jesus. That’s easy. We’ve been convinced that the people around us will surely ridicule us for our beliefs, so we’re prepared to take that sort of rejection. Someone calls you a freak when you share your faith? Good for you, you’re suffering for the cause of Christ. But our friends? That’s much more difficult. There’s nothing worse then the “persecution” of being snubbed by your best friend the next time you run into them at Starbucks.

Why not write a letter? Not a letter outlining the four spiritual laws. Not sharing your faith. Write a personal letter telling your friend that you’d like to get together to talk with them about your spirituality. Tell them why you find it uncomfortable. Express your intentions- not to convert them but to share your experience. Tell them that you fear their rejection. Explain your frustration with your own inability to talk about these things without using church words. Tell them that you feel stupid for not being about to talk to your best friend about something that is so important to you. Tell them you’re sorry for being socially inept. Make an appointment with them for a time to talk about Jesus.

I’ve found that talking about Jesus isn’t nearly as weird for our friends as it is for us. They’re not emotionally hung up about it. They can talk about it like any other topic. We’re the ones who make it strange. In fact, I suspect that if you write a letter like this, your friend would respond. They would probably bring it up. They may even hold you accountable and not let you wimp out. If they know it’s important to you, they’ll likely come prepared to talk about it.

But don’t do the Lifesavers-stapled-to-a-tract trick. That’s ridiculous.

In response to Dr. Malcom Yarnell’s Shall We “Build Bridges” or “Pull Down Strongholds”?

After reading Dr. Malcolm Yarnell’s paper entitled, Shall We “Build Bridges” or “Pull Down Strongholds”? I was inspired to respond. I don’t usually do this sort of thing, but here’s an excerpt:

I, however, believe that the gap between the mainstream culture and the “Christian” subculture many Americans find themselves in should be filled. This should not and cannot be accomplished by efforts to “make the church relevant,” but by ceasing the active propagation of the myth of Christian culture. In other words, if our churches valued indigenous interpretation of scriptural truth, we would see expressions of Christianity that reflect (and therefore affect) the cultures in which we find ourselves. Churches would be “relevant” (I prefer “contextually appropriate”) if we stopped making people look like us in order to follow Jesus. But because many of us fail to see the cultural influences on our own Christianity. If we think that ours is a pure Christianity, unaffected by the world and its cultures, it makes sense that we would be wary of missional contextualization.

Please read the entirety of my way-too-long response, entitled:

In Response to Dr. Malcolm Yarnell’s Shall We “Build Bridges” or “Pull Down Strongholds”? A practitioner’s decidedly unacademic answer to an esteemed theology professor’s uninformed opinion.

The Sabido Method

Mexican TelenovelaHave you ever watched one of those insanely melodramatic Mexican soap operas? You know, the ones with beautiful women, beautiful men, and lots of crying and screaming and face-slapping? You may not know this, but those telenovelas have great influence. Believe it or not, they are intentionally filled with subtle, even subversive messages.

In the 1970s, Miguel Sabido, a market researcher for a Mexican television studio, developed a way to influence audiences through storytelling. He started by writing a diversity of characters into the story lines of the popular serialized shows. He branched out from the “good guy/bad guy” architypes and introduced flawed (yet beautiful) protagonists that viewers could relate to. Every story, no matter what the plot, was a tale of change. The good characters would struggle with their secret badness; the bad guys would occasionally surprise everyone by doing something good. All of this, of course, had been done before (and, to be sure, better.)

Sabido’s goal was to influence viewers in positive ways. He did so by having the characters in his soaps deal with serious real-life issues. He tackled racism. Sex. Abortion. Death. As his characters changed and grew through these challenges, his viewers changed and grew as well.

Through storytelling, Sabido engaged millions of people with his agenda. He got them talking about family planning, sexual health, and other social issues. Many people credit his efforts for the plateaued population growth in Mexico. In a way, it was propaganda; weaving social and political messages into popular media programming. In communication theory, it’s called the “Sabido Method.” No matter what you call it, stories are powerful influencers.

Silver SpoonsYou might be more familiar with the Sabido Method than you think. Remember when your favorite sitcoms in the 1980s and 90s would air “Very Special Episodes?” Like when Blair from The Facts of Life was nearly raped, or when Kimberly Drummond from Diff’rent Strokes suffered from bulimia? The characters of Alex P. Keaton, Ricky Stratton, Punky Brewster, and Mike Seaver were all used to shape our social behavior and attitudes concerning everything from suicide to racism.

In life’s soap opera, God’s story, we are the characters. He uses the story arcs of our lives to incite, inform, engage, and influence. Being missional is publicly living our story instead of insisting on skipping to the moral at the end.

Getting Lost In The Story

Why do millions of people around the world tune in every week (many are even willing to pay for it) to watch a convoluted, (half-baked?), confusing serialized television show about plane crash victims stranded on a mysterious island?

The story.

Questions. Unexpected twists. Attention to detail. Artistic nuance. Mythologies. Love. Danger. The unknown. Intentional lack of resolution. Good and evil. The Supernatural. It draws people in and it hold their attention. It evokes a response and inspires creativity. Communities are built around it.

Contrast that with most presentations of the gospel “story.” A neatly packaged presentation that is clear, concise, and full of answers. A “subjective” third-hand account where the allegorical dots are connected by lines of propositional truth. It does little to intrigue and works to leave nothing unexplained. Our story sounds tired, contrived, and commercial.

We have a lot to learn about being storytellers.