Prophecy by (Credible) Proxy

A key part of our ministry is building relationships with the people God brings to us. God has often used us in ways similar to His use of Joseph in the Old Testament. Not so much in the “Pharaoh-naming-us-Vice-Pharaoh” sort of way; more in the sense of “I had a dream, what do you suppose it means?”

Our friends often confide in us concerning their struggles, fears, and dreams. This confidence gives us the opportunity to speak into their lives from (what we hope is) God’s perspective. Like Joseph, we try to give God the credit for any insight we might have to share.

One thing that strikes me about Joseph’s story, and about ours here in Western Europe, is that God doesn’t always communicate by speaking truth to His people and sending them to tell other people that truth. Sure, that is a common occurrence throughout history (God told Moses to tell another Pharaoh…, God told Jonah to tell the people of Nineveh, all the prophets, etc.) But here, God reveals truth to Pharaoh, who in turn seeks out God’s man for some help in interpreting that truth.

Joseph had built a reputation (at least in the cupbearer and baker communities) as someone who could interpret dreams. God used that to put him in a position to speak to Pharaoh. Many of the conversations we’re having now are not resulting in individual salvations or churches being planted. Instead, they are being used to build our reputation as God’s people in this culture.

“You want to know who has some insight into that sort of thing?” I imagine them saying behind our backs, “you need to talk to those believers.”

God is revealing truth to them. Within the culture there is a great conversation about these truths- life, death, guilt, love, peace, justice. These are deeply spiritual issues that aren’t being forced on them by outsiders. Unfortunately, like Pharaoh, the people of Western Europe do not recognize that the truths they struggle with have been revealed to them by the Most High God, the Author of all truth. That’s where we see God using us; people are asking us for our opinions about life-changing truths.

Research and immersion put us in a position to recognize and call attention to truths in the culture. Relationships put us in a position to participate in the conversation. I like to think of it as “Prophecy by Proxy.”

Takes One To Know One

As I talk with other Christians about life and society and current events, it strikes me how suspicious we are of everyone. The atheists have taken over the public school system. The homosexuals want to turn all boys gay. The Mexicans are invading. The Muslims want to outlaw Christianity. Universal health care is communism. Don’t watch The Golden Compass. The Mormons own Coca-Cola.

We’re certain everyone is out to get us. Everyone surely has an ulterior motive and a hidden agenda. 
Of course I’m aware of the scriptural warning about the dangerous activity of our spiritual enemy. I know that we aren’t safe. We have good reason to be watchful, wary, and wise.
But I’m also wondering if our paranoia might be due, at least in part, to that fact that we aren’t always the most up-front about our agenda. Maybe we distrust the people and organizations around us because we have a long history of misleading people about who we are and what we really want from them. 
We’re not just knocking on your door to say thanks for visiting our church; we want you to pray a prayer of salvation. You’re invited to our fellowship, but we’ve carefully planned it as an entry point for you to join our church. We ‘re only giving out coats and blankets as bait to get you to sit through a sermon.  
Why is it okay for us to do it but scary when others do? Does it make a difference just because we’re right?
I wonder what would happen if we were totally up front and honest about our agenda. What about giving up our agenda altogether?
 I suspect it might lead us to abandon many of our methods, approaches, and techniques. 

It’s Really Quite Difficult

Sometimes when I talk to people about missional/relational ministry and church planting (you know, as opposed to program-oriented, attractional, subculture growth), and what my work here in Western Europe looks like, they are left with the question:

“So you get paid to hang out with people and drink coffee?”

“Yes,” I reply. “Actually, I do.”

But you’ve got to know that spending time with nationals is really quite difficult. First there’s the fact that the language they are speaking is not the language you grew up speaking, but instead something you decided to try to learn well into adulthood. Understanding requires effort. For me that usually means physical fatigue, which isn’t so conducive to cross-cultural communication in a smoke-filled bar at two o’clock in the morning.

And then there’s the awkward question of what to talk about. Movies? Sports? The weather? It’s hard to find commonalities across cultures. You could go the easy route and bring up politics, but that doesn’t always end well, as you might imagine. I usually end up going through my well-rehearsed routine of lame jokes and feigned interest in European Football.

So then I’m left with questions. For some reason, the inevitable lull in a conversation always freaks me out so that I turn into Larry King with the badly planned Q&A. I panic, and my mind can’t think of any questions that require more than a yes or no answer. I repeat the same question but reworded to prove that I didn’t understand the answer the first three times. My life is one of those awkward scenes from any of Ben Stiller’s movies.

But I’ve been through training. I should know better. My default should be to take an active listening posture and to delicately repeat the last three words of any of my friend’s comments and nod knowingly but so as to avoid the appearance of agreement. I want to show that I’m interested while remaining ambiguous about what he’s actually saying so as not to agree with something I disagree with. My face is trained to show utter fascination with whatever my friend is saying. I’d never want to let on that a boring person is, might be, you know, boring.

So sure, maybe I have the dream job- “throwing parties and telling stories.” But it’s really quite difficult, as you can see. Now, If I could only figure out what to do on vacation…

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.

Encore

In my last post, Welcome to the Big Show, I tried to stress the importance of making ministry as personal as possible by keeping events small and culturally appropriate. Still, there is something I’d like to add:

I’m not against big events because they don’t “work.” Many people have come to faith in Christ through crusades and circus-tent revivals. Pizza parties and sports camps and choir performances have all been used in evangelistic endeavors. But I wonder how often we think about what affect the medium might have on the message.

I’ve posted about this before, but is there a difference between sharing one’s faith through a gospel music concert and sharing it over dinner in someone’s home? Might the message be inadvertently changed by the means of presentation? Maybe it depends on the cultural context. If the message is preached with a bad accent, or with an aggressive tone, or using some cheap gimmick, is it the same message?

I believe that God is sovereign. He also gives us the responsibility of instructing others in the Truth. What if a generation of believers came to faith through Peer-pressure summer camps, “Judgement House” Halloween parties, and “Thanks you, I see that hand” invitations? Would we have any reason to be concerned about their understanding of the gospel?

Language Exchange

In my country of service, the culture has a built-in opportunity for meeting people. It is perhaps the one activity to which we can naturally contribute. They are called “Language Exchange Partnerships,” and basically make up an underground network of nationals who are interested for whatever reason in improving their English through conversation with native speakers. It usually works like this: English-learner posts an online ad, introducing himself as vaguely as possible and stating his intentions for the exchange. “I am looking for an American guy to have a drink with and to practice English.” Most of them are pretty much the same.

There are the expected, “I just started a new English language course at university,” and then there’s “I have an English exam in four days, and I want to to cram for the test by pretending to be your best friend until then. After that, I will never return your calls.” Okay, so maybe they aren’t that honest about their intentions, but you’d be surprised. The other day I saw one by a brutally honest 32 year-old guy. “I an looking for an American or British girl to…” well, let’s just say he was interesting in exchanging a little more than language.

A sort of etiquette has even been developed for these partnerships. Usually an exchange entails getting together over coffee or drinks and talking. The first hour would be in the national language, and the second or third in English. However awkward the actual conversation might be, it’s the easy part compared to finding a willing partner. Contact begins with an email or text message, but such contact does not necessarily imply commitment. The return email or message establishes the meeting point, usually some busy and crowded public place that would make finding your mother difficult. Sort of like “In the middle of Grand Central Station. I’ll be wearing a coat.” Something like that.

When you finally identify and meet your new language exchange partner, it’s exactly like a blind date (from what I’ve heard). You exchange the usual formalities, where are you from, how long have you been here, why are you learning the language, and so on. This part usually goes as though it were scripted, and usually lasts between fifteen and twenty minutes. That’s when The Silence hits. You probably know what I mean, and why I choose to capitalize it, but The Silence can drown you in overwhelming awkwardness. “What more could I possibly say to this person?” you think. “How could we already have exhausted ‘what’s your favorite…?’ -that should last for hours!”

And then it happens. Politics…
————————————————————————

I’ll spare you some of the experiences I’ve had with Language Exchange partnerships. I’ve had many that barely survived that first meeting, and one that lasted three years. The reason I share this is that I’m always talking about how we do relational ministry through activities that are already happening in the community. “We don’t do programs or big events,” I say. And people always ask what I mean by that. Language Exchange Partnerships are a big part of that.

Think about what an opportunity it is to build a relationships with a national that seeks you out. And not just some guy off the street, but someone who is open to spending time with a foreigner and has some knowledge of English. These relationships provide the perfect setting for us to share life with nationals; talking about our faith, asking questions, and getting to know them personally. For us, this is the beginning of church planting.

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?