Kill Your Church

Steve McCoy killed his Missional Baptist Blog last week. It was a great forum for missional folks to connect with likeminded people and discuss everything from theology, ministry, culture, and whatever else we wanted. I am thankful for Steve’s hard work in maintaining it, and always keeping the discussion fresh and interesting. While I admit that my favorite comment threads were the ones where some wacko would come in and make a couple of crazy remarks and Steve would end up banning him, I think it’s really cool that he shut it down.

Why? Because he says that it served its purpose. His blog networked many of the missional leaders in the States and on the mission field. We’ve worked together to define what we’re about, and we’ve shared ideas of how that might look in the real world. Now, most of us have our own blogs, many of which feature the same comments we were making on his site. Missional Baptist Blog had done what Steve set out to do with it, and now it is time to move on. I think we could learn something from that.

What if all the pastors that read his blog stood up in front of their churches this Sunday, and instead of preaching a sermon, simply announced that they were going to let the church die? Something like: “Folks, I have an announcement to make. We’re selling the building, and I’m getting a job at Home Depot.” I think it would be a great thing. I’m wondering if most of our churches haven’t already reached their expiration date.

Has your church built up leaders? Do you have a real spiritual family that is missionally active in the community? Have you subdivided into Bible Study groups or cell groups? Maybe it’s time to shut everything else down. You don’t need a building. You don’t need professional ministers. You don’t need any of the programs that you’ve got going on. If the system that you’ve maintained has served its purpose, shut it down.

I believe that this sort of thing is what it would take to make “Christianity” as we know it in the 21st century make sense for me, and I don’t think I’m alone.

I Wish You Knew

I’ve just finished answering D Birchfiel’s “Seven Questions.” You can read my responses at OKpreacher, assuming that he decides to post them. One of the questions he asks is, “What do you wish Southern Baptists knew about your ministry?” That was the most difficult question for me to answer; not because I didn’t have anything to say, but because I had such a hard time narrowing it down to just one (or two…) That, of course, got me thinking about all that I wish the people that send and support me knew about missions in general, and our ministry specifically.

Here’s a list of things I wish you knew:

-We appreciate you. I know that there is no way I would be on the field if it wasn’t for your monetary support, and no way I’d be able to stay here without your prayers.

-Missions is not the same as evangelism. It seems like so many of us confuse the two. Missions is more than gospel proclamation, or even sharing Christ across cultures. It is about incarnational living that demonstrates what life in Christ might look like for people in the host culture. We call it cultural translation, and it’s hard to quantify.

-We cling desperately to emotional, financial, and prayer support that you have committed to us. When we hear about divisive arguing and politics among the people we depend on, it makes us nervous.

-We don’t send three-color printed brochure newsletters anymore. We blog. If you read our blogs, you can get a better idea of what life is like for us.

-We feel like dorks. We are a bunch of nobodies that God sent to other places. Sometimes I wonder if He wasn’t just sparing you from our presence in the States! It makes us uncomfortable that you would allow us to represent you on the mission field.

-We expect you to do the same thing we’re doing. Granted, most of you don’t have to learn a new language, but your job really is the same as ours. Only we have better medical coverage.

-God is working overseas. He’s doing amazing, supernatural things that constantly remind us of His presence and grace. We see it on a regular basis. Forgive us for not consistently sharing it with you, it’s just that sometimes we think you wouldn’t understand.

-We like when you ask questions about our work or otherwise show interest in what we’re doing. It reminds us that we’re part of a bigger family, and that our ministry matters to someone.

So I guess those are some of the things I wish you knew about our ministries. Now you know.

Thank You

It happens every week. The shiny silver saucer floats down the pew, picking up fingerprint smudges and wadded-up bills. Or maybe your church uses those velvet bags with the wooden handle horns that jingles with change and does cartwheels as it’s passed from hand to hand. We call it the “offering.”

You put in some money, 10% of your income, maybe more. Maybe less. You give some pocket change or a check, you might even use pink little envelopes that have your name pre-printed on them next to little boxes you can check if you read your Bible that week or brought a friend to church with you. You might give with joy, celebrating God’s provision. Maybe you give begrudgingly, out of duty or guilt or tradition. Or maybe you’re excited to give, knowing where the money is going and how it will be used.

Thank You.

Thank you for giving money to support us. I know it isn’t really us your giving to, but God. But without your gifts, we couldn’t be here. Without the faithful giving and cooperation of God’s people back home, we wouldn’t get to know the blessing of seeing God work in these different cultures. I have benefited from your generosity. I have been able to follow God’s lead in my life and represent you on the mission field. He is using your obedience and sacrifice to support mine. I understand that with your support comes great responsibility. I don’t deserve the funding I receive. I haven’t really earned the trust you put in me. But I know how important it is for me to be a good steward of that support, and to administer the money in a way that pleases God, and extends the Kingdom.

Thank you.

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 Little Defensive

Last weekend, I sent my Jman girls to Madrid for a church planting class taught by a visiting seminary professor from the states. They said that they really liked what the teacher had to say, but that they came away discouraged, feeling like he didn’t approve of our team’s strategy as they shared it with him. Now, he’s invited himself to visit our team’s house church time next week.

Now I’m feeling defensive. Is he coming to confront us about the direction of our work? Why would he want to sit in on our worship time? We don’t really invite others to come along, so it will be strange, anyway.

Losing My Accent

Learning a second language is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It’s frustrating and humiliating, and the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know. Sometimes, you just want to give up. But we put forth the effort in order that we might be able to share our lives with the people of the places we’ve moved to. If only recognizing the importance of language learning was enough to, you know, speak it.

I used to like the television show “Alias.” The main character, Syndey Bristow, was the best secret-agent ever. She was sort of a cross between James Bond and Lara Croft. I watched faithfully through the first season. I was half-way through season two when someone asked me what the show was about. “Well, there’s this college-student-by-day, undercover-super-agent-by-night whose dad is a double agent but she doesn’t know it and whose mom was a double agent for the KGB but her dad didn’t know it, and her dad’s best friend is the villain posing as a good guy, until they introduce her long-lost sister.” I was overcome with how ridiculous it sounded as I spoke. After that, I never watched the show again.

The worst thing about the show wasn’t the spy family, triple-agent, gadget-for-everything, plot, it was the fact that no matter what obscure country Sydney found herself in, she spoke the local language perfectly. Chinese. Tagalog. Welsh. She spoke them so well that not even the local bad guys could tell she was a foreigner. Stealth-ninja swordplay skills I’ll buy, but fluency in fifty languages is just too unrealistic for me.

Which brings me to I asked a friend who is a church planter in the UK about this a few weeks ago. Maybe he’ll post his response in a comment, but really can’t get past this. We’ve got people on the field who speak the national language very well. They’ve been around a while, they can do everything they need to do and say anything they might need to say in the language. But they have accents. Strong ones. They butcher the language with the typical American “R’s” and lazy vowels. In the phone, no one mistakes them for nationals. In person, the listener still has to contort his face as he strains to understand. So my question is this: Do our personnel working in English-speaking contexts take on the local accent?

For me, the accent is the key to true cultural relevance. Think of it this way, if I were to speak with a guy in London, he’d surely notice my American accent. But after a couple years of living in Covent Garden, I’d surely be able to put on a pretty good English accent for my friend. Not that I’d be able to pass for a Brit, but I bet he wouldn’t say, “Hey, you’re putting on an English accent.” No. I’m pretty sure he’d say something like, “Hey, you’re losing your American accent.”

I’m sure there are probably all sorts of ministry applications to the idea of losing our accents. To me, it just reminds me that there is more than just a language barrier between me and the people to whom I minister. It makes me want to live in such a way that the people around me start to say: “Hey, the longer you’re here, the less your faith seems foreign to me.”

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?

It’s My Job

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

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

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

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

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

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

Babble On

I had been here six months when I found myself talking with a friend who was not a believer. The only English he spoke was the HTML code he had picked up in a “Web Design for Dummies” class. I had only been studying his language since I arrived on the field, so I could hardly claim to be fluent. As usual, we started off talking about politics. Anarchy, I think, or something else I know nothing about. Then we got to the topic of family. His was very important to him, but he often felt suffocated by their constant dependence on him. He hated always having to help his grandparents and run errands. I say, that’s what you get for living at home until you’re 32.

Our leisurely discussion explored the limits of my language skills. I’ve always measured how well I can speak by how much the other person scrunches their face as they work to understand me. In any given conversation, my friend would go from a James Dean to a Gilbert Gottfried. He was at about a Dirty Harry when we got into spiritual things that day, and I was struggling to find the words to express such abstract concepts as forgiveness, prayer, and Vacation Bible School. I started to pray panic prayers when I realized that he was very interested in what I had to say, but that my language level wasn’t yet good enough to allow me to communicate.

But something happened as I shared my faith with my friend. Actually, nothing happened, which was strange. We just kept on talking. About knowing our creator, and about fuller life and about purpose. We talked about Jesus, and I shared some of my most personal thoughts about my faith. My friend told me that if he were ever going to believe in a god, that mine was the kind he’d like to believe in. Before our talk, he didn’t even know Jesus was a way, much less the way.

It wasn’t until I was home, praying for my friend to be haunted by the truth in our conversation, that I realized how un-scrunched my friend’s face had been while we talked. My friend had understood me, and he hadn’t been distracted by my American accent that often gets in the way. I had said things correctly in a language I had hardly known. We had talked about things I wasn’t capable of discussing. I had used words I had never learned. He didn’t have to correct me, help me, or ask his usual “What is it that you’re trying to say?” He heard Good News in his heart language.

The discussion replayed over and over in my mind that night, like one of those television dramas that frames the flashbacks in hazy, blurry border in order to make them seem more, you know, dramatic. I am convinced that the Holy Spirit spoke for me that day. I’m certain that He gave me words beyond my ability in order to communicate with my friend through me. Something supernatural had happened. Just to keep me humble, I had a miserable experience at a restaurant that night. I didn’t get what I thought I had ordered. The waiter didn’t understand me.

I don’t speak in tongues. I’m not allowed to. IMB policy prohibits me from participating in that sort of thing. It might not have been only the Holy Spirit that helped me, anyway. It was probably more like half Him, and half the intensive language course that I had taken. In fact, maybe I was just having a really good language day that day. I’ve been praying for more of those every day.