Fish Out Of Water

largeEvery time I dip my toe into the social media stream I’m faced with it: Christians fixated on sin. They complain about the evils of American culture. They wring their hands over encroachments on our rights. They decry rampant moral decay. “It’s bad out there!” they shout. “We’re losing ground!” they warn. Of course, they’re right. The world, including the United States of America, is hopelessly lost without Jesus.

Unfortunately, complaining about your mission field is an especially unmissionary thing to do. It shows that there are still many influential American Christian leaders who mistakenly see themselves as “at home” rather than in the sinful, gospel-impoverished, ends of the earth.

When a missionary arrives on the field to make disciples among an African tribe, he doesn’t complain about their lostness. He does something about it by sharing the good news through word and deed. To do anything otherwise would be like complaining  about a dead man’s rotting corpse. Sin is the the disease, both the cause and the symptom– and it’s the reason we’ve been sent as agents of God who heals by forgiving.

A few weeks ago, Trevin Wax wrote a post on his blog at The Gospel Coalition about his Observations about Younger Southern Baptists. In it, he wrote:

When I talk with younger Southern Baptists, I get the impression that the landscape has shifted to the point they expect to be a minority. Therefore, the strategy becomes more about preserving space for Christian morality and less about enshrining our views in law. This is a generalization, but I think there’s truth here: Older Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Israel. Younger Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Babylon. That’s a significant shift, and it leads to a different tone.

This well-written observation of Trevin’s is exactly right, and while he attributes the shift as haven to do with generational differences, it’s really about mission. These “younger” Southern Baptists (and many more from other traditions,) are doing a better job of thinking and acting like missionaries than their forebears. They recognize that as Christians, even if we were the social or political majority, we are necessarily outsiders. When you get this, living on mission becomes obvious. When you don’t, you miss the trees for the forest, the fish for the water; or, in this case, the sinner for the sin.

Of course there is a place for calling sin what it is. There’s a need for the prophetic. But focus solely on sin, and you only reinforce the perception that Christianity is nothing more than a list of things to do and hate. You build an isolationist faith that is contradictory to the nature of our life in the Sent Son.

We are not at home, brothers. It’s time we started acting like it.

Mission in 3-D

3d-glasses-001Those involved in Christian missions tend to be two-dimensional thinkers. They look at a map, see all of the “unreached people groups,” and then look for ways to reach them. This is, of course, an over-simplified view of how societies group themselves and how transformational information spreads from one group to another.

The generation gap, for example, adds a dimension to mission among people groups. Consider, for a moment, the great distance between generations within any given group of people. Humanity has always noticed a “gap” between older and younger members of society. The old are concerned that the young are disrespectful, irresponsible, and foolish. The young, on the other hand, see the old as closed-minded, controlling, and irrelevant. Technology, globalization, and changing social norms make the gap wider with each new generation. My point is this: what may, at a glance, appear to be one single “people group,” may actually be a deeply divided set of peoples who have only their ancestry in common.

Mission must take the generation gap into consideration. As it turns out, the younger generations of people groups may have much more in common, and may indeed maintain a greater level of shared culture than they do with their own elders.

Of course, generations aren’t the only additional dimensions to mission. New people groups, as I’ve written before, are emerging faster than we can engage established ones. Urban tribes are largely ignored by our current mission strategies, and we haven’t even begun to prepare for ministry among virtual social groups.

The truth is, people are connected meaningfully in multiple ways and at multiple levels. For us to be good missionaries, we must understand this and organize appropriately.

For starters, we need to promote diversity among mission teams. It won’t do to send three young couples and consider a group “engaged.” In order to address the generation gap (and to infuse a bit of wisdom into the situation,) we need many more mature adults on mission. Likewise, we need a diversity of life stages, experience, skills, and spiritual gifting on the teams we send.

We live in a complex world. In order to be good missionaries, we cannot afford a simplistic view of people groups.

On Critiquing Methodologies

I would imagine that few of us, upon arrival in a foreign country that we know nothing about, would presume to critique the efforts of a missionary who has been faithfully ministering among the people there for years. He knows the language, we do not. He spends time with nationals. He has studied local customs and listens to local news.

So when said missionary determines that the best way to make disciples among his particular people group is to launch gospel tracts out of a cannon fashioned out of bamboo, we defer to his expertise. When he insists on wearing nothing but a loincloth yet looking no one in the eye, we bashfully accept. His no-ministry-after-3:30pm policy might raise our eyebrows, but we trust that he knows hat he’s doing. After all, the missionary knows best.

Back home, however, we aren’t so demure.

We criticize ministers who give away iPads to get people to come to church. We mock churches who print coloring books that instruct children to follow their pastor without question. We judge Jumping for the King as mere spectacle. Why do we feel so free to criticize? We see ourselves as experts in American culture.

But are we experts in every American population segment? How well do we really know the redemptive power of the iPad among middle-class white people in small Southern towns? Are we all experts in cult-building among upper-middle-class materialists? Just how many of us are willing to live among the tribe of patriotic motorcycle jumpers from the 1970s?

Forgive my sarcasm. I’m really not trying to be mean.

I’m trying to make 2 points here:

  1. Different people groups and population segments require different approaches to ministry. The missionary principles of contextualization and indignity call for us to meet people where they are and promote discipleship in their culture.
  2. Point #1 does not excuse every ridiculous thing someone wants to do in the name of ministry.

If all of God’s people thought and behaved like good missionaries and if we all got the gospel, we would rightly trust that every approach was wise, prudent, and obedient. Unfortunately, the gospel is often lost translation, and we are often very bad missionaries indeed.

The way to build one another up in the Lord, I’m convinced, is to ask questions. “Is this pointing people to Jesus?” “How are our means affecting our message?” “What’s with the coloring book, dude?” These are the questions that we need to be asking.

Once I was “confronted” by a well-intentioned American pastor who wanted to know why I would waste time getting to know any nationals in our work in Europe. “You really just oughta preach the gospel to these people once. If they don’t want to listen, that’s on them,” I remember him saying. Was he wrong to ask us why we did things the way we did? No. Was he reacting to our methods in an unhelpful and way? I certainly thought so.

As God’s people on God’s mission, we need one another. We need others to encourage us in our work and to ask us the hard questions that make us think (and rethink) through our methodologies. Who are you to question a missionary’s approach? A co-laborer in Christ’s mission, that’s who. But when we question, we need to do so in love.

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By the way, be sure to click over to Trinity Bible Church’s site, where Pastor Bolt has responded to my response to his response to an old post of mine.

Accidental Worship

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It just occurred to me that over the course of my many missionary adventures around the world, I may have accidentally worshiped a false god or two.

I’ve visited temples, burial grounds, festivals, and holy sites. I’ve removed my hat and shoes, I’ve drunk ceremonial teas, eaten a fattened goat– I’ve even bowed (in greeting). I’ve always felt the tension between wanting to be respectful of local customs and, well, not wanting to worship that culture’s gods. Did any of my attempts to navigate these things amount to “worship?”

Despite my best efforts I’m sure there have been times when my respect was construed as reverence. Of course, I would never knowingly worship anything or anyone but the Most High God. And worship is a matter of the heart, an internal posture more than an external one. But what about accidental worship?

In Romans 13, Paul writes about the reality of living as missionary people among pagans. For those who are in Christ, we are free to eat, say, wear, and do whatever our conscience allows. He dwells on the example of eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols. Can a Christian eat it? Yes. Should he? Well, it depends.

Firstly, the idols are not God. They are pathetic imitations of the One True God. They have no power over us. Eating food that has been sacrificed to them, is not, in and of itself, sinful.

And yet, idols are spiritual. While hunks of carved wood and stone are not God, they do have influence. Millions of people around the world are slaves to the “rulers,” “authorities,” “powers of this dark world,” and to the “spiritual forces of evil.”(Ephesians 6:12) Idols are the charms that distract us from the treasure; they are a dangerous thing indeed.

And then, of course, there are the missiological implications accidental worship. We should take care not to do anything that might indicate to others that we might revere a weeping statue or fear a pagan goddess. This has the potential to confuse our message. At the very least, it might send mixed-signals about the sufficiency and exclusivity of Christ.

And therein lies one of the difficulties of being missionaries: knowing the culture well enough to distinguish between cultural norms and pagan rituals, which often look very similar to one another. An outsider may not immediately understand the difference between bowing upon meeting someone and prostrating in worship. It isn’t always clear whether attending a summer festival amounts to actually participating in a solstice celebration it was founded upon. During our initiation into a culture, we’re not aways taught the origins and significance of local traditions, folkways, or activities.

Lest you think that the question of accidental worship is limited to those missionaries living in foreign lands among primitive peoples, consider idol worship in your own context. Every day, people in your town make pilgrimages to the mall to pay tribute at the cash register. They get up each morning looking for ways to serve their masters: Power, Wealth, and Pleasure.  They worship the idols of family and rights and religion.

You may think it a silly question to ask whether the missionary in West Africa should attend a Santería healing ritual, or wear a henna tattoo. I would ask whether a Christian in America should go to a football game or wear name-brand clothing.

What are you accidentally worshiping?

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These are completely different, right?

First World Problems

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The other day I heard an American pastor talking about the problems his church was facing. Their worship center was at least %80 full during their Sunday service. They’d had a difficult time finding a replacement children’s minister after the old one left for a bigger church. The city wouldn’t grant them a permit to perform their Christmas musical in public. Their video projectors need new bulbs every six months.

These are first-world problems.

Some of the “problems” we  face in our everyday lives aren’t problems at all. We complain, but most of the world’s population would consider it a luxury to get to decide what to wear or where to eat. We’re more than blessed. We’re spoiled.

I had a hard time sympathizing the pastor’s complaints. Often, when I talk to churches about their direct involvement in global mission, I hear very lame excuses blaming these “problems.”

“To support a missionary,” I’ve heard said, “we’d have to cut into our recreation budget.”

“We just can’t do a mission trip this year,” they say with a straight face, “because we’re committed to three weeks of camp this summer.”

What we’ve got to realize is that with our blessing comes obligation. Opportunities are responsibilities. That we have the option of hopping on a plane and traveling to pretty much any part of the world we’d like means that we must to go when we can. There are no excuses, and nothing is more important that our complete obedience to the God who has sent us.

Of course, one “problem” we can face is the overwhelming number of choices. How to get started, and where, can be difficult decisions. Fortunately, God doesn’t leave us alone to make those decisions. Jesus promised to go with us, and His Spirit is our guide. We need to recognize that “too many ways to help the world” is a very good problem indeed.

Nostalgia

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Imagine that you move to a far-off place to live among a tribe of people of a culture very different from the one you grew up in. Here, you’re truly a fish out of water. They do everything differently here, and you don’t like it one bit.”Things are much better back home,” you complain. “Why can’t they just do it like that here?”

You publicly challenge the chief’s authority, explaining that he has too much power. You recommend that he limit his authority to only a few, vital tribal concerns, and that they institute free-market capitalism. You’re offended by the tribe’s customary dress, as loincloths and grass skirts are immodest. You recommend more appropriate attire. You scoff at their concern over the use of the land, you disapprove of their art, and you refuse to allow your children to play with theirs.

In this imaginary scenario, you’re a pretty bad missionary.

In matters of justice, the missionary must speak out. He should not be shy about calling sin what it is. In all things, he should demonstrate how his relationship with God through Jesus influences his every opinion and affects every aspect of his life. But to social ills, the missionary offers Christ alone as the solution. He recognizes that a society’s problems are merely symptoms of the underlying issue- that people are separated from their Creator, and utterly lost without Him. They will neither honor Him as God nor give thanks to Him. As the scriptures say, they have became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts have been darkened. Lost people will do the things lost people do. They are powerless to do anything else. Even if they were to muster the wherewithal to act like Christians, it wouldn’t get them any closer to God.

The missionary who puts effort into making his host culture more like his home culture is like the soldier who has become entangled in civilian pursuits. On the mission field, this makes you a bad missionary.

In the United States, though, it makes you a conservative.

Conservatives publicly challenge the authority of officials they disagree with. They’re champions of free-market capitalism. They constantly complain about immorality (which is rampant) in America. They scoff at society’s environmental concerns, disapprove of its art, and work to isolate themselves from the very people they’ve been placed among.

Across the country, evangelicals have come to identify with social and political movements that aim to preserve a culture that no longer exists. Nostalgia for the good ol’ days is no less counter-mission than the international missionary who longs to turn primitive peoples into Midwestern American suburbanites. Yes, we should participate in society and work for the good of our cities. We should vote our conscience, live out our values, and support those who seek to do good. It’s important to be well-informed. It makes sense that we would have an affinity for those who share our perspectives. We must be on our guard against the evil all around us.

But we can never forget that we are pilgrims and strangers. Our citizenship is not of this world. We are missionaries here, and our role is to show and tell people that Jesus alone is the answer to their God problem. In the midst of political debates, changing societal norms, and frustrating ignorance, it’s important that we not get sidetracked by trying to change the culture through anything other than the redemption of those to whom we’ve been called.

Everything we do is to that end. What neighborhoods we live in, what schools we send our children to, the cars we drive, the bond measures we vote for. You’re a missionary, just passing through. There are no points for surviving.

Priesthood In Your Neighborhood

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Key to our theology of place is that we understand that we are priests. No, not the kind who wear robes or back suits with funny collars, but the kind mentioned in 1 Peter 2:9:

“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

While Christ is the mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5), we act as mediators between God and the unbelievers we live among until they meet Him. We often think of our personal ministry as being to people across town (or around the world), but where we live matters. We must focus some of our attention on those we live among. Seeing ourselves in this light could radically affect how we interact with our neighbors.

A priest speaks on behalf of God to his neighbors. As His ambassadors, we are God’s spokespeople. When we speak and act on God’s behalf in our neighborhoods, we demonstrate that we are in Christ, are filled with His Spirit, and are familiar with His Word.

Some examples of speaking for God into the lives of our neighbors:

  • The gospel- “And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard?” (Romans 10:14)
  • Wisdom- Through conversation, we can speak timely Biblical wisdom into a person’s life.
  • Warning- When we see a neighbor headed in a dangerous direction, we are obligated to warn them.
  • Peace- as agents of peace, we may speak peace (Luke 10) to troubled people.

On the other hand, as priests, we speak to God on our neighbors’ behalf. As people who have access to the Father through the Spirit (Ephesians 2:18), we can intercede for those who live around us.

  • Prayer/intercession- We can always make our needs (Philippians 4:6) known to God. But we may also pray for mercy, grace, guidance, and forgiveness for our neighbors.
  • Thanksgiving- Every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of Lights (James 1:17). We can thank him on our neighbor’s behalf!
  • Worship- while I don’t believe in worship by proxy, I can’t help but remember God’s conversation with Abraham in Genesis 18, where He agreed to show mercy to a city if only one faithful person could be found. Our obedience may be more significant for our neighbors than we realize.

The funny thing is that when we act like priests, people begin to treat us like priests. They invite us to events because they feel that our presence somehow makes a thing sacred. They confess their sin to us, because doing so gives them a taste of God’s comfort for sinners. They come to us with questions, because we regularly demonstrate ourselves to be well-acquainted with the Truth. Our words take on extra weight, our reputation is of love, and our faith a welcome constant.

Ultimately, as priests, our role is to be a blessing. To bless something is to ascribe spiritual value to something. When we bless those around us, we point them to the Most High God. Like Abraham, we have been blessed to be a blessing. How can we intercede and mediate for those around us?

Where You Live Matters

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“Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas.” –Acts 16:6-8

Here we read about the kind of connection we need in order to walk in obedience. Unfortunately, we’ve come to expect only missionaries, and not regular Christ-followers, to be so in tune with the Spirit. Most Christians in the west would not fit into the story:

“Rob and Kristine left Phoenix for the Portland area because of Rob’s job transfer. Wanting to feel safe and comfortable, they were drawn to the suburbs. Because Gresham schools were notoriously bad, they moved to Beaverton, and a neighborhood where they got a great deal on a great house.”

For some reason, Christians often use the world’s criteria to make decisions about where to live. The familiar list (cost, square footage, neighborhood, good schools, low crime, return on investment, etc.) is heavily informed by the American Dream and sometimes in conflict with Kingdom values. When we adopt the world’s values, following Jesus is entirely accidental.

That’s not to say that God doesn’t direct His people to move into safe, quiet neighborhoods; He does. I’m also not trying to over-spiritualize the decision-making process. Paul seemed determined to go “where the gospel had not been proclaimed,” and it took supernatural intervention to change his plans.

When believers are faced with a decision about where to live, we need to add a few things to the list of values that go into our decision making process. Three come to mind:

Be a Blessing- Since the first covenant, God’s people are blessed in order that they may be a blessing to others. As we decide where to plant our lives, we need to ask, “Where can I be a blessing?” The truth is, we’re all exiles. Our citizenship is not of this world. Jeremiah 29:7 tells exiles to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city” where we live.

Community- The world’s values push us toward isolation. It takes some intentionality to insure contact with neighbors, but our commission is to make disciples, and discipleship is a relationship. Where we live can either help or hinder our efforts to get to know people and build community.

Incarnation- Christ is our model of incarnation. Our role- our very purpose on this earth, is to be meatspace representatives of Jesus. It’s not about showing non-believers how it looks for us to follow Christ; our role as sent-out ones is to model what it would be like for our neighbors if they were to have a relationship with Him. This almost always requires us to give up some of our preferences in order to minimize the differences between us and people in our communities.

If we add these Kingdom values to our decision-making process, they may replace some of the other things on the list. We may end up in a small apartment rather than a big house. We may not get the biggest “bang for our buck.” We may have to tutor our kids to supplement their educations. We may have to learn a new language, develop new habits, or enter a new culture, but isn’t that what missionaries do?

Let’s be mindful of what goes into our decisions about where we live.

The Edges of Contextualization

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Sharing a hookah. Smoking a peace pipe. Drinking to a toast. Dressing in ceremonial robes.

Missionaries constantly face the edges of contextualization. Incarnation requires that she constantly ask herself: “What should I do to minimize the difference between myself and those to whom I want to minister?” Every cultural difference hinders the communication of the message, and serves to emphasize the “foreign-ness” of the faith.

Of course, contextualization means looking for ways to say and to show, “I’m like you, but different.” I’m like you— in that I’m human, sinful, and in need of a savior, but I’m different— in that I’m in Christ and therefore have purpose, hope, peace, and salvation.

Some cultural adaptations may not be the most comfortable, but are expected for the missionary. These are rarely controversial. Most missionaries eat local food (in public, anyway), learn local language, follow social norms. In Europe, they greet with a kiss (or two, or three).  Western believers living in the Middle East often wear a burqa or head covering. In Asia, they avoid open conflict, show respect, and eat with chopsticks. These things say, “I want to join your culture.”

Other customs are avoided by most missionaries because participating in them would only validate the lies, idolatry, and sin within the culture. Missionaries do not participate in ancestor worship, sexual rituals, or pagan ceremonies. (Neither should they ride those little scooters through the dangerous streets of Bangkok, but that has more to do with sanity than contextualization.) Doing these things would undermine the vital differences between life in Christ and life apart from Him. Conspicuously abstaining shows what redemption within culture would look like.

Which brings us back to the edge.

The Bible isn’t silent about these “edge” issues. In  1 Corinthians 8, Paul teaches the church about the contextualization problem of eating food that has been sacrificed to idols. Though idols have no real power, he says, we should not eat food that has been offered to idols if it would cause someone else to think that by eating the food we were somehow honoring those idols.

The principle is the same for other “edge” practices that we may not have any particular conviction about. Though you have every “right” to kiss your wife in public, don’t do it if that’s considered sinful in your context.We can see pretty clearly that contextualization of the gospel is likely to require us to deny ourselves of some things that we otherwise would be free to do.

But contextualization works both ways. It sometimes (often?) requires us to do some things that we may not otherwise do. Some of those things, like eating rotten cabbage or growing a beard are simply matters of taste. Others, however, aren’t so cut-and-dried. Should a follower of Jesus prostrate himself alongside Tibetans? Bow toward the East during the call to prayer ? Pay a bribe? Does it matter how these things are interpreted by local society?

And this is where things get sticky: when someone presumes to know the cultural meanings and spiritual implications of particular actions in a context they know nothing about. The truth is, finding the edges of contextualization is a difficult, energy-intensive endeavor. It can be fun, scary, and dangerous. Some people do, in fact, fall over the edge of contextualization, and this is very unfortunate. But being a missionary is a dangerous thing. Jesus likened it to being lambs sent to the slaughterhouse.

God Is Most Glorified When Wal-Mart Says Merry Christmas

Is God pleased when a non-believer says “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays?”

Lots of people (mostly in Texas and Florida) seem to think so.  First Baptist Church, Dallas recently launched GrinchAlert.com, (HT) a website that posts user-generate lists: businesses that greet customers with “Merry Christmas” make the Nice list, while “Happy Holidays” earns them a spot on the Naughty list.

Nevermind that the idea of Naughty and Nice lists come from the secular Santa Claus myth. Forget that the Grinch is a (trademarked) character in a secular Christmas children’s story with a dubious humanistic moral at the end. Pay no attention to the overt consumerism displayed on the site. What’s especially troubling about this campaign is that these people actually believe that God is somehow honored by Christian-targeted marketing.

I blame John Piper.

I’m sure Dr. Piper would never advocate for something like GrinchAlert. But I can’t help but think that this sort of “boycott lost people for not acting like Christians” mentality has some relation to Piper’s assertion that the greatest good is whatever brings God the “most glory.” While I don’t disagree with his premise, I’m pretty sure we need to clarify what we mean by “good,” “glory,” and, well, “God” for that matter. Otherwise, we get GrinchAlert culture warriors who care more that people act like Christ-followers than that they would actually become Christ-followers because it, you know, brings glory to God.

Is it a “win” for Christians if secular businesses say “Merry Christmas?” Is that part of our mission on this earth? Is a coerced profession of Christmas our mission? I’m no expert in degrees of God-honor, but “If you don’t say Christmas we’ll go elsewhere to buy the Chinese-made junk we don’t need” doesn’t seem like it’d be that high on the list.

It all comes down to marketing. The reason Starbucks insists that its employees greet customers with “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is that they want to make money.  Their audience isn’t just Christian Christmas-celebrators. “Happy Holidays” covers everyone- Christians, Jews, Qwanzaans, and atheists who don’t believe there’s anything to celebrate, but still take a couple days off work this time of year.

The other side of the question remains: is the non-believer brought any closer to belief by saying, “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays?” Will the clerk at Borders know Jesus better if we include his store on the Naughty list?

By the way, my favorite comment on the GrinchAlert site?

“American Airlines: Excessive use of “holiday”, no mention of Christmas. With a name like American Airlines, come on.”