Picking On a Commenter

An anonymous commenter on my last post disagrees with the distinction between home culture “missions” and what I’m calling “host culture missions.” You can thank him for this post. Unless, of course, you actually like this post. I which case, please thank me.

My assertion: If the word “missions” means “telling people about Jesus” or even, “Sharing one’s faith by living out a culturally relevant evangelistic lifestyle,” then we need to come up with a new word for cross-cultural, um, “missions.”

Let me be clear: I do not believe that international ministry is any better or more important than home ministry. Ministry to people of your own culture can be as difficult as crossing cultures, and there are many similarities. But they are not the same. Sure, there are culture differences between New York City and, say, Paducah, Kentucky. I think I experienced worse culture shock when I moved to the Midwest than I did moving to Western Europe. But kids in Dallas watch the same television shows and get their news from the same news outlets and eat the same cheeseburgers as kids in Boise. The commonality of influences serves to lessen the culture barrier.

I know I’ve got it easy here. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a culture that has absolutely nothing in common with my home culture. I live in Western Europe, in a country that westernized, civilized, and modern. Despite all that I might have in common with the people here, I am not like them. I did not grow up with the same influences and national experiences they did. This means that for me to share my faith in a way that makes sense to them, I must translate my relationship with God and it’s impact on my life into their culture.

By the way, if you’re out of touch with your home culture, it’s because you’ve taken measures to insulate yourself from it. We should all be students of the cultural context in which we minister, and if you don’t have anything to talk about with a lost person, you’re to blame.

Book Tag

When David Rogers tags you, you play along.

1. One book that changed your life: Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak
2. One book that you’ve read more than once: Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
3. One book I’d want on a desert island: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
4. One book that made me laugh: A Series of Unfortunate Events, Lemony Snicket
5. One book that made me cry: The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein
6. One book that you wish you had written: The Fall of the House of Usher, Edgar Allan Poe
7. One book you wish had never been written: The Growth Spiral, Andy Anderson
8. One book that you are currently reading: The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon
9. One book that you’ve been meaning to read: The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand

The Evils of Modernism?

Even though I use them all the time, I hate post titles that end with a question mark. I guess that’s what I get for having a blog that is about asking questions…

My last post, “Adapt, Adopt, Reject,” was an outline of a paper that some friends and I came up with. I’ve had a couple of good responses. I got a few “let me chew on it and get back to you” messages, and I’m sure many of you are still trying to swallow the idea that I would have friends to work with at all.

I’m really interested in looking at Christianity from this perspective: What would our faith look like without the influence of modernism? The more I thought through the paper’s outline, the harder it was for me to come up with any modern contributions that we should adopt outright. It’s strange to think about, because we interpret everything through the modern worldview. I’m no historian, but I think we could learn a lot about being followers of Jesus in postmodernity by looking at the pre-modern expressions of Christianity.

In his book, Ancient Future Faith, Robert E. Webber gives a helpful outline of “Paradigms Of Church History.” He breaks down church history into these worldviews (paradigms):

  • Classical Christianity (100-600)
  • Medieval Era (600-1500)
  • Renaissance/Reformation (1500-1750)
  • Modernism (1750-1980)
  • Postmodernism (1980- )

As the church moved from one worldview to another, I imagine that there were many Christian leaders that warned against the dangers of the coming worldview. For example, during the rise of the modern worldview, there were probably plenty of godly folks saying things like “Buyeth not into modernism…” or something like that. What would they warn people against? Elevation of logic/human reason? Too great a focus on the individual? The limitations of linear thought?

But here we are, on the tail end of modernism, and the only expression of Christianity that we see is heavily influenced by the modern worldview. We read it into history and revelation. Our understanding of God is a modern one. We study systematic theology, we’re used to hearing propositional exposition of the scriptures. We feel this huge need to nail down the specific time and date of our salvation. We use mass-market evangelism. We look for ways to measure our holiness. This is the modern church.

In an online audio chat with Derek Webb, Donald Miller talked about how Jesus gave many different answers to people who asked Him “What must I do to be saved.” But modern Christians only have one answer to that question. Why is that?

I don’t think that the modern worldview is bad. But I’m certainly weary of anyone who asserts that it is the “Christian” one. I’m interested in discovering and recognizing the influence my worldview has on my faith.

Adapt, Adopt, Reject

During a recent training seminar, a leader in our region rhetorically asked: “Now, the real question is: can a Postmodern be a Christian?” As a believer who isn’t very modern, I wanted to ask: “Can a Modern worldview be compatible with a Christian one?” But it wasn’t until Dr. Robertson McQuilkin presented his talk on Postmodernism outlining those elements of postmodernism that we should adopt, what we can adapt, and what we must reject, that I saw a good way to discuss the issue. I’ve tried to address this before, but some friends pitched in to help this time. What we’ve come up with is more of an outline than a paper, but it is a work in process. Basically, we’d like to challenge people to stop thinking of the Modern worldview as good or even neutral in terms of it’s influence on our faith. Here’s what we’ve got so far:

MODERNISM
Modern tendencies we should ADOPT:
Seek the Source
We should read and know the scriptures and view them as authoritative, true, and beautiful.
If you want to know what someone said about something, the best place to go is to the source. This also follows a biblical means toward resolving personal conflict and sin issues.

Due Diligence
Care should be taken to be sure that no function of the church is overlooked, no member left out, and that we not repeat the mistakes of our those who have gone before us.

Critical Evaluation

The use of plain old common sense still has an important place in following Christ. Scripture tells us not to lean on our own understanding, but doesn’t prohibit us using our brains. Genuine critical analysis was deveoped in the modern era, won’t go away any time soon, and can serve us Christ-followers well.

Modern tendencies we should ADAPT:

Utter dependence on logic/reason.
Matters of faith are logical by human standards to the extent to which they “make sense” for the group/individual.
God cannot be proved, contained, or fully defined. But, since He reveals to us His character, He is knowable. We must recognize the beauty of the mystery of God.

Fight for the Faith
Modern Christians often see themselves as “Defenders of the Faith” whose task it is to hunt and expose false doctrine wherever it may be found by exposing its logical inconsistancies, ridiculing it, or personally attacking those who believe it. “Good” theology is revealed by the living and active God and is not such a fragile thing. We should, however, lovingly confront false teachings whenever they come up in our relational sphere of influence. Discipleship and mutual submission/accountability require it.

Absolute Truth
God’s truth (the only truth) is indeed absolute, but our understanding of it is always subject to the limitations of our human perspective. We will never have full and complete knowledge of truth this side of heaven, and we must always recognize that our interpretations are from a limited perspective.

Truth is knowable as a person. Jesus is God revealed to humanity in history, and He continues to be active today.

Labels are helpful. While labels tend to be negative and prone to gross generalizations, they are indespensible for meaningful conversation. If we cannot define what we mean, we cannot communicate anything.

Modern tendencies we should REJECT:

Radical Dichotomies
Faith/Science: Faith should not/does not come into play only at the limitations of science. Science is good for helping humanity learn about the ourselves and our environment. This shoud allow us to be better stewards of the resources God blesses us with.

Christian/NonChristian: The (now global) Christian subculture is an example of the people of God withdrawing from the world and creating their own “safer,” “better,” “God-pleasing” version of it. It is neither “safer” nor “better,” and only serves to remove us from the mission God has commissioned us to.

Good/Evil: The Enemy is not God’s opposite. Fear has no place in the Christian Life. God’s good has/will overcome evil in the world. C.S. Lewis said that “Even the devil is God’s devil.” This leaves a lot for us to work out (i.e.: the problem of evil), but is a more Biblical perspective.

That Faith Requires Religion
Jesus rejected the religious requirements of the Pharisees every time He came across them. Yet moderns tend to replace the child-like faith Jesus talked about with religious traditions. While faith necessarily brings with it good works, Jesus did not come to start a new world religion. The first “Christians” continued to identify with and continue in the Jewish religion. We must recognize that as we mature in Christ there are a) certain things we are compelled to do, b) certain things we are compelled to avoid, and c) things we should continue to do, but with a new, Christian motivation.
Mimicking the World’s Systems
The Church is not a business. To manage it as such is to subjugate it to the world’s standards of success, performance, and relationship. This affects the way we “hire” and “fire” personnel, manage interpersional conflict, and approach the lost people around us.

The Gospel is not just information. There is more to the Good News than the propositional message. The Christian task is more than dissemination of information; it is contextualization, translation, and lifestyle support of the Truest Message of All.

Missions must not be viewed as a finite task, but as an ongoing act of obedience. Years of “what’s it gonna take?” mentality has perpetuated a human-centered, militaristic, utilitarian interpretation of the Great Commission that effectually keeps us one step ahead id the Holy Spirit.
Institutionalization
To many modern thinkers, the church IS the institution we see around us. The goal of the whole Great Commission exercise is to build a better institution which does a better job of getting to gospel out (or of discipling, or raising money, or whatever). Postmoderns would simply rather do these things themselves, organically or in affinity-related groups.

The distance between the scripture and my life is actually quite short: I read the scripture and I obey it. All the better if I can obey it with some others who are willing, like-heearted and (hopefully) fun. There is no reason to make this distance unnecessarily greater by requiring that we build instituions to obey scripture.

Some things work better in instituions: car manufacturing, delivery of gas, electricity and other commodities, surgery (!) all require infrastructure or a controlled environments which necessitates institution.

Relational things, heartfelt things, passionate things don’t institutionalize well. We shouldn’t try.

The “Silver Bullet” mentality
This mentality, rampant in modern thinking and in churches, assumes that when the right formula, combination of factors, leadership or Tipping Point is discovered, success will inevitably result. This thinking, an outworking of modern mechanization, simply deosn’t work in God’s economy. He’s much more concerned about our obedience and our heart for Him than in us finding and practicing the right formula. The only Silver Bullet in following Christ is…well, following Him.

Well, what do you think?

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?

I’d Like to Make a Toast…

I’m glad to see the controversy move from speculation to discussion. With the release of the “position papers,” IMB Board of Trustees Chairman Tom Hatley breaks the silence and attempts to explain the reasons behind the Board’s new policies on prayer languages and baptism. Another trustee who voted in favor of the policies, Jerry Corbaley, has really opened up to hearing from M’s and stateside folks alike over at his new blog.

The Trustees are getting hit from three sides: on the one hand, there are the ultra-conservatives who were likely behind the policy change to begin with. They point to house church ecclesiology, the role of women, and the treatment of spiritual gifts as evidence that the IMB is becoming a bastion of liberalism. On the other side are those that oppose the policies. They see signs of Landmarkism, lack of accountability, and power plays and are voicing their concerns through blogs. Finally, there are the (mostly anonymous) M’s on the field. They seem to be most concerned with policies, guidelines, and strategies dictated from Richmond with no regard to cultural context. Oh, and they’re worried they’ll get fired if they complain.

Since I fall into the third category, I’ve got to ask: what about alcohol?

It seems like the part of the discussion many find most troubling (besides how Wade Burleson was treated) is that the policies go beyond scripture, and beyond the BFM 2000 to disqualify many Southern Baptists from missionary service based on a narrow interpretation of baptism and tongues. Everyone is upset about extra-biblical requirements for IMB personnel, but the Board has always required M’s to abstain from drinking. People are refusing to accept “because the majority of Southern Baptists believe this way” in place of scriptural support for the new policies, but alcohol is forbidden for this reason. Never mind what the Bible says, never mind the M’s host culture; drinking is grounds for termination. Abiding by the rule has always been seen by our folks on the field as one of the concessions we have to make in order to receive support. Most of the people I know disagree with this policy.

For the sake of ministry, we have eaten some crazy things. We’ve hung out in smokey bars. We’ve stayed out all night with friends. Though we’ll always be foreigners, we do all that we can to minimize the differences between us and the people to whom we minister. In my own experience, there have been times when that ministry has been hurt and opportunities have been missed because I (by kindly abstaining) made an issue of something that ought to be a non-issue.

Even though caffeine is a drug, we wouldn’t make a new policy that prohibits M’s from drinking tea when they go into a Chinese home. Sexual temptation is a reality, but we don’t have a rule against greeting people of the opposite sex with a kiss, as they do in Spain. But because “most Southern Baptists don’t approve” of alcohol consumption, our M’s are required to abstain.

I’m not trying to rekindle the debate over drinking. For a great perspective on the subject, check out Steve McCoy’s post: “Alcohol, Abstention, and Redemption.” I just thought I’d point out what has been an IMB-imposed obstacle to ministry.

Here’s to good discussion.

PG People in an R-rated World

At the beginning of the Iraq war, I heard an American military analyst on CNN talking about how young American troops had a major advantage over their enemy due to the fact that most of them grew up playing video games. He went on to say that training time for pilots and drivers had been drastically reduced since most of the military machinery (fighter jets, tanks, etc.) had been outfitted with interfaces and controls that mimicked the those of video games. I thought that was interesting. It also makes me glad that Japan is an ally- those kids play video games in their sleep!

I wonder about that element of desensitization, too. You know, when a kid sees however many thousand acts of violence on TV before he reaches the age of twelve, it’s bound to make him flinch less when he sees people being shot. From a parent’s perspective, this is an outrage. From a military strategist’s point of view, however, it can actually be a good thing. It means that your soldiers aren’t going to be distracted from the job they’ve been assigned to by the violence it requires. Of you’ve seen it in “Saving Private Ryan” and “blackhawk Down,” you’re going to expect it in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Which brings me to the meeting we had the other day. Our leadership team was going over the information we use in training new personnel before they come to the field. One of the hardest things about preparing folks before they come is getting them ready for the postmodern Western European worldview. We assign books like Stan Grenz’s “A Primer on Postmodern” that teach about postmodernism, and we have them check out websites like Andrew Jones’ blog. But we still have people come over who have no concept of life beyond their modern rational worldview. So I put together a list of movies that do a good job of showing postmodernism as we seen it in Western Europe. The list included movies such as Fight Club, American Beauty, and Vanilla Sky. Oddly enough, almost all of the films on my list came out between 1999 and 2001. Unfortunately, all of them are rated R.

Even though there are many films that do a great job of illustrating postmodernism, we will not be sending this list of movies to new personnel. There is no way we can even suggest, much less assign, an R-rated movie as preparation and training material for new missionaries. The reasons, I think, are obvious.

I think there is value in studying the culture and those things that influence it. What if we could get our people used to European culture before they got here? The problem, of course, is that so much of the culture is defined by it’s sin. There is value in being exposed to the relativism, anti-consumerism, and cynicism that define this culture. But how can we expose ourselves to those attitudes without sitting through the foul language, sex, and violence that usually accompany them?

On the one hand, I want to say, “Watch the movie. Life and ministry in Europe (and the States, for that matter) requires that we be exposed to things that are not God-honoring. If you’re going to be offended by lost people doing lost people things, how are you going to spend time with them? That’s what the spiritual armor is for.” But on the other hand, I would say, “We’re surrounded by sin. We see it every day. What good can come from exposing ourselves to any more of it?”

So the question remains: How can we be PG people and yet minister in an R-rated world? I guess my answer would be that if we equip our people to be in tune with the Holy Spirit and to be students of the culture, we can be incarnational without becoming carnal.

Emerging

There is an ongoing discussion within the convention about the Emerging Church Movement. Originally, it was seen as a mostly harmless group of “younger” leaders who pushing for authenticity and social involvement. Since then, due to the ambiguous nature and “more questions than answers” style of emergent authors like Brian McLaren, popular opinion has changed. Now, the label “emergent” is equated with “liberal” (or worse). People who are sympathetic to emerging church ideas are accused of abandoning truth in order to make our faith relevant to the world.

I admit that my worldview is different from most of my fellow missionaries. This is due in part to the fact that I am younger and that I was raised outside the Bible Belt. It may also be that living in Western Europe and investing my life into studying the culture and integrating into the community has led me to adopt some of their worldview. Either way, I am not typical.

Unlike most of my coworkers, I have yet to see a contemporary expression of our faith that I am comfortable with. I am tired of labels. I believe in God’s sovereignty, but I can’t stand the arrogance of most Calvinists. I’m open to new ways of doing church and living missionally, but I don’t want to be written off as “emergent,” “Generation X,” or “Postmodernist.” I can’t even grow a goatee. If I were to have a conversation with a member of the Board of Trustees about politics, they would most likely label me a liberal. Theologically, I’m very conservative, but our style of ministry would make many church members back home scratch their heads. I have a hard time trusting institutions; even the one that sends me. I believe that the Bible is without error, but that none of our interpretations is. I believe in truth, but I don’t believe any of us have it contained in a formula, book, or study guide. I am not Purpose Driven.

All of this is to say that most of my questions here are not born of any desire to make the gospel “cool” or “relevant” or “easier to swallow.” I understand that the Truth is offensive, and that it always runs counter to both human nature and the flow of culture. No, my questions aren’t about me making things work for them, I’m trying to make it work for me. (Philippians 2:12,13)

So even though a lot of my posts sound like sermons, and I tend to state my opinions as though they were fact, the purpose of this blog is for me to work out my salvation- my calling and ministry- by asking questions, exploring ideas, and being critical. I appreciate those of you who read, and those who take time to comment. That’s why I’m doing this, um, publicly; to hear from others who might be able to encourage and challenge me.

I want to understand my faith, and to be able to share it with others. I want to plant churches that are free of the modern American religion that I’m having such a hard time with. Marty Duren wrote an excellent post on this at SBC Outpost. If you haven’t read it, you should. I think many of us can relate to what he says about legalism.

One thing I’m becoming aware of is how negative some of my posts may sound. (All of my posts?) In my next couple of posts, I’m going to try to propose some positive solutions for making sense of things for myself and the culture I live in. Please feel free to add your own.

Church in a Box

We’re always looking for churches that are interested in partnering with us as we plant churches here in Western Europe. God has been good to provide us with mission-minded churches that participate sacrificially in what God is doing around the world. Sometimes we go looking for partner churches. Every once in a while, one comes looking for us.

Recently, we were contacted by a well-known megachurch in the Convention that was looking for opportunities to plant “postmodern” churches in Western Europe. For us, that’s a pretty big deal. It’s like landing a big account, picking up a high-profile client, closing a big deal. Or some other corporate term that means “good for us.” Having big and rich partner churches means an unlimited volunteer pool, round-the-clock prayer support, and a few items crossed off the unfunded needs list. Immediately we started planning vision trips and prayer materials for our new partners. It wasn’t until we met with the church leadership back in the States that we realized things we’re going to work out.

Their idea of church planting was to reproduce their successful stateside model in other countries. They explained to me that they had been hard at work putting together resources that would make it easy to implement their strategy. All I had to do was join their church planting network, and for $250 US per year they would send me recordings of their pastor’s sermons and some study materials. My membership also qualified me to shop in their church planting network resources store, where I could buy a state-of the-art sound system, a video projector, and padded seats in one of three tasteful colors. That’s right, they wanted to sell me church in a box.

Picture it: a mini-megachurch in the heart of Western Europe. Weekly sermons, already translated into national languages, ready to be shown on the big screen. A video of inspirational, seeker-sensitive worship music, complete with a powerpoint presentation of the lyrics. The package even included advertising materials, such as professional-quality brochures, vinyl banners, and pre-recorded radio spots.

When I told the church leaders that we were trying to start churches that would be a little more indigenous, they stared blankly. When I asked if we could try something that was a little more culturally appropriate, they offered to take a hundred dollars off the cost of my membership to their church planter’s network. When I outlined our strategy, they laughed. “We’re not going to get involved in anything that won’t let our people see immediate results,” they said. “Our model has been proven to work here in the U.S., and we’re just looking for someone to do it overseas.”

Looking back, the whole interaction sounds silly.

Seeker Sensitive

The Bible doesn’t talk a lot about Jesus’s physical appearance. In Isaiah 53:2 it tells us that Jesus was nothing special to look at. I’ve always taken that to mean that He was just very plain. If he was too handsome, we probably would have read about His following of young girls. And he certainly wasn’t too ugly, because well, an ugly face is hard to forget. But however He looked, people were somehow attracted to Jesus; they listened to what He had to say. I think that what people found attractive about Jesus was the way He treated them. When Jesus spoke to someone, they felt like they were, in that moment, the most important person in the world. They knew that what they thought, how they felt, where they’d been- it all mattered to this man, Jesus. He identified with people, and cared about them. Their sin bothered Him, and they were awarde of it. Their suffering hurt Him, and they were conforted by that. People don’t get that every day. Some people don’t get that ever. I think that was what drew people to Jesus. It’s what drew me to Him, and continues to do so.

I understand the idea of “reaching” people, I really do. Those of us who know Jesus- who have tasted true, full life, have experienced spiritual freedom and forgiveness, and been adopted into God’s family- want others to know Him as well. Besides, we’re commanded to tell all creation (aren’t we?) this good news message. But when I look at the different missions endeavors out there, I see well-intentioned believers undertaking huge campaigns to either make Jesus attractive (seeker sensitive), or to make Him their spokesman (Jesus votes Republican, you should too.) Maybe somewhere along the way, we lost the understanding that people are, well, people. When we make projects of people, we aren’t really loving them.

These days, we try to share life with people by spending time with them and letting them see how people of faith handle the mundane and remarkable aspects of life. We put a lot of effort into “being a blessing” to the individuals around us. Sure, this limits the number of “contacts” we make in the city, but that’s ok by us, because they’re not contacts, they’re people.