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AaI’ve been on a quest lately to trace the roots of the words we use when talking about mission. You know, like the difference between “mission” and “missions.” I’ve written quite a bit about my frustration with poorly-defined, extrabiblical words like “reach” (as in, “reaching the unreached”) and “complete” (as in, “We can complete the Great Commission in our lifetime!”).

Another such word is “missionary.” Obviously, a missionary is someone who has a mission. Being rooted in Latin, the word itself is not found in scripture, but we do see the term apostle (meaning “sent-one”) used in multiple ways that inform our understanding of missionary. In every use, it conveys a sense of sent-ness under the authority of the sender.

What I’ve found is the widespread conflation of three related uses of apostlethe New Testament office of Apostle with missionary gifting and the role of missionary.

The Apostles were the original Twelve disciples of Jesus minus Judas, plus his replacement Matthias, and also Paul. Because they had spent lots of time with Jesus, they were established by the early church as authorities on Christ’s teachings. Of course, these Apostles all died long ago, so we depend on the Scriptures (the New Testament being largely written by Apostles) as our authority on Christ’s teachings.

The “apostolic gifting” is something that is mentioned in Paul’s outline of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 and in Ephesians 4. Paul doesn’t define these gifts, but he does mention in Ephesians 4:12 that they exist “ for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ.” Today, apostolic gifting is commonly understood to be that God-given desire and ability to cross cultures and start ministry in new places.

It’s important to note that while the gifts included in Paul’s list–apostle, prophets, evangelists, teachers, and preachers–are not necessarily given to all believers, the resulting activity of these gifts are expected to be practiced by all of God’s people in some form or another. All Christians should regularly share their faith (evangelism), teach the scriptures (teaching), and proclaim truth (preaching) in some fashion.

Which brings us to the last but most common use of the word, apostle; the role of missionary. Missionaries are those who have been sent out on mission. Regardless of your gifting, if you’ve been sent, you are a missionary. Paul demonstrates this understanding of the word “apostle” by using it to refer to people who neither walked with Jesus (Titus, Epaphriditus, Andronicus, Junia) nor had the gifting of apostle (Barnabas).  In Scripture, we find multiple instances of Christ commissioning His people on His mission.

  • “As the Father has sent me, I also send you.” John 20:21
  • “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:19-20
  • But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8

Of course, you may not be a very good missionary (which is to be expected when leaders in the missions community keep telling you that only those who travel to faraway people are, in fact, missionaries). In this case, you would do well to seek out someone with apostolic gifting. Follow them around for a while. Ask them questions. Learn from them.

God’s mission is too important to be left to the professionals. As God’s people, we have all been sent.

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.

Overcoming the Distance

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Mission is overcoming distance.

Sin separates people from God. This is a spiritual distance that leaves men, women, and children without hope. The Father overcame this distance by living among us and defeating sin through His life, death, and resurrection. God’s people join His mission in overcoming the spiritual distance by proclaiming the Good News for the nations.

Mission also faces the problem of physical distance. It requires overcoming the geographical barriers that separate God’s people from the rest of the world. How can they call upon Him if they haven’t heard? How will they hear unless someone proclaims? Who will proclaim unless they are sent? In order to make disciples, we must go. Sometimes this means getting on a plane, but opportunities to close the physical distance are all around us. We cannot join God’s mission and stay at home.

Which brings us to another distance that must be overcome: cultural. Oftentimes, “the nations” are right next door. Yet because of values, language, and worldview, we face difficulty in relating to people who are different. Cultural distance keeps “Unreached People Groups” being names on a list instead of being our friends, coworkers, and neighbors. Our obedience requires that we move beyond “us” and “them” and into discipling relationships.

In Jesus’ time, social distance was the difference between the “woman at the well” and a Samaritan. Today, it’s the difference between seeing people as “Illegals” and recognizing them as “Lost Treasure.” Social distance is crossed when God’s people deliberately move out of the comfort of homogeneity to live among those who do not share our privilege, advantage, means, or perspective.

Mission cannot be done remotely. There is much distance to be overcome. But as God’s sent-out-ones, we must cross spiritual, physical, cultural, and social barriers with the gospel. This is the mission of the church, and if you’re not involved, you’re not a true disciple of Jesus.

Go We Therefore

I often hear well-intentioned people equate The Great Commission with the Church’s role in God’s global mission. That is to say, they see “go and make disciples of all nations” as defining the mission of the church today. This view of mission, however, is incomplete. Jesus’ instructions to the 150 or so disciples who were present to watch Him ascend into heaven certainly apply to the church today, but it isn’t the entirety of our mission on this earth.

Let me explain:

Throughout the scriptures, God interacts with humans by sending them to accomplish His purposes. He rarely just pops into human history simply to say hello. He sends His people.

  • “Go to the land I will show you” (Genesis 12:1)
  • “Go and speak to the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 3:1)
  • “Who shall I send? And who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6:9).
  • “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you” (Jonah 1:2; 3:1)
  • “Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:3)

The problem is that God send so often, we have to determine when He was sending all Christians for all times in all places, and when He was simply talking to an individual person. At times, God sent individuals (and sometimes groups) to do specific things in His name. In Luke 10, He sent 72 of His followers ahead of Him. In Luke 19, He commanded a couple disciples to borrow a colt for His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. While we recognize the broader application and meaning of these “commissions,” we don’t necessarily interpret these commands as being universal. The question is this: was Jesus speaking to the universal church when He commanded His disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations?” The answer, of course, is yes. And no.

As Christopher Write points out in “The Mission of God’s People,” there’s little evidence that the Great Commission served as the primary motivator of the early church’s missionary expansion. In fact Jesus’ words in Matthew 28 aren’t referred to again in the New Testament.

So there must have been something else that compelled (and propelled) God’s people to deliberately cross cultures with the gospel. They certainly went out boldly proclaiming Christ– most of the apostles were killed for talking about Jesus.

Wright asserts that the “something else” was the early church’s understanding of who they were as God’s people. The disciples knew God’s story, and the Great Commission was their place in it. We find ourselves in that same story. Our sentness doesn’t just lie in Christ’s commands to go, but in our identity as His body and bride. He sent his disciples, (and sends us) just as the Father had sent Him.

In Christ, we are God’s called-out people who are then sent back into the world. Sent to do what? Yes, to make disciples. But also to be salt and light. To love our neighbors. To make peace. To care for widows and orphans. To build up the church. To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

We are a people on mission, but we have not only been sent once.

Ernest Goodman Is Confused, Pt. 3

This is the third part of my response to Jason Bolt, who wrote that I am confused about cessationism and mission. For previous posts, see: Ernest Goodman Is Confused, Pt. 1Part 2.

The opportunity to clarify what one has already said is precious indeed. If you’ve ever played back a conversation in your mind, thinking of all that you should have said, you understand what I mean. My hope here is to clarify so that we may have a productive conversation.

In my original post, I never intended to delve deeply into a discussion of cessationism; my point was that for those who don’t believe God “speaks” today, it makes sense that they would adopt a pragmatic anthropological approach to mission. It seemed to Pastor Bolt that I was confused about the doctrine of cessationism. This very well may be the case; as much as I’ve studied these things, I still have a lot to learn.

Goodman disagrees with himself. All along, he has been arguing that we have to receive special and specific revelation from the Holy Spirit. Now, he has changed his tune and says that we need to conduct our ministry according to Scripture.

This reminds me of one of Charles Spurgeon’s sermons. I’m guessing Pastor Bolt may not be a fan of Spurgeon, but I love the way he approached the topic of the Holy Spirit:

“Many persons have been converted by some striking saying of the preacher. But why was it the preacher uttered that saying? Simply because he was led thereunto by the Holy Spirit. Rest assured, beloved, that when any part of the sermon is blessed to your heart, the minister said it because he was ordered to say it by his Master. I might preach to-day a sermon which I preached on Friday, and which was useful then, and there might be no good whatever come from it now, because it might not be the sermon which the Holy Ghost would have delivered to-day.”  –C. Spurgeon

Are the “Spirit-led” words Spurgeon referred to here “extra biblical revelation?” How can the translation of human speech into soul-piercing conviction to repentance be considered anything other than work of the Holy Spirit (mystical, secret, or otherwise)?

I’m fascinated with this line of thinking. If, for the cessationist, seeking the Spirit’s guidance in mission amounts to a seance, what else also falls into this category? Should we ask for wisdom, or is that “secret knowledge?” What about conviction? If the Spirit convicts me of spending too much time with my campanology club, is that “extra-biblical revelation?” Of course we need to conduct our ministry according to Scripture. But according to whose understanding and interpretation of Scripture?

Throughout the article, Goodman answers the question of whether or not God has a secret will for believers with a resounding “yes.” Yet, in the end, he specifically answers this question by saying, “I don’t know.” If he really does not know, then why did he write the article?

The term “specific will” is a theological one that I’m not sure I support; that God has mapped out every step of our lives, and that one wrong step makes every subsequent step sin. Yet every example of a missionary we have in the scriptures was guided by the Spirit. So what seems like a contradiction here is really just me trying to be clear: the Spirit illuminates scriptural commissions to us, and we respond accordingly. We don’t blindly float from feeling to feeling, but neither do we lean entirely on our own understanding. God hasn’t left us alone in His mission; why would we act as though He had?

In this series of posts, I’ve deliberately avoided pointing out how few cessationists you’ll find on the international mission field. I’ve been careful not to refer to anecdotal evidence of the Spirit’s guidance in mission. I’ve intentionally ignored the many stories of those missionaries who were providentially given specific words, led into a particular village, or out of harm’s way. I will point out, however, that God’s direct, personal involvement in His mission is consistent with what we read in scripture. It is God who sends His church on His mission, and he uses His Spirit to stir the hearts of his servants to action. 

Ernest Goodman Is Confused, Pt. 2

This is the second part of my response to Jason Bolt, who wrote that I am confused about cessationism and mission. For Part 1, see: Ernest Goodman Is Confused, Pt. 1

However, he immediately contradicts himself by saying, “Even if someone meets all the criteria for service, we cannot assume it is good to send him out.” Let me get this strait. The calling is secretly and mystically received by an individual, and then the calling is affirmed by the local church. However, the local church does not send the person based upon whether or not he meets all the criteria. Exactly what, then, is the role of the local church? Goodman does not say. What is clear is that Goodman believes the local church should send missionaries based upon something other than what is written in the pages of the Bible.

That’s me, a walking contradiction.

My point here is that our criteria for sending is not only some checklist of qualities and qualifications, but also a spiritual unity of the sending church. This is reached through prayer (and sometimes fasting), as the Spirit of God brings the opinions of the pastors in line with Christ (who is the head of the church). Paul and Barnabas weren’t sent out simply because they were good missionary candidates, they were sent because the Spirit “set them apart” and showed that to the church as they worshipped.

If a person meets all the criteria and wants to go, the local church should send him. It’s that simple. We don’t need mystic revelation to reach these wise and good conclusions.

What are the criteria for “missionary?” Where do these come from? What is the candidate is qualified, yet doesn’t want to go? What if he’s both qualified and willing to be sent, but he is needed in his local church? Why should we “pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:38) if God has nothing to do with the calling and sending of his people?

Scripture very clearly tells us that the mission of the Church is to teach all the nations to obey what Christ has commanded.

It sounds like Pastor Bolt is equating “the mission of the church” to the “Great Commission.” I’d encourage him to read more of the Bible (and not just the classic “sending” passages) in light of the Sending. In his book, The Mission Of God’s People, C. Wright points out that if the Great Commission is the totality of the church’s motivation for mission, why isn’t it mentioned again in the New Testament? I’m not saying that it isn’t a very succinct and central commissioning of God’s people on His mission, but the mission of the church is founded on more than one passage of scripture. We know from the whole counsel of Scripture that we serve a God who has always sent His people. With that in mind, the mission of God’s people is to obey Him in His mission to glorify Himself through the redemption of His creation.

Using statistics and ethnography to figure out where those nations are located is wise and good. Why do we need the Holy Spirit to secretly tell us to minister among a certain people when God has already told us to minister among all people?

I’m a little less trustful of human wisdom than the Pastor seems to be. Human wisdom was reflected in the number of men Gideon brought to battle before God reduced their numbers from 32,000 to 300 (Judges 7). Human wisdom values efficiency and effectiveness, neither of which are necessarily Kingdom values. We’ve all seen as much damage done by “It just makes sense” as by “God told me to.”

God has indeed told us to make disciples of all nations. Not to nitpick, but a single ministry to “all people” is not possible. You can’t reach out in every direction at once. With which tribe, language, or nation will you begin? How does a church determine where to allocate resources and where to pass up perfectly good opportunities? When is the work in a particular place finished? Like Paul, we rely on the Spirit to show us where to engage.

As I’ve explained here on the blog before, equating the biblical terminology “nations” to the modernistic concept of “ethnolinguistic people groups” is a relatively new thing. It makes perfect sense to define mission from this anthropological perspective if you believe that God no longer interacts with His people in real-time.

Evangelism: Goodman argues that the evangelist is supposed to say different things to different people and that the only way he can know what to say to specific people is for the Holy Spirit to mystically and secretly tell him what to say to specific people.

The great thing about the gospel is that you can communicate it in any number of ways. When He was questioned, Jesus would sometimes answer plainly, sometimes with a story or a question. Paul did the same, quoting local poets and citing cultural traditions in his presentations of the gospel. Some preach it from a pulpit, others share it one-on-one. Some start with our hope in Christ, others begin with “all have sinned.” How you present the gospel is a huge factor in how it’s received. The work of the missionary is to translate the universal, unchanging Good News into dynamic, ever-changing, sinful culture. This work is never finished (this side of heaven), and it takes a certain amount of skill to do well.

Fortunately, the eternal destiny of the nations does not depend on my speaking ability. I’m sure Pastor Bolt is pretty skilled at interpersonal communication, but I sometimes struggle. I depend on God to speak through me– to use the inadequate words of an inadequate man to communicate a universal, divine Truth.

However, orthodox Christianity teaches that the evangelist is to proclaim the gospel. He is to proclaim the gospel to man, woman, Jew, Greek, slave, and freeman alike. The Bible very clearly reveals what the gospel is, so there is no reason for the evangelist to seek extra-biblical guidance as to what to say to any specific person.

Which clear biblical presentation is Pastor Bolt referring to here? 1 Corinthians 15:1-8? John 3:16? Romans 3:23? There isn’t one single way to communicate that God sent His Son to die in place of sinful, undeserving people and rose again to the glory of the Father. This is why we ask God to give us the words (mystically or otherwise) that will clearly communicate the message to our audience.

Hopefully, all of this is beneficial to our readers.

Next: Ernest Goodman Is Confused, Pt. 3

Ernest Goodman Is Confused, Pt. 1

spotlightI recently mentioned a blogger who has called me “confused” about cessationism and missiology. Jason Bolt, elder at Truth Reformed Bible Church in Golden, Colorado, is the author of that post, and he’s graciously offered to engage with me in a bit of dialog about the matter. Here is the first part of my response:

Goodman argues that Reformed missionaries take some “theological leaps” in order to arrive at their view of the sufficiency of Scripture.

I believe in the sufficiency of Scripture. I believe that it is the complete revelation of God for mankind. I also believe, however, that God does not leave us to our own devices in the interpretation of Scripture. Rather, He has given us the Holy Spirit, who illuminates the scriptures to us.

He then goes on to explain how the Holy Spirit orchestrates mission efforts by secretly and mystically communicating to individual missionaries.

Of course, I didn’t actually write “secretly” or “mystically,” that’s Pastor Bolt’s commentary on my position. God’s will is plain for all to read (where the scripture is available to them). It’s the understanding and application of that will that requires the intervention of the Spirit. As I mentioned in my post, this doesn’t happen “secretly,” but in the context of the local church. The church is the context for interpreting God’s Word and discerning how to respond in obedience.

Revelation is information about God. Illumination is about us; God shows us how to respond to His truth. It is why we pray for wisdom (which is also not “extra-biblical revelation”). Pastor Bolt may find this to be “mystical,” but the Bible refers to it as spiritual (Romans 8:2-6).

“No one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.” (1 Corinthians 2:11b-13)

The Spirit doesn’t give us some new, secret revelation. He guides us in our understanding of what God has already said. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he heard he will speak.” (John 16:13)

Left to our ourselves, our sinful minds misunderstand and misinterpret the Scriptures. We twist and distort the truth at our convenience and we naturally “exchange the truth about God for a lie.” This is why Paul greets the Ephesian church by praying that “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints.” (Ephesians 1:17-18)

With Goodman’s insistence on seeking the revelation of God’s secret will outside of the Bible, he rejects the sufficiency of Scripture in practice. If he believed the Scripture to be sufficient, there would be no need for him to seek God’s secret will outside of the Bible.

And so we come to the question of mission. If we conclude that the Spirit of God is silent today, how would one ever come to interpret Matthew 28:19-20 as motivation to move to Northern India? Based solely on a human reading of scripture, how does a church determine where to focus their efforts in mission? How does a church come to prioritize one need over another unless God helps them interpret “as the Father has sent me, even so I send you”? This is why Paul reminds the Roman church that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are Sons of God.” (Romans 8:14)

The point of my original post was to explore why some of my favorite reformed theologians continue to promote an anthropological view of mission. If they believe that the Spirit does not communicate to His people today, it makes sense that they would approach mission as a list of names to be checked off of a list. The problem is that this approach to mission is not demonstrated anywhere in Scripture.

Perhaps Pastor Bolt may be able to help me understand. But in the meantime, I can’t help but think that it’s due to a certain amount of Modernism that they’ve adopted; one that values human logic, effort, and scholarship over the the Lord’s leadership.

Next: Ernest Goodman Is Confused, Pt. 2

If Everything Is Mission

Drawing A Narrow Definition

“If everything is mission,” Stephen Neill famously said, “then nothing is mission.”

Except, for God’s people, everything really is mission.

I understand the sentiment. There are too many churches who repave their parking lots out of their “Missions” budgets and too few international missionaries making disciples among those who have not heard the gospel. But the answer to the problem of a huge number of Christians acting like bad missionaries is not to draw a more narrow definition.

The problem is one of discipleship. For too long now, churches have been content to make Almost Disciples. These are churched people who have responded in some way to the gospel, joined a church, and are now being fed information about God. An Almost Disciple is considered to be spiritually mature when his sin is less obvious and he’s taken on more responsibly at church. He tries to manage his family and his money well. He supports missions, ministries, and certain political issues. For many, this is Christianity in America.

“Real missionaries”– the ones who’ve left their homes and their families to join foreign cultures in order to be and make disciples of Jesus– resent “Almost Disciples” claims to be “missionaries.” Surely playing a round of golf with guys from work shouldn’t fall into the same category as sneaking into a hotel to teach persecuted new believers Jesus’ teaching about taking up one’s cross. Should it?

Mission isn’t defined by difficulty. It’s not determined by our sacrifice. Mission is God’s redemptive work among humanity, which brings glory to Him. As His called-out people, we are sent into all the world to be His ambassadors. This is our part on God’s mission. The specifics– the timing, the location, the position– these are up to God. He organizes His church on His mission.

It is unwise to try to draw a more narrow definition of mission, because, for God’s people, everything is mission. When we tell the church otherwise– that the “front lines” are over there and not here– we only encourage the sort of behavior we oppose. If you tell people they aren’t missionaries, don’t be surprised if they don’t act like missionaries.

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?