A Way and The Way

Oftentimes, our modern need to be right can lead us to put the gospel in the box of our apologetic. The problem with doing this is that we can miss the implications of the gospel. We ignore what it can mean for what we’re sure it must mean.

A good example of this is our use of John 14:6 to underscore the exclusivity of Jesus as savior. He claims to be the way, the truth, and the life; we tend to add emphasis to the the. We want everyone to know that Jesus is the only way, the only truth, and the only life.

The problem is that in our efforts to underscore this universal truth (and it is, no doubt, universally true), we loose some of the “good news” found within. The good news isn’t that Jesus is the only way, but that there is a way at all. That in God’s grace and beautiful plan, He provided a way for us to see and to know Him. For those who have tried to reach God through the many “ways” that the world offers, to anyone who has no hope that such a way even exists, this is truly good news!

That Jesus is the only way, that’s actually the “bad news” side of the gospel. It’s the truth that our idols don’t, won’t, and can’t save us. It’s the offensive, stumbling block that make many rich young rulers turn and go away sad.

My question is this: Are we so focused on communicating the exclusivity of Jesus that we fail to communicate the amazing truth that there is a Way at all? Yes, Jesus is the only way; but by starting the conversation with this, are we insuring that people don’t hear that He is A way to God?

Are we so afraid of syncretism (people trying to fit Jesus into their own pagan frameworks) that we err on the side of sabotaging the effective communication of the gospel?

Contextualization

Contextualization is the active work of translating the gospel into a culture that doesn’t have an indigenous expression of Christianity. The problem is that we all seem to be “contextualizing” for a culture that we don’t live in. We all look alike because we were all mentored by the same six guys (John, Rick, Mark, Brian, Tim, and Andy). We look like them because we know we don’t want to look like where we came from. We assume that if it seems new and cool and more biblically sound than whatever it is we’re reacting to, that it’s suitable for the context in which we minister.

Slapping a new coat of paint on the same old conventions is not contextualization. We need to be sure we’re contextualizing for the context to which we’re called- the ones in which we find ourselves. It won’t do to make your church look like someone else’s. You can’t just steal somebody else’s sermon. You can’t pipe in a great speaker who doesn’t know your context. You must be an expert in the people to whom you minister.

If you don’t do the missionary work of contextualization, you still can grow your church. But it won’t belong to the culture in which it’s planted. In order to be discipled in the foreign system you set up, people will have to first be converted to your culture- the one you imported from Grapevine, Texas, or Minneapolis, Minnesota, or Seattle, Washington. Then, you’ll find yourself having to train people to interact with the culture from which you’ve extracted them.

Which is the point, really- contextualization should be worked into the essence of every expression of Christianity. It is the key to indigenous church, and it is the key to communicating the gospel in a way that connects with your audience.

So you should wear cool glasses. If you have hair, you should either spike it up or grow it out. If you can handle a neckbeard, that’d be good. Do your best to squeeze into skinny jeans. Find a keffiyeh, and wear it even when it’s 90 degrees out. Watch Lost and 30 Rock. Talk about when Grey’s Anatomy jumped the shark. Become a vegan, or at least a part-time vegetarian. Listen to hip-hop, indie bands, alt-country, and  Drink fair trade coffee-with organic soy milk, of course. You also need to ride a fixed-gear bike, smoke a cigars, drink microbrewed beer, and play hours of video games. Get a Mac, and talk about how long it’s been since you even tried using a PC. Oh, and an iPhone. You definitely need an iPhone.

Why? Contextualization, of course. But to which context?

My point is this: contextualization isn’t looking like the culture; it’s having lived in the culture. It’s how you think and communicate after putting yourself in someone else’s shoes for a while. Knowing the way it feels. Understanding how people treat you when you’re one of them. The experience is what makes you able to translate the gospel into a (sub)culture in a way that makes sense to the people who live there.

If you’re ministering to the homeless, you might try spending a night (or a month) on the street. If you’re in a community of Arabs, you should consider praying 5 times a day, seasoning your conversation with, “God willing,” and skipping the pulled-pork sandwich. Not to fool them into thinking you’re the same as them. You’re not. But until you’ve put yourself in their shoes, you really don’t have any idea what life it like for them- what’s important to them, what speaks to them, how they see you as an outsider.

Lugging around a camera doesn’t make you an artist, but it might help you understand one. Understanding one is key to communicating with him. Communicating with him is the key to sharing the gospel with him in a way that he can understand and respond to.

Everyone A Missionary?

We’ve got to stop distinguishing between “missions” and, well, “not missions.”

The old paradigm was this: ministry is sharing the gospel. If you preached to believers, you were called a “pastor.” If you preached to non-Christians in your own culture, you were an “evangelist.” If you needed a passport to get there, you were a “missionary.” If those distinctions were ever helpful, they certainly aren’t today. Not when “the nations” are moving in next door and going to school with your kids. Not when there is yet to be an expression of Christianity that is truly free from modern rational humanism. We’re all missionaries because there is no “home.”

The division has resulted in “that’s not my job calling” on both sides of the divide. Many missionaries today see the church as a major distraction from their focus on evangelizing unbelieving people. Most churches outsource missions to a homely couple they send money to and pray for once a year.

The new paradigm is simple: all Christians are missionaries. They must be, because none of us are at “home.” Even if your ministry is to a group of people that you grew up with- a group that looks, talks, and acts just like you- you must recognize that your transformation in Christ necessarily makes you an outsider- a foreigner- to even your own culture. You can’t afford to assume that you are ministering in your own context. You don’t have a context in the world anymore.

Saying that all Christians are missionaries doesn’t mean we’re all good missionaries. Most Christians lack the skill, sensitivity, intentionality, and to truly be effective missionaries. Most Christians don’t worry about working to enter and engage culture because they think they’re already immersed in it. They may be, but the vast majority still step out of their cultures and subcultures and into an artificial “Christian” one every Sunday in order to worship and be discipled. We need missionaries.

If you are a Prius-driving, Lego-modding Starbucks barista, you’re uniquely qualified to be the missionary to that tribe. If you’re a Mac-using, soccer-mompreneur PTA member, your job is to incarnate the gospel among your people. It’s not enough for you to just try to fit in. You were saved to live out a Christ-transformed life in the midst of your social circles. You are where you are for a purpose.

There is no “home” and “foreign.” You are a missionary.

The Counterintuitive Church (pt.2, The Gaps)

PREVIOUSLY: The Counterintuitive Church

Despite the Church’s current tendency toward extreme pragmatism, much of the life that Jesus calls us to is counter-intuitive.

But that doesn’t seem to stop us from depending (almost entirely!) on our human logic when it comes to our missiology. Why is that? Why would we assume that a counterintuitive God would leave us to do things in ways that make sense to our rational process?

As a church planter begins to think about where (geographically) to begin, he almost always looks at where there isn’t a church. The thinking, I suppose, is that you don’t want two churches side by side (except, I suppose, in the Bible Belt, where neighboring churches often fight over parking space). So the planter looks as a map of the city, and decides to focus on the next largest area that doesn’t have a church. It just makes sense to do it that way.

Same thing with missionaries; they look at unengaged people, unreached groups. They assign people to villages that have no (known) evangelical work. It makes the work manageable to look for the gaps and fill them.

Churches are obsessed with the gaps. We want to know what we’re not doing, and then do that. No program for recovering cross-dressers? We feel like we need one. No church for the tattooed-and-pierced crowd? Light some candles and call it good. It just makes sense to start with need and then come up with a solution to meet that need.

But that’s not how God did things in the scriptures. I’m not convinced it’s the way He does things today, either. It didn’t make sense to Peter that God would tell him (in a dream) to focus his ministry on the unclean (and undeserving) Gentiles. It didn’t make sense to Paul that the Spirit would prevent him from going to Asia.

What if God is calling you to plant a church in a neighborhood that already has several? Rather than compete, you might see your work as a demonstration of Christian unity. What if God wants your church planting team to focus on a people group that is, statistically, “reached?” He, in His wisdom, might use your ministry to send members of that “reached” group to take the gospel to the unreached.

My point is this- the gaps aren’t the best place to start. God is the best place to start.

NEXT: Distribution

Learning the Rules

Nearly anyone can live abroad. But incarnation is about more than just location. Successfully entering a culture that is different from yours requires that you learn the rules. If you’re trying to influence across cultures, the rules are crucial.

Society is made up of rules. There are rules for how a person should act in a given situation. There are rules for personal interaction, managing your money, and the volume of your conversation in public. There are rules about when it’s appropriate to make noise in your apartment building. There are rules for seating on the bus. What you wear, where you walk, how you order your coffee; there’s a rule for everything.

There are always consequences for breaking the rules. At best, being a rule-breaker will get you labeled (foreigner, rude, ignorant, proud). At worst, failure to follow the rules will get you removed from the community altogether. (Okay, so maybe that’s not the worst thing that could possibly happen, but you get my meaning here.) This is why many missionaries are marginalized, ignored, or “persecuted.” It’s not their message; nobody’s hearing that. They don’t have a voice because they’re trying to apply the rules of a culture two thousand miles away (or two thousand years ago) to their host culture.

Learning the rules can be very difficult, because they aren’t posted anywhere for you. No, you have to do your homework if you want access. The shortcut of mimicry will surely have you breaking all of the rules. You can’t deduct the rules by observing how insiders live. Often, their behavior seems to contradict their rules. There’s probably a rule about that. The rules are not the same for everybody. Even if you’re language-capable enough to ask, no one would be able to tell you all the rules because those who operate inside the culture assume that everyone shares their perspective on things. They don’t know that the rules where you come from are different from theirs. But you do. That’s the first thing you learn on the mission field.

Lifesavers and Letter Writing

LifesaversI hate when people give advice about evangelism. “What you need to do,” they start, “is buy a five-pound bag of individually-wrapped Lifesavers candy. Then, print about five hundred business cards with the plan of salvation on the back. Staple a lifesaver to each of the business cards, and ask people if they’d like a lifesaver. When they say yes, (because, I mean, everybody likes Lifesavers, right?) then you tell them that you’d like to give them a REAL lifesaver. Then you tell them about Jesus Christ.”

Okay, so that story isn’t mine. But a friend actually had a well-intentioned church member share this bit of evangelistic wisdom with him. It “works” for this guy, surely it would be equally effective in any setting. People can’t resist a “hook” like that. If they had Lifesavers in Jesus’ time, He would have used them, too.

Did I mention that I hate when people give evangelism advice?

So here’s my advice. If you’re a fairly healthy, socially adept individual, please move on; this advice isn’t for you. But if you were raised in church, you’re likely as socially awkward as I am. You might need this.

Sometimes, the hardest part about talking to someone about Jesus is bringing it up. Since we were raised in a sheltered subculture that didn’t help us make connections between our faith and “real life,” we often have trouble expressing ourselves on spiritual matters without resorting to clichés and religious words that don’t really mean anything to anyone outside our circles. To make matters worse, we’ve been trained to talk to strangers about Jesus. That’s easy. We’ve been convinced that the people around us will surely ridicule us for our beliefs, so we’re prepared to take that sort of rejection. Someone calls you a freak when you share your faith? Good for you, you’re suffering for the cause of Christ. But our friends? That’s much more difficult. There’s nothing worse then the “persecution” of being snubbed by your best friend the next time you run into them at Starbucks.

Why not write a letter? Not a letter outlining the four spiritual laws. Not sharing your faith. Write a personal letter telling your friend that you’d like to get together to talk with them about your spirituality. Tell them why you find it uncomfortable. Express your intentions- not to convert them but to share your experience. Tell them that you fear their rejection. Explain your frustration with your own inability to talk about these things without using church words. Tell them that you feel stupid for not being about to talk to your best friend about something that is so important to you. Tell them you’re sorry for being socially inept. Make an appointment with them for a time to talk about Jesus.

I’ve found that talking about Jesus isn’t nearly as weird for our friends as it is for us. They’re not emotionally hung up about it. They can talk about it like any other topic. We’re the ones who make it strange. In fact, I suspect that if you write a letter like this, your friend would respond. They would probably bring it up. They may even hold you accountable and not let you wimp out. If they know it’s important to you, they’ll likely come prepared to talk about it.

But don’t do the Lifesavers-stapled-to-a-tract trick. That’s ridiculous.

The Sabido Method

Mexican TelenovelaHave you ever watched one of those insanely melodramatic Mexican soap operas? You know, the ones with beautiful women, beautiful men, and lots of crying and screaming and face-slapping? You may not know this, but those telenovelas have great influence. Believe it or not, they are intentionally filled with subtle, even subversive messages.

In the 1970s, Miguel Sabido, a market researcher for a Mexican television studio, developed a way to influence audiences through storytelling. He started by writing a diversity of characters into the story lines of the popular serialized shows. He branched out from the “good guy/bad guy” architypes and introduced flawed (yet beautiful) protagonists that viewers could relate to. Every story, no matter what the plot, was a tale of change. The good characters would struggle with their secret badness; the bad guys would occasionally surprise everyone by doing something good. All of this, of course, had been done before (and, to be sure, better.)

Sabido’s goal was to influence viewers in positive ways. He did so by having the characters in his soaps deal with serious real-life issues. He tackled racism. Sex. Abortion. Death. As his characters changed and grew through these challenges, his viewers changed and grew as well.

Through storytelling, Sabido engaged millions of people with his agenda. He got them talking about family planning, sexual health, and other social issues. Many people credit his efforts for the plateaued population growth in Mexico. In a way, it was propaganda; weaving social and political messages into popular media programming. In communication theory, it’s called the “Sabido Method.” No matter what you call it, stories are powerful influencers.

Silver SpoonsYou might be more familiar with the Sabido Method than you think. Remember when your favorite sitcoms in the 1980s and 90s would air “Very Special Episodes?” Like when Blair from The Facts of Life was nearly raped, or when Kimberly Drummond from Diff’rent Strokes suffered from bulimia? The characters of Alex P. Keaton, Ricky Stratton, Punky Brewster, and Mike Seaver were all used to shape our social behavior and attitudes concerning everything from suicide to racism.

In life’s soap opera, God’s story, we are the characters. He uses the story arcs of our lives to incite, inform, engage, and influence. Being missional is publicly living our story instead of insisting on skipping to the moral at the end.

Getting Lost In The Story

Why do millions of people around the world tune in every week (many are even willing to pay for it) to watch a convoluted, (half-baked?), confusing serialized television show about plane crash victims stranded on a mysterious island?

The story.

Questions. Unexpected twists. Attention to detail. Artistic nuance. Mythologies. Love. Danger. The unknown. Intentional lack of resolution. Good and evil. The Supernatural. It draws people in and it hold their attention. It evokes a response and inspires creativity. Communities are built around it.

Contrast that with most presentations of the gospel “story.” A neatly packaged presentation that is clear, concise, and full of answers. A “subjective” third-hand account where the allegorical dots are connected by lines of propositional truth. It does little to intrigue and works to leave nothing unexplained. Our story sounds tired, contrived, and commercial.

We have a lot to learn about being storytellers.

The Identity Business

Sure their computers are prettier and crash a lot less than everyone else’s, but Mac users are more than just adopters of an alternative operating system. They’re members of a club. If you’ve ever been evangelized by a Mac user, you know what I mean. It’s more than a computer, it’s a way of life. Mac users look at the world differently than PC users. They dress alike and hang out in coffee shops. All it takes for entry into the club is a thousand dollars (the cost of a MacBook). 
Apple isn’t just selling hardware and software; with every shiny new iPod and Mac they’re selling identity. 
Mark Driscoll is selling the same thing (for a lot less, though). You can see his admirers and devotees planting churches across the country. They’re bold, they’re sarcastic, they’re unashamedly reformed. They major on the majors, like good theology, social action, and character. They drink, smoke cigars, and watch a lot of movies. They have iPhones, blogs and Flickr pages. They are unimpressed by denominations and traditions, and there are likely one or two of them planting churches in your area
Sure, you could call members of Driscoll’s tribe or the Mac Club “followers.” You could criticize them for not being unique or original. 
I say, why aren’t more of us providing identity? People are looking for a way to make sense of their world, a way to understand who they are in relation to everything else. In Christ, we have that identity. 
I think that would be good news for a lot of people. 

Takes One To Know One

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

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