Get A Hobby

Get a hobby.

This is my advice for Christians everywhere, and especially those who are intentional about living out their faith in culture. For some reason, many believers act as though time spent doing anything other than witnessing and studying the Bible is time wasted. But those same people have an extremely difficult time relating to and interacting with nonbelievers. I say, get a hobby.

Think of all the people in your town, and all that those people are into. Shopping (malls, garage sales, eBay). Collecting (stamps, Beanie Babies, cars, antiques). Projects (art, crafts, home renovations, fund raisers). Sports (golf, softball, leagues and pick-up games). Clubs (book clubs, crafts, support groups). Video games. Blogging. Tattoos.

These “hobbies” are much more than that. These are the activities that define the people who participate in them. They spend lots of time and money on their hobbies, and they aren’t alone. Even the most solitary of activities can foster a real sense of community among the people who participate. These are affinity groups.

To speak into- to influence- an affinity group, you’ve got to do more than just know about whatever it is they do. Mac users have some sort of internal radar that can identify a PC user from a mile away. Scrapbookers can find stories and memories in what you’ve thrown out as garbage. Civil War “reinactors, ” well, they’re a breed unto themselves. But if you aren’t in, you’re out.

These groups have their unique cultures, languages, and moral codes. If you had a hobby, you might be able to be a Light among other enthusiasts. You might be able to show fellow Lord of the Rings fans the Truth behind their favorite epic tale. You could have the opportunity to share Christ as your motivation for volunteering, giving, or playing. Perhaps you might find yourself in the middle of a group of people who enjoy great fellowship and never run out of things to talk about.

Or, you could read a book about how to engage lost people.

Between 2% and Porterhouse

My team had an interesting discussion over the last couple of days. This isn’t as remarkable as it might sound, but while most people spend Christmas talking about football and shopping, our team talks about ecclesiology. Who says we aren’t committed to our jobs? (And no, there is no truth to the rumor that we deliberately discussed “work” issues in an attempt to justify paying for a turkey dinner out of our “Office Expense” accounts.)

I’ve posted before about my frustrations with communication and word definitions. It seems like every attempt we make at defining or describing what we believe (and why) is lost as the words we use are co-opted by others who use those same words to put a new face on traditionalisms. We’ve even confused ourselves as we struggle to work through the implications of what we say we’re about. Our conversation this week, for example, began with this question: When one of our friends becomes a believer, can we really disciple him/her in their existing social structure?

Conventional missionaries today have begun to adopt the terms “relational,” “incarnational,” and “missional,” but their thought on evangelism and discipleship is usually something like this: Missionaries share the gospel, nationals hear it, some reject it, others respond. Those who respond are then grouped together to form the beginnings of a “church.” Another school proposes to switch the order to “group them and win them,” in order to disciple people within community.

Our collective experience has taught us that although this sort of “winning/grouping” approach to church planting sounds like a good strategy, it actually does quite a bit to hinder the “indigenousness” of the foundation that we lay. Individual believers are separated from their natural social groups and placed into these artificial, “Christian” ones for the sake of support and encouragement. But that separation greatly reduces the new believer’s influence in the relationships he/she had, and because the bulk of his/her spiritual transformation takes place in private (church), it has little positive impact on the community. It doesn’t take long for these new Christians to be so far removed from their own culture that they need to be trained to interact with their lost friends.

So we, despite using the same words, have tried to do things a little differently. Our team’s idea has always been to disciple people from wherever they are spiritually to maturity in Christ, without removing them from their existing social environment. Our discussion this week began with a current situation. A friend has recently shown some interest in Jesus. We can see him opening up to us and to the faith we’re always talking about. We pray that he will soon be saved. Naturally, this friend lives a lifestyle that does not honor God. He is addicted to drugs and he regularly participates in “trance parties” (Raves put on by “Shaman” DJs who use techno music to entrance partygoers in a pagan spiritual frenzy that sometimes last days and days). Let’s say he becomes a believer- can we leave him in that environment and expect him to grow in his faith and be an effecting witness to the people around him?

Again, most people would say no. They would argue that this friend needs to be removed from the dangerous situation so that he can overcome the sin that has bound him, and grow in his faith. I disagree (You expected as much).

I say that the role of the missionary (and yes, this is different from what most would say,) is to serve as spiritual “life-support” for the new believer as they struggle to work out their salvation within their own cultural context. This might mean that we meet with a national believer to disciple and encourage them, but we never “invite them to church.” Instead, we pray for God to move among the new believer’s circle of friends. We instruct him/her in righteousness, allowing the Holy Spirit to convict them of sin. We encourage him/her to share their faith, and pray for the day when God moves among his/her sphere of influence to plant a church there.

But nobody does it this way. For most of us, this approach is too messy, too limited, and it takes too long. What if they never feel convicted about certain sins? What if they never know another believer? What if, ten years down the road, they’re still struggling with basic holiness and remedial theology. How long can a believer survive on only spiritual milk?

It seems to me that our discomfort with Christians who are struggling to make sense of their faith has led us to impose a behavioral conformity that ignores the personal tension that salvation brings. When drug addicts and homosexuals get saved, we require that they immediately stop being those things, and start acting “Christianly.” From the outside, it would seem that we interpret the word “repentance” to mean that upon salvation, a person must suddenly exchange public sins for private ones. You cannot be a drug-using, foul-mouthed, homosexual Christian, but an over-eating, gossip who struggles with lust just has “a few things to work on.” Is Christianity only about (openly) sinning less?

Leaving a drug addict in a circle of drug addicted friends might seem like a bad idea, but it would allow the addict to see how his newfound faith applies to his real life. It would also allow his friends to see his personal transformation first-hand and allow them to actually participate in it. The power of salvation is most evident when it contrasts with the stark reality of the situation from which we are saved. The soil in which a seed takes root is sufficient for that new plant.

Continuing the thoughts of my previous post: what we need is not more Christians trying to “reach” the “people of the world,” but more “people of the world” trying to work out what it means for them to be a Christian.

One Punk, Under God, On TV

A couple of weeks ago, I itunsed the first episode of “One Punk, Under God,” a six-part documentary on the life of Jay Bakker (Jim and Tammy Faye’s son). It basically tells the story of his unique childhood (growing up in a Christian theme park?) and his life now, as the pastor of Revolution, a church he started in an Atlanta bar. Whether you’re a fan of Jay’s or not, the series is something that’s been needed for a long time. Specifically, it’s a creatively-made look into the life of a real person who is struggling to make sense of his faith.

For some reason, any time an evangelical gets in front of a television camera, he/she feels the need to preach a sermon (or a political speech, but that’s another post). The problem is that television evangelists have been around for a long time. Their crazy theology, bad hair, and pleas for money have inoculated the world against any bit of truth that they might present. Most end up on the Tonight Show punch line end of a scandal. All that telling and so little showing has left people with spiritually debilitating assumptions about the gospel and it’s relevance to real life. Now, here comes Jay Bakker, who is honest about the messy side of his life in Christ, and millions of people (many for the first time in their lives) see someone who calls himself a Christian but doesn’t presume to have all of the answers.

Again, my point here is not Bakker’s show. There’s been lots of talk in the blogosphere about his theology, and some are concerned that he’s not a good representative of the faith. I say we need to present more “real live” Christians (good examples or not) and fewer talking heads on the “O’Reilly Factor.” To me, this is the incarnation that’s been lacking for some time now.

So why don’t we see more documentaries like this one, or like Morgan Spurlock’s “30 Days” series, done by believers? It’s not like we don’t have the equipment- how many of our churches have crack A/V teams?

This summer, we’re bringing in a team of media students to do just this sort of thing. I’ve got some really creative, interesting, and articulate team members who will be the subject of this short series we’re going to do. I don’t want them to preach, and we’ll edit out any prepared remarks. We’re looking for authentic Christianity as it’s lived out in real life. The goods and the bads, the highs and the lows.

I think that’s what’s been missing from our “witness.”

Taking Advantage

Backyard Bible Clubs. Youth Camp. Sports ministries. If you do any of these as evangelistic outreach, I’ve got a question for you: are you taking advantage of children?

Yeah, I know- you came to faith through VBS when you were six years old. If it “worked” for you, it can’t be that bad, right?

Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that a group of Muslims come to visit your town. They’re prepared with snacks and games and crappy little crafts with Popsicle sticks. They blanket your neighborhood with fliers announcing: Games! Clowns! Snacks! Crafts! Fun!

Or say you don’t see the fliers, but you’re at the park with your kids. There you are, minding your own business, eating your Chick-fil-a picnic lunch, and said group of Muslims approach your kids with balloons and puppets and invite them to participate in their Backyard Koran Club. You look around and see veiled women hanging around the playground. Young peachfuzz-bearded men picking teams for a game of non-competitive Red-Rover. How would you feel?

My European friends have convinced me: children’s “ministries” are a dangerous thing.
The problem is that we put children in a position to be overwhelmingly influenced by us. We orchestrate situations full of “positive” peer pressure. We give gifts and Kool-Aid and ask them to give their hearts to Jesus. Is this fair? What are the long-term affects of child evangelism?

You might disagree, and quote Mark 10 (Where Jesus said, “Let the little children come unto me.”) I’m just not sure that meant “Dupe the little kids into saying the Sinner’s prayer.”

Remember youth camp? We take impressionable 13-17 yr. olds out of their familiar surroundings, and keep them in a controlled, “Christian” environment, where they are taught by super-cool counselors. They get no sleep, they eat trash, and every evening we coax an emotional response out of them through hours upon hours of pep-rallies (“We love Jesus, yes we do, we love Jesus, how ’bout you?!”), guilt-trip sermons (“Come, nail all your sins to this cross.”), and endless “Just As I Am” invitations. Is this fair? These are children! We don’t want cigarette and beer companies to advertise to them, but it’s okay if we do?

You might say, “Yeah, but we’re right! Don’t you want to see children come to faith?” Of course I do. But I want everyone who comes to faith to do so without coercion. I want a generation of born-again believers, not “I-said-the-prayer” cultural Christians. I want parents to know that we care about them and their children, whether or not they become Christians. I want parents to know what we’re teaching their children, and how, and why.

I believe the word should be taught to children. We should be telling Bible stories, sharing difficult truths, and praying with and for our children. But I think child evangelism, and it’s commonly practiced, is wrong.

I guess I probably won’t be invited to speak at any youth camps when I’m home on furlough next year…

Encore

In my last post, Welcome to the Big Show, I tried to stress the importance of making ministry as personal as possible by keeping events small and culturally appropriate. Still, there is something I’d like to add:

I’m not against big events because they don’t “work.” Many people have come to faith in Christ through crusades and circus-tent revivals. Pizza parties and sports camps and choir performances have all been used in evangelistic endeavors. But I wonder how often we think about what affect the medium might have on the message.

I’ve posted about this before, but is there a difference between sharing one’s faith through a gospel music concert and sharing it over dinner in someone’s home? Might the message be inadvertently changed by the means of presentation? Maybe it depends on the cultural context. If the message is preached with a bad accent, or with an aggressive tone, or using some cheap gimmick, is it the same message?

I believe that God is sovereign. He also gives us the responsibility of instructing others in the Truth. What if a generation of believers came to faith through Peer-pressure summer camps, “Judgement House” Halloween parties, and “Thanks you, I see that hand” invitations? Would we have any reason to be concerned about their understanding of the gospel?

How Do You Know?

A few days ago, I took part in a great discussion about faith. A Catholic, an Atheist, an Agnostic, and I (sounds like the beginning to a bad joke) sat around a table in the smoking section of a cafe that was really too small to go to the trouble of designating “sections.” We took turns sharing what we believed, but mostly what we didn’t believe, and we let everyone speak their mind. After that, we sat in silence while we all processed how differently each of us approach and express our spirituality. The Catholic is religious, but hardly spiritual. The Atheist is spiritual, but in a soulful, dreadlocks and hemp poncho sort of way. The Agnostic is not so much religious as superstitious. As usual, I presented myself as spiritual but not religious. When I say it that way it makes me sound like such a rebel.

After the silence, the Agnostic (appropriately) asked us, “But how do you know?”

Looking back, I’m not exactly sure what she meant by the question. I guess I wasn’t the only one guessing, though, because we each took turns answering a different version of it.

“You know a religion is right for you when it is such an influential part of your family and cultural history,” the Catholic answered. “Common sense should give you some clues,” said the Atheist, accidentally sounding snobbish. “You just know,” was the only answer I could come up with. I immediately wished I had come up with something better, you know, more evangelistic.

But then I got to thinking, how do I know? Jesus is the Son of God. He is the Way to the Father. Salvation is found only in Him, and He came that we might have real life; I believe all of this to be true. But how do I know?

I know because I have been convinced by supernatural means. I believe something that is unbelievable because something unbelievable happened to me. I know I have been born again in the same way I know I was born physically. And I know because in Christ, I am not the person I would otherwise be. I know because God has opened my eyes to the spiritual reality.

The national language differentiates between two types of knowledge. One can “know” something in the factual sense of the word. I know where the bank is, I know my phone number, and I know how to drive a car. But there is also another type of knowing, one that explains one’s relationship with the subject. This type of knowing starts with an introduction and deepens in familiarity through time and experience. I know the store keeper. I know the city.

Next time I sit down with the group of friends, that’s the word I’m going to use, and that’s what I’m going to tell them. “You know…” I’ll say, “Ever since our talk about our faith a couple weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about that question…” And that’s when I’ll tell them how I know.

Front Burner

This is a follow-up to my last post, Back Burner.

I believe that relationships are the context in which the gospel should be shared. Real relationships. This means that the only filter I apply to my ministry is my trust that the people that God brings our way are the people in whom He is working. I pursue natural friendships with these people that don’t depend on them becoming believers. I intentionally take every opportunity to speak into their life. I walk with them through the daily grind and I’m there for them when the big things come up. I don’t believe there’s any higher calling or better use of my time.

I refuse to buy into evangelism economics. I’m tired of counting numbers and measuring success by visible results. There aren’t any formulas for getting the most bang for our ministry bucks, and I don’t want to pimp out relationships like some sort of Amway salesman. Artificial relationships that have strings attached make me feel fake. I’m sick of hearing “But we aren’t here to make friends, we’re her to plant churches” as though the two were mutually exclusive. I think that “broad seed sowing,” as it is commonly understood, requires dilution of the gospel, something I’m not willing to do. I know that an American Christian has coming to share the “plan of salvation” with a Western European does not necessarily mean that the gospel has been communicated, and so I’m not willing to “move on” if someone doesn’t respond the way I want them to.

I have a good friend, a national, who calls himself an agnostic. He does not believe in a personal, “knowable” God. In the beginning of our relationship, I was encouraged every time I had the opportunity to share my faith with him. I prayed that he would show interest in spiritual things, and that he would come to know the Lord. Even after years of sharing life together, he showed no signs of faith. He knew what I believed; I’ve never been shy about the fact that my life is founded in Christ. He just didn’t want any of it. My ministry seemed to hit a plateau; no “progress” was being made. I went through a time of really questioning things. Was I wasting my time with an unresponsive individual? Was it time to “move on?”

One day, my friend and I were having coffee when an acquaintance joined us. The conversation turned, as it often did, to spiritual things. The guy heard me mention my faith, and asked me what I believed. Before I could respond, my friend jumped in and, in the most articulate way, explained exactly what I believed: that Jesus is the only way to God, and that there is no spiritual life apart from Him. That a person is saved by grace alone, regardless of his or her deeds. He even mentioned “life more abundant!” Here, my unbelieving friend was sharing the good news to someone I hardly knew.

Who knows? Maybe this is how God is going to do things in Western Europe. Maybe He’s leading us to “waste time” on “unresponsive” people that He sees fit to us in the cultural translation of the gospel. Does my friend’s “gospel presentation” lack the power of the evidence of a changed life? Yes. Is my friend, who does not have a relationship with God, in a position to disciple others? Of course not. Maybe that’s why I’m here. Either way, I’m going to continue to invest my life in the lives of the people God brings to me, however inefficient that my be.

Back Burner

Sometimes missionaries struggle with the reach of our influence. In their efforts to start a church planting movement, they see it as a good thing to interact with as many people as possible. This is the basic mentality behind most of the “broad seed sowing” activities our people do. Tracts, door-to-door visits, and drama in the park are all efforts toward sharing the message of Christ with as many people as possible.

But how does this play into a strategy that doesn’t include distribution or public events? If a person can only have so many real friends, and my ministry is intentionally limited to personal relationships, how can I “reach” a wide audience?

I’ve been asked these questions several times by different people. In fact, this seems the be the one issue that most people have with our “strictly relational” approach to church planting. It just isn’t a good use of our time, they reason, to spend it with people who are closed, indifferent, or hostile to our message. Strategists have come up with all kinds of solutions to overcome the limits of our relational reach. The IMB trains us in the use of programmed “filters.” These are built-in means by which we can find those people who are spiritually searching, and screen out the people that are less open to accepting the gospel.

One example is a change in the traditional use of the “Jesus Film.” Rather than passing it out indiscriminately, our strategists now recommend sending out invitations to receive the movie. This, they say, saves lots of time, effort, and money, by focusing on those people who are already interested enough that they would put forth the effort to answer an invitation and request a film. Having identified the people that are spiritually “good soil,” the missionary doesn’t have to waste time on people who may never respond to the good news.

On more than one occasion, I’ve had colleagues express concern over our short-reaching influence. And each time, their advice included the Front Burner/Back Burner analogy. Their take is that sure, it’s ok to be relational, but that we need to be discerning in how much we invest into those relationship. Those relationships that seem to be “going somewhere” (the person is showing interest in coming to Christ after we share the gospel with them) are the ones we need to put on the “front burner;” those are the ones we need to pour our lives into. But if we have a relationship with someone who, after repeated contact still do not show signs of interest, we need to put them on the “back burner.” They wouldn’t say that we should ignore these uninterested people, but we would recognize that our time might be better spent elsewhere.

After a lot of thought, I’ve decided that I really don’t like the “Front Burner/Back Burner” strategy. It’s basically a “filtering” technique, applied to relational ministry, and I think it misses the point.

Look for part two in my next post.

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.

Are You Saved?

I think the best way to handle the tough call of whether a person is saved or not is to not try to answer it. “Judge not, lest you be judged” is usually quoted by judgemental people as they pass judgement on someone. “I’m not judging you,” they like to say, “God is.” But I read where Jesus tells us that we’re going to be surprised when we get to heaven at who isn’t there that we expected to be and who is that we were sure would never make it. Again, there is not salvation outside Christ. But who are we to know the heart of a person? I believe in the fruit of the Holy Spirit, but I’ve met a whole lot of really good Mormon folks who are trapped in works and religion, and don’t know Jesus.

So how does this translate into missions? Well, if we stopped counting the number of salvations (or baptisms), and instead focused on disciple-making, it really wouldn’t matter where someone was spiritually. Our task, then, would be to take people in whom God is working from wherever they are to maturity in Christ. Salvation would happen somewhere along the way, but as a matter between each individual and God Himself, it might not happen according to our schedule. This way, we don’t change our focus between pre-salvation “evangelism” and post-salvation “discipleship.”

In preaching only an evangelistic message, we inadvertantly change the message itself. We present a Christianity that is about saying a prayer, asking Jesus into our hearts, or even repentence. Salvation is not the goal, it is the beginning! A relationship with Jesus is one that radically canges every aspect of our lives. Why would we present a simplified, reproducible message that avoids talking about the fullness and beauty (and indeed, difficulties) of living as redeemed people in a fallen world?