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.

Missionary With A Heart Of Gold

After a rocky start (and at least one use of the line, “You’re not my mother!”), the nanny comes to love the children as her own. The teacher and the marginalized student become the best of friends. The “escort” falls for her client. In each of these story lines, the relationship starts out as a job and has to overcome that fact in order to become something more.

When you’re paid to be someone’s friend, it’s not a real friendship. The fact that one of the parties involved is being compensated for his participation makes it strange. “Of course you’re being nice to me,” the other person thinks,”you have to. It’s your job.”

This is the case with professional missionaries. In essence, they are paid to build discipling relationships with people. At one time or another, all of these missionaries (at least, the socially competent ones,) struggle with this– the feeling of being fake. “Do I really love these people, or am only here because it’s my job?” And even if the missionary convinces himself that yes, he does in fact love people, and yes, he would be here even if he weren’t being paid, he then has to work to convince his hosts of that.

In order to truly demonstrate his love, the professional friend has to do something drastic to prove it. In the movies, the paid friend quits his job, gives back the money, and shows up anyway. He breaks the rules to show that the friend is more important to him than the job. He does something that crosses the line between “project” and “person” to demonstrate his love.

The question is, knowing this about the dynamics of human relationships, why would we willingly make “paid friendship” the primary mode of missionary engagement? Don’t our ambassadors face sufficient social barriers as it is?

I’m not saying churches shouldn’t support ministers and missionaries financially- the Bible says this is a good thing. But to have the vast majority of our missionary force wholly dependent on the gifts of others makes them little more than “paid friends” to those to whom they’ve been sent. The use of creative access platforms (real jobs) are often treated as a technical requirement rather than a missiological imperative.

Professional ministry is bad missiology. The Apostle Paul knew this, and that’s why he kept his day job. But the Western Church is conflicted.

This is why pastors spend 20 hours preparing for a sermon. It’s why ministers dream up programs and events. They spend time doing things that aren’t discipleship to prove to their people that the relationship part of ministry is real. It’s as if to say, “My job is organizing a good concert. My ministry is helping you become an obedient follower of Jesus.”

The solution to the side-effect of professionalization? More missionaries with real jobs. More pastors who spend at least part of their week in cubicles, kitchens, or classrooms. Having a real job communicates a lot; it demonstrates that ministry can be done by everyone, not just the professionals. It communicates the value of workplace-as-mission-field. It shows that the pastor loves you for free.

Nostalgia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open Invitations

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My friend Kyle Goen recently posted about his experience using the internet to meet people in Belgium. I’m proud of him for stepping out of his comfort zone (even further) in order to build relationships with people in Belgium.

The concept is simple: lots of people are using the web to meet people. Sure, many (most?) of them are not looking for platonic, Christ-centered relationships. Some are, but don’t know it yet. Skydivers, moms, coffee enthusiasts, and Abba tribute bands are looking for others who share their interests. Many are simply out to find a friend. Forums, message boards, and social networking sites across the internet are full of open invitations to personal relationships. The opportunity for ministry is tremendous.

Kyle used meetup.com to start his own group. Dozens of people responded. Eight showed up to the fist meetup. He admits that he wasn’t initially a fan of the idea. It wasn’t long ago that only perverts and nerds met people online. You often hear about predators, scammers, and worse lurking around on social sites. It turns out that the virtual world, like the real world, is not safe.

We were never promised safety. In fact, we have been sent like sheep among wolves. So be smart. Be courageous. Never go alone, even (especially?) into cyberspace. Don’t give out too much personal information. Communicate well in order to establish expectations. Lead with Jesus, He’s a great filter. Love whomever God brings you.

It’s funny- “meeting people” is often cited as the biggest challenge to mission and ministry around the world. Yet there are meetup opportunities in your city today. Why not take people up on their open invitations?

Priesthood In Your Neighborhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mission Is Our Business

Chef Josh Adams, June Restaurant

It turns out that finances aren’t the problem, and neither are language or culture. One of the biggest obstacles to mission today is access.

Perhaps I should clarify: travel is easier than ever, so Christ-followers on mission don’t have too much trouble getting to pretty much anyplace God leads them to go. But missionary access is more than just arriving, it’s moving into social positions, (called “platforms”) that allow them to proclaim the gospel and live it out incarnationally. This, it turns out, is the tricky part.

“Tourist” is only good for a short while, and brings with it a certain expectation of exploitation. Tourists visit a place not to give, but to take. They take in the sights, take photos, and take their time. Might they share their faith along the way? Of course! But is the tourist-host relationship the best for gospel incarnation? Probably not.

“Non-profit” can turn the tourist mentality on its head. A non-profit worker serves at her own expense for the benefit of others. Non-profit and charity, both religious and secular, are by far the most utilized platforms. However, these can certainly have their drawbacks. Charity is viewed differently by different cultures. India’s caste system, for example, considers poverty and suffering as the payback side of karma. A person is re-incarnated as, say a dog or a woman, as punishment for bad behavior or until an important life lesson is learned. Easing the discomfort of extreme poverty is like robbing them of their penance. In other places, charity is the work of the government, and non-profits (especially foreigners) ought not compete.

“Business,” on the other hand, is largely underdeveloped as a social-access platform. The problem, historically, is the mixture of money and ministry. Time spent building the business is often seen as competing with time in ministry. A minister’s altruism often makes him a poor businessman.

Consider the benefits of business as mission:

  • legitimizes presence (everyone knows what a businessman is)
  • assigns culturally-acceptable motives (you’re here to make money)
  • moves you into ethic-revealing relationships
  • business people are networked
  • it uses gifting not often associated with ministry
  • dissociates fund-raising from missions
  • could assist the local economy and provide jobs for nationals

So clearly, business is a good platform.

We must consider the competitive nature of business. Anytime an outsider enters a market, he does so against existing ventures (and usually with the benefit of outside resources, knowledge, and experience). A good platform provides more and better jobs than it takes. Some examples of good business platforms:

  • Import/export
  • Art
  • Food/Culinary
  • consulting
  • legal
  • tech/media
  • engineering/architecture
  • construction
  • education
  • marketing/advertising
  • sports/coaching

Some typically troublesome business platforms:

  • medical (maybe better left non-profit)
  • retail (competition, unfair practices)
  • large-scale manufacturing (working conditions)
  • tourism (guides, hospitality, travel, etc. )
  • agriculture (land ownership)

Business platforms to avoid:

  • security (anything that involves weapons)
  • banking/investing (holding other people’s money)
  • religious goods/services (appearance of “selling” the gospel)

All that said, there are some interesting models out there.

Tom’s Shoes: though they’ve been accused of killing the market for shoes in their target areas, the “buy-one-give-one” model tells a great story and appears to exploit Americans’ materialism to benefit others. As a business, Tom’s definitely has earned access into many nations that would otherwise be closed to gospel influence. I’d like to see a bit more creativity in their design, a certified fair-trade manufacturing process, and maybe improved overall quality of the shoes. Tom’s has recently started selling sunglasses, too.

Unnamed (for security reasons) Coffee Roasters: Though they operate in what is technically an open-access area, this coffee roasting company provides social access to many strata of society. They import coffee from developing nations, roast the beans on site, and distribute the final product to cafes across their host country. The key to their business model is the employment of nationals (many buyers don’t realize the company was started by outsiders) and the sale of coffee to the U.S. Like the Tom’s Shoes model, taking advantage of high-demand (and high-generosity!) markets can underwrite much of the in-country business. Of course, they do compete with national coffee importers, roasters, and distributors. But cooperating with nationals mitigates the negative impact. Their presence benefits the local economy.

Finally, I like the transfer model. A junior staff member of a transnational investment firm recently put in for a transfer to a closed-access country. Inside the company, his stock went up (the business had so far struggled to find anyone to take that job). Outside the company, this Christ-follower found himself a guest of honor in the home of local clan leaders, businessmen, and politicians. His willingness to move to another country on that country’s terms put him in a very unique place of influence there.

Just to be clear– we don’t need a bunch of pastors moving overseas to start business. We need Spirit-led businessmen to live out the gospel among the different peoples of the world.

As you can tell, I’m a big fan of business as mission. If you’d like to connect with other believers who are serving as Christ-following businesspeople around the world, join the Skybridge Community.

Where You Live Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Not?

Why not…

  • Require all church members to have a valid passport and go on at least one international trip every couple years?
  • Invite representatives of unbelieving people groups into your church to speak about what they believe and what they think of Christianity?
  • Send a care package to a missionary you don’t (yet) know?
  • Start a blog on behalf of the workers in restricted-access places that would allow them to communicate safely and anonymously?
  • Advocate for a people group? Make them more than just projects or statistics.
  • Intentionally cross cultures in your city?
  • Use your church van to drive neighbors to the store?
  • Design a logo for your local neighborhood association? Bring it to the next public meeting.
  • Use the arrival of the Christmas season to explain the gospel in a clear way to neighbors and co-workers?
  • Celebrate the good news in your community? You could buy someone’s coffee, post a note on a local bulletin board.
  • Mow your neighbor’s lawn? (Shovel the snow in his drive?)
  • Build a website for another church in town? You know which one I mean.
  • Skip work (let them know) and take your family to a matinee?

The Church, On Mission

This the the third in what I didn’t realize was going to become a series on the relationship between missiology and ecclesiology. I believe this is an extremely helpful conversation. One that needs to happen more and more.

Missiologically-driven folks need to hear more about the centrality of the church in the Great Commission. Many of my missionary friends seem to be a bit, er, underdeveloped in their ecclesiology. They operate as though the local expression of the church is but one of several valid mechanisms for mission. As if things like pastoral care, personal accountability, and spiritual gift-based ministry were optional. But as I’ve written before, I believe that the Commission was given to the church, and that it is God’s structure for obeying that Commission. I believe that churches, not individuals, should be planting churches. I believe that church doesn’t just happen by accident, but that people must be discipled into becoming a healthy body of Christ.

The church has a mission.

The church-centrics, on the other hand, tend to lose sight of the fact that the church exists to do mission. Not in the pragmatic, “whatever works” sense, but in the “what’s the point of our presence on earth if we’re not deliberate about incarnating the gospel in our context?” sort of way. If the church, (lead my Christ Himself) were to organize itself around the mission, it might look a bit different than it does. You know, things like where we meet. How we spend money. The language we use. Our attitudes toward those who don’t believe. Our taste in music.

The mission has a church.

Just to be clear (I know, why start now?) I’m not calling for balance here. I’m calling for mutual influence. Missions-types need to hear from pastoral church guys. Without condescension, without ignorant over-simplification. The church-centered side desperately needs to hear from the missionaries among us. No guilt-trips, no judgmental disdain. When we get together and wrestle through conversations like these, we really are getting somewhere.

Beware False Friends

No, I’m not referring to that guy you’ve known since Jr. High that only calls when he needs something (though, come to think of it, watch that guy). “False Friend” is a philological term that refers to a word in the language being learned that sounds similar to a word in the student’s own language. A word that sounds familiar doesn’t always carry the same meaning as its homophone (er, soundalike).

For example, the English word, carpet sounds similar to the Spanish word, carpeta (file folder), but the words do not have the same meaning.

The word bad, in German, means bath or spa. (And, incidentally, in 1980s America actually means good.)

The French love when Americans use the word journée when they mean voyage, but then French are known for their sense of humor when it comes to language.

Of course, the concept doesn’t only apply to language. When people of one culture see something that seems familiar in another culture, it’s easy for them to assume they know what’s being done and why. Two people shouting in each others’ faces on the street corner? In Italy that’s long-lost friends happy to see one another. Men walking down the street arm in arm? Not necessarily homosexuals. Ear-to-ear grin? In Asia, it could mean someone’s embarrassed.

Outside your home culture, people don’t see Jesus in you because you don’t smoke, drink, or use foul language. Idol worship doesn’t always involve statues and incense. Animism doesn’t always express itself in grass skirts dancing around a fire.  It turns out that paganism can look a lot like Christianity (and vice versa). Evil doesn’t always wear black.

In order to incarnate the gospel in a culture, you’ve got to do your homework. Cultural exegesis and immersion are key to understanding the bridges and barriers to the gospel. To the question “What must I do to be saved?” Jesus gave various answers.

In post-Christian America, all mission is cross cultural. The culture of your city is not yours. Beware of False Friends; your assumptions will ruin your potential to communicate the gospel in a way that actually communicates the good news. Online relationships may not be “real” relationships where you come from, but they’re the most influential for millions of people around the world. Don’t let the rhetoric of the narrative offend you into isolation. When fighting to define words, concepts, or institutions, choose your battles carefully lest you start to see the people you’re supposed to love as your enemy. Start every conversation with a question.