How To Be An Interesting Person

All around you there are groups of people who are influencing and being influenced. You can (and should) be part of the discussion, but you’re too busy doing something that nobody else cares about. In your little “Christian” subculture bubble, you have no influence and few friends. Here are some tips to help you become interesting enough to actually make some friends this summer.

  1. Get a hobby. It doesn’t always have to be a really expensive one, either. It seems like everyone is into photography these days, (which is cool) but a new digital SLR can be pricey. Lomography can be really fun, or why not try something less consumeristic, like making your own camera? Share your pictures on Flickr or your own photoblog.
  2. Start a campaign. Find something to be passionate about and work to get other people excited about it too. You could design a web site about it, record a podcast about it, silkscreen or print T-shirts, or write a manifesto.
  3. Go camping. Borrow a tent (everyone has one, but few people actually ever use them), and pack a sandwich. You don’t have to make it a big deal. Camp in the backyard even. Spending time in nature is a good way to enjoy and appreciate its Maker.
  4. Teach yourself something new. The Dangerous Book for Boys is full of awesome stuff you should know but probably don’t. Your paper airplane skills will surely help you connect with some cool people. The interwebs are full of how-tos and useless information. Some things I’ve taught myself (with varying degrees of success) include: making my favorite chicken enchilada soup, writing a basic web page in html, home movie editing, how to read a map, and painting with oils.
  5. Read a book. Not disposable airport novels, but something that will inspire, intrigue, or challenge you. Become an inspired storyteller by rediscovering children’s literature. Start with Lemony Snicket’s A series of Unfortunate Events or anything by Roald Dahl. There’s certainly no excuse for any literate person to not have read On The Road, by Jack Kerouac or J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye, and these are idea for reading with a friend or discussion group. Steven D. Levitt’s Freakonomics, made me want to be an econo-sociologist, as did Malcom Gladwelll’s The Tipping Point, but don’t bother with Blink, just read his blog instead. Now these books will give you something to talk about.
  6. Go geek. Read Wired magazine, hang out in a comic book store, or go bowling even when you’re not on a youth group lock-in. Start collecting vinyl records, modifying vintage furniture to disguise modern technology, or scroll frame-by-frame through every episode of Lost looking for clues and easter eggs. Be sure to start every sentence with “basically…” “actually…” or “technically…” Geeks are the best friends you’ll ever have.
  7. Volunteer. There are literally hundreds of charities and non-profit organizations that could use your help. The “nonprofit sector” section of your city’s craigslist is a great place to start your search. Be sure your lifestyle doesn’t contradict your cause., though. A fair-trade Peta vegan pretty much has to swear off KFC.

This list won’t make you an instant mover and shaker, but if you pick a couple and really go for it, you just might have a circle of friends to take pictures of and cook for on your volunteer do-it-yourself grassroots camping and Comic-Con and road trip in July.

A Good Way To Start

As I encourage churches to get involved in international missions, one thing that often comes up is the question of where to start. With thousands of people groups in the world, and millions of potential places of service, where do you start?

Most missions organizations would tell you to engage a “high priority” people. They usually mean the next largest people group with no known evangelical work. They believe that the best way to organize our efforts is to analyze the statistics of “lostness” and “reachedness.”

I tend to see missions less as a science and more as a relational interaction between God (through His church) and the nations. Picking an unreached people group at random is the missions equivalent of demographic-based door-to-door cold-call evangelism in your town. When engagement is decided based on statistics, it looses its (essential) relational foundation, undermining the basic gospel message which is that we can be brought into a right relationship with God and the world through Jesus.

Unless your church already has some connection to a country, culture, or people group, you would do well to start your search for missionary involvement in your town or city. What people groups are represented? Your Persian pediatrician or your Pakistani landlord might provide you with the cultural background and insight that you need to make the emotional and spiritual connection that God uses to inspire us to service.

What’s more, it’s quite possible that you can share the gospel across cultures (or engage an unreached people group) without even leaving your neighborhood. The most effective incarnational ministry can be that which starts locally and globally at the same time. Imagine the power of seeing a Portuguese man living in your town come to faith, and lead your church’s efforts to build the Kingdom of God in Portugal.

To get involved in missions, look around. It may be that God has brought the nations to your neighborhood.

In response to Dr. Malcom Yarnell’s Shall We “Build Bridges” or “Pull Down Strongholds”?

After reading Dr. Malcolm Yarnell’s paper entitled, Shall We “Build Bridges” or “Pull Down Strongholds”? I was inspired to respond. I don’t usually do this sort of thing, but here’s an excerpt:

I, however, believe that the gap between the mainstream culture and the “Christian” subculture many Americans find themselves in should be filled. This should not and cannot be accomplished by efforts to “make the church relevant,” but by ceasing the active propagation of the myth of Christian culture. In other words, if our churches valued indigenous interpretation of scriptural truth, we would see expressions of Christianity that reflect (and therefore affect) the cultures in which we find ourselves. Churches would be “relevant” (I prefer “contextually appropriate”) if we stopped making people look like us in order to follow Jesus. But because many of us fail to see the cultural influences on our own Christianity. If we think that ours is a pure Christianity, unaffected by the world and its cultures, it makes sense that we would be wary of missional contextualization.

Please read the entirety of my way-too-long response, entitled:

In Response to Dr. Malcolm Yarnell’s Shall We “Build Bridges” or “Pull Down Strongholds”? A practitioner’s decidedly unacademic answer to an esteemed theology professor’s uninformed opinion.

Prophecy by (Credible) Proxy

A key part of our ministry is building relationships with the people God brings to us. God has often used us in ways similar to His use of Joseph in the Old Testament. Not so much in the “Pharaoh-naming-us-Vice-Pharaoh” sort of way; more in the sense of “I had a dream, what do you suppose it means?”

Our friends often confide in us concerning their struggles, fears, and dreams. This confidence gives us the opportunity to speak into their lives from (what we hope is) God’s perspective. Like Joseph, we try to give God the credit for any insight we might have to share.

One thing that strikes me about Joseph’s story, and about ours here in Western Europe, is that God doesn’t always communicate by speaking truth to His people and sending them to tell other people that truth. Sure, that is a common occurrence throughout history (God told Moses to tell another Pharaoh…, God told Jonah to tell the people of Nineveh, all the prophets, etc.) But here, God reveals truth to Pharaoh, who in turn seeks out God’s man for some help in interpreting that truth.

Joseph had built a reputation (at least in the cupbearer and baker communities) as someone who could interpret dreams. God used that to put him in a position to speak to Pharaoh. Many of the conversations we’re having now are not resulting in individual salvations or churches being planted. Instead, they are being used to build our reputation as God’s people in this culture.

“You want to know who has some insight into that sort of thing?” I imagine them saying behind our backs, “you need to talk to those believers.”

God is revealing truth to them. Within the culture there is a great conversation about these truths- life, death, guilt, love, peace, justice. These are deeply spiritual issues that aren’t being forced on them by outsiders. Unfortunately, like Pharaoh, the people of Western Europe do not recognize that the truths they struggle with have been revealed to them by the Most High God, the Author of all truth. That’s where we see God using us; people are asking us for our opinions about life-changing truths.

Research and immersion put us in a position to recognize and call attention to truths in the culture. Relationships put us in a position to participate in the conversation. I like to think of it as “Prophecy by Proxy.”

When You Can’t Tell The Difference

When it comes to promoting missions and mobilizing missionaries, we rely on photos. In casting a vision for what God is doing around the world to bring people into right relationships with Himself, a picture really is worth a thousand words.

Or, in my case, about four blog posts.

It’s unfortunate, but we often fall into the trap of resorting to stereotypes to illustrate our work. You’ve seen the photos; a thin, wrinkled old man, whose dark skin contrasts with his cotton beard, reaches for the Bible offered by a tall white fortysomething in khaki pants. A small group of smiling black ragamuffin children playfully hug a white lady with her hair in a bun.

I would love to see missional churches pay to send poor, inner-city believers from the States to minister to poor, inner-city families in other parts of the world.

I think that if we were serious about incarnation, it wouldn’t be so easy to tell the difference between the “Missionary” and the “heathen” in a picture.

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.