Spirit-ectomy

One of things I struggle with is our tenancy to separate the spiritual from the social. You know, the idea that we shouldn’t get caught up in social issues because we’re working to see people’s soul’s saved. I’ve heard this type of thing a lot. The other day I read a blog post that said:

“To feed the poor without telling them of Christ is wrong…now all you’re doing is sending them to hell with a full belly.”

This blogger was saying that it is a distraction from the “main thing” (evangelism?) for us to concern ourselves with feeding the hungry, or advocating the oppressed. I’ve also heard people say, “I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to share the gospel.” (I’ve written about that in previous posts.) To a certain extent, the current strategy of the IMB reflects this “one or the other” mentality. “New Directions” was all about a shift in focus to church planting, but in many places we pulled out of social ministries such as schools, medical clinics, refugee services, and orphanages. My concern is that by separating the spiritual from the social, we are changing the gospel. We say we are concerned about people, but practically, we’re only concerned about, well, part of people.

The good news is not only spiritual in nature; it is social. New life in Christ is about community. Before Christ, we are out of fellowship with the Most High God. Jesus is the way to community with God. But this isn’t all there is to it. The gospel is also about community with others. In Christ we are brought into fellowship with other believers. Also, life in Him provides us with Christ’s perspective, through which we can begin to have a right relationship with the world around us.

Our focus on the “spiritual” might be why Christians struggle socially. We have a hard time relating to lost people. We are pretty ignorant about other cultures, and anything that doesn’t directly affect us. Our divorce rate is high. Lots of us fear the world and hide from it inside the walls of the “safe” “Christian” subculture. We treat people who disagree with us pretty badly. Spiritually, we’re great. Socially, it hardly looks like we’re saved. Maybe we’ve only heard the spiritual half of the gospel.

For some reason, people are afraid that I might give “a cup of cool water” to someone in need without telling them that I’m doing it in Jesus name. To me, that’s the same as sharing the “plan of salvation” and not addressing physical/social needs. It only presents a part of the gospel. Many of my missionary friends would probably say, “Yeah, but it’s the most important part of the gospel.” But I don’t think we get to make that distinction, either.

“God’s Heart for the Nations”

When I was in college, my friends that wanted to be missionaries were really into John Piper. He wrote a book called “Let the Nations Be Glad” in 1993 that really challenged popular thought concerning missions and God’s gloy. The basic premise was the God is mostly concerned with His glory. God is a jealous God, and His greatest desire, according to Piper, is that all the nations of the world worship Him. Piper makes the application to global missions by saying that the goal of the Church’s mission is that all nations worship God. I recommend the book to anyone who hasn’t read it.

About that same time, a guy named Jeff Lewis (the professor of missions at Cal Baptist, not sure what he’s up to these days) was making the rounds talking and teaching at Christian Universities about “God’s Heart for the Nations.” He built on Piper’s idea that the main reason for human existance is that we would worship God, and that our act of worship ought to be leading others to worship Him as well. Lewis was also really into people group research, and was therefore focused on the 10/40 window. His teachings had a profound influence; not only on my “Mission Friends” (get it?), but also on the IMB. In 1998, the Board adopted its “New Directions” campaign and strategy change, shifting it’s focus from countries to ethno-linguistic people groups. This “paradigm shift” echoed Jeff Lewis’ call for the Board to take the focus off of “reached” people groups and to concentrate it’s efforts and resources on the “unreached.” In fact, Jeff’s study on “God’s Heart for the Nations” can still be found here at the imb.org website.

Anyway, Jeff asks the reader again and again to consider:
“Start Pondering … What is God’s ultimate passion? Not His only passion, but what is His chief end? When everything is eliminated but one, what is His central motivation?”

I’d like to hear what you all think about this. I’ll post more thoughts in a couple of days.

Missions Misunderstood

I am not a missionary. It’s kind of a big deal for me to admit that. Yeah, I know that “we’re all supposed to be missionaries,” and that people who bring the good news have beautiful feet. I’m struggling with the whole thing because of all people, I’m supposed to be a missionary because I’m employed by the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. They hired and appointed and commissioned me to serve as a church planter here in Western Europe. They interviewed me, checked all of my references, confirmed my calling, examined my theology, gave me a physical, trained me, and sent me out. The organization is considered the most effective missions sending agency in the world. Surely, they know what missions is, right? Obviously, they know how it should be done, wouldn’t you think? So when I find myself disagreeing with some of the Board’s basic missiology and methodology, you can understand why I’m assuming that the problem is with me and not the wise men and women (but mostly men) who are responsible for our operations.

My problem is one of conscience. As the concept of missions is further defined by both the organization and the Christian subculture, I continue to grow less and less comfortable with the title “missionary” and with “missions” as it is understood within the organization. If, because of certain differences, I can’t represent the Board as they would like me to, how can I, with integrity, continue to take their financial support? If the people in the pews that give sacrificially (and even the stingy ones that give way less than they could) think that they’re funding certain mission endeavors of certain people, and I, in all honesty, am not one of those people, shouldn’t I quit? This isn’t a new problem. I’ve been struggling with this since before I ever got to the field. But as time has passed, and as I’ve invested myself into ministry, I’ve found myself becoming increasingly unlike the missionary I know the IMB thinks I am.

I have sought the counsel of wise coworkers. Most of them have said something to the effect of, “Don’t worry- the Board needs people like you with a different perspective on things to take a different approach toward our work.” Others encouraged me to keep seeking God on the issue. A few (usually the seasoned veterans) gave me the “when I was your age…” routine. Maybe they’re right. Maybe this is all a phase I’ll grow out of, or some immaturity I need to grow through.

Which is why I’m posting my thoughts here. I guess it’s probably cowardly to post my opinions anonymously, but I don’t want to offend any of my friends and coworkers. Even though I tend to express myself in a way that sounds confident (hopefully never arrogant), I admit that I don’t have all the answers. Sometimes I wonder whether I even have one or two answers. My intent here is to question some of the things about missions and missionaries and our fine organization that I don’t hear anyone else questioning. I won’t assume that anyone else struggles with these things, but I will hope that someone out there might share their thoughts on these things.

Mission Trips

Maybe it’s our affinity for convenience that has led us to settle for marketing-campaign dissemination of information over the long-term disciple-making relationships Jesus modeled with His disciples. But discipleship is not sharing information, public discourse, or debate. It has little to do with the materials we have available, and is not quick and easy. Discipleship is a relationship. In fact, the Good News is a relationship. The gospel itself is a relationship, and relationship is the context through which it must be shared.

The way I see it, Christians have been intrepreting the “Great Commission” to be a call to evengelism, and they’ve been responding to that call by doing missions and going on mission trips. These are usually intentional forays into the world, where Christians leave the comfort and safety of their subculture in order to take the gospel to lost people. They prepare a “program” and memorize their gospel presentations. They put together skits and songs. They collect cotton balls and toungue depressors for craft time. They raise money.

The mission trip mindset is one that I’m less and less comfortable with. It’s all about a “come see” event that often resorts to bait-and-switch tactics in order to share our message. I’ve seen people use clowns and puppets, music, sports, even food to get people to come and hear. When I participated in the Summer Missions program at Gano Street Baptist Mission Center in Houston, Texas, I had the opportunity to really help people in need. I remember really trying to learn Spanish so that I could communicate with the people in the neighborhood. We drove a big truck through the slums distribuiting day-old bread that hed been donated. All we had to do was drive slowly and shout out “Pan!” The Spanish word for bread had people running to the truck for something to eat. We gave out clothing to people who need it. There was a huge clothes closet at the mission center, and I was always overwhelmed by people’s gratitude as they left with new clothes to wear to work and school. We played with children during the day so their parents wouldn’t have to leave them alone while they went off to work. In reality, it was glorified babysitting, but we did it because we wanted to love the people of Houston. We really did love the people we were ministering to, but sometime during every act of service we required that the people listen to a presentation of the gospel. For them, it was a hoop they had to jump through in order to receive the help they needed. For them, prayer time was waiting for the “Amen” so they could rush home and fill their stomachs, brush their teeth, or put on their new clothes. We thought we were sharing Jesus. Looking back, I think we were probably standing in His way.

“Let your light so shine before men,” the verse goes, “that they might see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” As I think about it, Gano Street Mission Canter, and many like it around the world have done tremendous work in selflessly ministering to people in need. They’ve done it in Jesus’s name. I just wish they didn’t always feel this need to tack the sermon on to the service. I think that selflessness and altruism and brotherly love are all supernatural things- not natural to humans but a result of God’s intervention. Our good works are evidence of God’s work in our lives, and that incarnational “picture” of Jesus really doesn’t require that we add the caption “This selfless act brought to you by Jesus.” I’m not saying that we souldn’t be quick to mention His name, nor that we sould leave any ambiguity as to why we do the things that we do. I’m just saying that “it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance.”

A group of volunteers once came to a major European city on a mission trip. They had prepared a series of dramatic skits that they hoped would allow them to share the gospel with nationals despite the language barrier. You might be familiar with the skits; each portrayed sin as the problem and Jesus as the answer. One used a cardboard box to show how sin can trap us; another showed how people often ignore Jesus throughout their daily routine. Several had actors pantomime smoking and drinking in an attempt at depicting the depravity of unbelievers. You might imagine how the drama troupe was received. Without some cultural and linguistic translation, the Gospel was not communicated. Worst of all, the good news message was somehow changed from “Jesus is Life” to “God hates people who smoke and drink.” For the European audience, it was hardly good news. While they did make the volunteers feel good about their efforts, the trite and cheesy skits only served to reinforce the perception of Christianity as irrelevant and powerless.

The Culture Barrier

We need to understand that there is more than just a language barrier between us and the people to whom we minister. Cultural differences make relating to others very difficult- first, we need to recognize our own culture, then we need to learn a lot about theirs, and then we can begin to understand what translation would involve. Think of Lottie Moon, a great missionary to China in the 1800s. She recognized that her typically American way of being direct and confrontational was offensive to the Chinese. No one would listen to her message because they were offended by her delivery of it. Lottie, realizing the necessity of relevance, immersed herself in the culture. She gave up her western clothes and started dressing like the Chinese. She learned the language- not just enough to get by, but well enough that her accent no longer distracted her Chinese friends from what she was trying to say. For some reason, we see it clearly in the cases of the heroes of international missions, but we are blind to the cultural differences around us. Out of fear or pride we retreat from the world and create our own cultures and subcultures. Within these circles, it takes no time at all for us to lose the ability to relate to those around us.

More than Words

We spend our efforts trying to convince those around us of the existence of God, when we ought to be searching for effective ways to communicate our relationship to Him. This is only possible through relationship. We know that communication is more than words, and that’s why God’s design makes use of personal human interaction for the communication of the Good News.

The context of the gospel is -must be, personal relationships. God did not send the Word in the form of a tract or a circus-tent revival, because the means affects the message. God sent His son, Jesus, not to give the Good News, but to be the Good News. The essence of the message is not that people can go to heaven, or even that they can receive the free gift of forgiveness; it is that a relationship with God is possible through the person of Jesus. Our human relationships, though they are just shadowy reflections of the holy relationship, establish a framework for us to understand how God relates to us, His creatures. He is indeed a personal God, concerned with every aspect of our lives and actively involved in our personal histories. He knows us intimately, and He so desires that we would know Him, that He has provided the Way for it to be possible.

Though it doesn’t always make the most sense, God chooses to share His plan for redemption through people. Because they are selfish, disobedient, and proud, Humans really aren’t the most efficient or dependable media available. It would be easier for Him to reveal Himself through a massive international press conference, or through internet spam. But these impersonal means lack the key to effective communication of the gospel: relationship. Linguists have for centuries tried to translate certain abstract concepts from one culture into another that has no framework for understanding such a thought. Explaining the concept of patriotism to a person without a country, family to an orphan, or grace to a Mormon would all prove to be difficult- even impossible- apart from a personal interaction by which you could complete the definition through a demonstration of such things.

When Paul (Saul at the time) had an encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, Jesus sent him to meet Ananias and be discipled. Jesus did the convincing and saving, but did not separate it from the context of relationship. So we see that God uses human relationships in the salvation process, as an illustration of His relationship with us. Despite the great value our societies place on independence, and individualism, Human interconnectedness is a beautiful thing. Human relationships, even the natural ones, have built-in accountability, teaching, fellowship, service, and love.

Calling

When we first started dialoguing with the IMB about becoming career missionaries, they really drove home the fact that we needed to be sure of our calling. We were asked to describe the occasion of our individual call to missions, and then we were to relay a time when that call was affirmed. We had to write out the experience. We had to answer questions about it. Some of us were asked to clarify the language of our call. To be hired by the Board, you have to be called. Why all the emphasis on calling?

Someone without a clear sense of calling won’t last on the field, they say. The Missionary in Residence shared about the importance of his call. “During those really tough times,” he said, “your call is all you have to hang on to.” The message is that the Board is going to great lengths to be sure you are called, so that they can support you and make it possible for you to follow it. Through all of this checking and double-checking of calls, it is never suggested that there might be some callings that fit in the Board’s strategy and others that don’t.

Although it is clear that the IMB goes through seasons of different emphasis, they have never said, “We’re a 10/40 window only Missions Sending Agency.” They continue to identify themselves as a global sending organization. “All the peoples of the world” they say. And so, knowing that my wife and I felt called to Western Europe, they hired us. Without giving us a heads up on the fact that we would not enjoy the Board’s fullest support, they sent us to Spain, apparently hoping that God would change our hearts and ask to be transferred to a “real” mission field like the China, “The Muslim World” or India.

I understand that an organization such as ours must have some corporate direction. As an agency, we need to be, at least at some level, unified in our strategy and vision. The IMB has a responsibility to send people that represent our convention’s churches. But our organization does not take a popular vote to decide its strategy. We rightfully allow our people in the field to be experts in their respective cultures and ministries. All the while, our massive promotional efforts work to educate Southern Baptists about missions and about the organization itself.

Workers

Part of what we do as missionaries is “mobilization,” educating people back home about what we do in order that God might by our stories call some to the field. But in an effort to recruit more workers, many have taken to using “lostness” statistics in order to guilt the willing into overseas service. I’ve often heard about how few missionaries there are, and how many more we need in order to “complete the task.” But whose job is it to call believers to missions? Have we changed the Lord’s directive in Matthew 9:37 from “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” to “Tell the Lord we’re sending out workers?” We mustn’t forget that while “The harvest is plentiful” and “the workers are few,” we are instructed to “ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

If there is a shortage of workers on the field, it can only be for one of two reasons. 1) The sin of those who have been called but refuse to go, or 2) God is not calling the masses of missionaries we think necessary to do His will. While I’m certain there are disobedient believers out there who are ignoring God’s call to international service, it seems very like our God to “thin out the army” so that He might do with a select few what we consider only to be possible with four times as many. (It sounds vaguely similar to Gideon’s story.) I also believe that as we dare to depend on human-centered strategies, God is allowing us to fail on our own terms, in order that we might be reminded of our total dependence on Him.

Besides the number of missionaries, we might also need to abandon our expectations for how God might use His workers. Another major problem we’re facing, according to my colleagues, is that while the number of “short-term” workers continues to climb, relatively few are signing on for career service. But such a shift in the modes of service reflects a generational change. Just a few years ago, the model for missions was a married couple and their five children moving to Zimbabwe and living in a mud hut until retirement or death, whichever came first. But today, the greater part of the world’s population lives in an urban setting, and a career for this generation of young professionals may only last five years. Young people today are a date book people rather than a checkbook people. They will sooner give a few years of their lives in service than give a few hundred dollars to a faceless corporation that has little accountability as to how it spends that money. We should not see this change as a threat, but as a new way of doing our work, allowing our strategy to be dictated by God’s calling on individual lives.