Missional… Missionaries?

This is post #2 in a series on developing a new missiology.

Over the course of about ten years, the church has seen a huge shift in thinking. As western culture moved away from identifying itself as “christian,” young(er) leaders started to explore new, more appropriate expressions of church in a post-everything context. Some questioned popular methodologies. Others questioned common theological language. Others still questioned everything– from the voracity of church history to the doctrines of atonement to the existence of hell. At the heart of this questioning was the desire for a Christianity that made sense in today’s world.

For the most part, this conversation took place without the benefit of input from experienced international missionaries, who were either too busy with their work on the mission field to participate or too tightly linked to traditional structures to have any credibility with those who were driving the discussion. Either way, church leaders were centering their lives and ministries around the missio dei. They developed their strategies by reverse-engineering what didn’t work with the attractional model of church (and didn’t do much in the way of studying the global missions movement). Much of this shift in thinking had to do with the relationship between the church (believers) and the unbelievers around it.

Our new missiology has the most to learn from the missional church in these three areas: evangelism, social action, and cultural engagement. Evangelism, long modeled after cold-call sales and interruption marketing strategies, was re-framed. The emphasis was taken off the dissemination of information and put on the influence of personal relationships. Social action, once seen as an avenue for (or distraction from) gospel proclamation, was valued as redemptive in deed and became valued as an expression of Christian love. Culture, previously seen as something the church needed to isolate and protect itself from, became the context for gospel incarnation.

In the traditional missions mindset, the missionary is seen as the bringer of the gospel to otherwise uninformed peoples. Evangelism is seen as the goal of all missionary activity, and, in the name of efficiency effectiveness, reduced to the simple proclamation of the gospel message. The missional church has pointed out that the means affects the message, and that the gospel out of context is no gospel at all. Redemptive relationships become the channel of gospel communication and demonstration. Missional approaches take advantage of existing social structures, transforming them into indigenous churches.

On the international mission field, social action is often seen as superfluous to the spreading of the gospel. Necessary for access to many closed countries, some missions organizations treat social ministries as distractions from real missionary activities like evangelism and church planting. Missional leaders see it otherwise. They understand that service to those outside the church is a vital part of our faith; an act of worship and obedience in which every believer must take part. People don’t come to faith without hearing the good news, but our stance against injustice is an indispensable part of being a disciple of Jesus whether or not we get a chance to lay out the “plan of salvation.”

Since the days of Hudson Taylor, missionaries have understood the importance of local culture to missionary activity. Yet most missionaries see their cultural obligation as limited to learning language and (maybe) eating local fare. Missional practitioners understand that every culture carries some memory of the Creator God, and therefore retain bridges to communication of the gospel. Cultural immersion, then, is required for incarnation of the gospel. Our role is to live in such a way that when people look at our lives and hear our words, they can truly see the implications of the gospel for their own lives. Missional missionaries don’t fight against culture, they use it to build raised beds of good soil for church planting.

Missionaries everywhere should read The Forgotten Ways, a textbook of sorts on missional living. As I’ll explore in future posts, a more missional approach to international missions would radically change the way we see God’s activity in the world and how we, the church, fit into it.

NEXT: What Are We Saying? A Look At Our Missions Vocabulary.

Missional Missiology

I’m calling for a new missiology. The current popular one is neither biblical nor helpful. So let’s work through a new one. Of course, by “new” here I mean “old” in the sense of directly founded in scripture, but “new” in that it makes sense for today’s globalized experience. To that end, I’m starting a series of posts in which I hope to identify those places where our current missiology might come up short and suggest some new ways to think and talk about mission that might be more helpful to everyone involved in the conversation.

Firstly, we need to take into account the tremendous impact of the missional church conversation. Churches around the world have begun to see themselves as intentionally-placed examples of the gospel in context. The shift in thinking away from programmatic evangelism and outreach to incarnational approaches to ministry needs to inform our understanding of global missions.

Secondly, our vocabulary must change. The words we use have meaning, but we don’t always get to determine those meanings. We must, therefore, find new ways to talk about some of the same things: people who know Jesus moving across barriers of culture and distance to proclaim the gospel in word and deed. In upcoming posts, I’ll review come of the current missions vocabulary and propose some new ways to talk about mission that communicate better and leave out some of the baggage of modernistic taxonomy.

Thirdly, we need to adjust our perspective. So often, the conversation centers around things that seem incredibly important to us, but trivial to God. Statistics and percentages. Resources and need. Categories and strategy. Opportunities and chance. A few years ago I wrote a post on the idea that no one should hear the gospel twice while some have yet to hear it even once. Quite simply, this is not a biblical idea, and it has ruinous implications for our understanding of our part in God’s global mission. Soon, I’ll post further about this and other problems with our perspective on global mission.

Finally, we need to develop our scriptural literacy when it comes to missions. What does the Bible say about our role in the world and our part in His redemptive activity among its peoples? Have we extrapolated, inferred, deduced, and applied ourselves into bad missiology?

Finally, I want to make one thing clear: I am not so proud (or stupid) to think that I know better than prominent theologians or missiologists. I understand that some people are threatened and offended by questions and disagreements. I believe questions will only help us find better ways to talk about mission. I don’t have any special insight that everyone heretofore has missed. I’m just a practitioner who loves the church and has a strong desire to her obedient on God’s global mission. Any ideas posted here are probably not original to me and likely better said elsewhere. I value the discussion and appreciate the opportunity to think through what God work among humanity.

NEXT: Missional… Missionaries?

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.

The Mission Has A Church

There has been an ongoing discussion among Christian leaders about the relationship of the church and the mission of God. On one side, you’ve got those who say that ecclesiology (theology of church) should come before our missiology (theology of mission). In other words, the church is the most important thing in terms of how believers organize themselves, and that mission is a function of the church. If you get church right, these leaders say, then mission, along with the other functions of the church, will happen. If the church isn’t doing mission, it’s because the church isn’t healthy, obedient, and gospel-centered.

On the other side of the discussion are those would would flip that perspective around, making ecclesiology serve our missiology. My friend Alan Hirsch is an articulate advocate for this take on missional thinking, and he says, “Rather than say that the church has a mission, we should say that the mission has a church.” Believers have a mission, and what we know as “church” is meant to organize us to do that mission. From this perspective, our health, obedience, and gospel-centeredness are measured not by our leadership structure, but by our ownership of and involvement in God’s mission.

I believe that the two sides of this conversation represent the difference between pastors and missionaries. On the one hand, we’ve got pastors who major on church and minor  on missions. On the other hand, we have missionaries who major in mission and minor on church.

I’ll share more of my thoughts on this topic soon. In the meantime, be sure to check out this series by David Fitch and this post and comments from Jonathan Dodson,  and this Next Wave article on the topic.

I Double-Dog-Dare You

Nobody likes a bully.  Ours was Brian Whipple, a red-headed sixth-grader with a beard and anger management issues. “The Whip,” as we called him, loved to challenge us, in front of the most popular guys and prettiest girls in school, to do things that one would not normally want to do. Dangerous things. Embarrassing things. Against-the-rules things that could result in detention, humiliation, or personal injury.

But we did them.

The pressure was too great to refuse. We were sheep, seeking the approval of our peers, and the “double-dog-dare” was a challenge to our honor. One kid drank an entire bottle of ketchup (and promptly vomited it all over the cafeteria wall). Another jumped off the top of the monkey bars on the playground, breaking a leg and bruising his ego. I gave in to calling my teacher by her first name (“Terry,” as I recall), resulting in extra homework and several weeks on Ms. Ludlow’s “bad side.” These antics got us into varying degrees of trouble, but to us, we cared more about what others thought of us than what went on our “permanent record.”

Lots of people are bullied into participation in missions. They begrudgingly go on a trip to Mexico or inner-city Detroit because everyone else at church is doing it, or because the guy in charge of mission trips double-dog-dares them to do it.

The problem with daring people to action is that it builds resentment. Sure, you can get people to do things, but they end up hating you in the end. They don’t appreciate or learn from whatever it is you’ve convinced them to do. The result is a bad memory of a bad experience and inoculation against future service.

When I was a high-schooler trying to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up, I had a pastor scoff at my desire to be an animator for Disney and dare me to “do something more meaningful with my life.” I forgot about being an artist and went on to become a missionary. Did God call me to ministry? Yes, I think He did. But the dare was something that stuck in my mind for a long time, and I resented the feeling of being bullied into “Christian service.”

There’s no excuse for a believer to shirk his responsibility to obedience. We all must participate in the Great Commission. I guess all I’m saying is that bullying people into going is a troublesome mobilization strategy.

Mission Short Sale

Anyone who’s been following the housing market in the current economy is familiar with the term “short sale.” Basically, a short sale is when a borrower can’t pay the mortgage, so and the lender sells the property for leas than it’s owed in order to cut its losses. Sure, a house may be worth more, but the time, cost, and hassle of trying to foreclose and sell in a down economy aren’t worth it. We borrow the term when we tell kids not to underestimate their potential, or “sell themselves short.”

I’m confused by the current tendency to sell short the mission of the church. Many today talk about missions as though the point was to inform the nations rather than to make disciples of them. As though our commission would be fulfilled if we were to preach the gospel once within earshot of every person on the globe. These people would make the mission about giving people a “chance to hear” the gospel.

Preaching the gospel is certainly central to the mission. Romans 10 asks, “…how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them?” But the mission is more than just preaching the good news.

Others would sell the mission short by making it about meeting physical needs (which is something we are commanded to do!). These proponents of “preaching the gospel without words” claim that standing for justice and feeding the hungry is enough. It isn’t.

In Matthew 28, Jesus commissions the church to go and make obedient disciples. This is the mission– not to make converts. Not to give people opportunities to hear the good news. Not to “reach” people. To make disciples and to teach them to obey.  What does this entail? Preaching. Meeting physical, social, and personal needs. But preaching alone isn’t enough. caring for the needy isn’t enough. The mission is more than these things alone.

The mission is to move people from wherever they are spiritually to maturity in Christ. When cultures must be crossed in order to do this (I think culture must always be crossed), missionaries must do the work of incarnation (presence) and cultural translation (contextualization). Anything less is selling the mission short.

Who Is the Missionary?

"Red Rover, Red Rover, send Stevie right over!"

Most churches actually require unbelievers to be the missionaries. In order for them understand the gospel and its effect on their lives, they have to enter our church culture and extrapolate for themselves what a relationships with Jesus would mean for them. They have to learn a new language in order to hear the gospel. They have to assume our worldview. They have to see past our politics, ignore our offenses, and overlook our ignorance, just to hear the gospel.

In response to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” our words say, “Confess and believe,” but our actions say, “In order to be saved you must learn to understand and appreciate our music, our culture, our version of community, our attitude toward you as an unbeliever.” This is not good news.

It used to be that you could distinguish between local “ministry” and cross cultural “missions.” Not anymore. Your influence will not grow– your “light” will not shine brighter– simply by doing more of what you’ve been doing. Your comfort in your setting is keeping you from being effective in ministry because you assume that you’re a member of the culture you work in. You’re not. You’ve got to be a missionary to the culture in which you find yourself.

Unfortunately, it’s not enough to simply join a culture. It won’t do to just blend in. Contextualization begins with dressing, talking, and acting the part, but it doesn’t end there. Our mission to make disciples requires us to incarnate the gospel by communicating and demonstrating what a disciple would look like in this culture. Crossing cultures requires us to live as models of what it would look like if they came to faith from within their own cultural context. This can be difficult, to say the least.

Incarnation requires that we do our homework. We have to deliberately and intentionally join the conversations that are happening within the culture. This means reading, watching, attending, eating, and experiencing the same things that our people do. But we’ve got to do it wisely. We can’t just passively consume the way dead people do, we’ve got to have our guard up, be in tune with the Spirit, and never go alone. We must learn the language of the “locals” in order to build redemptive relationships with them.

For too long, our ecclesiology has been divorced from our missiology. We must begin to see ourselves –our churches– as missionaries.

You’re Not From Around Here Anymore

The biggest obstacle to a church truly becoming missional is a mistaken sense of citizenship. Missionaries to foreign lands understand quite well (and quickly!) that ministry among a different people requires them to change the way they see things- they learn language in order to communicate, they study culture in order to relate, they build relationships in order to love. This sort of immersion is fundamental to the establishment and growth of the Church among a people. Without it, the Way of Jesus remains just another imperialistic foreign religion.

Being missional is about applying missionary thinking to everyday life. It means giving up expectations (delusions?) of unearned social credibility, common morality, or programmatic attractional ministry. A church is missional when it actively and intentionally goes out into its surrounding community and engages people in redemptive relationships on the culture’s terms. The result of this ongoing activity is a truly indigenous church that is continually translating the gospel into the local context in word and deed.

What prevents churches from becoming missional is their inability to see themselves as foreigners (“strangers,” or “aliens”). When you live in the town you grew up in, when your best friends are the ones you’ve known since elementary school, when you don’t have an accent and everyone around you looks just like you, it’s difficult to see yourself as an outsider. When you have your own space (building, campus, etc.), when you enjoy favor with the government, when your neighbors automatically modify their behavior to conform to your values when they’re in your presence, it’s hard to be convinced that you don’t belong.

By grace, we are saved into God’s Kingdom. Our citizenship is transferred from the earthly place where we were born to the heavenly place where God rules. Our ongoing presence on earth means that we are now sent as ambassadors- representatives of Jesus to the unbelieving societies among which we live. Our physical location may not have changed, but our orientation certainly has.

When you’re an outsider in your own culture, you’re careful about being to comfortable in it. You immerse yourself in the human story in order to influence the people who are still slaves to it. You watch movies, eat food, play games, attend parties, read books– all for the sake of incarnation. Not that there isn’t much to enjoy (there is!), but that we enjoy this life because of our relationship with God, not because of our relationship with this world.

Mission is a fundamental part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. That part has been neglected by churches that do nothing to be on mission. It has been relegated to program by “mission trip” churches. It has been outsourced to “the professionals” by passively involved churches. By not developing the missional aspect of Christianity, the church has stunted its growth and sapped the power of its influence.

When the church sees itself as foreign, its perspective will change. It will rethink its methodologies, its public relations, and its structure. It will lose its sense of entitlement and its claim to rights. It will stop assuming or pursuing “home court advantage.” It will not overestimate its ability to influence people or speak into culture.

Only the church that sees itself as alien can truly be missional.

Jesus the Missionary

0700B_032Believers often look to the life and ministry of the Apostle Paul as the model for missions. He did, after all, travel around telling people about Jesus and leave a trail of networked churches in his wake. But Paul isn’t the best picture of a missionary.

Paul didn’t seem to0 concerned with contextualization- mostly because he stayed within his own context. Sure, he moved in and out of different societies: Jews, Gentiles, Greeks, Romans. But these were the subcultures he lived among well before his call to mission. We don’t see Paul having to learn different languages, for example, his Hebrew served him well among the Jewish community, and his Greek allowed him to communicate everywhere else. He traveled within the Roman Empire, where, as a Roman citizen, his was the dominant culture. For the most part, Paul was already a member of the tribes he ministered to. That’s not to say that he wasn’t a missionary; let’s just consider him more of a “home” missionary than a “foreign” missionary.

The best example of a missionary? Jesus.

The Incarnation was the greatest mission trip ever. When the eternal Word became a human being, He left His home to live in a very different place in order to communicate God’s love for mankind. He didn’t hang on to his divine cultural identity, instead he traded it for the humiliation of being a helpless human child. We consider it “extreme” when an American missionary adopts indigenous dress; I wonder how long it took for God to get used to the confines of the human form. Some missionaries spend years learning the local language- Jesus probably took what, two, two-and-a-half years? He didn’t even have a foreign accent!

Jesus’ whole life was about context. When He was tempted by the Enemy, he could have smited (smote?) him with lightening bolts from His fingers, but He didn’t because that’s not how we did things in human culture back then. When He was nailed to a cross, He could have given the signal for a million angels to swoop in and take Him down, but He didn’t, because He thought it was important to suffer on our terms. Without the credibility of being recognized as God, Jesus entered the human conversations around religion, social norms, philosophy, and politics. He did this so that we would believe in Him.

Of course, Jesus also gave humanity glimpses of his culture of origin. He healed and forgave people, and He bucked even the most deeply ingrained customs if they contradicted His message. Jesus stood up against social inequality, dead religion, oppressive leadership, and political ideologies. He followed our rules for things like time and space and the need to breathe air so that we would be able to relate to Him and begin to understand what He was saying. He played the part, but only until the time was right.

At just the right moment, Jesus broke the cultural rules. Big ones, too- like death and gravity and walking through walls. He did this because it was time to show that was was, indeed, not from around here. He had come for a reason, motivated by love and a clear mission. That makes Him the best missionary of all.

Merry Christmas, dear reader.

You’re Afraid

robot_girl_hidingDear Pastor,

I’ve always been perplexed by your lack of direct involvement in international missions. It’s not that you shy away from preaching about international issues. You often encourage social action- you’ve led your church’s campaign to help local public schools. You support a child in a poverty-stricken village in Malaysia. You’ve raised money to finance the digging of wells in Africa.

You certainly talk quite a bit about God’s global activity and about our mandate to go and make disciples. You talk about being missional and living out your faith in your community. Your church often engages in service projects in your city- no-strings-attached ministry to people in need. You welcome people of all sorts into your gatherings.

You’re not stingy, either. Your church gives lots of money to various ministries both local and abroad. You sent a truckload of water bottles to help Katrina victims. You support missionaries in different parts of the world. You preach boldly about generous and sacrificial giving for the sake of this work.

But still, when it comes to planting indigenous churches among people of other nations that do not know Jesus, you’re not doing much at all. You redefine the word “mission,” so that everything the church does somehow falls under this new, catch-all category, but when we talk about the work of crossing cultures with the gospel, you don’t have much to offer.

After meeting you, visiting your church, listening to your podcast, reading your blog, and following you on Facebook and Twitter, I believe I have some insight into your lack of participation: You’re afraid.

You’ve never been on a mission trip or vision trip because you’re terrified buy the thought of leaving the comfortable life you’ve built for yourself. The prospect of going without Starbucks and Tex-Mex and Super Wal-Mart is hard for you to swallow.

You shirk spiritual responsibility for engaging a people group with the gospel because it’s outside your are of “expertise.” The meaning of the gospel and it’s practical application to your local expression- that you can do. But wading into the unknown waters of another culture? You’re not used to not knowing how to act or what to say.

You’re comfortable with being known and respected in your social circles. You’re the pastor, after all, and people value your perspective on everything from theology to politics to technology. Outside your context though, you’re a nobody. You have no credibility in foreign lands. You suspect this, of course, and choose to stay home.

Everybody knows that missions can be hard. In addition to language learning, thoughtful dialog, and cultural exegesis, required skills may include auto mechanics, carpentry, hunting- even self-defense. Your skill set doesn’t require getting your hands dirty. You’re more comfortable studying, preaching, leading meetings, finding the best deals on a book at Amazon.com, or managing multiple Twitter accounts. The difficulty of the mission frightens you.

So go ahead- preach about taking responsibility being a “real man.” Ridicule those who lead smaller churches or sing “sissy” songs to Jesus. Watch your Ultimate Fighting and mock anyone who disagrees with you. Your actions undermine your words. You’re afraid to be obedient in mission.

Fear, of course, is not of God. As believers, we’re not called to comfort, control, or to be the first among, well, anyone. Now is the time to repent. Now is the time to lead your church to direct involvement in God’s global mission. You’re capable, you’ve got the resources, and you’ve been commanded to go.

What are you waiting for?