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.

The Most Important Job In The World

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“You know,” the woman said, in a serious tone. “I have the most important job in the world– even more important than the President of the United States.”

The woman was a trustee for a large missions sending organization. She took her job seriously, and it showed. But how was this the most important job in the world?

“As a trustee, my job is to decide who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.”

She went on to explain: “We trustees decide where funds are allocated, and where missionaries will be deployed. If we assign resources to an unreached people group, we’re ensuring that they hear the gospel and have an opportunity to know Christ. But we’re stretched thin. Churches aren’t giving enough for us to send missionaries to all the places that need them. We have to say, “sorry, we don’t have enough to go around, so you all have to go to hell.””

I couldn’t believe my ears. The audacity, the pride, the ignorance– the bad missiology– were appalling.

Unfortunately, this “savior complex” is ever-present in the missions world. Just as medical doctor might come to believe that he has ultimate power over life and death, passionate and well-intentioned missionaries often believe that they are the only hope for the world. This subtle lie undermines the gospel with short-sighted, human-centered, modernistic missiology.

The only way to change the conversation about mission is to actually have a conversation, so here are my thoughts regarding the Most Important Job In The World:

Firstly, we must understand that “the mission” we talk about isn’t our mission, it’s God’s. He is redeeming sin-slaves to himself. He chooses to use us to accomplish His purposes, but He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything. He is not a weak God, limited by our disobedience or our resources.

Secondly, while this woman’s organization was indeed sizable and effective at sending full-time career missionaries, God is doing much more than what the agency is capable of doing. He is sending regular people with regular jobs to make disciples among tribes all around the world. The organization’s strategic plan is but a small part of God’s activity among in the world. Knowing this is key to our humility.

Finally, we must be clear– the only thing sending people to hell is guilt of sin. Not the decisions of the “haves” regarding the “have-nots,” not the strategies of mission organizations. And the only thing that saves people is the grace of God through Jesus; not the luck of the draw or the efforts of His people.

This mistaken notion that the fate of the world depends on our organizations and institutions must be challenged, and replaced with the truth that Christ alone is the hope of humanity. Our part is to surrender to step-by-step obedience as He orchestrates His work of redemption.

In light of that, all of our jobs are equally important (and unimportant).

End or Means?

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“Mission exists because worship does not.” With this phrase, John Piper begins his reformed missions manifesto, “Let the Nations Be Glad.” His assertion is simple: that worship is the goal of missions. I’ve written quite a bit about this book lately, and I’m seeing just how great an impact it has had on modern missiology. I’m thankful for Piper’s influence; he continues to push churches toward direct involvement in the Great Commission.

Nevertheless, I have to disagree with Piper’s premise. Despite the fact that he’s one of the few reformed theologians out there committed to missiology (Don’t believe me? W. Grudem’s 1200-page Systematic Theology devotes less than a paragraph to mission!), he begins with the same basic assumption that Christians have been making since the Enlightenment. This single understanding is responsible for all the places where we get missions wrong: that mission is a means to an end.

All traditional missiologies operate under the assumption that missions is how we get to “the end;” namely, vision in John’s revelation of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation” worshiping at the foot of God’s throne. From this perspective, missiology is eschatology; it’s purpose is only found in how it pertains to Christ’s return. God has shown us that this is His end, we’ve assumed that it is ours to accomplish on His behalf. Missions, then, is how we “finish the task.”

And this despite the fact that everything having to do with spiritual regeneration is solely the work of God. Has he commanded us to do something that only He can do? No! Our part is to obey in going, He handles the saving. This is why we’ve (fortunately) altogether stopped measuring missionary effectiveness by the number of salvations (and even percentages of “reachedness”), and instead (unfortunately) taken to measuring things like “engagement” and “access.” (These, we conclude, fall more squarely on the human side of the equation).

But what if mission is more than just how God accomplishes His purposes in human history? What if mission is the chief end of humanity?

God has revealed Himself as a going God. He intentionally left his place at the Father’s right hand to join human history to be a missionary among us. It was in His going that the Father is glorified. Every interaction between God and humanity recorded in scripture ends with God sending the ones to whom He reveals Himself. “Go… to the land that I will show you.” He goes, and sends us. “and sent them on ahead of him… where he himself was about to go.” “Because He is a going God, we are going people.

There is no Christianity apart from the going. We go from wherever we were when God found us to wherever He leads next. We go to serve, to preach, to heal, to love,  and to “sin no more.” “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” “Go and make disciples of all nations.” There is no “stay and worship Me,” in the Bible, only “go and worship Me.”

My point is this: the spread of the gospel to all nations is not the goal of mission, it’s the result of it.  If we are obedient to the commands of our Lord, we will be going people- actively proclaiming the gospel through word and deed in “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Piper and others get it wrong when they say that God is glorified when people bow before Him in an end-times worship service. No, He is glorified when people go in His name.

When A Missiologist Plants A Church

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Earlier this year, my friend, Ed Stetzer, planted a Grace Church in Hendersonville, TN. In addition to being a church planter, Ed is a missiologist, research expert, and prolific author and blogger.

I imagine there’s added pressure, and not a small amout of scrutiny, when you’re a well-known missions and church-planting teacher, to plant successfully. I wish Ed and Grace Church the best as they continue to develop gospel ministry to the people of Sumner County, and I don’t want to add expectations.

It is interesting, though, to look at a missiologist’s approach to planting a church in the United States.

I encourage you to pray for Ed and the Grace Church leadership team. Beyond that, follow them on their journey. They are very deliberate about being connected on social media, and Ed is very approachable on his blog. Please feel free to ask him questions. It’d be a shame for us all to miss the opportunity to learn from the decisions he’s making along the way.

The Spirit Incommunicado

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Though the anthropological approach to mission was proposed and made popular by decidedly non-Calvinist leaders (R. Winter, D. McGavran), reformed thinkers such as J. Piper and J.D. Greear have adopted the philosophy and developed missiologies around it. For those who believe that the eternal destiny of human souls depends on the Church’s evangelistic efforts, it makes sense that they would want to “expect great things from God and attempt great things for God.” But for those whose theological persuasion alleviates that burden of guilt, the anthropological approach might seem like a non sequitur.

The discussion has been happening among the different tribes on the interwebs, but it’s still relatively unexplored. Until J. Piper’s book, “Let the Nations Be Glad” hit the scene back in 1993, reformed Christians were seen as the foil to the Church’s fulfillment of the Great Commission. In focusing on the supremacy of God’s glory as the basis of global mission, the reformed found the key to human involvement in God’s predestined activity. “Reaching unreached ethnolinguistic people groups” became the point of cooperation for Christians of various theological perspectives.

Henry Blackaby teaches that Christians should follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit and get involved where they see Him at work. Most in the missions world emphasize the importance of an individual’s “calling” to missionary service. Many in the reformed camp ridicule these positions, claiming that looking for such guidance from God amounts to seeking “extra-biblical revelation.”  They say that we get all the guidance we need on mission from the scriptures. That the Spirit-led missions of Paul, Peter, Phillip, and the early church were unique to that early time in the Church’s history, and in no way normative for us today. (EDIT: Tim Challies’ recent series makes this argument) After all, they say, who is a missionary today to compare himself to the Apostles? God doesn’t have a “specific” will for our missionary service, they say. Instead, they propose that our involvement be motivated by our reading of scripture, our obedience to the Great Commission, and our application of wisdom.

It takes some theological leaps to arrive at the conclusion that after commissioning the church to make disciples in all nations, God went incommunicado.

Firstly, all of the Biblical examples of the church on mission were Spirit-led. Jesus sent out the 72 and told them that they would know they were in the right place when “their peace rested” there. Peter was led by a vision that challenged his understanding of the gospel. It “seemed good” to the Jerusalem council to send disciples to the missional church at Antioch, but it’s clear that what “seemed right” to them was heavily informed by step-by-step guidance from the Holy Spirit. Paul and Barnabas were sent out from the Antioch church when the Holy Spirit spoke to the congregation, calling out the two men as a they worshiped. Yes, all of these were historic “firsts” for the church. But if the Apostle’s utter dependence on the Holy Spirit wasn’t meant to be normative for the church on mission today, why doesn’t God provide us with examples who were strictly canon-led?

If there really isn’t any further direction from God when it comes to our participation in His global mission, it makes sense that we should hold tightly to a framework that “seems good” to us. It’s understandable that we would extrapolate a goal and then devise a plan to complete the task. But then we’re left to split hairs over Christ’s understanding of “ethne” and what to do about the Unreached People Groups who have already become extinct (without, to our knowledge, ever hearing the gospel).

But if you believe that the Holy Spirit (who lives in us) is not silent today, we must allow Him to orchestrate our efforts- even when they contradict the strategies we’ve developed out of our interpretation of scripture. Here’s how this plays out practically:

  • Sending: The church must only send those who have been called. This calling is made by the Spirit and affirmed by the local church. Even if someone meets all the criteria for service, we cannot assume it is good to send him out.
  • Strategy: Statistics and ethnography are good tools for us as we organize our resources, but ultimately we must do what the Spirit leads us to do- even if it doesn’t fit our expectations. If God leads us to minister among a “reached” people, we must be willing to obey.
  • Evangelism: Knowing that people are moved to faith by the Holy Spirit, we should be in constant communication with Him. Because He knows the “hearts of men,” He knows what we should say and when. He knows whose hearts He is preparing. Mission happens on His time, not ours.
  • Church Planting: Unless the Lord builds the house, we labor in vain. As we make disciples, churches are formed. But what those churches should look like, what they should redeem and what they should reject, must be done according to scripture as illuminated by the Spirit. Otherwise, we get contextually inappropriate expressions of church.

Does God have a “specific will” for us as believers? I don’t know. Should we ask Him for guidance in every little thing? Probably not. But when it comes to our obedience in His mission, the pattern is clear: With an attitude of worship and humility, we should do what “seems good” while listening for His guidance and watching for the circumstances of His providence. This isn’t looking for “extra-biblical” revelation, it’s relying on the Spirit of Jesus for the interpretation and application of His Word.

Ready, Set, Wait

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PREVIOUSLY: In The Meantime

When you’re in the holding pattern between direction and destination, there’s no time to waste. Once you’ve heard from God, the mission have begun. Believe it or not, the time in-between is a vital part of mission. Here are some things every missionary should do while waiting for further instructions:

Learn: If you know God’s called you to the Middle East but He hasn’t provided the means just yet, throw yourself into studying all you can about the history, geography, languages and cultures of the area. Knowing that King Xerxes was Persian  and that the capital city of Yemen is Sana’a will help prepare you for when you’re finally there. Knowing the 5 boroughs of New York city will come in handy when you’re ready to move. If you don’t know the difference between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, you may not get the right visa. Do anything you can to get a jump start on acculturation.

Meet nationals: There’s no reason to wait until you hit the ground to start meeting people. Odds are that the people to whom you’ve been called also live in the U.S. Find them! Also, there are lots of opportunities to meet people from nearly every part of the world via the internet. Meeting nationals helps build your knowledge of the culture and love for the people. Anyone you meet could be a person of peace, accepting you and your message on behalf of their people and opening doors for you into the culture. Wouldn’t it be great to know people before you even arrive?

Blog: Communication is a vital part of missionary support. But you don’t have to wait until you arrive on your field of service to start sharing the story of your journey. To build a strong support base, start a blog and write honestly (and regularly!) about your life as you pray through the process and prepare for service. Language classes are terrific blogging fodder. Getting out of debt can be inspiring. Discipling your church into strong missiology can help others do the same with their churches. Use social media (which is both free and easy) to bring others along by telling your story.

A time of waiting can be a gift from God. Use it to prepare. Listen to God. Learn the culture. Make a effort to connect. These things will make all the difference when you finally get to go.

In The Meantime

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PREVIOUSLY: When You See It Coming

When it comes to missionary service, don’t wait for a “calling.” I know, this sounds contradictory to my insistence that our endeavors be Spirit-led, but the truth is that we are missionaries already. The call to follow Jesus is the call to incarnation of the gospel. We’re all missionaries.

Nevertheless, many of us have received “special instructions” from God about our service. For some, it’s to go to a place foreign to us to do the work of translating the gospel into another context. For others, it’s a move into an urban center. Some are called to entrepreneurship, sacrifice, church planting, and advocacy. But being called isn’t the same as being ready. Here’s what to when God has given you as sense of what to do, but has left the details a bit fuzzy.

In Acts 13, we read that the church in Antioch was in a time of worship and fasting. It was during that time that God spoke to the church, telling them to set Paul and Barnabas aside “for the work to which I have called them.” The use of the past tense makes it reasonable to assume that both Paul and Barnabas had already sensed their calling. God had already revealed (to Ananias in Acts 9) that Paul was chosen  We’re not sure how long it was, but there was clearly a “meantime” between their calling and the confirmation of that calling. Eventually, God spoke to the church to confirm this calling and to commission these men.

The meantime is vital to missions.

In the meantime, you must have your calling confirmed by your church. Not a member of a church? Stop. Join one and serve faithfully until they recognize and confirm your calling. This is a vital step toward accountability; like Paul and the church in Antioch, this is the context for affirmation and it is to this church that you will report. The church is God’s mechanism for sending and maintaining missionaries.

It’s quite possible that your church isn’t ready to send you. For many churches, missions isn’t even on their radar. In this case, you need to use your meantime to bring them along- train, encourage, and equip them as they develop their missiology. This is where many missionaries go wrong. They encounter reluctance (or worse still- indifference) on the part of their church and turn to google for support. A quick search for “Christian Missions agency” will turn up hundreds of parachurch organizations just waiting to help send you. But it is neither wise nor safe to proceed apart from your local church.

Let’s be honest: consulting with a missions sending organization about your call to missions is like asking a real estate agent whether you should buy a house or rent. Mobilizers, as they are called in the missions world, are not impartial. They all think we need more people on the mission field. Most of them measure their success by the number of warm bodies they get to commit to missionary service through their organizations. Most of those organizations raise money by taking a percentage of what they help their missionaries raise. It’s in their interest to make your meantime as short as possible. A recruiter is not impartial. He doesn’t know you. He is less likely to tell you honestly that you have no people skills, would fail miserably at acculturation, and have offensively bad breath. This is your church’s job.

I find it very interesting that, having heard clearly (and unanimously) from God regarding Paul and Barnabas, the Antioch church did not immediately act. Despite the urgency of the need, they didn’t send the men right away. Instead, the scriptures are careful to point out, the church continued fasting and praying before sending them out.

The example here is that we pray. Spend time asking for wisdom. If you are indeed called to another place, you’re going to need a strong relationship with God. That good relationship will allow you to hear clearly from the Spirit as He directs you on mission with vision, discernment, and supernatural insight. In the meantime, spend time reading Luke and Acts, the great missionary books of the Bible. This will help give you some perspective on what story you’re being called into.

NEXT: Ready, Set, Wait

When You See It Coming

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Hurricane Irene recently hit the East Coast. It isn’t often that a storm like this would travel so far north, so residents from Georgia to New England hunkered down. Fortunately, there was time to prepare. In fact, there was lots of time. It wasn’t until five days after the storm was identified that it made landfall in the Bahamas, and two days until it hit U.S. soil.  New York city was a ghost town for three days. There was time to stock up on food and drinking water. Time to board up windows and evacuate. Plenty of time. Maybe too much time.

Too much time to prepare can kill our readiness. We overthink things. We get distracted. We learn to live with the stress and quickly adjust to the anticipation as though it will be our new reality. Sometimes, the waiting ruins us.

I have a friend who is called to Haiti. She’s known for some time, now. After the earthquake there in early 2010, God gave her a clear sense that He wanted her to go. She immediately responded.

Right away, my friend joined a short-term medical trip and went. Over the course of those 10 days, God made it clear that yes, this is where He wanted her to live full-time. When she got home, she received news that her job at the hospital had been cut due to money shortages. She took that as another sign.

My friend started looking for opportunities in Haiti. An orphanage. A hospital. No doors were opened. She sold all of her “stuff” and moved in with friends to save on rent. She took EMT certification training and enrolled in French classes. She had prepared for what God had told her. That was over a year ago.

Since then, my friend has taken a job. She’s devoted her free time to learning about the Haitian people, making connections there, and preparing spiritually and mentally for the move. The hardest part, she says, is not becoming discouraged. The waiting can kill our preparedness.

Some of my missionary colleagues can relate to the waiting. I know people who’ve found themselves in a holding pattern for years before they every get to the field. A house that won’t sell, a child with special needs. Lack of funding. A visa. Medical clearance. Schooling. All of these things can keep an otherwise-ready missionary from doing what he’s been called to do.

Usually, they over-think: “Maybe I’m not ready.” “Is there sin in my life?” “Did I misunderstand God?” “Should I just forget the whole thing?” They feel foolish before their friends. “I thought you were moving to Haiti- did you change your mind?” Like Noah building a boat in the desert, preparation can seem pretty foolish to those around you.

If this describes your experience, don’t be discouraged! There is hope!

In my next few posts, I’d like to explore what to do when you’re called but haven’t yet been sent. What do you do in the meantime? How can you keep your focus, motivation, and sanity as you wait for the next step in what God has shown you to do? Don’t give up (you can’t, anyway. Try to run from it and God might send a big fish to bring you back)! For some, there is a clear reason for the wait. For others, the reasons never come to light. Either way, there is a great deal you can do to prepare and stay prepared to do what God has told you to do.

Return to the Sender

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Mission isn’t about the recipients, it’s about the Sender.

Missiologist David Bosch wrote that mission should be defined in terms of its nature rather than its addressees. It’s true that Jesus spent a lot more time talking about Himself and His relationship to the Father than He did about the specifics of the people He came to save. In His final instructions to His followers, Jesus doesn’t say, “People are dying and going to hell… therefore go…” He doesn’t even mention the need. Instead, He reminds us that He is boss, and He sends us. “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me… therefore go…” We go because He sends us.

Most of the time, missionaries get distracted by the tremendous and terrible need all around them. Overcome with compassion for lost and suffering humanity (which is obviously a good thing), they take their eyes off of the Sender (not a good thing at all). The problem with focusing on the need is that it’s overwhelming, everywhere, and ever-present.

Of course we need to know the people to whom we’re called. Demographics and sociological research are vital to knowing where people are, how they think, and how best to communicate the gospel into their cultures. But statistics are a terrible place to start our mission.

If you really want to know how your church or organization fits into God’s global mission, by all means, make a map. But before we worry about what people groups live where, let’s map those places to which God is calling His people. Let’s track what God is actually doing through His people rather than trying to project what we think He should or might do.

Picture it: a map of the world marked with all the places that churches feel led (or, in missions-speak “called” to) and maybe a key to what sorts of gifting and skill sets “the called” bring bring to the mission. The map could include churches, networks, and organizations who are organizational hubs for work among certain peoples and places. The resulting graphs would look more like epidemiology than demograhy or ethnography.

In this way, the efforts of churches may be directed at, say, Central and South America. But the churches planted there may send their people out to the Middle East and West Africa. Churches in Korea may be led to all of Asia, and press on to the Indian subcontinent, who then go to Central and Western Europe. The spread of the gospel is being catalyzed through revival, natural disasters, and social and political events.

In addition to mapping where people have obediently gone, we could gain further insight by noting where people have been called but not yet gone. That would be an ideal way for missions “mobilizers” to know where to put their efforts- toward equipping those people who have already heard from God to have the courage and competence they need to be obedient to what God has told them to do.

Mission is not about the great need in all the world. It’s really not even about the people for whom Christ died. It’s about the King and His mission to redeem people to Himself though the church who serves as a sign of the Kingdom. Mission is about the Sender.

I Would Like to Suggest an Alternative Approach

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Replace the nutrients and taste with preservatives and slick packaging, and you can get the general public to eat just about anything. Something about the convenience of it all made frozen and dehydrated “prepared meals” commonplace in Western homes. After a couple generations raised on ready-made meals, obesity has become a first-world epidemic, and cooking actual food is something of a novelty. Prepackaged food may be cheap and easy, but it costs a lot.

Christians, too, love for everything to be prepackaged. When it comes to mission, churches love their programs, seasonal campaigns, and 4-part sermon series. Put together a six-week study or a ten-day trip, and people will sign up. But in mission, like with TV dinners, convenience comes at a price.

When someone else tells you how to participate in mission, they also do the part that makes one a missionary. You’re left with only the option to do whatever it is they’re telling you to do or do nothing at all (and feel pretty bad about it). But the truth is that we all need to go through the process of praying through the question of to whom we are sent.

The process that builds your relationship with God; you become more dependent on Him, and you learn to hear His voice. These aren’t just helpful skills for a missionary, they’re survival skills for all Christians everywhere. So it really wouldn’t do for me to offer an alternative to existing approaches, would it? To warn of the dangers of popular missiologies and then to offer another finely-developed theory to replace them?

No, the role of the missiologist is not to develop a missions strategy for you, your organization, or your church, it’s to call you back to the scriptures and help you walk in step-by-step obedience to the Spirit’s direction for you on mission. It’s to remind you that there’s a distance between the culture you live in and the Kingdom of God, and that your job is to sort out how to best be a taste of the coming Kingdom.

In my analysis of the Anthropological approach to mission, I’ve tried to show that people group thinking is helpful, but not necessarily a biblical mandate. I’ve also tried to show the need to replace the philosophy of missions as task with one of mission as identity. But what does all this look like practically? I can’t tell you. That would be cheating.

It’s nothing personal. It isn’t a question of security clearance or “need-to-know.” And it’s not that I don’t have any ideas; I’ve given much thought to what I believe to be appropriate strategies for a church on mission. I think there are better ways for us to understand and engage in God’s global mission. I think that the church should be central to the selection and sending process. I think missionary should be a synonym for disciple. I think we should only go when and where the Holy Spirit directs us. I know we need new models for sending, support, organization, and incarnation. I’m excited about the possibilities for gift-based service and incarnation at every level of society. I’m a strategy guy, so I’ve got my theories.

I’d really like to suggest an alternative approach to mission, but, as you can see, I just can’t.