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 Church Has A Mission

The Upstream Collective recently went to London and Paris on a Jet Set vision trip. We took 26 pastors and church leaders (and  a couple wives) to Europe to see first-hand what missions looks like in that post-Christian context. These trips have always been successful.  90% of pastors who participate find ways to become directly involved in missions within 6 months of the trip.

My favorite part of our Jet Set vision trips is the casual conversation that happens over coffee and on the subway. When you get a group of church planters and leaders together, we sort of geek out on theology, social trends, and technology. This trip was a great mix of highly motivated church planters. They saw the challenge of ministry in these global cities and had some great ideas for strategic engagement there. But every conversation seemed to come back around to one sticking point: The Stateside pastors/planters felt that the workers in the field had a low ecclesiologicaly relative to their missiology.

I think the pastors had a good point. Missionaries, acting as “free agents” without direct oversight from any local body of believers, were almost entirely focused on building relationships, studying culture, and looking for ways to move into spiritual conversations. I’ve written extensively here about the importance of these things. But I’ve also written here about the same concern the American pastors had– that the missionary teams were working hard to start churches without actually being a church.

The fellowship of believers is a powerful thing. The presence of the church can serve as an example of Christ-centered community that is attractive, incarnational, and redemptive. But these orphaned church planting team has to do quite a bit to make up for the fact that they are not churches. Outside the care, gifting, leadership, and authority of a local church, they’re in a spiritually dangerous place.

Some missionary teams join local churches (when there are any), hoping to be “adopted” by them as they work to plant new churches. But these local churches had no part in the missionaries’ confirmation of calling, formation, preparation, or sending. They don’t often share a common vision for church planting among their own people. Consequently, missionaries can be frustrated, sidetracked, or rejected by existing ministries among their people group.

When missiology is at the forefront– when it “precedes” ecclesiology, we send missionaries separate from the local church to do mission on behalf of the church. The result can be an isolated missionary that is estranged from God’s organizational structure, the church.

More soon…

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.

You Know What Assuming Does

They say that assumptions can be dangerous. For example: Assuming that the size of U.S. coins have any correlation to their value will lead you to overlook the humble dime in favor of the (relatively) hefty nickel. For Americans traveling in the UK, fortunes are lost this way.

Assuming that someone who looks and (seems to) act like me is, in fact, like me, is equally dangerous (and detrimental to your pocket book.) That nice family that lives next door? They could be Democrats or Russian spies, for all you know. You just can’t assume.

Which brings us to missions. Ministry in the context of a distant culture– say among the Quechua in northern Peru– is clearly different from ministry in the (relatively) near culture of Camden Town, London. It doesn’t take much wandering through the Andes mountains for you to feel like an outsider. You immediately recognize that the way you did things back home would be blatantly inappropriate here. Communication of the gospel –incarnation– requires a change on your part.

Camden Town, on the other hand doesn’t feel so foreign. Especially if you’ve spent much time in the city. Sure, there are goths and punks and scenesters milling about, but they’re practically speaking English, for heaven’s sake! There aren’t any barriers to effective and obedient communication of the gospel here, are there?

The friendly Turkish taxi driver? Hates your guts, you “christian” dog. The kind, old babushka in the park? Longs for the good old days when the USSR scared the snot out of you. Everywhere you look, culture provides two realities: how people act and how people think. Unfortunately, people’s actions only tell part of the story of how they think.

Assuming will cause you to miss opportunities to connect, relate, and love people who are different from you. Living out the gospel requires you to scratch beneath the surface of culture and move into relationships with people. Then, and only then, can you know the questions to which Jesus is the answer, and how He can be Good News to all people.

On a related note: be sure to visit Ed Stetzer’s blog and read his series on contextualization. Read in amazement as commenters decry contextualization as “sinful!”

A Way and The Way

Oftentimes, our modern need to be right can lead us to put the gospel in the box of our apologetic. The problem with doing this is that we can miss the implications of the gospel. We ignore what it can mean for what we’re sure it must mean.

A good example of this is our use of John 14:6 to underscore the exclusivity of Jesus as savior. He claims to be the way, the truth, and the life; we tend to add emphasis to the the. We want everyone to know that Jesus is the only way, the only truth, and the only life.

The problem is that in our efforts to underscore this universal truth (and it is, no doubt, universally true), we loose some of the “good news” found within. The good news isn’t that Jesus is the only way, but that there is a way at all. That in God’s grace and beautiful plan, He provided a way for us to see and to know Him. For those who have tried to reach God through the many “ways” that the world offers, to anyone who has no hope that such a way even exists, this is truly good news!

That Jesus is the only way, that’s actually the “bad news” side of the gospel. It’s the truth that our idols don’t, won’t, and can’t save us. It’s the offensive, stumbling block that make many rich young rulers turn and go away sad.

My question is this: Are we so focused on communicating the exclusivity of Jesus that we fail to communicate the amazing truth that there is a Way at all? Yes, Jesus is the only way; but by starting the conversation with this, are we insuring that people don’t hear that He is A way to God?

Are we so afraid of syncretism (people trying to fit Jesus into their own pagan frameworks) that we err on the side of sabotaging the effective communication of the gospel?

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.

Beware False Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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