Christianity Out Of Context

Regarding the Upstream Collective’s Jet Set Vision Trip:

For some of the participants, this trip to Europe is their first experience of Christianity in context.

You see, though they apply to all peoples of all times, the words of Jesus were given to particular people in a particular time. He spoke in such a way that His listeners immediately understood that what He was saying was radically upside-down from what the world had been saying.

The American church, however, lives in a world that is completely opposite of that in which Jesus taught. It’s no wonder, then, that believers in the U.S. have such a difficult time applying Jesus’ words.

When Jesus spoke about war and kingdom, his audience was surrounded by an occupying army. In America, we are the occupying army.

When Jesus advocated the payment of taxes, it meant supporting a government that was hostile to His listeners’ way of life. We, however, enjoy freedom, tax exemption, and government influence.

The promise of a Comforter is a tremendous source of hope– assuming you know and understand discomfort. Many Americans have never been truly uncomfortable in their lives.

Jesus declared that His followers were “not of this world.” Peter reminded the early church that they were “strangers and exiles.” Many American Christians have never even left their home towns.

It’s harder to make sense of Christianity when “we” are in the majority. When the norm is to go to church and “love” your neighbor, Jesus’ words seem, well, normal. We get caught up in the material, the temporal, and the cultural. We build buildings, fight for our “rights” as Christians, and become indistinguishable from the rest of society.

Throughout time, Christ-followers have tried to remedy this sort of contextual incongruity by artificially re-creating the hardships of the first Christians. That’s why monks take vows (of poverty, celibacy, and silence), and cult-members whip themselves; they’re trying to better understand Jesus. And they’re misguided religious legalists. But originally, the Jesus understanding part.

A poster platered on a wall in Prague

Prague is the epitome of the post-Christian urban center. Empty cathedrals, celebrated pluralism, enforced relativism. The previous generation’s false gospel has been rejected in favor of the idols of progress, materialism, unity, and self-expression. Evidence everywhere of humanistic enlightenment and little to no gospel witness to speak hope into the city.

We’ve long talked about how a look at the European worldview is a glimpse into the future of America. This has become even more clear in recent years. Some have lamented the cultural shift in America away from its Judeo-Christian roots. Others have gone to great lengths to create artificial “kingdoms,” rules, and drama in their attempts to relate to Jesus (also misguided religious legalists). As it turns out, the bad news is actually the good news. Finally, Christians are finding themselves “right-side-up” in American culture. We’re starting to have to operate as the outsiders that we were always meant to be.

I believe that Christians, just in order to actually be Christians, must pursue life in the margins, where we’re the minority. Where we suffer persecution, opposition, and intolerance. Where we don’t have money, influence, and privilege. This is the mission field.

For some of the leaders on the vision trip, this is their first time out of the country. But even more importantly, this is their first step out of Christendom and into the context that we as Christians were meant to live.

People Group Advocacy

Most missionaries see themselves as having been sent to a particular people group or population segment. This makes sense, as each subculture requires a unique methodology to church and gospel translation.

Most missionaries establish themselves as advocates for their people. They promote their work by highlighting the needs, both spiritual and physical, of the group. They present statistics demonstrating their “unreachedness” and relative separation from Christ.

I’ve written before about the need to love your city. But I would love to see missions advocacy take a more positive turn. Why not set up a website promoting what your people group has to offer the world? Rather than focusing on their great need (let’s face it, the vast need is overwhelming), emphasizing the potential contribution of your group?

Perhaps your long-lost tribe in the Amazon could teach hunters in Arkansas a thing or two about bow hunting. Or maybe the women in your village in Sudan would give a mean seminar on basket weaving. The Yi of southwestern China are expert nomadic cattle herders, and could advise on land-sharing initiatives. From art to cooking to justice to living in balance with the environment, every people has something to offer humanity. Why not advocate for your people group by promoting their assets rather than lamenting their lostness?

To be clear: I’m not talking about exploitation; you should not be making money off of your people group. I’m not talking about starting business ventures, either. Some groups may be interested in this sort of thing, but many entrepreneurial Westerners have sold out their people in the name of community development.

Instead, I’m talking about establishing a platform from which those who do not know your people group might be able to relate to it. If you were to promote your work among the gemu otaku in Tokyo as having a tremendous ability to build and interact in virtual worlds, you’re building bridges for interested churches to connect with them. The Adyghe in the Northwest Caucasus all carry swords yet live peaceably with one another. Churches could ask them to speak into the U.S. gun control debate.

Leading with the need may raise awareness and pull at the heart strings, but advertising  a people’s skills provides a starting point for dialog. It would truly serve the church on mission if advocates would help them see people groups not at projects, but as people.

Francis Went First

Last year, Francis Chan left the Southern California megachurch that he planted for reasons that weren’t clear to anybody (including Francis). Last Fall, he announced that he and his family were heading to Asia to visit the churches there and to get an idea of what God is doing around the world.

Mark Driscoll thinks Francis is crazy for walking away from his Cornerstone. Francis says he left his church because he wants to live a life that fits in the context of the Bible. His point is that leaving a healthy ministry and the comforts of home in order to be part of what God is doing is a relatively tame move in light of scripture. He jokes about how his life would fit into the New Testament: “James, killed. Peter, imprisoned. Francis goes to Asia.”

I’m proud of Francis and his family. Not because we need to seek out suffering. Not because we’re in a race to see who can “give up the most for Jesus.” But because they have stepped out in radical obedience, even when others didn’t understand.

Francis didn’t want his church to depend on him. He didn’t want his audience to think that planting a church in an affluent suburb was the standard of success. But now, more than ever, I wish they would imitate him. As a prominent pastor in the U.S., Francis is doing something that others should consider. Rather than building a kingdom, why not plant and move on? Why not leave what you’ve built in order to have your worldview influenced by first-hand accounts of what God is doing outside your cultural context? Why not venture out beyond a short-term mission trip to allow believers from other parts of the world to influence your perspective on faith, church, culture, money, and life?

Francis didn’t do anything crazy, he just went first.

Who’s next?

We’re In The Lord’s Army

Six people were killed on Saturday, and thirteen injured, when a gunman entered a townhall meeting held by Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D–Arizona), and opened fire. The congresswoman was among the injured. Today, politicians are calling for an end to gun rhetoric that has become popular among pro-gun public figures such as Sarah Palin and others. Each side, of course, blames the other.

Some are saying that the shooter was incited by the militaristic rhetoric of conservative pundits. While the gunman’s motives are yet unknown, the discussion got me thinking about some of the militaristic terminology we use in missions today. We “mobilize” missionaries when we mean to “send them out.” We “enlist” the “support” of “prayer warriors” as we “strategically” “engage” the people of our “target” audience. Might the words we use lead some, both believers and unbelievers, to come to the conclusion that Christians are warring against non-Christians?

The problem with thinking of ourselves primarily as “Christian soldiers” (rather than “Christian peacemakers”) is that we’re always looking for someone to fight. The spiritual enemy is very real, but we’re easily distracted by the human ones (both real and suspected). The Bible includes militaristic imagery (Ephesians 6 tells us to “put on the full armor of God”), but it’s clear that our war is a spiritual one. In the scriptural analogy, unbelieving peoples aren’t the enemy, they’re the captives.

I’m choosing to replace the militaristic terms in my missions vocabulary with words that better communicate my intentions. In any land, among any people, I mean no harm. I’m not that sort of soldier. I’m here to bless, reconcile, and bring peace in the name of Jesus. That’s my mission (okay, so that’s one military word I may have to keep!)

Unreached (Again) People Groups

Is New England the new “American missional frontier?” Vermont pastor Jared Wilson thinks so. He writes about it in a recent post on the Resurgence. Wilson points to statistics showing that the Northeastern U.S. is the least churched region in the country, and that existing churches are not thriving. “New Englanders have little desire for anything to do with Christianity or church,” he writes. “Even those who have it have little opportunity to explore it.”

I agree with Jared. And my friend David Phillips. We need to focus more attention and resources on church planting efforts in New England. For too long, the Northeast has been neglected.

I’m fascinated by how familiar Jared’s post sounds, so similar to posts I wrote here while I was in Western Europe. More and more, there are places like Europe and New England that have returned from Christian influence to the status of “unreached.” This isn’t a case of “my people group is loster than yours,” it’s a heartfelt call to action by someone who God has called to service.

To be sure, chasing the least-reached regions of the United States is like trying to put out flareups after a wildfire. The west coast, the southwest, the east- each are defined by their sins ans spiritual strongholds. Vegas rife with debauchery. Seattle stricken with irresponsibility. San Francisco overrun with homosexuality. Boston filled with post-Catholic angst. The Bible Belt rife with cultural Christianity and political moralism. All of these places need the freedom that is only found in Christ.

What we’re seeing is the rise of a new category of missions. Some missionaries focus on unreached people groups. But God is raising up faithful people who recognize that “reached” isn’t a permanent status. Just as the gospel comes to a people through the obedience of some, it can soon be forgotten through the disobedience of others.

Surely some would say, “New England! The birthplace of the Great Awakening? They’ve had their chance!” To them I would ask, is our task to give everyone a chance to hear, or to proclaim the gospel where it is not proclaimed and cross cultures as we’re led by the Spirit? In the present age, unreached people groups are constantly emerging.

The Commission According to Us

“Therefore go and provide access to the gospel for all unreached people groups, engaging them them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. If you get your strategy right, I’ll be right there beside you until you finish the task.”

This is not the Great Commission found in Matthew 28. It is, however, our much-improved interpretation of those final earthly instructions Jesus gave to His disciples and (therefore) to the church. You’ll notice quite a bit of jargon in there, but don’t be alarmed, It all makes sense to us, and we’re the professionals. We’ve made some slight modifications to the wording in order to help make the our obedience in the matter much more organized and easily measured; two things that certainly matter to Jesus. He clearly didn’t have time to expound on His instructions, (what with His impending ascension into heaven and all), so we’ve added some vital details.

He said “I have the authority, so make disciples.” What He obviously meant was “engage” them. Get at least one person to adopt each group, and you can check them off your list. The bit about “all nations?” Time and social sciences have demonstrated that people are organized into static, measurable “people groups” that we need to reach in order to fulfill the Commission. We know where the unreached ones are. If only we had enough people or enough money, we could engage them all right here and now.

“Make disciples” is clearly a euphemism for “provide them with access to the gospel,” isn’t it? If we can just get the Bible (the most gospely parts, of course) translated into words, pictures, or dramatic re-enactments that the people will understand, we’ll be well on our way. After all, “God’s word will not return void,” right? Incarnation isn’t necessary, information is the key.

Sure Jesus is with us, but only if we’re on the front lines, driving back lostness. It’s fine if you want to live in South America, just don’t call yourself a missionary. We reached them already. Now it’s on them to compete with the Mormons, atheists, and Mary-worshipers. There are enough Christians there already– if we do it for them, they’ll never be as mature as we are (spiritually, I mean).

So we’re missions-minded people, engaging people groups and providing access to the gospel. We can do it. If not, why would Jesus have commanded us to go? If the task isn’t finishable, it could, like, go on forever. If you really want Jesus to come back, you should adopt an unengaged, unreached people group today.

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.

Missions Motivation

“If you really cared about the unreached peoples of the world, you’d be more involved in missions.”

“If you truly understood the Great Commission, you’d be a missionary.”

“If only you were made aware of the opportunities to share the gospel, you’d go on a mission trip.”

“If you honestly saw the need, felt the urgency, or recognized the importance of the task, you’d be more supportive of missions.”

Guilt, obligation, shame. This is how we motivate people to do missions. In a condescending and patronizing tone, we declare the people in the pews ignorant, apathetic, and lazy. We judge them to be sinful.

The thing is, guilt, fear, judgment, and shame aren’t the best motivators. Don’t get me wrong- they work just fine. For thousands upon thousands of people, a mission trip started with a guilt trip. But a person who’s been motivated this way will always default to acting out of obligation. She’ll get involved, but it will be because feels like she has to. Every decision along the way is a blind stab in the dark in search of “what works” or “what makes me look busy enough that I don’t risk loosing my support.”

The best motivation for missions is inspiration.

“You can make a difference in someone’s life.”

“This is what you were made for. It’s your destiny.”

“This is something that really matters.”

“You can be part of something that will provide profound connection to God and to others.”

When someone’s been inspired to missions, they live for it. Every decision is made in light of the vision they have for God’s redemption of the world. These are the people that throw themselves into relationships and work backward from the vision to develop progressive strategies toward the goal. We need inspired missionaries, not reluctant ones that constantly need to be convinced and cajoled.

In Matthew 24, Jesus gives us a glimpse into the future- a future where people from every tribe are worshipping at the throne of the most high God. The vision can be inspiring- that’s what we’re created for! We can be assured of that victory! Or, it can be twisted into a tool of manipulation: “Jesus can’t come back until you finish the task!” “Their blood is on your hands!”

Are you motivating through inspiration?

Metrics

Much of what I write here centers around metrics- how we measure what we do. I believe that our desire to have measurable results of some kind has driven our strategy into a deeply human-centered pragmatism. From numbers to feelings, we try everything to try to get a handle on what it is that God wants from us. To illustrate:

  • If you believe that God does the saving (and not us), then measuring the number of salvations is kind of silly.
  • The story of Gideon’s army against the Midianites should prevent us from concerning ourselves with the number of people we have in the field.
  • By even attempting to measure resources we elevate them to a status they don’t deserve.
  • Holiness is commanded, but hard to pin down. The sin we see is usually just the tip of the iceberg.
  • Theology would be much, much easier to hold up as a standard if it weren’t for the continuous evolution of language and communication.

I’ve always  been a firm believer that obedience is the only standard we have for measuring our success. The Bible gives us clear directions in many cases, but it usually leaves the finer details to us. Sure, we’re supposed to “Go into all the world and make disciples,” but how? Obedience, of course, can be quite subjective (anyone can say, “God told me to”) and very hard to measure (89% obedient?). Nevertheless, the Bible does provide us with indicators of our obedience. Consider these:

Persecution, suffering, death. In John 15, Jesus offers this ominous warning, “as they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” In many ways, our calling as Christians is to share in Christ’s sufferings. While persecution is an indicator of reckless obedience, it is also an indicator of reckless stupidity. Chasing persecution is not a good idea, but if you’re not seeing any resistance to your ministry, you might be missing something.

Fruit. Jesus reminded us that a tree is known by its fruit. Galatians 5 outlines the fruit of the Spirit- when the Spirit of God does something, you can know it’s Him by the outcomes. Is fruit a good indicator of our obedience? Yes. And no. Unfortunately, just like at the neighborhood supermarket, good fruit can be hard to verify. Lots of people seem to be effective in ministry, but many are quite good at polishing up bad fruit to make it look good on the outside. A watered-down gospel may result in more initial commitments, but is that “fruit that will last?” Obedience results in lasting fruit that runs contrary to the work of the flesh.

Unity. One way to measure our obedience without buying every crazy “God told me to” idea is the fellowship of the Spirit. When someone claims to have a directive from the Most High, the Spirit in us should confirm that. We may not all be in total agreement, but affirmation of calling is a function of the church. Unfortunately, this is precisely why trouble-makers church-hop; they’re looking for leadership that will affirm (and fund) their “Christian postage stamp ministry” idea.

In the end, the question remains- how do we know that we’re doing what God wants us to do? How can we be unified in our efforts to be God’s people and build His kingdom? Some things are clearly spelled out in scripture (proclaim the good news in and out of season, make disciples, forgive our enemies) but it all comes down to obedience.

And obedience is hard to measure.