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.

The Counterintuitive Church (pt. 8, The Impractical Churches Among Us)

PREVIOUSLY: Impractical Spaces

Lest you think these last few posts reflected only the thoughts of a lone anonymous cynic, I’d like to introduce you to some of the many other intentionally impractical leaders among us:

When he started the Evergreen Community in Portland, Oregon, Bob Hyatt had a vision- he knew what he wanted his church to be (biblical missional community of faith), and what he didn’t want it to be (legalistic, programmatic, location-dependent). Now, five years later, Evergreen meets in three locations (two pubs and the facilities of another church), and has established itself in Portland as the church for people who are burned out on church. Evergreen’s intentionally small gatherings allow for conversational dialogue and the kind of accountability that only true community can provide. “Community isn’t optional for followers of Jesus.” Bob counterintuitively says, “So if you’re not sure Evergreen is the place for you, there are lots of other churches in town that might be a better fit for you.”

Michael Carpenter planted intentionally nontraditional Matthew’s Table in Lebanon, TN. The Nashville suburb’s claim to fame? It’s the proposed site of Bible Park USA, a “Christian” Theme Park. Matthew’s Table is an impractically missional gathering of believers in an unlikely place. Why Lebanon? “I have to honestly say that this is the VERY last place I thought we would plant, yet I am glad we are here.” writes Michael. But for him, it’s not so much about strategy as obedience. “This is where God sent us, period.”

Todd Littleton is the epitome of Impractical Church leadership. While most of the players in the “missional” conversation plant their own churches in trendy neighborhoods where it might be easier to find like-minded people, Todd has remained pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in rural Tuttle, OK for the last 15 years. Their worship isn’t focused on twenty-somethings or lighted with candles, but Snow Hill is an incarnational gathering. I visited one Sunday morning, and was greeted by a little old lady who spelled it out for me: “We are a different kind of church. Around here, we try to be ‘missional.’ That means that we take Jesus to the people instead of just inviting them to church.”

The list is long: Marty Duren in Buford Georgia. Steve McCoy outside Chicago. Both traded denominational influence for influence in their local communities. Kevin Jamison moved into Middletown, Ohio just as everyone else seemed to be moving out. Dr. Thom Wolf is a brilliant thinker and teacher who left a prominent teaching position to move to India. Andrew Jones and his family live in a truck. There are many Counterintuitives among us.

I don’t have a problem with megachurches or their pastors. I do have a problem with the fact that we listen to them so much. We read their books. We pay to hear them speak at conferences. We look to guys like Perry Noble, Mark Driscoll, and Mark Batterson for practical tips on how to grow our churches, open video venues, or make them more relevant. They are great guys- godly men, to be sure. But I think we’ve heard what they have to say. I think we need to hear from the Impractical Churches among us.

The Counterintuitive Church (pt.7, Impractical Spaces)

Previously: Impractical Worship

Megachurches don’t just happen. And they’re certainly not the inevitable result of God’s blessing. They are the results of decisions throughout the lifetime of a church. Say a church plant starts out with three couples meeting in a living room. That’s six people meeting regularly to worship God and be a local expression of His body. Say that group, through evangelism, transfer, or gimmickry, grows to two dozen. Twenty-four people can fill a living room. Add kids or guests, and the space is full, right?

Most churches that find themselves in this situation do what makes sense; they find a bigger place to meet. They rent a theater, they meet in a public school, they lease a storefront. This move brings a new set of challenges- the bigger space makes it harder to hear, so the growing  young church buys a sound system. As more people come, the church introduces a video projector (in case anyone doesn’t remember the words to “Lord I Lift Your Name On High,” and to show the scripture text for all those who forgot to bring their Bibles.) Staff members are hired to keep up with all of the people. Bylaws are written.

The church grows, filling the space, and is faced with another decision. Naturally, they embark on a building program to raise money to buy some land in the suburbs and build a multi-use facility. This, of course, requires an upgraded sound system, an increase in staff, facilities maintenance, the Disneyfication of the children’s ministry area, and a logo for each of the church’s ministry programs. Then come the satellite campuses, video venues, and nationwide franchise networks.

A series of decisions, each seeming quite sensible, that solve the “problems”that a church might face. But what if a church, at any point along this path, chooses otherwise? What if a church deliberately decides not to rent a bigger space? What if they refuse to go into debt? What if they wait to raise up leadership from within? What if they intentionally do the counterintuitive, impractical thing every step of the way?

The Impractical Church doesn’t build a building. Ever. Instead, it meets wherever its people live- in their homes, hangouts, restaurants, parks, pubs, libraries, break rooms, basements, parking garages, and empty church buildings of dying congregations. They don’t pay to rent these spaces- they hardly even have to ask to use them. These are the spaces they move in every day. By paying taxes, punching time cards, and spending time and money, they’ve earned the right to use them. They find favor with the people who manage and own the spaces.

They show up to the same neighborhood coffee shop every day for two years. They’ve taken spiritual responsibility for the others who use the space. They’re on a first name basis with the owners. They start to meet one-on-one in the corner. Next as a small group during a time when business is slow. Maybe a waiter gets involved. Soon, the manager is turning down the music so the group can hear one another. Next thing you know, the group is offered keys to the back door and invited to stay after hours so they can have some privacy.

Call it the Friendly Takeover.

The public nature of their meetings challenge the church to apply their faith to their everyday lives. They’re forced to be the Church in context of the local community. Their small size insures that they remain personal, relational, and free of the overhead that burdens other churches. This church is sustainable and truly local. It is indigenous to the neighborhood. They manage growth by planting more of these churches, each interconnected and accountable, but with its own leadership and the freedom to adjust the form and location.

It takes time to expand the Kingdom by filling the impractical spaces, but taking shortcuts has cost us.

NEXT: The Impractical Churches Among Us