What Works vs. What’s Best

I’m convinced that ministry these days is far too pragmatic. Missionaries desperate to see tangible results busy themselves searching for “what works.” Missions strategies and approaches to ministry are almost always based on whether or not they seem likely to produce results.

On a pretty regular basis, I receive advice from colleagues and supporters on how we should proceed in ministry. They usually begin with “I think I have an idea that would work in your context…” They’re probably right. I’m sure that there are many things that would “work” here. But I’m not only looking for what works.

I’m looking for God’s guidance. If something I do results in bad fruit, it’s obviously not of God. But in order for me to participate in  the production of fruit (fruit that will last), I must be obedient. Sometimes obedience makes for some effective ministry. Sometimes, the fruit is not so obvious, and the allure of measurable results is a temptation away from doing what God leads us to do.

So when I read about believers who justify all sorts of nonsense by saying, “Hey, it works.” I get frustrated. When missionaries develop their strategies based on what might “reach more people,” they have gotten ahead of God.

Rarely does God do what would, by our standards, be the most efficient, effective, or wise. Seriously. Look at the scriptures. Rather than writing them out himself and giving humans magic decoder sunglasses, He chose to use regular people.  Time and again, He limited Himself, He held His tongue, He left things vague. Jesus let people believe He was a fake when He could easily have proved His might. If God never values “effectiveness” or “efficiency”, why do we?

Myopic Missiology

I think that churches, not parachurch organizations, should be doing missions. I believe that there is no substitute for the God-designed structure of pastoral leadership, ministry of the spiritual gifts, and the community of faith.

Some churches, though, just don’t get it.

We sometimes joke about the church-sponsored group that arrived for a week-long trip to Wales wearing bright orange “Save the Wales” t-shirts. It really happened, but this was not an isolated instance of myopic missiology. We’ve had puppet shows, choirs, mimes (in France, but of course!), badly-translated tracts, well-translated tracts, and bullhorns. Rarely are these methods prescribed by long-term workers with cultural insight. Rather, they are tolerated in hopes of fostering a partnership and broader involvement.

It used to be that a missionary had two choices- let the churches do whatever they want (usually what they think “worked” back home), or spell out every step of a short-term trip and babysit the group to insure compliance.

The good news is that now there’s another option. There is a growing number of willing participants who are not bound by tradition or convention and are capable of contextually-appropriate innovation in missions. They’re connecting  with people across cultures in meaningful and influential ways through art, business, and social action.

How do you find them? Start with a visit to the Upstream Collective.

The Upstream Collective

Several people have asked about what’s next for me. The truth is, I don’t know. I still don’t know what I’m going to do for a living after we arrive in the U.S. Sure it sounds irresponsible and immature to up and leave a perfectly good job and regular paycheck for, well, nothing, but I am.

I am and I’m not.

For those of you who know me (and some of you know me, but don’t know that you know me…), it will come as no surprise that I have been working on a new thing. I’m really excited about getting a real job and being a regular person (you know, rather than a missionary), but I’ve also been working with some colleagues on a new initiative to get churches more directly involved in missions.

I’ve written quite a bit about the centrality of the local church to missions, and the current trends that conspire to keep her on the sidelines. Everywhere I turn, I’m finding people and churches who are looking for a more biblical missiology and a better way to do missions.

upstreamlogo.gif That’s why we started the UpStream Collective, a small group of missional leaders who are committed to training churches to develop innovative strategies for incarnational missions in Europe. This is not a new sending organization. It’s not a business, or even a ministry (in the traditional sense). We’re just a group of (former) missionaries who are looking for ways to share what we’ve learned on the field with people back in the States.

We’re going to focus on four things:

About Europe The “About Europe” Meetings: This summer, we’re taking a road trip. We’re asking friends in several cities across the country to host small get-togethers where we’ll talk about the church’s role in missions, and share some practical ideas for engaging people with the gospel. If you’re interested, please check out the “About Europe” website.

Skybridge Skybridge Community: There are lots of believers who live and work in Europe, but aren’t “missionaries” because they have real jobs. Because they’re not part of the missions sending system, many of them don’t have any kind of support (spiritual, emotional, prayer, help, etc.) that they need. We’re going to connect churches who are serious about missions with expatriate professionals in Europe who are serious about missional living. For churches with few resources, this is a great turnkey strategy for immediate missions engagement.

Jet Set Trips Jet Set Trips: A couple times a year, we’re leading a vision trip to Europe. A few days in a European city is all you’ll need to get a clear understanding of the postmodern, post-Christian spiritual reality there. What’s more, it will give you a unique insight into what the U.S. will look like in just a few short years. Participants will see the sights, talk to the people, and explore innovative ways to develop and coordinate strategic missional work among the unreached.

Missions Misunderstood Missions Misunderstood, the Book: Okay, so that’s not exactly what it will be called, but we are working on a couple of books, and we plan to continue blogging. We are committed to promoting dialog about missions, and to sharing ideas freely with all who might be interested. We’re going to organize several campaigns geared toward churches getting more directly involved in missions.

The Only Thing Harder Than Arriving? Leaving.

I’m not the sensitive emotional type. I never cry at weddings. I hate romantic comedies. I think that pictures of babies in flower pots should be considered cruelty. I don’t save souvenirs, birthday cards, or mementos.

As I pack up to leave the field, I’m experiencing this strange sensation- emotion. Everything I do is taking on a new meaning (“this may be the last…”). I’m hyper-sensitive to the uniqueness of the sights and smells. I have a new-found desire to take it all in, to enjoy my final moments here.

It might just be coffee with milk, but you can’t get anything like it in the U.S. I’m watching the European league soccer finals on TV here, yet I feel so close, so involved. I don’t want to lose that. The man at the kebab shop. The cashier at the store. My friends, neighbors, and the familiar strangers I see in the city every day. I don’t want to forget them.

So I’m taking it all with me. I’m taking pictures of mundane things like street signs, sunsets, rooftops, and advertisements. (I actually stole a menu from my favorite coffee shop!)

As I go, I’m wondering whether it’s made a difference at all that I’ve been here. I don’t imagine that the city will be any different after I’ve left. But all of the things that were so strange to me when I came here now seem to mean so much.

I’m mourning the loss of what was my life in Western Europe.

Now Tell Us How You Really Feel

I’d like to thank everyone who’s sent emails and comments in support of our move. I’m not sure what it means when people seem to be glad you’re leaving, but I’m going to take it as an encouragement.

One thing that many people are asking is whether I’m going to really let someone have it in a blog post now that I’m leaving the organization. One friend wrote, “So are you going to let loose on your blog now that you’re free?”

I think I know what they mean. When I’m out from under the Board’s authority, I shouldn’t have any inhibitions about writing a negative post about my former employer. The thing is, I have boldly expressed myself about the things that have bothered me about the organization and about missions in general. I don’t have to “let loose” now, because I’ve used this blog as an outlet for years now. Maybe I’ve tried to be diplomatic about it, but I’ve freely expressed my thoughts, questions, and ideas regarding my organization, co-workers, and denomination. My conscience is clear.

The longer I’ve been on the field, the more uncomfortable we’ve become with our missionary system. I’ve written about that at every turn along the way.

In I posted my concerns about narrowing parameters in the Southern Baptist Convention, and questioned whether or not there was still room for me here:

Some bloggers are asking whether we’ve gone too far in restricting the parameters of who is “in” and who is “out.” Others are insisting that we haven’t gone far enough. Through all of the discussion, the boundaries are drawn and redrawn, and I get the feeling that I’m no longer welcome. I can’t help but wonder, “Is there still room for me?”   -Is There Room For Me? 2 October, 2006

Way back in December of 2005, about finances in the organization, I wrote:

People are tired of sacrificially giving their hard-earned money to a faceless corporate institution that both defines “the Task” and measures its own progress in fulfilling that task. “It’s going to cost us $800 million for us to finish the task,” the organization might say. But beyond that, there is no real accountability as to how the money is spent or even as to where the financial figures come from.    -Financing the Machine, 21 December, 2005 

I’ve regularly addressed my missiological concerns, but rarely as concisely as I did here:

I cannot accept a missiology that essentially puts us on “auto-pilot” in terms of to whom we should go. The second we assume where and in whom God is going to work, we get ahead of Him and disqualify ourselves from full participation in what He’s doing. This missiology is essentially either/or; missions is either relating to those people that God leads us to, or it is targeting the next “lostest” people group according to our statistics and research. It cannot be both, because the second assumes a monopoly on the first. How else can we explain so many of our workers feeling called to work among “reached” peoples?   -Messed Up Missiology, 3 December, 2006

I haven’t pulled any punches when voicing my concerns with Church Planting Movements as Strategy, either:

I refuse to believe that the reason we aren’t seeing Church Planting Movements is that we just haven’t gotten it right yet. I’m tired of seeing good, faithful people feel pressure to produce something that is totally out of their control. We have people on the field that feel like complete failures because they haven’t seen God re-create what He did in Asia, and it weighs heavily on them. It’s time to re-evaluate our strategy and goals.   -Where Are The CPMs?  25 January, 2007

I have tried to be honest about my questions and concerns along the way. I believe that the process has helped me grow and learn. Even though my thoughts here haven’t always been well formulated, I appreciate the outlet for discussion. Many of my readers (if “many” can be applied to so few) are still with the IMB, and I would like to continue to dialog with them about ways to be even better about doing missions.

So no, don’t hold your breath for some scorching exposé about my organization as I leave. For all my questions and concerns, I really like the IMB, and I’m thankful for the opportunity they’ve given me to serve.

Playing The God Card

It is comforting and empowering to know for sure that you’re doing what you need to be doing. The big decisions are a lot simpler when you’re sure of the parameters. You rest easier in the face of troubles because there are some things you just won’t question no matter what. So there’s something disquieting about changes to that plan you were so sure of. Like the sense of betrayal you feel when the ground moves in an earthquake.

When we arrived on the field six years ago, we knew for sure that we were where God wanted us to be. That didn’t make the transition to life in Western Europe easy, but knowing that you’re doing what you’re supposed to do can demote things like language learning and culture shock from overwhelming to intimidating. I’m so thankful that God has proven Himself over and over to be our provider. He has maintained us on the field, and we are thankful that He has used many of you to encourage and support us along the way.

You can probably guess from the preamble that this is your standard resignation announcement. It is. And it’s a lot harder to write than I thought it would be.

We know what it’s like to know for sure that we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing. That’s what makes our decision to return to the States so simple. We feel God’s direction, and we don’t want to stick around to find out what it’s like to ignore that. I used to always hate when people played the “God card.” You can get away with pretty much anything with a heartfelt “God told me to.” Hopefully, that’s not what we’re doing here. I don’t think it is. Some of you might be discouraged to hear that we’re leaving. Please, don’t be. Trust God on this sort of thing no matter what, because He is orchestrating His work around the world.

We will be leaving the field at the end of May. We’re moving to Portland, OR. We’re going to finally get “real jobs” and get involved in the community. We’re pretty excited about going back to the U.S. and putting into practice all that we’ve learned in here in Western Europe. Surely God will bring us to someone who wouldn’t mind exploring things like house church and relational ministry with us. Portland seems like a good place for that. Besides, we hear that there are lots of coffee shops in Portland, and that the public transportation system is good enough that you don’t need a car.

Would you please pray for us as we move? We’re a little bit anxious about living in the States again, and about fitting in and making friends. Also, please pray for the people of Western Europe and the work here. Our team is preparing to undergo some major changes, and we want to be sure that we deal with them in a way that points people to Jesus.

Learning the Rules

Nearly anyone can live abroad. But incarnation is about more than just location. Successfully entering a culture that is different from yours requires that you learn the rules. If you’re trying to influence across cultures, the rules are crucial.

Society is made up of rules. There are rules for how a person should act in a given situation. There are rules for personal interaction, managing your money, and the volume of your conversation in public. There are rules about when it’s appropriate to make noise in your apartment building. There are rules for seating on the bus. What you wear, where you walk, how you order your coffee; there’s a rule for everything.

There are always consequences for breaking the rules. At best, being a rule-breaker will get you labeled (foreigner, rude, ignorant, proud). At worst, failure to follow the rules will get you removed from the community altogether. (Okay, so maybe that’s not the worst thing that could possibly happen, but you get my meaning here.) This is why many missionaries are marginalized, ignored, or “persecuted.” It’s not their message; nobody’s hearing that. They don’t have a voice because they’re trying to apply the rules of a culture two thousand miles away (or two thousand years ago) to their host culture.

Learning the rules can be very difficult, because they aren’t posted anywhere for you. No, you have to do your homework if you want access. The shortcut of mimicry will surely have you breaking all of the rules. You can’t deduct the rules by observing how insiders live. Often, their behavior seems to contradict their rules. There’s probably a rule about that. The rules are not the same for everybody. Even if you’re language-capable enough to ask, no one would be able to tell you all the rules because those who operate inside the culture assume that everyone shares their perspective on things. They don’t know that the rules where you come from are different from theirs. But you do. That’s the first thing you learn on the mission field.

My Evolution

I’ve spent the last couple of days reading through my blog. I’m amazed at how much I’ve written about pretty much the same thing. There were times when thoughts and questions flowed and I posted frequently. There were other times where everything dried up and I hardly wrote anything at all. There were seasons where I got distracted, focusing on denominational politics and organizational frustrations, and long periods of a broader, hopefully more kingdom-centered focus.

God has taught me a lot since I’ve been on the mission field. I’m really not the same man I was when I left the United States. From my national friends, I’ve picked up a passion for social awareness and action. I’ve moved away from distinguishing between “spiritual” and “everything else.” I now value environmental stewardship. I have put away (or, at least tried to put away) willful ignorance. I believe strongly in promoting peace. I recognize the sanctity of all life, instead of just being “anti-abortion.”

I have a new love for the freedom of expression, and I oppose the stifling of dissent. I’m excited by asking questions, and I’m content with the unknown. I’m realizing how little I know about anything at all, and yet how much my former worldview required me to be all-knowing. I’ve learned that you really can camp out on the philosophical “slippery slope,” and that agreeing with people I disagree with or don’t like isn’t the end of the world.

I have learned to worship without music or a guy with a guitar. I have come to realize that prayer should be a two-way conversation between God and me. I’m working on reading the Bible for what it says and what the Holy Spirit illuminates to me instead of picking verses that support my arguments. I’ve altogether quit thinking of the church as a building with a paid staff and youth group games on Wednesday nights.

I came here to tell people about Jesus. Now I realize the power of publicly living out the joys and struggles of my faith. Though I still struggle, I can now see through the lies of materialism. I find my identity in Christ instead of my profession or the successes of my ministry. I’ve learned not to assume that I know what’s going on around me spiritually. I’ve come to enjoy the spirituality of conversation with believers. I’ve learned a lot from fellowship with people who don’t believe.

I drink more coffee (if that were possible). I talk with my hands. I shout at people while I’m driving. I’m a lot more patient about waiting in line, but protective of my place in it. I don’t pretend to cough just to make a point when someone is smoking nearby. I listen to music just for fun. I think in two languages (with really bad grammar in both.) I ride a bike. I recycle. I speak in a quieter voice in public. I wear sensible (yet stylish) shoes.

No, I’m not the same guy I was. Hopefully, I’m a little bit more like who God wants me to be.

Emerging People Groups

CubaFloridaThe concept of “people groups” has radically affected they way we do missions. It used to be that missionaries were sent to minister to the people of a given country. These days, however, we recognize that people group themselves and identify with communities that may not necessarily conform to (sometimes random and often disputed) political boundaries. Consider the following definition, taken from peoplegroups.org

A “people group” is an ethnolinguistic group with a common self-identity that is shared by the various members. There are two parts to that word: ethno and linguistic. Language is a primary and dominant identifying factor of a people group. But there are other factors that determine or are associated with ethnicity. Usually there is a common self-name and a sense of common identity of individuals identified with the group. A common history, customs, family and clan identities, as well as marriage rules and practices, age-grades and other obligation covenants, and inheritance patterns and rules are some of the common ethnic factors defining or distinguishing a people. What they call themselves may vary at different levels of identity, or among various sub-groups.

The idea is that people group themselves in such a way as to create commonality with some people and (therefore) distinction from others. Now, I say “people group themselves…” but really, most of us are born into a group and stay in the group our whole lives. Because these groups create our way of understanding and relating to the world around us, leaving one group for another is very difficult, if not impossible.

Most missionaries these days are sent to engage a people group with the gospel. They usually start by researching the group’s culture and history, and examining that group’s interactions with other groups. That’s how we know, for example that even though the Basque people group resides on both sides of the France/Spain border, they are one ethnolinguistic people group. This is good information to have when we’re trying to coordinate the work among the Basque people. Under the old paradigm, we might have assumed that they were two groups.

My concern with “people group thinking” as it is commonly held, is that it tends to assume that people groups are static, well-defined things. A missions strategy based on people groups would tend to focus on sending missionaries to work among a people group. Once that people group is “reached,” the idea is that the missionaries would move on to another “unreached” people group. One thing that we don’t seem to have taken into account is how drastically people groups change.

Culture is dynamic. It never stops changing. Interconnectivity opens the world to global influences that have dramatic effects on even the most traditional cultures. Growing generation gaps and socioeconomic discrepancies fragment people groups. Aggressive exportation of culture through media, commercialism, and politics, leaves a lasting impression on all people groups. Some are assimilated. Others are willfully abandoned. Some die out altogether, while new ones are being born all the time. The changes that used to take place over the course of centuries now happen daily on social networking websites. When cultures bump up against each other, people are profoundly affected.

Take, for example, well-established immigrant people groups. If a group of ethnic Chinese move to London, they would tend to live in community with one another. But that transplanted Chinese community is not immune to the influence of British culture. They may hold tightly to certain traditions and aspects of their home culture, but, for survival’s sake, they are certain to adopt some of the customs of their host culture as well. How long before that Chinese community becomes something else entirely?

When a group displaced from its people group has become culturally different enough from it’s home culture that, for changes to its values, traditions, and social structure, it could not easily re-integrate into that home culture, it is a new people group.

When a visitor from the home culture visits friends among the displaced group, how does he feel? If, due to changes in worldview, he can no longer fully relate to the group, it is a new people group.

When a displaced people group adopts so much of its host culture’s language, dress, politics, and perspective that it is rejected by its its home culture, it is a new people group.

That’s why the children of missionaries aren’t called “MKs” (Missionary Kids) anymore. Now they’re called “TCKs” (Third Culture Kids). They don’t really belong to the culture that their parents left or to the one in which they’ve come to live.

During the recent elections in Florida, the media paid a lot of attention to Cuban exiles there who are politically active. Since Fidel Castro took control, a growing number of Cubans have fled to the U.S. since the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Today, there are 2 million Cubans living in the United States; 650,000 in Miami alone. Separated by ninety miles, fifty years, and lots of “Spanglish,” are the Cubans in Miami the same people group as those who have stayed in Cuba?

Our missiology needs to hold to an unchanging God and an ever-changing world. Why do we continue to see “emerging” as a cultural term and not a missiological one?

The Myth of “Insufficient Resources”

I’ve been part of a couple of conversations lately about whether or not we still need denominations or associations of churches. Many times, supporters of these associations cite the benefits of smaller churches partnering with larger ones to be more effective in missions. There may be a good reason to hold on to denominations, but partnering for missions isn’t one of them.

More often than not, when you say that a collection of churches is “partnering in missions,” you really mean that small churches give what little money they think they can afford to a larger church or a missions sending agency that will handle mobilization, screening, indoctrination, training, sending, and maintenance of missionaries on the field. This is not “partnering,” it’s outsourcing.

The difference is subtle, but detrimental to our efforts and disastrous for our missiology. The myth of “insufficient resources” has left missions strategy to those with the most. It perpetuates the distinction between the “professionals” and everyone else. For members of the small church who faithfully send their offerings to “missions” there is very little personal connection with the work or the missionaries they “send.” Motivation (apart from guilt) can be hard to come by. The larger churches are left with the most influence over what “missions monies” are used for and by whom.

Small churches can do missions. These days, travel, education, and communication (essential for missions) are easier, faster, and cheaper than ever. Even in the smallest of towns, “the nations” live next door. No matter how big your church may be, incarnational ministry is done person-to-person. The myth that it takes lots of money or people to make a difference has left the commission in the hands of the megachurches and sending organizations for too long.

A true missions network would not connect churches in order to do missions, it would connect churches who are doing missions.