In response to Dr. Malcom Yarnell’s Shall We “Build Bridges” or “Pull Down Strongholds”?

After reading Dr. Malcolm Yarnell’s paper entitled, Shall We “Build Bridges” or “Pull Down Strongholds”? I was inspired to respond. I don’t usually do this sort of thing, but here’s an excerpt:

I, however, believe that the gap between the mainstream culture and the “Christian” subculture many Americans find themselves in should be filled. This should not and cannot be accomplished by efforts to “make the church relevant,” but by ceasing the active propagation of the myth of Christian culture. In other words, if our churches valued indigenous interpretation of scriptural truth, we would see expressions of Christianity that reflect (and therefore affect) the cultures in which we find ourselves. Churches would be “relevant” (I prefer “contextually appropriate”) if we stopped making people look like us in order to follow Jesus. But because many of us fail to see the cultural influences on our own Christianity. If we think that ours is a pure Christianity, unaffected by the world and its cultures, it makes sense that we would be wary of missional contextualization.

Please read the entirety of my way-too-long response, entitled:

In Response to Dr. Malcolm Yarnell’s Shall We “Build Bridges” or “Pull Down Strongholds”? A practitioner’s decidedly unacademic answer to an esteemed theology professor’s uninformed opinion.

The Difference Between Coming and Going

It occurs to me that much of our missionary efforts today are carried out as though God wasn’t on the field.

God doesn’t “send” us. He calls us to join Him. There’s a difference. If we think that we’re doing something great for God, or that He (or the “nations”) needs us in any way, we think too highly of ourselves.

Consider the terminology we use: “Reaching the nations for Christ.” “Finishing the Task.” “Building the Kingdom.” “Engaging people.” Because we haven’t been careful to explain what they originally meant, these trite phrases have helped shape a human-centered missiology among many believers.

Few missions strategies include something like, “Get involved in the community and wait for God to bring us the people in whom He is already working.”

Instead, we have people canvassing neighborhoods in search of anyone who will listen, and broad (and generic) “Sowing of the gospel.” It’s as though we were afraid that the God who called us to the field has left us to search blindly for what He might do.

Why do we view the role of the missionary as perpetually active (“reaching,” “evangelizing,” “sharing,” etc.) and rarely passive (“being given the opportunity,” “being used,” “being led”)?

We’ve Lost the Plot

Missions- (mish-uh ns) -noun: 1. a group of persons sent by a church to carry on religious work, esp. evangelization in foreign lands, and often to establish schools, hospitals, etc. 2. missionary duty or work 3. organized missionary work or activities in any country or region 4. a church or a region dependent on a larger church or denomination 5. a series of special religious services for increasing religious devotion and converting unbelievers: to preach a mission 5. an assigned or self-imposed duty or task; calling; vocation 6. a sending or being sent for some duty or purpose 7. those sent

I’m starting to realize that the greatest problem facing Christian missions today is not money, not manpower, not strategy, and not even the physical and spiritual opposition to our work. The problem with missions is that we don’t know what it is. The concept, the very definition of the word, is interpreted and applied by so many people in so many ways, I think we’ve lost the plot.

To the world, missions is church people feeding the poor and building church buildings. To the casual churchgoer, missions are those trips the youth group takes every summer. To the volunteer missionary missions is sacrificing time and hard-earned money to travel to a distant place to conduct sports camps and backyard Bible clubs. To the long-term and career missionary- well… they obviously have no idea what it is.

For the sake of my calling and work, I’m going to work on defining the ministry and role of the missionary.

Don’t Forget the "Why"

I’ve always been taught to do what Jesus would do. So much so, that the question of “what” Jesus would do completely eclipsed the concept of “why.” Jesus was selfless and always put other people’s needs before His own. He spent time in public with people who were known as sinners and drunks. Jesus kept the law, turned the other cheek, and kicked the capitalists out of the temple. Why did He do these things?

“What?” is the question of the obedient. “What do you want me to do?” “What is right?” “What does the Bible say?” It is vital that we know the “what,” but for the past couple of years, it’s the “why” that’s haunted me.

“Why?” is the rebel’s question. It implies conditional obedience pending personal approval. That’s why frustrated parents answer “why?” with “Because I said so!” Leaders answer it with “Because I’m the boss.” People who are interested in maintaining the status quo consider “why?” to be disrespectful and insubordinate.

“Why?” threatens the authority of a leader (especially if he doesn’t know the answer!) Addressing it can be difficult, time-consuming, and can reveal shortcomings and inconsistencies. Nevertheless, “why?” is a question we should be asking, because the power is in the “why.”

Asking why is how we come to know God in a personal way. We don’t really know Him until we begin to understand why He does what He does.

Once we start asking “why,” we shouldn’t ever stop. Too often, we settle on a reason or explanation and never revisit the question. We accept a logical and well-presented argument and move on. This is why people in the pew believe that we should do missions will bring Jesus back and why people on the field buy into the lie that anyone’s eternity depends on missionaries. Questioning “why” protects us from legalism, complacency, and meaningless tradition.

Why not ask “why?”

Friendly Fire

The longer I’m on the field, the more out-of-touch I become with my home culture. I suppose this is natural, but it can make communication with people back home difficult, to say the least. Take my blog, for example. The misunderstanding seems to get worse the harder I try to clarify my thoughts and opinions. This is especially apparent with the arrival of partners from the States. The other day I had a conversation with a new arrival that was, um, disjointed to say the least. He asked about my favorite Christian music. I don’t have any. He asked about several church planting conferences he had been to. I hadn’t even heard of a single one. He asked if I knew any of the (according to him, at least) movers and shakers in Christian circles in the States. I tried to play the name-drop game too, but I don’t really know anyone who’s someone. (No offense if you’re someone I know.) I haven’t read the latest Christian bestseller (I can’t even name one), and I don’t care about what Al Mohler thinks about anything.

My friend was surprised that the things that were important to him weren’t important to me. For him, it wasn’t okay that I wasn’t up on all the latest Christian news. He (seriously!) doubted my spiritual maturity because I thought that MyPraize or GodTube were good ideas. He questioned my understanding of scripture because I’m not enamored with Mike Huckabee (who is apparently the only presidential candidate a Christian should vote for).

Back home there are training programs to help teach Christians how to interact with lost people. I need one to help me learn how to relate to church people.

Why is it that church people are some of the most difficult people of all? Where everyone else gives you the benefit of the doubt, leave it to the religious folks to point out every flaw. Lost people call you “different,” saved people call you a heretic. I don’t understand that. I don’t understand why the same Christians who cop out of rational debates with nonchristians by using blind faith arguments insist on using logic to prove their points in conversations with fellow believers. I don’t understand how God’s people back home can claim to love people, but ignore the lost and fight with the saved.

Why is it that I regularly have commenters who attack me? How could anyone chastise me for sharing what God is teaching me with an admonition (“Don’t bite the hand that feeds you!” “You don’t know how good you have it!”)? I’m not complaining here. I can take criticism and disagreement. I can admit that I’m not always (hardly ever?) right. I just don’t understand why do so many Christians consider those they disagree with (in knee-jerk reaction) to be enemies?

Maybe I just don’t get Christians.

Where Are The CPMs?

Our regional (and organization-wide) mission and strategy is to “facilitate a Church Planting movement among people groups and/or population segments greater than 100,000 people and less than 2% evangelized. In past posts, I’ve taken issue with the definitions of “people groups” and “evangelized,” and I’ve voiced my confusion over the seemingly random numbers that guide our strategic decisions.

My question today is this: where are the church planting movements?

Church planting movement (CPM) is a term the refers to those instances in which multiple church-planting churches are planted among a people group. Such an occurrence would certainly be an act of Almighty God, and would transcend any program or campaign that we could initiate. This is how it happened in certain parts of Asia fifteen years ago.

Eleven years have passed since the CPM strategy was adopted by the board. Faithful men and women have poured their lives into the people to whom they’ve been called. They have been trained, equipped, led, encouraged, and prayed for. They have learned language(s), adapted to culture, and made efforts to partner with other Great Commission Christians in an effort to facilitate a CPM. Despite all their efforts, the IMB’s missionaries to Western Europe have not yet seen such a movement.

Where are the CPMs?

Everyone seems to have a theory as to why we haven’t been effective at fulfilling this vision. “We don’t pray enough,” many have said, or “we’ve gone about it the wrong way.” Some have suggested that we haven’t cooperated enough, others say we’ve cooperated too much. I’ve heard our current situation blamed on poor language skill, not enough “broad seed sowing,” and sin.

These theories are usually followed up with solutions. A book to read. A model to study. A formula to follow. We need to fast, pray, repent, work harder, or bring over more personnel. “If we only had 50,000 more people praying, then we’d see a CPM.”

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.

Thoughts On The Task

Every six months or so, I have to post my thoughts on “the missionary task.” In my opinion, this is the single most important topic that no one is talking about. In another attempt to incite some discussion, I’ve also posted this to the Church Planting Forum.

Below is an outline of my current thoughts on “the Task.” Please forgive my over-use of quotation marks.

Since my appointment and move to Western Europe, I’ve wrestled with the conventional understanding of what has come to be known as “the Missionary Task.” I’ve prayed about it, read about it, googled it, and blogged about it, but there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of discussion on the topic. I’m sure this is due to the fact that most of us (Christians, that is) already have the thing clearly sorted out in our heads.

I begin by admitting that my current perspective on the subject is likely wrong and would certainly be improved by some honest discussion with brothers and sisters who are obediently participating in the task. My question is simple: what is the nature of “the task?”

The question is important because most of us are heavily involved in ministries that have been planned around a particular understanding of our calling, goals, and purpose. “The Task” is the missiological idea that has led us to concepts such as the “10/40 Window” and “Frontier missions.” It’s led us to move our focus and resources from “reached” areas (despite the harvest) to “unreached” ones. It’s led us to rely heavily on statistics and models for our missions strategies. I’m not sure we’ve got it right. Here’s why:

-The Great Commission is a call to Go and make disciples. Does it necessarily have to be a “finishable” task? When I was a kid, my mom was always telling me to make my bed and pick up my room and eat my vegetables. Turns out she wanted me to do it every day. It would have been silly of me to say (as I’m sure I did), “Mom, I’m almost finished with the task you assigned me.”

-Some of you will want to pull out your Greek lexicons and start chanting, “ponta ta ethne” or something like that. I see the use of the term “all nations” (Matthew 24:14, 28:19-20, Luke 24:46-47) as a descriptive term, not a prescriptive one. Here’s a blog post about this.

One verse that also uses the “all nations/every nation” terminology is this one that tells about the Day of Pentecost:

“Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nationunder heaven.” -Acts 2:5

I find it odd that this one doesn’t usually figure into the discussion. Does it mean that there were literally Jews in all nations? Or is it saying “of the nations in which there were Jewish people…” If the former is true, the “task” was completed at Pentecost!

-To me, the concept of a “Final Frontier” assumes a static world. I blogged about this here. There are new people groups being born all the time that have their own unique languages and cultures.

-It also seems to assume that once a nation is “reached,” it will always remain so. I work in Western Europe where in many ways, our work is to reintroduce the Gospel to people who are inoculated against it.

-As far as I can tell, “the Task” we’re called to is nothing less (and nothing more!) than a step-by-step following of the Holy Spirit. But the IMB has scrapped that for something more practical. It’s like we read the instructions Jesus gave in Matthew 28:18-20, and we say, “Okay folks, you heard Him: All nations. Let’s get the job done!” I address the question “What’s it gonna take?” here.

-It seems to me that we can fulfill the task (obediently going as God leads), but we’re not really going to “complete” it. I’m okay with that, because I think it requires us to be more dependent on Him, instead of developing some game-plan to finish something that He never assigned. A task of world evangelization isn’t enough, in my opinion.

These are, roughly, my thoughts on the subject. I’ve always wanted someone to discuss these things with me, and to clarify my thinking where possible. What do you think?

Language Exchange

In my country of service, the culture has a built-in opportunity for meeting people. It is perhaps the one activity to which we can naturally contribute. They are called “Language Exchange Partnerships,” and basically make up an underground network of nationals who are interested for whatever reason in improving their English through conversation with native speakers. It usually works like this: English-learner posts an online ad, introducing himself as vaguely as possible and stating his intentions for the exchange. “I am looking for an American guy to have a drink with and to practice English.” Most of them are pretty much the same.

There are the expected, “I just started a new English language course at university,” and then there’s “I have an English exam in four days, and I want to to cram for the test by pretending to be your best friend until then. After that, I will never return your calls.” Okay, so maybe they aren’t that honest about their intentions, but you’d be surprised. The other day I saw one by a brutally honest 32 year-old guy. “I an looking for an American or British girl to…” well, let’s just say he was interesting in exchanging a little more than language.

A sort of etiquette has even been developed for these partnerships. Usually an exchange entails getting together over coffee or drinks and talking. The first hour would be in the national language, and the second or third in English. However awkward the actual conversation might be, it’s the easy part compared to finding a willing partner. Contact begins with an email or text message, but such contact does not necessarily imply commitment. The return email or message establishes the meeting point, usually some busy and crowded public place that would make finding your mother difficult. Sort of like “In the middle of Grand Central Station. I’ll be wearing a coat.” Something like that.

When you finally identify and meet your new language exchange partner, it’s exactly like a blind date (from what I’ve heard). You exchange the usual formalities, where are you from, how long have you been here, why are you learning the language, and so on. This part usually goes as though it were scripted, and usually lasts between fifteen and twenty minutes. That’s when The Silence hits. You probably know what I mean, and why I choose to capitalize it, but The Silence can drown you in overwhelming awkwardness. “What more could I possibly say to this person?” you think. “How could we already have exhausted ‘what’s your favorite…?’ -that should last for hours!”

And then it happens. Politics…
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I’ll spare you some of the experiences I’ve had with Language Exchange partnerships. I’ve had many that barely survived that first meeting, and one that lasted three years. The reason I share this is that I’m always talking about how we do relational ministry through activities that are already happening in the community. “We don’t do programs or big events,” I say. And people always ask what I mean by that. Language Exchange Partnerships are a big part of that.

Think about what an opportunity it is to build a relationships with a national that seeks you out. And not just some guy off the street, but someone who is open to spending time with a foreigner and has some knowledge of English. These relationships provide the perfect setting for us to share life with nationals; talking about our faith, asking questions, and getting to know them personally. For us, this is the beginning of church planting.

That’s Not What I’m Saying

This is part 76 in my long-running series about word definitions…

Whenever someone shares a fresh perspective, or wants to challenge the status quo, he or she is bound to be misunderstood. It starts like this:

Copernicus:
“Hey guys, I’m thinking that maybe the Earth isn’t the center of the solar system.”

Well-Intentioned Misunderstanding Guy:
“So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.” Joshua 10:13

Misunderstanding Guy #1:
“Are you saying that all of the astronomers that have gone before you are stupid? How arrogant!”

Misunderstanding Guy #2:
“Oh, so you’re throwing out the entire concepts of planets, then? I suppose we’re all floating around in space on figments of our imagination, then.”

Misunderstanding Guy #3:
“You’re a liberal.”

Misunderstanding Girl:
“Why are you so negative all the time?”

Misunderstanding Old Guy:
“When I was your age, I used to think the Earth revolved around the Sun, too.”

Misunderstanding Guy #1(again):
“I defy you to prove your theory.”

Anonymous Misunderstander:
“Yeah, but the Earth is still round.”

Of course, I’m no Copernicus. While I realize that what I write here is neither fresh nor challenging, I run into the same sorts of trouble. Say I question a commonly held missiology. Someone is bound to accuse me of being proud or ignorant or both.

The worst part of the misunderstanding game is having to preface everything I’m trying to say with everything that I’m not saying. People read one bit of a post and jump to conclusions. If a key word is used or some vaguely familiar reasoning is appealed to, the labels come out and the communication ceases. That’s why we can’t talk about miracles without adding the disclaimer: “I’m no Charismatic, but…”

“I affirm the Baptist Faith and message, but…”

So someday, I’m going to put together a book that contains all the things I’m not saying. By questioning the wisdom of a rule, I’m not being disrespectful of those who set the rule. When I say that we need to live out our faith, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t tell people about Jesus. Don’t get upset when I write “I’m uncomfortable calling myself a missionary” or “I don’t go to church” until you know (or at least have made an effort to know) what I’m actually saying.
If you have a question, please ask! That way we can discuss what’s being said, instead of arguing over what isn’t.