Vocabulary Exchange

It’s time to change the lingo of missions. (Including the word “missions.”) Really. Hardly any of the words that we use to talk about cross-cultural ministry accurately describe the work of our people on the field. Many of our words actually work against us. Take, for example, the idea of “reaching” people. What does that mean? I know what we mean when we say it (at least I think I do…), but I’ve heard it used to describe many of very different activities. The term is too ambiguous to allow for any sort of meaningful communication.

When we say “missions,” we make it sound like we’re part of some military operation. Yeah, I’m aware of the war analogies and imagery in the Bible, but using militaristic words like “target,” or “strategy” only go to reinforce the erroneous mentality that people are our enemies, and that we’re here to either “hit them and run” or stay as an occupying force. Neither is good missiology.

Instead of the role of “Strategy Coordinator” what about “Contextualizer?” Or “Cultural Translator?” These sorts of terms better describe the real work of a missionary, and they leave out the militaristic/political word, “strategy.”

“Church Planter” would be okay if we were talking about God.

“Evangelism.” For the vast majority of believers today, it seems that the word “evangelism” has come to mean “preaching a summary of the Message.” I think it’s sad that we’re not creative enough to come up with a word in our own language to describe the process by which the Good News culturally translated, shared and received. On our team, we use the term “Sharing Life” to refer to this process. We work to get involved in people’s lives, knowing that as they get to know us, they will also get to know our Savior. We live in such a way as to support everything we say about Jesus so that (hopefully) it all makes some sense to them.

“Volunteers.” Technically, this one is appropriate, since we use it to refer to people who come to work with (for) us at their own expense. I’d prefer the word “partner.” A volunteer is someone who is doing you a favor. A partner is serving out of obedience, and therefore has equal stake in the work of the ministry. The term also helps narrow the difference between the professionals and the laity.

The biggest reason to change our missions vocabulary is that it isn’t biblical. Why don’t we call our “M’s” “Disciplers?” or “Disciple-makers?” Maybe something like “Proclaimers” to describe the ongoing announcement of the kingdom. I like “Workers;” not as a substitution for “missionary,” but as a good way to describe God’s people doing what they were created for, and doing those things that cause the people around them to glorify the Lord.

A new vocabulary would help shape our general attitude toward the Commission.
I think it would also help us do a better job of communicating what we’re doing on the field, and what God is doing among the people of the world.

What “missions” words would you change? What replacements would you suggest?

I Wish You Knew

I’ve just finished answering D Birchfiel’s “Seven Questions.” You can read my responses at OKpreacher, assuming that he decides to post them. One of the questions he asks is, “What do you wish Southern Baptists knew about your ministry?” That was the most difficult question for me to answer; not because I didn’t have anything to say, but because I had such a hard time narrowing it down to just one (or two…) That, of course, got me thinking about all that I wish the people that send and support me knew about missions in general, and our ministry specifically.

Here’s a list of things I wish you knew:

-We appreciate you. I know that there is no way I would be on the field if it wasn’t for your monetary support, and no way I’d be able to stay here without your prayers.

-Missions is not the same as evangelism. It seems like so many of us confuse the two. Missions is more than gospel proclamation, or even sharing Christ across cultures. It is about incarnational living that demonstrates what life in Christ might look like for people in the host culture. We call it cultural translation, and it’s hard to quantify.

-We cling desperately to emotional, financial, and prayer support that you have committed to us. When we hear about divisive arguing and politics among the people we depend on, it makes us nervous.

-We don’t send three-color printed brochure newsletters anymore. We blog. If you read our blogs, you can get a better idea of what life is like for us.

-We feel like dorks. We are a bunch of nobodies that God sent to other places. Sometimes I wonder if He wasn’t just sparing you from our presence in the States! It makes us uncomfortable that you would allow us to represent you on the mission field.

-We expect you to do the same thing we’re doing. Granted, most of you don’t have to learn a new language, but your job really is the same as ours. Only we have better medical coverage.

-God is working overseas. He’s doing amazing, supernatural things that constantly remind us of His presence and grace. We see it on a regular basis. Forgive us for not consistently sharing it with you, it’s just that sometimes we think you wouldn’t understand.

-We like when you ask questions about our work or otherwise show interest in what we’re doing. It reminds us that we’re part of a bigger family, and that our ministry matters to someone.

So I guess those are some of the things I wish you knew about our ministries. Now you know.

Beat Up By A Seminary Professor

Last week, we were visited by a church planting professor from one of our seminaries. He taught a seminar for some of the workers in our country as part of the IMB’s professor-exchange program. He shared church plating strategies and theories, and some basic principles from scripture.

I sent our Journeymen.

These girls have been great at building relationships and engaging the culture here. I’ve learned a lot from them about sharing life with people by publicly working out their faith. They are pioneers in relational church planting in Western Europe. Their experience makes them the experts; there really isn’t anyone who can teach them how to minister in this context. Unfortunately, these particular Journeymen don’t feel as though they know what they’re doing. They don’t understand that despite being young and not having seminary degrees, they are leading the way for cross-cultural missional church planting in the world. There aren’t any books written about it. There are no formulas, programs, or training materials to teach them how to do their jobs. They are learning by doing and having a great time on the journey.

The Journeymen came back from their time with the church planting professor very discouraged. It seems that the professor, who has tremendous experience and by nature of his position presents himself as an expert in all things church planting, questioned a lot of what the Journeymen were doing. His questions, of course, were coming from a perspective of no cultural insight, and no understanding of our team. He bullied them. Why weren’t they passing out Jesus films? he asked. Why were they just hanging out with nationals if that hadn’t worked yet? Why weren’t people coming to the Lord and churched being planted? Why don’t you just…?

On an academic level, these are good questions, and a good start to a discussion that needs to take place. When I met the professor for coffee the following week, we had a great conversation. But the girls still haven’t recovered from it. They are still questioning their ministries, and the direction of the team. “We’d hate to do it and our friends would hate us, but maybe we should be passing out tracts.” “What’s the point of doing relational ministry of it takes years and years to build a relationship in Western Europe and I’m only here for two or three?”

So now I’m trying to encourage them. The professor doesn’t know our context, I reasoned. Our strategy is not accidental, I remind them.

So now I’m convinced: seminary training doesn’t make us better church planters.

Vietnamese Takeout

Despite the fact that people are always telling me that history is important, I’ve never really been a history buff. In fact, I learned nearly everything I know about history by watching Hollywood movies. I didn’t even know about the Apollo 13 thing until, well, Apollo 13. Forest Gump taught me about three Presidents, Elvis Presley, and the Black Panthers. Saving Private Ryan exposed me to the horrors of World War II… okay, so maybe Tom Hanks taught me all the history I know.

Anyway, I read something the other day about how a large percentage of the homeless population in the U.S. are veterans of the war in Vietnam. Many of them came home after the war and were never able to integrate back in to American life and culture; at least not enough to hold down a job and support a family. I guess it would really change a person to be recruited by his country (or worse still, drafted) into the military, trained to kill people and blow things up, and sent off to fight Asian Communists. I can’t imagine how war must affect a person. But I don’t think that war is the only reason we can still find veterans walking down the middle of the street talking to themselves in obscenities at three o’clock in the morning. I think it’s America’s fault.

I think that Americans weren’t really all that into the fight against communism in the first place, and when President Johnson sent all those boys to Vietnam, the country was indifferent. While they were gone, Americans decided they were against this unwinnable war, and began to resent it. They protested against it. And when the boys came back they weren’t welcomed with the ticker-tape parades like the heroes of WWII. No, they were showered with shouts of “Baby Killer!” and other mean things. No wonder the soldiers didn’t fit in when they got back. They did exactly what they were trained and sent to do, and when they got home, we blamed them.

Sometimes it seems like that same sort of thing happens to missionaries.

Now I would never even consider comparing the experience of a soldier fighting in a physical war to what we go through on the field. Especially not those of us in Western Europe. The comparison I’m making is not to the effects of the battle, but to the necessity of support from those who sent us, and the profound effects of anything less than total support.

My recruitment to work for the IMB began when I was four years old. It was a denominational program called “Mission Friends,” and we were taught about brave IMB missionaries who left their homes and went to live among the primitive tribes of Guatemala or wherever. My missions education continued throughout my life: Royal Ambassadors, Sojourners, Centrifuge. They told me what missions was, and how it was done.

So I “enlisted.” I felt God’s calling and made the decision to enter “full-time ministry,” whatever that meant. I went to a Baptist University for training, and then on to Seminary. Both trained me well in the ways of church planting, Bible scholarship, and cross-cultural communication. The IMB put me through a crash-course orientation, and I was off to the “Foreign Field.”

We hit the ground running. We sought out Persons of Peace and worked to learn the language and engage the culture. We started groups and shared our faith. And it affected us. We worked to live out our faith in this foreign context, and it changed us. Doing what we were sent to do had the side effect of allowing us to see ourselves from another perspective. We found it harder and harder to relate to the fat, lazy American Christians and their fat, lazy American Christianity; so full of themselves and their politics and their megabuildings. We began to resent being sent by religious people that wanted us to set up American franchise churches and who threw money at us to “just do our jobs.” We grew frustrated with the increasingly restrictive rules that they imposed without any regard for the impact those rules might have on our ministries. We are becoming jaded.

It wasn’t until the first time I returned to the States on vacation that I realized that the churches, those same people that cheered us on and prayed over us at our appointment, had changed, too. New missions trends, theories, and ideas had swept through the Christian subculture, and the focus had moved on to different unreached people groups. Missions-minded churches were still sending volunteers, but they craved something more “extreme.” Some churches focused only on local “missions,” buying into the idea that overseas ministry is only for rich megachurches. The majority seems to think that by getting involved in IMB politics and trustee antics they are somehow supporting us and furthering the kingdom work. The churches sent us, and then for whatever reason, forgot us.

Now missionaries compete with other missionaries for support. We talk up our flashy new programs to try to get volunteers to come to us and not to Central Asia. We tell stories of how hard it is here to legitimize our work, to prove to you that we, too, are doing real missions. We print up professional-quality prayer cards to attract your attention to our photo on your refrigerator.

A Little Defensive

Last weekend, I sent my Jman girls to Madrid for a church planting class taught by a visiting seminary professor from the states. They said that they really liked what the teacher had to say, but that they came away discouraged, feeling like he didn’t approve of our team’s strategy as they shared it with him. Now, he’s invited himself to visit our team’s house church time next week.

Now I’m feeling defensive. Is he coming to confront us about the direction of our work? Why would he want to sit in on our worship time? We don’t really invite others to come along, so it will be strange, anyway.

Some Of Us Shouldn’t Be Here

While the timing of this post does not intentionally coincide with the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, I’ll admit that it seems like a relatively safe time to write such a mean post. Hopefully, everyone that might read this, especially the people I’m actually referring to, are either at the Convention or busy reading about it over at SBC Outpost.

Yes, we’re all supposed to be “missionaries” in the “Go ye therefore” sense of the word. Yes, the Lord of the Harvest calls workers to the field. But anyone who has spent any amount of time with IMB personnel and is willing to be honest will tell you that we’ve got some people on the field that shouldn’t be.

Call it a result of the days when there was plenty of money and “Any Warm Body” was the candidacy policy. (Wow, we’ve gone to the opposite extreme, haven’t we?) The IMB was all about momentum in those days- being able to report sending more missionaries and reaching more people groups really got people excited about missions. Volunteering was up, giving was up, and people were signing up for career service. The ranks of the IMB swelled with willing , if not capable, missionaries.

If you were to try to deduce the hiring policy of the IMB by conducting interviews of our career people on the field, what would you come up with?

I think this explains the recent actions of the IMB’s Board of Trustees; “We’ve got people on the field that don’t belong there, and we need to do something about it.” It wasn’t so bad when there was enough money to go around, but nowadays the Board can’t afford to send just anyone. We’ve got people on the field that don’t speak the national language, aren’t actively involved in ministry to nationals, and don’t have a clue of where to begin.

But we can’t fire them, can we? On what grounds? “God hasn’t used you to start a church planting movement?” No, the only way we can fire someone is if they steal money or sleep with a Journeyman. So instead of sending people home, we shuffle their incompetence around the globe. As if moving to a warmer climate would heal laziness. We could have all of our personnel on the field sign a new, even more exclusive document that includes a statement of belief, proof of effectiveness, and pledge of allegiance. You know- to get people to quit. The problem with that is the ones who get worked up about that sort of thing are usually the good ones. They were last time, anyway. So we’re sort of stuck with the people we’ve already got on the field. For now.

Everyone is talking about the new, narrower, theological requirements for appointment, but those aren’t the only changes being made to help weed out the dead weight (pardon the pun) and save some money.

There has always been a health requirement for IMB personnel. Obesity, serious medical conditions, and emotional/psychological issues have always been red flags in the consideration of potential candidates. But recently, the Board has adopted even stricter policy concerning overweight personnel. As a self-insured mega-organization, we can save a lot of money by not employing the fat people that are sure to use up a lot of money through medical claims. Recent changes have lowered the acceptable body-mass index (BMI) for all employees of the IMB. (Though I’m pretty sure trustees are exempt…)

The Board will continue to adopt very restrictive hiring and employment policies, but always leave a loophole for “exceptions.” That way they only get people that meet all of the requirements, and screen out those that don’t belong.

So who are these missionaries that shouldn’t be on the field? Sorry SEBTS folks, I’m not naming names. Besides, they probably aren’t who you might think.

Oh, and I’m probably one of them.

Stay tuned…

The Other Side of the Coin

This blog is a companion to Missions Misunderstood, where I post my thoughts on missions, misiology, and church planting strategy. Unlike that site, where posts are long (more often than not), thought-out (sometimes), and pedantic (invariably, but unintentionally), I’ll use this blog to bore you with the details of my life.

Believe it or not, very little of my time is spent wrestling with the ideas and philosphies I write about at Missions Misunderstood. Those themes are the background music to my daily adventure as a church planter in Western Europe, but they don’t fully reflect what life is like for me and my team. I want Stepchild to be a blog in the truer sense of the word, with pictures, a wider range of topics, and running commentary to our experience.

So, let’s just say that you’re interested in deeper, missiological ideas. Well, then Missions Misunderstood is for you. But if you’re curious about who we are and how all of that plays out in real life, this is the place for you. And my Mom, who is the only person confirmed to be a regular reader.

The Evils of Modernism?

Even though I use them all the time, I hate post titles that end with a question mark. I guess that’s what I get for having a blog that is about asking questions…

My last post, “Adapt, Adopt, Reject,” was an outline of a paper that some friends and I came up with. I’ve had a couple of good responses. I got a few “let me chew on it and get back to you” messages, and I’m sure many of you are still trying to swallow the idea that I would have friends to work with at all.

I’m really interested in looking at Christianity from this perspective: What would our faith look like without the influence of modernism? The more I thought through the paper’s outline, the harder it was for me to come up with any modern contributions that we should adopt outright. It’s strange to think about, because we interpret everything through the modern worldview. I’m no historian, but I think we could learn a lot about being followers of Jesus in postmodernity by looking at the pre-modern expressions of Christianity.

In his book, Ancient Future Faith, Robert E. Webber gives a helpful outline of “Paradigms Of Church History.” He breaks down church history into these worldviews (paradigms):

  • Classical Christianity (100-600)
  • Medieval Era (600-1500)
  • Renaissance/Reformation (1500-1750)
  • Modernism (1750-1980)
  • Postmodernism (1980- )

As the church moved from one worldview to another, I imagine that there were many Christian leaders that warned against the dangers of the coming worldview. For example, during the rise of the modern worldview, there were probably plenty of godly folks saying things like “Buyeth not into modernism…” or something like that. What would they warn people against? Elevation of logic/human reason? Too great a focus on the individual? The limitations of linear thought?

But here we are, on the tail end of modernism, and the only expression of Christianity that we see is heavily influenced by the modern worldview. We read it into history and revelation. Our understanding of God is a modern one. We study systematic theology, we’re used to hearing propositional exposition of the scriptures. We feel this huge need to nail down the specific time and date of our salvation. We use mass-market evangelism. We look for ways to measure our holiness. This is the modern church.

In an online audio chat with Derek Webb, Donald Miller talked about how Jesus gave many different answers to people who asked Him “What must I do to be saved.” But modern Christians only have one answer to that question. Why is that?

I don’t think that the modern worldview is bad. But I’m certainly weary of anyone who asserts that it is the “Christian” one. I’m interested in discovering and recognizing the influence my worldview has on my faith.

Entrance Strategy

Every year, Southern Baptists from across the United States get together in an annual Convention. This is a time for them to discuss denominational direction, elect leaders, and share what God is doing. One key part of the meeting is the proposal of resolutions. These are actions that members would like the denomination as a whole to support. Because they are passed by majority vote, approved resolutions say a lot about the Southern Baptist Convention. An example would be the resolution to boycott Disney. It was passed in 1997, and called on all Southern Baptists to boycott all media, products, and properties of the Walt Disney Company.

As this year’s convention in Greensboro, North Carolina nears, several resolutions are being proposed. One that I find particularly troubling is a resolution calling for Southern Baptist churches to develop an exit strategy from public schools.” Now this is not a new one- Al Mohler proposed it a couple years ago. But the attitude behind it is frustrating.

As a missionary, my job is to enter into a community and translate the gospel into the culture of the people there. It isn’t easy. I spend a lot of my time the things that influence people and learning how they think and behave. The most challenging part about it all is finding ways to meet people and interact with them in meaningful ways. With rules against us taking jobs here and no funds to pay for joining clubs and other activities, we struggle to find common ground with the few people God brings to us. Despite the difficulty, (and the fact that we aren’t wanted here!) we continue to seek new ways to engage the population. Why? Because God brought us here to be salt and light, and He has given us everything we need in order to be who we need to be.

But while we are looking for an entrance strategy to get access to lost people, we hear about believers back home wanting to develop an exit strategy. These are brothers and sisters who share our same commission to make disciples, but don’t face a language/culture barrier, and have natural access to the lost people of their communities. Forgive my frustration, but it seems that these folks don’t appreciate the opportunity God has provided in the public school system.

I know what goes on in public schools. I understand that they aren’t teaching biblical truth. I know that things go on there that are not God-honoring. Sure, people are concerned about their children’s learning and development. It makes sense that parents would want to protect their kids from the sin that infests the system. I’m not interested in getting into a debate about home-schooling. Really. Please. I respect a parent’s right and responsibility to select the best form of education for their kids. I don’t think homeschooling is wrong. I know there are other ways for kids to be involved with their peers. As far as I’m concerned, it about the attitude.

I am frustrated that my denomination would consider supporting the development of an “exit strategy” from public schools because it is indicative of an attitude that is the opposite of missional. If the people who are in favor of this resolution were really thinking of themselves as missionaries; really looking for ways to engage the people around them, I wonder if they wouldn’t reconsider. On the field, our families are in constant spiritual danger. We are surrounded by materialism, sexual sin, drug use, the occult, and other enemy activity. Obedience to God’s call and direction requires exposure to sinful things. When God sent us, He knew what our kids would go through. He knew how it would break our hearts to see MK’s deal with things that children shouldn’t have to deal with. We know first-hand the importance of putting on spiritual armor. But we do it because we’re here to be incarnational to the people here.

We see it pretty clearly here. Have our brothers and sisters in the States lost sight of that?

I’m concerned about the message this attitude sends to our children. This sort of isolationism is what has made Christianity ineffective and irrelevant; not only to the world, but to our children and ourselves. It has led to the construction of a “Christian” subculture that takes us off the front lines of ministry and lulls us into complacency, trusting our “Christian” version of the world to be safe and, well, Christian.

How can we justify separating ourselves from the world because it isn’t pleasing to God? How can we prepare our children to engage the culture and to work redemptively within it if we take them out of it? Shouldn’t we as parents expect to supplement our children’s education with discipleship? Couldn’t we use their exposure to sinful things as an opportunity to teach them to find bridges to sharing the gospel, discern right from wrong and truth from lies, and to avoid fear of the world? What if we started thinking of ourselves as missionaries, and started training our children to be on mission as well?

A Package Deal

Lately I’ve been accused (and by “I,” I mean someone else entirely, but with whom I mostly agree) of wanting to “pick and choose” from contradictory “systems” of belief. The accusation sounded a little bit like this:

“Your concern for social justice is clearly “Social Gospel.”
Your anti-death penalty stance is taken from the Liberal’s political agenda.
Your references to God’s sovereignty in salvation sounds very Calvinistic.
You talk about postmodernism as though you’ve really bought into all of it.
You quote R-rated movies like someone who is well acquainted with worldly things.
Your environmental concerns put you in the company of hippies and tree-huggers…”

Ok, I’m sure you get the point, but it goes on.

“And all of the above sounds just like that Blue Like Jazz guy, so you’re one of those.”

Or, even better (worse?):

“You may not recognize it, but I’ve seen all this before. It’s just the same old liberalism dressed up in new, trendy clothes.”

Where do we get the idea that everything comes as part of a package? (Ok, so I’m pretty sure I know where we get it, I’m asking for the sake of discussion.) Why do we have to put everything in neat little categories? Even more importantly, why do we assume that belief in one aspect of a system means adherence to the whole thing?

I’m really into the idea of redemption lately. I’ve seen God take things that were clearly not God-pleasing and turn them into beautiful instruments of praise. To me, that should be our standard for picking and choosing. Environmentalism is good stewardship of creation. I that’s a redeeming quality, whether the “issue” is associated with nature-worshippers or not.

Just for fun, here are some more things I believe in. I am:

-Pro-life because I believe that life is sacred. (Not just criminally innocent lives, but all life.)
-Pro-peace, because I am pro-life, and because peace is evidence of the Spirit.
-For engagement of culture, because Jesus’ incarnation modeled that for us.
-For immigration, because the places people come from aren’t always good places for them to live.
-For church/state separation, because it might not always be “us” in charge.
-For freedom of expression, for the same reason.