On Critiquing Methodologies

I would imagine that few of us, upon arrival in a foreign country that we know nothing about, would presume to critique the efforts of a missionary who has been faithfully ministering among the people there for years. He knows the language, we do not. He spends time with nationals. He has studied local customs and listens to local news.

So when said missionary determines that the best way to make disciples among his particular people group is to launch gospel tracts out of a cannon fashioned out of bamboo, we defer to his expertise. When he insists on wearing nothing but a loincloth yet looking no one in the eye, we bashfully accept. His no-ministry-after-3:30pm policy might raise our eyebrows, but we trust that he knows hat he’s doing. After all, the missionary knows best.

Back home, however, we aren’t so demure.

We criticize ministers who give away iPads to get people to come to church. We mock churches who print coloring books that instruct children to follow their pastor without question. We judge Jumping for the King as mere spectacle. Why do we feel so free to criticize? We see ourselves as experts in American culture.

But are we experts in every American population segment? How well do we really know the redemptive power of the iPad among middle-class white people in small Southern towns? Are we all experts in cult-building among upper-middle-class materialists? Just how many of us are willing to live among the tribe of patriotic motorcycle jumpers from the 1970s?

Forgive my sarcasm. I’m really not trying to be mean.

I’m trying to make 2 points here:

  1. Different people groups and population segments require different approaches to ministry. The missionary principles of contextualization and indignity call for us to meet people where they are and promote discipleship in their culture.
  2. Point #1 does not excuse every ridiculous thing someone wants to do in the name of ministry.

If all of God’s people thought and behaved like good missionaries and if we all got the gospel, we would rightly trust that every approach was wise, prudent, and obedient. Unfortunately, the gospel is often lost translation, and we are often very bad missionaries indeed.

The way to build one another up in the Lord, I’m convinced, is to ask questions. “Is this pointing people to Jesus?” “How are our means affecting our message?” “What’s with the coloring book, dude?” These are the questions that we need to be asking.

Once I was “confronted” by a well-intentioned American pastor who wanted to know why I would waste time getting to know any nationals in our work in Europe. “You really just oughta preach the gospel to these people once. If they don’t want to listen, that’s on them,” I remember him saying. Was he wrong to ask us why we did things the way we did? No. Was he reacting to our methods in an unhelpful and way? I certainly thought so.

As God’s people on God’s mission, we need one another. We need others to encourage us in our work and to ask us the hard questions that make us think (and rethink) through our methodologies. Who are you to question a missionary’s approach? A co-laborer in Christ’s mission, that’s who. But when we question, we need to do so in love.

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By the way, be sure to click over to Trinity Bible Church’s site, where Pastor Bolt has responded to my response to his response to an old post of mine.

Missionary With A Heart Of Gold

After a rocky start (and at least one use of the line, “You’re not my mother!”), the nanny comes to love the children as her own. The teacher and the marginalized student become the best of friends. The “escort” falls for her client. In each of these story lines, the relationship starts out as a job and has to overcome that fact in order to become something more.

When you’re paid to be someone’s friend, it’s not a real friendship. The fact that one of the parties involved is being compensated for his participation makes it strange. “Of course you’re being nice to me,” the other person thinks,”you have to. It’s your job.”

This is the case with professional missionaries. In essence, they are paid to build discipling relationships with people. At one time or another, all of these missionaries (at least, the socially competent ones,) struggle with this– the feeling of being fake. “Do I really love these people, or am only here because it’s my job?” And even if the missionary convinces himself that yes, he does in fact love people, and yes, he would be here even if he weren’t being paid, he then has to work to convince his hosts of that.

In order to truly demonstrate his love, the professional friend has to do something drastic to prove it. In the movies, the paid friend quits his job, gives back the money, and shows up anyway. He breaks the rules to show that the friend is more important to him than the job. He does something that crosses the line between “project” and “person” to demonstrate his love.

The question is, knowing this about the dynamics of human relationships, why would we willingly make “paid friendship” the primary mode of missionary engagement? Don’t our ambassadors face sufficient social barriers as it is?

I’m not saying churches shouldn’t support ministers and missionaries financially- the Bible says this is a good thing. But to have the vast majority of our missionary force wholly dependent on the gifts of others makes them little more than “paid friends” to those to whom they’ve been sent. The use of creative access platforms (real jobs) are often treated as a technical requirement rather than a missiological imperative.

Professional ministry is bad missiology. The Apostle Paul knew this, and that’s why he kept his day job. But the Western Church is conflicted.

This is why pastors spend 20 hours preparing for a sermon. It’s why ministers dream up programs and events. They spend time doing things that aren’t discipleship to prove to their people that the relationship part of ministry is real. It’s as if to say, “My job is organizing a good concert. My ministry is helping you become an obedient follower of Jesus.”

The solution to the side-effect of professionalization? More missionaries with real jobs. More pastors who spend at least part of their week in cubicles, kitchens, or classrooms. Having a real job communicates a lot; it demonstrates that ministry can be done by everyone, not just the professionals. It communicates the value of workplace-as-mission-field. It shows that the pastor loves you for free.

Open Invitations

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My friend Kyle Goen recently posted about his experience using the internet to meet people in Belgium. I’m proud of him for stepping out of his comfort zone (even further) in order to build relationships with people in Belgium.

The concept is simple: lots of people are using the web to meet people. Sure, many (most?) of them are not looking for platonic, Christ-centered relationships. Some are, but don’t know it yet. Skydivers, moms, coffee enthusiasts, and Abba tribute bands are looking for others who share their interests. Many are simply out to find a friend. Forums, message boards, and social networking sites across the internet are full of open invitations to personal relationships. The opportunity for ministry is tremendous.

Kyle used meetup.com to start his own group. Dozens of people responded. Eight showed up to the fist meetup. He admits that he wasn’t initially a fan of the idea. It wasn’t long ago that only perverts and nerds met people online. You often hear about predators, scammers, and worse lurking around on social sites. It turns out that the virtual world, like the real world, is not safe.

We were never promised safety. In fact, we have been sent like sheep among wolves. So be smart. Be courageous. Never go alone, even (especially?) into cyberspace. Don’t give out too much personal information. Communicate well in order to establish expectations. Lead with Jesus, He’s a great filter. Love whomever God brings you.

It’s funny- “meeting people” is often cited as the biggest challenge to mission and ministry around the world. Yet there are meetup opportunities in your city today. Why not take people up on their open invitations?

Hey Missionary: 5 Reasons Churches Won’t Partner With You

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Everywhere I go, I find missionaries who have lost faith in the local church. Bad experiences have left them unsure that there’s even a place for churches in the work on the field. Well I’ve got news: it isn’t the churches who have a problem. Here are five common reasons churches won’t partner with people on the field.

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Mission Is Our Business

Chef Josh Adams, June Restaurant

It turns out that finances aren’t the problem, and neither are language or culture. One of the biggest obstacles to mission today is access.

Perhaps I should clarify: travel is easier than ever, so Christ-followers on mission don’t have too much trouble getting to pretty much anyplace God leads them to go. But missionary access is more than just arriving, it’s moving into social positions, (called “platforms”) that allow them to proclaim the gospel and live it out incarnationally. This, it turns out, is the tricky part.

“Tourist” is only good for a short while, and brings with it a certain expectation of exploitation. Tourists visit a place not to give, but to take. They take in the sights, take photos, and take their time. Might they share their faith along the way? Of course! But is the tourist-host relationship the best for gospel incarnation? Probably not.

“Non-profit” can turn the tourist mentality on its head. A non-profit worker serves at her own expense for the benefit of others. Non-profit and charity, both religious and secular, are by far the most utilized platforms. However, these can certainly have their drawbacks. Charity is viewed differently by different cultures. India’s caste system, for example, considers poverty and suffering as the payback side of karma. A person is re-incarnated as, say a dog or a woman, as punishment for bad behavior or until an important life lesson is learned. Easing the discomfort of extreme poverty is like robbing them of their penance. In other places, charity is the work of the government, and non-profits (especially foreigners) ought not compete.

“Business,” on the other hand, is largely underdeveloped as a social-access platform. The problem, historically, is the mixture of money and ministry. Time spent building the business is often seen as competing with time in ministry. A minister’s altruism often makes him a poor businessman.

Consider the benefits of business as mission:

  • legitimizes presence (everyone knows what a businessman is)
  • assigns culturally-acceptable motives (you’re here to make money)
  • moves you into ethic-revealing relationships
  • business people are networked
  • it uses gifting not often associated with ministry
  • dissociates fund-raising from missions
  • could assist the local economy and provide jobs for nationals

So clearly, business is a good platform.

We must consider the competitive nature of business. Anytime an outsider enters a market, he does so against existing ventures (and usually with the benefit of outside resources, knowledge, and experience). A good platform provides more and better jobs than it takes. Some examples of good business platforms:

  • Import/export
  • Art
  • Food/Culinary
  • consulting
  • legal
  • tech/media
  • engineering/architecture
  • construction
  • education
  • marketing/advertising
  • sports/coaching

Some typically troublesome business platforms:

  • medical (maybe better left non-profit)
  • retail (competition, unfair practices)
  • large-scale manufacturing (working conditions)
  • tourism (guides, hospitality, travel, etc. )
  • agriculture (land ownership)

Business platforms to avoid:

  • security (anything that involves weapons)
  • banking/investing (holding other people’s money)
  • religious goods/services (appearance of “selling” the gospel)

All that said, there are some interesting models out there.

Tom’s Shoes: though they’ve been accused of killing the market for shoes in their target areas, the “buy-one-give-one” model tells a great story and appears to exploit Americans’ materialism to benefit others. As a business, Tom’s definitely has earned access into many nations that would otherwise be closed to gospel influence. I’d like to see a bit more creativity in their design, a certified fair-trade manufacturing process, and maybe improved overall quality of the shoes. Tom’s has recently started selling sunglasses, too.

Unnamed (for security reasons) Coffee Roasters: Though they operate in what is technically an open-access area, this coffee roasting company provides social access to many strata of society. They import coffee from developing nations, roast the beans on site, and distribute the final product to cafes across their host country. The key to their business model is the employment of nationals (many buyers don’t realize the company was started by outsiders) and the sale of coffee to the U.S. Like the Tom’s Shoes model, taking advantage of high-demand (and high-generosity!) markets can underwrite much of the in-country business. Of course, they do compete with national coffee importers, roasters, and distributors. But cooperating with nationals mitigates the negative impact. Their presence benefits the local economy.

Finally, I like the transfer model. A junior staff member of a transnational investment firm recently put in for a transfer to a closed-access country. Inside the company, his stock went up (the business had so far struggled to find anyone to take that job). Outside the company, this Christ-follower found himself a guest of honor in the home of local clan leaders, businessmen, and politicians. His willingness to move to another country on that country’s terms put him in a very unique place of influence there.

Just to be clear– we don’t need a bunch of pastors moving overseas to start business. We need Spirit-led businessmen to live out the gospel among the different peoples of the world.

As you can tell, I’m a big fan of business as mission. If you’d like to connect with other believers who are serving as Christ-following businesspeople around the world, join the Skybridge Community.

The Mormons Own Coca-Cola

…or is it Pepsi?

Surly you’ve heard this rumor repeated as evidence the the widespread and subversive influence on American culture. It was repeated to me recently during a conversation about missionary businessmen. Several church leaders were talking with a young man who is starting an internet research company so that he and his family could live wherever God sent them without having to raise support or look for a job. A noble concept, for a businessman. As soon as he’s up and running, I’ll post a link to this entrepreneur’s website.

The church leaders were intrigued. The idea of developing a business that would make money while fulfilling the Great Commission seemed like the silver bullet to “getting the job done.”

That got me thinking. If the rumor that Mormons own Coke was actually true, how awesome would that be for, you know, the Mormons? A single share of the Coca-Cola Company is worth over a billion U.S. dollars. That would buy enough white shirts, black ties, name tags, and bicycles to put pubescent Latter-Day Saints elders in every city in the world (with enough left over to keep their families in trampolines and special underwear).

The biggest problem in missions today isn’t a lack of willing workers. In this economy, any eight-year seminarian would jump at the chance of a full-ride to missionary superstardom. Nevermind what the Bible says, the problem isn’t people, it’s money.

Missions would be a lot easier of the churches didn’t hold the purse strings. Churches who get no say in what happens on the field, or even who is sent, but are expected to bankroll every initiative missionaries want to push– clearly, they are the problem. If churches are too stingy to fund strategic requests (church planting among some people groups require a Range Rover), I say we go Silicon Valley on them.

Why not start a business (or network of businesses) that would support the work around the world? Something that would fund missionaries while allowing them the flexibility to travel, plant churches, and disciple nationals. A legitimate business that would secure access into closed places and help develop community in positive ways without requiring them to do any actual work. Something like Google, but without all of the programming; like Coke, but without the overhead. Like Amway, but respectable and not so predatory.

Insurance comes to mind.

Why don’t we own anything that might help fund our missionary ventures? Why don’t regular old missionaries get in on the business-as-mission game? Banking, for example, would be an obvious choice. Or stocks– shares of Google, Apple, or even The Clapper, would buy a lot of plane tickets and ship a lot of peanut butter (everyone knows that Skippy is the key to retention of field personnel).

The answer is simple: most missionaries on the field today (and nearly all of the students coming out of the seminaries) are not business people. Many are talking about business as mission. It’s a great way to show businesspeople that what they do can have kingdom value. Whether it’s coffee shops, agricultural irrigation specialists, or pharmaceutical consultants, we need more businesspeople on mission. Folks who run and own companies naturally think strategically. They tend to be very good at networking (business often depends on it), and, except for the occasional used-car salesman or investment banker, they understand the need for a good work ethic.

Missionaries, not so much.

“Start a business” is not the answer to decreased giving, a right relationship to the sending church is.

Access Isn’t Everything

This is my 8th post in a series on developing a new missiology.

Previously: A Global Wave

Many have taken to using “access” to the gospel as the criteria for missionary engagement. From their perspective, people groups who do not have access to the scriptures, need more of our attention and resources than those who do.

Starting with concerns about “access” is assuming too much.

In Acts 8, Philip is led by the Holy Spirit to cross paths with an Ethiopian official. As Philip joins the official’s cavalcade, he sees that the Ethiopian man is reading the scriptures from the book of Isaiah. Philip, likely looking for a way to start what I assume might have been an awkward conversation, asks whether he understands what he’s reading. “How can I,” responds the Ethiopian, “unless someone explains it to me?”

Here is an example of a man (from an unreached people group!) who had access to the scriptures. Granted, he didn’t have Paul’s (yet-to-be-written) letters before him, but here was an Ethiopian man with reading an explicitly Messianic passage from the book of Isaiah in a language he could understand. Yet he did not understand.

The Ethiopian needed someone to explain it to him. So the Lord’s messenger sent Philip. Just as Romans 10 asks (somewhat rhetorically), “How can they call on one in whom they do not believe? How can they believe in one of whom they have not heard?” Connection to Jesus requires more than just information about Him.

What seems like “access” to you and me– scriptures in the heart language, tracts, churches, the presence of witnesses– might not, in fact, be indicators of access at all. The information is only part of the equation; the personal communication of the gospel is what makes it all make sense. Without an incarnational presence, it is entirely possible for someone to have heard an explicit “gospel presentation” and yet still have no access to the good news at all.

Anecdotal evidence of this abounds. Missionaries discover a previously-unknown tribe in a dark corner of the world. They are met by a tribal leader who has read the Bible and has been praying that God would bring someone to explain it to them. Muslims in a village in a closed access country devote themselves to prayer and fasting during Ramadan. During this time, the men of the village all have the same dream: Jesus appears to them and tells them to follow Him. They send for a Christian to come explain it to them. Of course, these stories cannot be proven to have happened. Otaku in Tokyo who have developed their own language, culture, and worldview, but have never heard the gospel despite spending most of their lives online.

And my favorite story: Missionaries stumble upon some people in a city that claim to be believers. The missionaries ask about their salvation- when it took place and how. The people aren’t exactly sure about all of that. So the missionaries explain the gospel to them, and twelve men believe and are baptized. Of course, this story is from Acts 19:1-7, and it shows us that when it comes to mission, access isn’t everything.

Following the Holy Spirit is.

Sure, It Sounds Good…

West African pastor Josias Silas Sanogo

West African pastor Josias Silas Sanogo

There are two sorts of people who push for the support of national church planters among unreached peoples: field church-based missionaries and well-intentioned stateside leaders.

It sounds really good to say, “We believe in supporting national church planters.” “Nationals,” of course, are believers from a given people group. Time and again, I hear idealistic church leaders cite this as their strategy for missional engagement of unreached peoples. Usually, this is their passive-aggressive response to the question “what does your church do in the way of taking the gospel across cultures?”  As if to say, “We aren’t doing anything, but that’s on purpose, because nationals can do a way better job of it than we ever could.” Oh, and “Our missiology is more highly evolved than yours, so leave us alone about missions.”

The other crowd beating the “nationals are the best missionaries” drum is made up of those missionaries who work closely with national churches. These are the ones who serve on local church staffs, preach in churches on Sunday mornings, and submit to the field strategies of the local church leadership. Out of their affinity for national believers, these missionaries are constantly encouraging others not to forget the importance of working with national believers.

On the surface, it sounds right to say that we should support nationals in church planting. Even noble. Unfortunately, it’s not always a good idea. As it turns out, nationals aren’t always the best missionaries.

Firstly, the obvious. Nationals aren’t doing the work. If they were, their churches wouldn’t look like America in the 1960s.

Stuck inside their own culture, they are unable to see key strategies for cultural translation of the gospel. Like Michael Carpenter always says, it’s like asking a fish to describe the water he’s swimming in– it’s the lens he sees the world through, but he’s got nothing to compare it to.

Nationals may be cheaper to maintain, but external sponsorship only breeds dependence and professionalism, and stunts creativity and reproducibility.

As an outsider, you lack the cultural insight to be a good judge of character, motive, and approach. You don’t know whether this national church planter is God-called and capable or if he’s just looking for a free ride from (and eventually to) America. How do you decide which nationals to partner with?

Week-long training for national pastors doesn’t provide the context for paradigmatic missiological change. Sure, you walk away feeling good about yourself, but in the end, what practical steps do the pastors take away from it?

As not to discourage you completely from supporting national church planters, I propose these solutions:

Missionaries should leverage some of their credibility with supporters and roll national support in to their own pay packages. Put your money where your mouth is. Support a national that you know, trust, and can partner with.

Missionaries should work to disciple unbelievers into non-professional pastor/planter roles. The best national missionary is one who has a day job. If the only national Christian is paid to tell people about Jesus, what are people to infer about the gospel?

If you’re really sure about supporting nationals, be intentional about entering a relationship with them. Visit them. Get to know their families. See with your own eyes what they’re doing. Pray over them, and ask God to give your church the same sense of affirmation of calling that you would want for anyone you were sending out.

Ask the hard questions. You may not be a cultural insider, but you’re a Kingdom insider. A national who says that the preaching of the gospel or ongoing discipleship “don’t work” in his culture is not one you should support.

If you are going to support a national, be sure he has everything he needs. Pastoral care, ample accountability, peer networks, ongoing encouragement, strategic advice, and enough money to feed his family.

While it always sounds cultural sensitive and missiologically progressive to claim that “nationals make better missionaries than we do,” it’s not always true. Just because it “makes sense,” doesn’t mean it’s God’s thing. The best strategy is radical, step-by-step obedience to the Holy Spirit. If He connects you with a national, support him with all you’ve got. But you can’t outsource the great commission- not to mission sending organizations, and not to nationals. The commission is yours.

Tradecraft

Tradecraft is the set of skills one acquires though experience in a particular trade. Seasoned businessmen know how to properly vet new leadership. Exceptional communicators are aware of their tone, gestures, volume, and cadence because they know that delivery is as important as content. Good authors don’t forget pay attention to the details that make their stories believable. The master carpenter learns to measure with stock rather than a tape. A chef learns not to “measure” at all. Spies quickly learn to handle valuable information carefully in hostile environments. For the pros, these “little tricks” become force of habit. When your livelihood depends on results, you develop good tradecraft.

Missionaries are rarely taught tradecraft. They learn about people groups and theology and such, but rarely does arrive on the field mean the kind of old-pro-to-idealistic-newbie kind of real-world training a person needs to be effective in cross-cultural ministry. The result is a huge learning curve and lots of ruined missionaries.

If I were going to make a missionary tradecraft handbook (and maybe I will one of these days), it would include:

  • How to have a long and meaningful conversation in an unfamiliar environment with someone you’ve just met.
  • How to learn language. Most missionaries only learn how speak a language. Good tradecraft would include mastery of the art of language learning.
  • On-the-spot profiling. When the police do it, profiling is bad. When missionaries do it, they’re able to communicate more appropriately with their audience by contextualizing their behavior, speech, and social posture. This skill also helps missionaries avoid bad situations, neighborhoods, and scams. When everything is strange to you, it’s really hard to distinguish between different and bad.
  • Efficient and effective online communication. Believe it or not, many missionaries still spend hours printing monthly newsletters and stuffing envelopes. In the good ol’ days, this was good tradecraft. Today, it’s time-consuming, slow, and counter-productive.
  • How to share the gospel. Talk to any old-timer on the mission field and he’ll demonstrate his preferred way to “present the gospel.” Through experience, insight, and personal interactions, he’s developed a way to talk about Jesus that he’s comfortable with and is sure to make sense to whoever it is he’s talking to. He practices this “presentation” on a regular basis.
  • Filters for “good” information and “not as good” information.
  • A “Spider-sense” for evil. Missionaries live in spiritually dangerous places. The ones who survive are keenly in tune with the supernatural world around them, and have a well-developed sense for when the enemy is present and active. He positions himself for obedience- to stand, watch, and pray, or to run.
  • Someone you can trust. Through crises, doubt, discouragement, boredom, sin, success, and celebration, it’s good tradecraft to have a trustworthy friend.

Marketable Skills

For many would-be ministers, missionaries, and church planters, a full-time, paid position is not going to happen. Some might intentionally reject the paid-clergy model. Others might just not be able to raise the kind of funding that would allow them to quit their day jobs. Either way, lots of ministers are looking for ways to support themselves.

Here’s the problem, though- your Bible College degree in Religion and your seminary-conferred M.Div. may have prepared you for professional ministry, but business? Not so much. Your years of church work and missions haven’t exactly provided you with a lot of “marketable skills.”

Or have they?

In my last post, I pointed you to Apartment Life, a company that arranges free housing for believers who will commit to building a sense of community among tenants. I mentioned that community development would be a great platform for church planters and incarnational ministry. Beyond the creative access platforms they provide, however, Apartment Life offers us something else: An example.

What do you have to offer that people in your community might find valuable, important, or worthwhile? How about your leadership abilities? You’re a whiz at sensing needs and developing a plan to meet them. You can communicate clearly and motivate people to change their behavior. Integrity is important to you. You’re good with money (yours and other people’s), you believe in accountability, honesty, hard work, and sacrifice. You know how to gather and build community. You know right from wrong, and you know how to encourage people to do what’s right.

You have valuable skills! Why not use them to interact with unbelievers in a natural and beneficial way?

Frank Daly went from being a priest in the Catholic Church to being chief ethics officer at Northrop Grumman, a southern California defense contractor. Instead of waiting for people to come into his church to confess their sins, he went to them.

In fact, lots of companies are hiring ethics officers.  Many are setting up internal ethics hotlines, and others are outsourcing ethics counseling to independent services. Business are willing to invest lots of money to fight theft, corporate espionage, fraud, and lawsuits. Ethics officers make themselves available to counsel employees who might face an ethical dilemma. Identities and confessions are kept confidential, but eventually provide the business with reports on potential trouble spots that need to be addressed and recommend ways the business can keep things on the up and up.

Most businesses work to retain customers and clients- something you do every day by listening, teaching, encouraging, and meeting needs. Why not offer those services to a local coffee shop? Your community-building efforts could translate into regular customers and same-store sales, for the business. Apartment complexes, high school and college campuses, even local businesses, all benefit from a sense of community. Best of all, your services would provide you with a platform to build relationships with unbelievers and impact your city.

You’ve put together a thousand posters, flyers, and t-shirts. How many local businesses can’t afford to hire professional graphic design and branding services? craigslist is full of requests for charity fund-raisers, after-school tutors, or campaign managers. You could do those jobs in your sleep!

I’m not suggesting that we sell ethics, community development, or even pastoral care. I am saying that there are real-world applications for your skills and knowledge. Something like ethics counseling, community development, or  might provide a great part-time job for a church planter or a great free ministry your church can provide for your community.

Christians need to start thinking like missionaries. You can lead the way by putting your marketable skills into practice for something outside the church.