Platform Diving

apartmentsIn missiological terms, it’s called a “platform.” It’s how you enter into the community, what you do, how you present yourself, in order to make a connection. Many missionaries aren’t “missionaries” at all, but doctors, teachers, businessmen, artists, social activists. A good platform allows for natural interaction with the people to whom you’re ministering while leaving you with enough time to connect socially. Everyone in ministry needs a platform.

Apartment Life is an example of a great platform. Millions of people, especially in unchurched urban areas, live in apartments and multi-unit housing. The owners of these properties stand to make lots of money, but only if they can retain their tenants. Studies have shown that building a sense of community among residents can raise the level of retention. In other words, people will stay in an apartment complex if they have friends there. They may even be inclined to pay more in monthly rent, take better care of the property, and actively recruit potential tenants.

apartmentlife.orgEnter Apartment Life. They place believers into apartment complexes in order to build a sense of community among residents. In exchange for welcoming new tenants, organizing community events, and making friends in the complex, you get to live there for free. Kind of like a property manager, but with relationships. It turns out that the cost of fixing trashed apartments, finding new tenants, kicking out deadbeats, and making people feel safe adds up to a lot more than what you would pay in rent each month. Apartment Life brokers a deal with property owners based on the idea that your presence adds value to their business.

This is one of the most creative and promising endeavors I’ve ever heard about. If you’re in any sort of incarnational ministry, whether it’s to urban professionals, immigrants, or the working poor, odds are they live in apartments. A great way to incarnate the gospel is to move into the neighborhood. Church planters could easily make this their platform for planting a church. (For a great example of apartment complex church planting, check out Mission Arlington.) You’ve got natural access to people, total property owner permission to throw parties and interact with tenants, and you don’t have to pay rent. You’re not limited to existing Apartment Life opportunities, either. If you need a place to live and you can proactively build community, send them an email requesting that they set something up in your area. Already living in an apartment? They might be able to broker a deal where you already live.

Brilliant.

The Counterintuitive Church (pt.3, Distribution)

PREVIOUSLY: The Gaps

Another way the church has fallen into the trap of pragmatism is the way we distribute our resources. Let me explain:

Say I’m in a mid-sized church that meets in small groups throughout the week. We only have so many leaders willing to  lead these groups. Of those who are willing, we’re likely that we can only identify a few that have the vision, commitment, and gifting to actually to do small group ministry. What do we do?

If we’re looking for the most effective approach, we spread out our strong leaders. One in each group. We can’t afford to double them up- that might mean groups let without. Right?

But the Kingdom is often (usually) counterintuitive. Sometimes, what we consider “good stewardship” is actually disobedience. Leaders, money, opportunities, reputations, connections- we hold tightly to these things because we don’t want to be irresponsible. But what if God wants us to put all of our eggs in one basket? What if God wants us to have three churches in a five-block radius? What if it’s His design to have a team of strong leaders and a couple teams of “weaker” ones? What if we spend so much time, energy, and money doing one thing that we cease to be able to do everything. If the Lord leads us to do something like that, I’d hope none of us would disagree, claiming that there is a more reasonable way to spend what He has blessed us with.

Remember when Judas opposed using a bottle of fine perfume to anoint Jesus’ feet? How are you any different when you automatically (according to church policy) limit the amount of missions money you’ll give to a member of your church who wants to go on a short-term trip?

Who knows? Maybe the reason we have a dearth of leaders is that we ration them out like lumps of coal in a Dickens novel. Sure it’s sensible, but when has Jesus been sensible when it comes to Kingdom resources?

NEXT: Let’s Be Clear…

The Counterintuitive Church (pt.1)

The first will be last,” Jesus said. “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” A quick perusal of Jesus’ words will turn up all sorts of instructions that don’t seem to line up with what we’d consider “common sense.” He told his followers to “Turn the other cheek” (didn’t He know about terrorism?) and to “Walk a second mile” when forced (by the government!) to walk just one.

As He sent them out on a short-term mission trip, why did Jesus tell His disciples not to carry any extra clothes and not to greet anyone along the way? That doesn’t seem very practical, does it? What if they had a great opportunity to witness to the guy sitting next to them on a red-eye out of Denver? So much of what Jesus told His followers to do (and not to do) just doesn’t make sense in our world. It almost always runs counter to our understanding of what might be the best way to get things done.

Yet most of what we do as believers tends to be determined by our pragmatism. We justify nearly all that we do with, “Hey, it’s working.” We consider efficiency and volume to be stewardship issues. From video-venue churches to mass marketing campaigns to building programs, churches are constantly searching for ways to make the biggest impact, to reach the greatest number of people, and to get the most bang for the buck. I believe that these are human values, not Kingdom ones. What if doing what seems to “work” in the short run is hurting us in the long run? What if giving away iPods and paying people to come to church has long-term negative effects for the church? What if our methods actually change our message?

In the next few posts, I’m going to explore some of the ways that the (particularly Western) Church has traded in God’s best for “what works.” Specifically, I want to look at the way we practice being the church, our efforts at church planting, and our theology of mission.

NEXT: The Gaps

What Isn’t There

Armchair missiologists of the world-  when deciding where to get involved in missions, don’t be distracted by what isn’t there.

Let me explain. For far too long now, missions strategy has gone something like this: Start by finding where there are a lot of people who haven’t heard the gospel (or who don’t have access to the gospel, or who don’t have a church to go to), and do something there. An aspiring church planter posts a map of his city on the wall and sticks pushpins where all the churches are. He assumes that wherever there aren’t a lot of pushpins, there’s a need for a church/ministry.

What isn’t there is a bad start.

In its effort to find a niche, the world looks at a situation and says, “Where are the gaps? How can we do what nobody else is doing?” God, on the other hand, doesn’t tend to work that way. He seems to go with more of a “Shock and Awe” (to borrow an expression) sort of approach. Think Luke, chapter 10, or His work at on the Day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2.

No, a better way might be to ask whether a bunch of pushpins on the map might mean God is at work. Perhaps if God is at work in a place or among a people (as evidenced by the calling or workers, people coming to faith, or your own desire), you should join Him there.

Sure, you might find yourself working alongside other Great Commission believers, and that requires cooperation and unity. Yes, there might be places where it seems like there’s great need, yet no work. But we must trust God to orchestrate His work among the nations of the world.

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?

Don’t Do Me Any Favors

When you’re a carpenter, people pay you to build things out of wood. Mechanics earn their living by fixing cars. Authors are paid for writing books, lawyers bill for their counsel, and teachers are compensated for teaching.

What is a missionary paid for? There’s really no tangible service being performed, and we don’t produce any material goods. The people who pay my salary will likely never even meet me, much less benefit from my services. Nevertheless, they give.

I’m humbled by the sacrifice and generosity of those who support us on the field. But there’s something strange about missions offerings. Many supporters talk about missions money as though by giving, they’re doing me a favor. I’ve had a number of conversations with church leaders who talk about their missions offerings like they were a big gift to me, their charity case. Again, I am grateful for the sacrifice of those who give, but money given to missions is supposed to be given to God.

Thanks. Really. But don’t do me any favors. If God called me to the field, He will provide everything needed to keep me here. Since He doesn’t need your money, I don’t either.

People support missions for lots of different reasons. Many feel some sense of obligation. Some give to satiate their guilt. Others give as an act of worship. The pious give out of pity and duty. I’m sure certain people feel led by God to send their money, and it’s obvious (to me) that most give out of their own kindness and generosity.

If giving money to support missions keeps you from actually being involved personally in what God is doing around the world, you should keep your money.

The Nations Are Poorer Than You

Global WealthYou may not be aware of this, but even the “working class” in the United States is richer than most of the people in the world. This economic discrepancy is known in even the most isolated of places, and certainly everywhere missionaries go.

The image on the upper right is a cartogram (a map deliberately distorted to illustrate global statistics) of the projected global distribution of wealth for the year 2015. The actual dimensions of the map are exaggerated according to where the wealth is. The bulging United States, Europe, and Asia show the concentration of material wealth. Compare that to the cartogram below that illustrates the world’s population. If wealth were distributed equally around the world, both maps would be the same.

Global Population CartogramBefore anyone complains about my use here of the term “distribution of wealth” instead of something more guilt-assuaging, like “earned wealth,” consider the luxuries we take for granted: clean water, choice of diet, education, the protection of a local police force… At this point in history, we are not all on an even playing field.

To make matters worse, the images of American culture that are aggressively exported around the globe is one that flaunts our excesses. A common international news item is, “what’s news in America,” which usually has more to do with celebrity gossip than international crises. I’m not trying to make anyone feel guilty. I just want to be sure you realize the ramifications for international missions of the uneven distribution of wealth around the world.

  • When American missionaries come to a place, their arrival is usually viewed in one of two ways: 1) excitement over the potential material help, 2) resentment that the rich would presume to tell the poor how they ought to live and believe.
  • Often, people extol the virtues of mobilizing missionaries from within unreached cultures. In developing countries, it is very easy to find people who would be willing to accept our money to do pretty much anything.
  • Great needs must be met before people will listen to any sort of gospel message. But by meeting those needs and then calling for repentance, the behavior is inadvertently tied to the material gifts. Jesus met the same problem when he performed miracles; some were healed and didn’t even thank Him. Others followed Him around, expecting Him to put on a show. The difference, however, is that Jesus wanted people to be totally dependent on Him. We don’t want people to depend on our handouts.
  • Every report (substantiated or not) of the mismanagement of funds by anyone who calls himself a “Christian” negatively affects our reputations on the field. Same goes for the major building campaigns, and fund raisers.
  • American missionaries and volunteers often (unknowingly?) perpetuate stereotypes by the way they live and present themselves to the people they work with. That said, in most parts of the world, for an American family to move in and live just like their people group would be strange enough to prevent real relationships from being built. People resent missionaries who live in mansions, but they are suspicious of missionaries who move their families into the slums and ghettos.

There are but a few of the implications of being an American missionary. The reality of global discrepancies make for a sensitive dynamic in strategic missions engagement. These are some of the things we have to think about on a daily basis.
By the way, check out Worldmapper. It’s a site that redraws the world to illustrate global discrepancies.

A Good Way To Start

As I encourage churches to get involved in international missions, one thing that often comes up is the question of where to start. With thousands of people groups in the world, and millions of potential places of service, where do you start?

Most missions organizations would tell you to engage a “high priority” people. They usually mean the next largest people group with no known evangelical work. They believe that the best way to organize our efforts is to analyze the statistics of “lostness” and “reachedness.”

I tend to see missions less as a science and more as a relational interaction between God (through His church) and the nations. Picking an unreached people group at random is the missions equivalent of demographic-based door-to-door cold-call evangelism in your town. When engagement is decided based on statistics, it looses its (essential) relational foundation, undermining the basic gospel message which is that we can be brought into a right relationship with God and the world through Jesus.

Unless your church already has some connection to a country, culture, or people group, you would do well to start your search for missionary involvement in your town or city. What people groups are represented? Your Persian pediatrician or your Pakistani landlord might provide you with the cultural background and insight that you need to make the emotional and spiritual connection that God uses to inspire us to service.

What’s more, it’s quite possible that you can share the gospel across cultures (or engage an unreached people group) without even leaving your neighborhood. The most effective incarnational ministry can be that which starts locally and globally at the same time. Imagine the power of seeing a Portuguese man living in your town come to faith, and lead your church’s efforts to build the Kingdom of God in Portugal.

To get involved in missions, look around. It may be that God has brought the nations to your neighborhood.

When You Can’t Tell The Difference

When it comes to promoting missions and mobilizing missionaries, we rely on photos. In casting a vision for what God is doing around the world to bring people into right relationships with Himself, a picture really is worth a thousand words.

Or, in my case, about four blog posts.

It’s unfortunate, but we often fall into the trap of resorting to stereotypes to illustrate our work. You’ve seen the photos; a thin, wrinkled old man, whose dark skin contrasts with his cotton beard, reaches for the Bible offered by a tall white fortysomething in khaki pants. A small group of smiling black ragamuffin children playfully hug a white lady with her hair in a bun.

I would love to see missional churches pay to send poor, inner-city believers from the States to minister to poor, inner-city families in other parts of the world.

I think that if we were serious about incarnation, it wouldn’t be so easy to tell the difference between the “Missionary” and the “heathen” in a picture.

Not Just Any Warm Body

Many of us on the field are active recruiters. We are always looking for people who would be especially suited for ministry in Western Europe. Many strategists find new partners by talking about their people group. They describe the beauty of the culture, the proud history of the people, and the great spiritual need among them. The idea, I suppose, is that God would use the stories to stir the hearts of listeners and get them excited about being part of ministry overseas. 

To most American churchgoers (even the really spiritual ones), people groups are all pretty much the same. Missionaries should be constantly talking about and advocating for their people group. That’s how we raise support and awareness. 
But as a recruiting and raising support aren’t the same thing. Telling stories of a people group’s plight can tug at the heart strings, but as a recruiting (and filtering device), it only helps us find the most sensitive and emotional members of our audience. 
Recruitment is a funny concept, really. Are we looking for people to serve our people group or are we looking for people to join our team? In order to find people who are called, enthusiastic, and qualified to work with us, I believe we need to be casting a vision not only for local cultures and people groups, but also for our teams and strategies. A team that works well together and is committed to one another is worth a thousand that can’t get along but really love their people group.