Step By Step

Statistics. Demographics.
Lostness. Evangelization.
Need. Opportunity.
Resources. Support.
Trends. Movements. Reaction.
Creativity. Good ideas.
Common sense.
Duty. Tradition.
Ease. Difficulty.
Guilt, pity, fear.
Passion, compassion, desire.
Love.

We are constantly tempted to allow these things to dictate our missions activities. In many cases, these are the motives that were used to recruit us into sacrificial giving and to service. We all participate in different ways and for different reasons, but the things listed above can easily get us “ahead of God” and out of tune with what He is doing. As far as I can tell, the best- the only- sure foundation for how to know what missions is and how it ought to be done in my context is this:

Step-by-step obedience to the Spirit of the Most High God.

Not Yet

God called me to missions in Western Europe by giving me a vision for what He could (would?) do among the people here. I was excited about being part of God’s interaction with the postmodern, postchristian people of Europe. I really believed that God was going to start a church planting movement here, and I trusted that He was going to use me to somehow be part of that. That certainty of calling and purpose is what has kept me on the field.

But something is bothering me.

We still haven’t seen it. Despite our efforts, prayers, and desires, we have yet to see God move in the ways we envisioned years ago. No city-wide house church networks. No major unity movements among the believers here. Years of studying the language and culture, sowing the gospel, building relationships, and speaking truth into people’s lives hasn’t produced the kind of fruit I thought we were called to.

Don’t get me wrong; I know that the work isn’t something that we do, and that God will do His will in His sovereign timing. Please don’t remind me of William Carey or Adoniram Judson. I’m not discouraged about the number of people who are being saved.

I’ve spent months in introspective prayer and meditation, asking God if there might be sin in my life, or if my actions might be disqualifying me from His service. I’m begging Him to use me. I’m open to whatever He has for us.

I guess I’m just a little disappointed, that’s all.

I’m Not Doing This For You

So I’ve had a couple of inquiries about the “new” “trend“(it’s really neither, but more on that later) away from full-time, professional missionaries and toward volunteer and short-term mission endeavors. I’ve made no secret of my own discomfort with being a professional missionary, so some of my readers ask if I’m excited by the potential shift toward an alternative that might facilitate broader involvement.

I’m not.

What I do is not something you can do on a week-long visit to the Old World, no matter how many language-courses-on-tape you’ve listened through. The cultural immersion required for relational and incarnational ministry is a long-term investment. I believe in the short-term involvement of volunteers, and I expect divine appointments through which God can affect tremendous change, but I believe that hit-and-run evangelism will not communicate the gospel to Western European peoples better than sharing life with people over time. We need both long and short-term people on the mission field in order to be effective in contextually-appropriate ministry. I’m not special, but I’m here.

With that said, people (especially those who support me) need to realize that I’m not doing what I do so that they don’t have to. Sending money to me (through my organization, of course) is not what you get to do instead of being a missionary yourself. The Commission is not one you can or should hire out, and I’m not your stand-in. In fact, if you give to missions for any reason other than obedience to God, please stop. We don’t need your money.

A missions organization asking about the “trend” toward volunteers is like a travel agency asking about the “trend” of customers using the internet to make travel arrangements. The democratization of missions activities means that the professionals no longer have a corner on the market. We need to take extra measures to spell out the benefit (relevance?) of career missions. If people don’t see the point, or see better way (say, missional expatiratism, or incarnational immigration?), of course they’re going to pursue it.

Heck, if we’ve got professional missionaries wondering about the validity of professional missions, maybe we’re not doing a very good job of rationalizing our system.

To Change or to Enrich

In the U.S., our supporters tell us that being a missionary is the highest calling. They say that moving overseas to plant churches is of eternal significance. To them, missions is telling people about Jesus. That’s what they ask about when we talk: How many people have become Christians? How many churches have you planted? They see missions as a spiritual endeavor with spiritual effects.

Here in Western Europe, if I were to tell people that I’m a missionary, they’d ask me why I’m not in Africa or India passing out food to starving children. They’d assume that I’m a bleeding heart who wants to build schools and educate people about HIV. To them, missions is about meeting physical needs out of a spiritual motivation.

Two different understandings of missions. The goal of the first is to change people; the aim of the second is to enrich them. I’ve decided to be the second type of missionary.

I’m not buying into the idea that we can separate out the spiritual needs from the physical ones, or that it’s okay to focus on one and ignore the other. I don’t think a preaching a sermon is better than giving diapers to a poor mother. I think that passing out water to thirsty people is good evangelism, even if the bottles don’t have tracts attached.

Don’t get me wrong. Making people’s live better doesn’t just mean passing out coats and blankets. It means boldly speaking truth in every conversation. It means teaching, encouraging, challenging, giving, and serving. I believe that God can use me to bless people to repentance.

As goals, “change” and “enrichment” make for very different approaches to missions.

The CPM Storm

In keeping with my complete inability to leave well enough alone, I’d like to illustrate the point of my last post. Some of you will be surprised to learn that there was, in fact, a point to my last post.

“Church planting movement” is the term we’ve adopted to describe a phenomena in which many, many churches are sort of spontaneously planted and those churches quickly turn and plant other church-planting churches. In many ways, a CPM is like a storm (or an earthquake, or a drought, or any other “act of God”), in that it is something only God can do. We cannot cause a CPM to happen any more than we can cause a tidal wave or instigate a hurricane.

It makes no sense, then, to set as our goal something that we cannot do. Yes, I’ve heard about the importance of having a “God-sized” vision, but a vision and a goal are not the same thing. To continue with the illustration:

We can prepare for a storm. When the weatherman warns us and the sky turns dark, people run to the store and buy water, plastic, duct tape, and granola bars. This is how many of us “prepare” for a movement of God, CPM or otherwise. We get a hint that God is working somewhere, and we rush to get ready. We write requests for volunteers and we notify the prayer networks that we’re going to need extra coverage. We put unresponsive people on the back burner and concentrate our energy where the action is. The problem, in my opinion, is that rushing to facilitate a CPM is not the kind of strategy that called people should depend on.

Why not? Because only God knows when and where He’s going to make it rain, and whether it will be a slight drizzle or a torrential downpour. I think that’s why he called me to Western Europe well in advance of whatever it is He’s going to do. This wasn’t a “priority” area for the IMB. There were places with more “strategic significance” and higher “concentrations of lostness.” But He know what He was doing, and I trusted Him, even though I haven’t seen the results I’d hoped for.

Which brings me to another type of readiness that we should consider. It’s the long-term, not a cloud in the sky, “wait for it… wait for it…” sort of approach. It is modeled for us by Noah in Genesis 6-8. When people saw this old man building a giant boat in the middle of the desert I’m sure they called it insanity. I think we should apply it to missions, and call it “nonstrategic obedience.”

God gave Noah a vision of the deadly waters that would flood the earth. That was something only God could do. Noah’s goal, then, was not to create a storm, but to build the boat. His goal was a big boat full of the people and animals God told him to take inside. His strategy was to build the boat exactly according to God’s detailed instructions.

Church Planting Movements are a vision, not a goal. Proclaiming the gospel, teaching people to obey, living as incarnational witnesses- these are goals. Our strategies need to get us to these goals. Focusing on Church planting movements distracts us from doing the things God has instructed us to do because we assume that we know how God wants to take us to the vision He’s given us. We start to see our goals as means. We should make disciples because God told us to, not so that we can facilitate a greater movement.

Getting ahead of ourselves (and God, if it were possible) is pretty common for us. We love people in order to share the gospel with them, and we share the gospel with them in order to plant a church. We plant a church in order to start a CPM, and we do that in order to “finish the task” and glorify God (and bring Jesus back). I say, let’s let go of all the “next things” that we think may happen. Let’s focus our attention on who God has brought us today. Let’s obey regardless of whether a CPM starts or not. It would be like building an ark whether the floodwaters came or not.

Now I’m left with the question of the vision. Are we sure that God told us that He was going to start church planting movements all around the world? How long do you suppose Noah would have worked on the ark without seeing evidence that God was getting ready to bring the storm? How long will our people (trusting the vision as it’s been cast by our organization) continue to pursue a church planting movement before they should start to question that vision? If it’s from God, we should never give up. If it’s just a good idea, we should change course immediately.

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.

Between 2% and Porterhouse

My team had an interesting discussion over the last couple of days. This isn’t as remarkable as it might sound, but while most people spend Christmas talking about football and shopping, our team talks about ecclesiology. Who says we aren’t committed to our jobs? (And no, there is no truth to the rumor that we deliberately discussed “work” issues in an attempt to justify paying for a turkey dinner out of our “Office Expense” accounts.)

I’ve posted before about my frustrations with communication and word definitions. It seems like every attempt we make at defining or describing what we believe (and why) is lost as the words we use are co-opted by others who use those same words to put a new face on traditionalisms. We’ve even confused ourselves as we struggle to work through the implications of what we say we’re about. Our conversation this week, for example, began with this question: When one of our friends becomes a believer, can we really disciple him/her in their existing social structure?

Conventional missionaries today have begun to adopt the terms “relational,” “incarnational,” and “missional,” but their thought on evangelism and discipleship is usually something like this: Missionaries share the gospel, nationals hear it, some reject it, others respond. Those who respond are then grouped together to form the beginnings of a “church.” Another school proposes to switch the order to “group them and win them,” in order to disciple people within community.

Our collective experience has taught us that although this sort of “winning/grouping” approach to church planting sounds like a good strategy, it actually does quite a bit to hinder the “indigenousness” of the foundation that we lay. Individual believers are separated from their natural social groups and placed into these artificial, “Christian” ones for the sake of support and encouragement. But that separation greatly reduces the new believer’s influence in the relationships he/she had, and because the bulk of his/her spiritual transformation takes place in private (church), it has little positive impact on the community. It doesn’t take long for these new Christians to be so far removed from their own culture that they need to be trained to interact with their lost friends.

So we, despite using the same words, have tried to do things a little differently. Our team’s idea has always been to disciple people from wherever they are spiritually to maturity in Christ, without removing them from their existing social environment. Our discussion this week began with a current situation. A friend has recently shown some interest in Jesus. We can see him opening up to us and to the faith we’re always talking about. We pray that he will soon be saved. Naturally, this friend lives a lifestyle that does not honor God. He is addicted to drugs and he regularly participates in “trance parties” (Raves put on by “Shaman” DJs who use techno music to entrance partygoers in a pagan spiritual frenzy that sometimes last days and days). Let’s say he becomes a believer- can we leave him in that environment and expect him to grow in his faith and be an effecting witness to the people around him?

Again, most people would say no. They would argue that this friend needs to be removed from the dangerous situation so that he can overcome the sin that has bound him, and grow in his faith. I disagree (You expected as much).

I say that the role of the missionary (and yes, this is different from what most would say,) is to serve as spiritual “life-support” for the new believer as they struggle to work out their salvation within their own cultural context. This might mean that we meet with a national believer to disciple and encourage them, but we never “invite them to church.” Instead, we pray for God to move among the new believer’s circle of friends. We instruct him/her in righteousness, allowing the Holy Spirit to convict them of sin. We encourage him/her to share their faith, and pray for the day when God moves among his/her sphere of influence to plant a church there.

But nobody does it this way. For most of us, this approach is too messy, too limited, and it takes too long. What if they never feel convicted about certain sins? What if they never know another believer? What if, ten years down the road, they’re still struggling with basic holiness and remedial theology. How long can a believer survive on only spiritual milk?

It seems to me that our discomfort with Christians who are struggling to make sense of their faith has led us to impose a behavioral conformity that ignores the personal tension that salvation brings. When drug addicts and homosexuals get saved, we require that they immediately stop being those things, and start acting “Christianly.” From the outside, it would seem that we interpret the word “repentance” to mean that upon salvation, a person must suddenly exchange public sins for private ones. You cannot be a drug-using, foul-mouthed, homosexual Christian, but an over-eating, gossip who struggles with lust just has “a few things to work on.” Is Christianity only about (openly) sinning less?

Leaving a drug addict in a circle of drug addicted friends might seem like a bad idea, but it would allow the addict to see how his newfound faith applies to his real life. It would also allow his friends to see his personal transformation first-hand and allow them to actually participate in it. The power of salvation is most evident when it contrasts with the stark reality of the situation from which we are saved. The soil in which a seed takes root is sufficient for that new plant.

Continuing the thoughts of my previous post: what we need is not more Christians trying to “reach” the “people of the world,” but more “people of the world” trying to work out what it means for them to be a Christian.

I’m Not Asking

Every Christmas season, the International Mission Board launches its annual fundraising campaign, “The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.” All of the money raised through the drive goes to missions. That’s the money that pays our rent and covers our ministry-related expenses. If you are Southern Baptist, I would encourage you to give generously.

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The above paragraph is true. It also happens to be the only that way I, as an IMB missionary, am allowed to ask for money. The Board has clear policies against “solicitation of funds.” These rules make sense for an organization that does not require its workers to raise their own support. Were we allowed to, I’m sure at least a couple of us would make a career of raising money (for ministry, of course) . This would be a distraction from church planting, to say the least, and would result in what amounts to competition between missionaries for funding. In order to avoid such chaos, I cannot, and will not, ever ask for money.

Despite the restrictions against soliciting funds, there is quite a bit of “channeled monies,” and “designated offerings” floating around the mission field. I’m not insinuating any wrongdoing here. The logical limitations on my freedom to ask for money does not preclude Stateside sponsors from offering it to me. It happens quite a lot, actually. A partner church might ask, “What are some of your ministry’s financial needs?” An extended family member who hasn’t spoken to me in years might try to assuage his guilt for never having shown even the slightest interest in our work here might ask, “You doing okay money-wise?”

The answer is always: “If you’d like to contribute financially, I’d encourage you to give to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.”

But there’s something more I need to say here. Something that you, dear reader, need to know: None of us are getting rich as missionaries.

The cost of living here in Wester Europe is high. Add to that what we spend on hosting parties and going out with nationals, and joining clubs/gyms. On top of all that, there’s the trip back to the States every once in a while, and, well, you can imagine how difficult it can be to respond with the party line when someone offers money. Of course my Starbucks habit would love a little extra pocket change.

I’m not asking for money. I don’t want it or need it. But I have a suggestion: give to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, and then consider paying for a missionary’s family to fly to the field for a visit.

We don’t get to see too much of our families while we’re on the mission field. We usually chalk it up as one of those small sacrifices God has called us to. But many of my colleagues have never had their parents come to visit. There are MKs on the field who have never met their grandparents. It’s expensive to fly half way around the world, so if you really want to minister to us, by our parents a plane ticket.

Think about how great an encouragement it would be for a missionary to have a church send their parents for Christmas. Consider how far such a gesture would go toward making our people on the field know they are appreciated. Sponsored family visits would help family members back home get an idea of what we’re talking about when we share stories of our life here. They would be able to pray more specifically for our ministries. They would know what we go through. They would stop wasting their money sending packages of peanut butter (which, by the way, we can actually get here)! The parents and siblings of missionaries would be even better missionary advocates in our churches, and they’d be able to help our churches keep up with what’s happening on the field.

We could even make it a big, shiny new denominational program. Operation: Missionary Family (or some other, pseudo-militaristic task-oriented brand name.)

Thank You

It happens every week. The shiny silver saucer floats down the pew, picking up fingerprint smudges and wadded-up bills. Or maybe your church uses those velvet bags with the wooden handle horns that jingles with change and does cartwheels as it’s passed from hand to hand. We call it the “offering.”

You put in some money, 10% of your income, maybe more. Maybe less. You give some pocket change or a check, you might even use pink little envelopes that have your name pre-printed on them next to little boxes you can check if you read your Bible that week or brought a friend to church with you. You might give with joy, celebrating God’s provision. Maybe you give begrudgingly, out of duty or guilt or tradition. Or maybe you’re excited to give, knowing where the money is going and how it will be used.

Thank You.

Thank you for giving money to support us. I know it isn’t really us your giving to, but God. But without your gifts, we couldn’t be here. Without the faithful giving and cooperation of God’s people back home, we wouldn’t get to know the blessing of seeing God work in these different cultures. I have benefited from your generosity. I have been able to follow God’s lead in my life and represent you on the mission field. He is using your obedience and sacrifice to support mine. I understand that with your support comes great responsibility. I don’t deserve the funding I receive. I haven’t really earned the trust you put in me. But I know how important it is for me to be a good steward of that support, and to administer the money in a way that pleases God, and extends the Kingdom.

Thank you.

The Perfect Team

The guys in boy bands aren’t usually friends that grew up together, singing barber-shop quartet songs on the street corner for tips. No, they are strategically selected by professionals through shopping mall casting calls that attract thousands of talented applicants. 23 seconds to prove you’ve got the right stuff, and then “Next!”

“We’ve got the ‘Bad’ boy, the sporty one, the funny one, the good dancer… We need the cute one!”

In a lot of ways, putting together a church planting team with the IMB is a similar process. We know what we want before we know who we have. Our time on the field and Spirit-led strategy tell us what sort of team we need on the field. A strong self-starter. Someone with administration skills. At least one who is gifted in evangelism. A couple that can lead us in prayer. In our minds, we put together the perfect church planting team designed specifically for the location, culture, and strategy. Like a missionary boy band. We write personnel requests for each of the positions and then let the organization handle the selection process.

Which is good until my “Already has the language, gifted in teaching, experienced graphic designer.” request is filled with a “Willing to learn the language, gifted encourager, slightly interested in design” applicant. Hey, we can only send people who apply. Then there’s that balance: Someone with experience, but not so much that they come in thinking they’ve got all the answers. Young, but not immature. Outgoing, but not annoying. Flexible, but reliable. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it would look like if I could put together my “dream team.” Guess what? It would look a lot like the team I’ve got now. Here’s an example of who I’m looking for right now:

ISC Couple. (Career workers are over-rated and expensive)
Age: 28-34 (Young, but not too young)
From: California (Outside the Bible belt, with postmodern worldview)
Children: None (Hard to go out all night with kids)
Education: University, Graduate School (People here are highly educated)
Abilities: Language, team player, Cultural adaptation (Basically, someone with a head start)
Experience: Three years teaching in public schools. Published author, songwriter. (“Secular” experience, artistic/creative)
Spiritual Gifts: Teaching (discipleship), Encouragement (team maintenance)

You might look at the profile I’ve written and say, “Yeah, we’re all looking for them to be on our team. But I’d like to add a couple of things. I’m looking for someone who fits the above criteria and:

Doesn’t think drinking is wrong. This almost always results in what I like to call “condemnation evangelism.” We need people who aren’t so totally overwhelmed by the sin of the people that they can’t see, well, the people. Sin is flaunted in front of us, but we have to be able to recognize and appreciate the good things this culture has to offer, and to be able to learn from these people.

Isn’t worried about their “witness”: The fact of the matter is that here in Europe, you don’t have a witness. That you don’t drink, smoke, or use certain words does not communicate anything, especially to people that do not see these things as bad. People don’t see Jesus in you for what you don’t do.

Enjoys the adventure: Every day on the field is different. We love to find people that don’t just wait for things to become “normal,” but are open to trying new things, meeting new people, and loving every minute of it. People can tell if you don’t want to be here. It makes them not want to be around you.

Humble in self, confident in Christ: Everyone that comes to the field comes to the point where they have to give up. We’d like to have someone who already has. In a foreign language, you don’t have a personality, much less a sense of humor. When people have to put a lot of effort into understanding you, it makes you feel stupid. We need folks that are okay with making fools of themselves every day. Sometimes twice a day, just for good measure. They need to have the confidence in Christ that will motivate them in spite of that.

Fun to be around: Sure this one is hard to quantify, but who wants to work with a guy that has no personality? Or someone that takes themselves too seriously? We’re looking for people who are interesting, fun, and know how to tell stories. We want the couple that makes you feel good about yourself when you’re around them; like you’re not a weird missionary.

To me, a couple of people like the one I’ve outlined here would make for the perfect church planting team. If you are the person I’ve described, send me an email…