Full Time

One of the most difficult things about this job, as any professional minister will tell you, is figuring out what the job is. Sure, lots of churches go to great lengths to define the roles of their staff members. And I answered a pretty well-written job request when I came to the field. But no matter how hard we try to make it look like one, my job will never be a real job. Even if I punch a clock, it won’t ever begin at 8:30 am and end at 6:00 pm. Being a church planter defies planning. Preparation, of course, but there is no way to schedule the birth and growth of a spiritual family.

Busyness comes in waves. We’ll have a hundred volunteers in one month, and that’s when national friends come out of the woodwork to spend time with us. Then we’ll go months without a call. We find ourselves pursuing anyone who will take our calls. So far, the only way we’ve found to guarantee that people call us is to schedule a vacation. As soon as we book our flights we’re certain to get an invitation to a wedding or baptism or soccer game.

A lot of what we do seems like busywork. We fill out reports. We start projects, make contacts, and build websites. Sometimes, it’s easy to get so caught up in the preparation for ministry that we don’t have time to, you know, minister.

I’m still not sure if we all start out that way, or if it’s being on the field that affects us, but missionaries are weird. We work really hard to learn language, which ends up making us really dumb in our own language. We talk about missing things like Wal-Mart and American Idol and customer service. We still wear the clothes we bought off the Gap sale rack while we were on our last stateside assignment. In 1997.

Our job depends on something only God can do. Only He can save someone. Only He knows the heart of the people we’re here to love. Only He can start a movement of faith among these people. My job is “Church Planter,” but only God can plant a church. Sometimes, I wish I was a mechanic or something. A job where you’re done when the car is fixed or the clock strikes six, whichever comes first.

Strategic Planning

Marty Duren at SBC Outpost has written a short note about planning. I really liked what he had to say. Though he isn’t specifically talking about missions, his words got me thinking about everything I’ve been writing here. In my criticism of the Board’s current strategy, and my call for more step-by-step following of the Holy Spirit, do I sound like one of those who doesn’t think we should have a plan? I hope not.

I used to go to a church that was very programmed. We had a music minister that knew how to plan a service. The order of worship was planned and rehearsed two weeks ahead of time. The hymns and the pauses between them were timed, and the special music was chosen according to how much time we had to fill. I often heard people complain that the service hardly left room for the Holy Spirit to work. I’m sure the music minister was aware of the complaints, but for years he continued to plan the services down to the minute.

The music minister eventually decided to respond to his critics by not planning two weeks’ worth of church services. The result, as you can imagine, was not a spontaneous time of praise. It was, well, nothing. After the deacon welcomed everyone to the service (apparently he hadn’t gotten word of the “no programming Sunday”), nothing happened. Someone stood up and started taking hymn requests from the congregation, but we really struggled to make it through all eight verses of “Just As I Am.”

No one complained after that.

When I finally asked our music minister what he thought about leaving more room for the Holy Spirit, his response was: “I wish our people knew how much prayer went into the planning. God leads us throughout the week as we put together what we hope will be a tremendous time of teaching and worship.” (He always used the word “tremendous.”)

I believe that planning is necessary. Our team likes to think of it as “intentionality.” We have a clear strategy for interacting with the people around us, and have a clear plan for discipleship of the folks God brings our way. I just want us to be sure that our plan is based on God’s leading, where He is working. I guess my concern with the Board’s strategy is not that we have one, but that the one we have is based on human-centered, “logical conclusions.”

Oh, and just because we have a plan, let’s not assume that God has to follow it.

Financing the Machine

I get a paycheck on the 15th of every month. I know that isn’t the norm for most professional “missionaries,” but the IMB funds us so that we don’t have to raise our own support. We’re not getting rich, (in fact, we just got a decrease in pay), but we’re not going hungry either. The financial support is a blessing that really frees us up to do our work without wondering how we’re going to pay next month’s rent.

Every year, the IMB collects the “Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.” The Board uses this heavily-advertised season of fund-raising to ask Southern Baptist churches to give to the Board’s international endeavors. In 2003, the LMCO brought in $136,204,648.17. This year, the goal is 150,000,000 (that’s 150 million). When people give to the Board throughout the year through the Cooperative Program, some of that money is used for stateside operations such as administration, publicity, etc. (Most people aren’t aware that a large part of daily operating costs is funded by investment returns- money made through stocks and bonds.) The entirety of the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, however, is used in support of overseas personnel. You can see, then, why the offering is a big deal to us.

The Board really knows how to do things. They use quality media productions and publications to educate the people in the pews about our church planting efforts around the world. They have a department that analyzes the financial needs for the budget year and sets giving goals for the churches. Thousands of people give sacrificially to the organization because they believe in what the Board is doing and they want to be involved however they can.

I’m trying not to get too comfortable, though. It’s not that I don’t think the IMB knows how to raise funding. Times change. In the past, churches were proud of their Southern Baptist identity. Today, many SBC churches don’t use “SB” in their name; I’d venture to say that most members don’t even know what the Convention is or whether their church belongs to it. The only real denominational identity these days is that of “Crusading Conservatives” who are caught up in divisive politics and culture wars.

People are tired of sacrificially giving their hard-earned money to a faceless corporate institution that both defines “the Task” and measures its own progress in fulfilling that task. “It’s going to cost us $800 million for us to finish the task,” the organization might say. But beyond that, there is no real accountability as to how the money is spent or even as to where the financial figures come from.

The changing times has changed the way people feel about giving, but it has not changed their desire to give. “We know Jack and Suzy Brown. They’re part of our spiritual family. We know they’re called to and equipped for missions, and we’ve seen them be intentional in ministry here at home. We’ll support them. We have a relationship with them that will insure accountability, we can remain involved in their ministry, send them volunteers, and house them when there home for a visit.”
The Board’s efforts at personalization and fostering partnerships cannot compete with the relationship that Jack and Suzy Brown have with their home church. Nor should it.

Only when you know your supporters can there be true accountability. One of the biggest problems our field personnel have is the feeling of entitlement. This attitude of “I get what’s coming to me” and “It’s MY money” is everywhere. Regional policies only serve to reinforce the selfishness. “The Policy Manual says that we are entitled to 30 days vacation.” “Regional guidelines clearly state that we get an apartment of 1400m2. Ours is only 900.” It goes on an on. Because our money comes in the form of a paycheck every month from a well-oiled machine that raises support for us. We don’t see the little old ladies who give as much as half of their social security check every month, or the families who give inheritance money or vacation savings. We don’t know the people who give so that we can live and work overseas, so their money means much less to us. There is great financial accountability to the Board, but little accountability to the churches that give to support us.

So what’s the solution? Well, the megachurches are sending their own missionaries. Denominational splinter groups are too. The Board is trying to put on a more personal face by encouraging partnerships between missionaries and stateside churches. They push missionaries to speak in churches and conferences whenever possible. I say, stop it. I say, dismantle the machine and let local churches send their own people through the Board. When they don’t have anyone, or can afford to fully support them, let them cooperate through existing associations. But make sure every church that gives, no matter how little it might be, knows personally the missionary they are sending. If thirty churches in rural Arkansas want to give, make sure they have the opportunity to know the people who receive their offerings, and insure that they have some relationship with that overseas ministry. Instead of selling people groups, the Board needs to be representing us, the field personnel to the churches back home.

What do you think?

Obedience as Strategy

I recognize that there are some problems with “obedience as the strategy.” There are real questions of trust and control. Allowing the Holy Spirit to run our strategy would require us to trust each person with hearing and understanding God’s call on their life. We might not have control over where we send people. Plus, how do we decide where the money goes if we let God lead? And how would we measure results? Even worse, there would be no subjective way to rate performance. “84% obedient- try to work on that before you fall into the 70s- that calls for probation, you know.” We would have to trust the individual to maintain such a close personal fellowship with God that he or she knows what God wants for them and does it. We’d need to spend less time training our folks about church planting movements and more time teaching them who they are in Christ. We would have to put added emphasis on accountability, where our obedience actually could be measured within the context of relationship. But what a lot of work that would be! Better to make an across-the-board rule against drinking than to trust missionaries to make the right decisions regarding such cultural issues. Would that we had such an organization that associates were hired and fired based on personal accountability and pastoral guidance instead of projected personnel needs and rule book violations.

We depend on the terms “lostness,” “unreached,” and “the Task” to provide a standard by which we can measure our success. They were invented by strategists to help us get a handle on what we’re doing, and to assure the people back home that we’re making progress. We recently received a strategy report from the home office, in which our leadership outlined our strategy for the coming year. Basically, it stated that our organization needs X number of missionaries on the field in order to “finish the task.” They looked at the number of “unreached” people groups and decided that if we placed missionaries from our organization among those peoples, our job would be done. This plan was passed by the board and sent on to our leadership in the field. But this is a case of the performer dictating the standard by which his own performance should be measured. By sending out brochures and flyers and promotional videos, we teach people that success is possible and tangible and just around the corner. This works well to show that we are professionals who know what we’re doing. We’re in control, and you can trust us to use your donations well. But it is essentially a human-centered plan. We seem to have forgotten that God sometimes moves in mysterious ways.

More than Words

We spend our efforts trying to convince those around us of the existence of God, when we ought to be searching for effective ways to communicate our relationship to Him. This is only possible through relationship. We know that communication is more than words, and that’s why God’s design makes use of personal human interaction for the communication of the Good News.

The context of the gospel is -must be, personal relationships. God did not send the Word in the form of a tract or a circus-tent revival, because the means affects the message. God sent His son, Jesus, not to give the Good News, but to be the Good News. The essence of the message is not that people can go to heaven, or even that they can receive the free gift of forgiveness; it is that a relationship with God is possible through the person of Jesus. Our human relationships, though they are just shadowy reflections of the holy relationship, establish a framework for us to understand how God relates to us, His creatures. He is indeed a personal God, concerned with every aspect of our lives and actively involved in our personal histories. He knows us intimately, and He so desires that we would know Him, that He has provided the Way for it to be possible.

Though it doesn’t always make the most sense, God chooses to share His plan for redemption through people. Because they are selfish, disobedient, and proud, Humans really aren’t the most efficient or dependable media available. It would be easier for Him to reveal Himself through a massive international press conference, or through internet spam. But these impersonal means lack the key to effective communication of the gospel: relationship. Linguists have for centuries tried to translate certain abstract concepts from one culture into another that has no framework for understanding such a thought. Explaining the concept of patriotism to a person without a country, family to an orphan, or grace to a Mormon would all prove to be difficult- even impossible- apart from a personal interaction by which you could complete the definition through a demonstration of such things.

When Paul (Saul at the time) had an encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, Jesus sent him to meet Ananias and be discipled. Jesus did the convincing and saving, but did not separate it from the context of relationship. So we see that God uses human relationships in the salvation process, as an illustration of His relationship with us. Despite the great value our societies place on independence, and individualism, Human interconnectedness is a beautiful thing. Human relationships, even the natural ones, have built-in accountability, teaching, fellowship, service, and love.