Missional… Missionaries?

This is post #2 in a series on developing a new missiology.

Over the course of about ten years, the church has seen a huge shift in thinking. As western culture moved away from identifying itself as “christian,” young(er) leaders started to explore new, more appropriate expressions of church in a post-everything context. Some questioned popular methodologies. Others questioned common theological language. Others still questioned everything– from the voracity of church history to the doctrines of atonement to the existence of hell. At the heart of this questioning was the desire for a Christianity that made sense in today’s world.

For the most part, this conversation took place without the benefit of input from experienced international missionaries, who were either too busy with their work on the mission field to participate or too tightly linked to traditional structures to have any credibility with those who were driving the discussion. Either way, church leaders were centering their lives and ministries around the missio dei. They developed their strategies by reverse-engineering what didn’t work with the attractional model of church (and didn’t do much in the way of studying the global missions movement). Much of this shift in thinking had to do with the relationship between the church (believers) and the unbelievers around it.

Our new missiology has the most to learn from the missional church in these three areas: evangelism, social action, and cultural engagement. Evangelism, long modeled after cold-call sales and interruption marketing strategies, was re-framed. The emphasis was taken off the dissemination of information and put on the influence of personal relationships. Social action, once seen as an avenue for (or distraction from) gospel proclamation, was valued as redemptive in deed and became valued as an expression of Christian love. Culture, previously seen as something the church needed to isolate and protect itself from, became the context for gospel incarnation.

In the traditional missions mindset, the missionary is seen as the bringer of the gospel to otherwise uninformed peoples. Evangelism is seen as the goal of all missionary activity, and, in the name of efficiency effectiveness, reduced to the simple proclamation of the gospel message. The missional church has pointed out that the means affects the message, and that the gospel out of context is no gospel at all. Redemptive relationships become the channel of gospel communication and demonstration. Missional approaches take advantage of existing social structures, transforming them into indigenous churches.

On the international mission field, social action is often seen as superfluous to the spreading of the gospel. Necessary for access to many closed countries, some missions organizations treat social ministries as distractions from real missionary activities like evangelism and church planting. Missional leaders see it otherwise. They understand that service to those outside the church is a vital part of our faith; an act of worship and obedience in which every believer must take part. People don’t come to faith without hearing the good news, but our stance against injustice is an indispensable part of being a disciple of Jesus whether or not we get a chance to lay out the “plan of salvation.”

Since the days of Hudson Taylor, missionaries have understood the importance of local culture to missionary activity. Yet most missionaries see their cultural obligation as limited to learning language and (maybe) eating local fare. Missional practitioners understand that every culture carries some memory of the Creator God, and therefore retain bridges to communication of the gospel. Cultural immersion, then, is required for incarnation of the gospel. Our role is to live in such a way that when people look at our lives and hear our words, they can truly see the implications of the gospel for their own lives. Missional missionaries don’t fight against culture, they use it to build raised beds of good soil for church planting.

Missionaries everywhere should read The Forgotten Ways, a textbook of sorts on missional living. As I’ll explore in future posts, a more missional approach to international missions would radically change the way we see God’s activity in the world and how we, the church, fit into it.

NEXT: What Are We Saying? A Look At Our Missions Vocabulary.

Missional Missiology

I’m calling for a new missiology. The current popular one is neither biblical nor helpful. So let’s work through a new one. Of course, by “new” here I mean “old” in the sense of directly founded in scripture, but “new” in that it makes sense for today’s globalized experience. To that end, I’m starting a series of posts in which I hope to identify those places where our current missiology might come up short and suggest some new ways to think and talk about mission that might be more helpful to everyone involved in the conversation.

Firstly, we need to take into account the tremendous impact of the missional church conversation. Churches around the world have begun to see themselves as intentionally-placed examples of the gospel in context. The shift in thinking away from programmatic evangelism and outreach to incarnational approaches to ministry needs to inform our understanding of global missions.

Secondly, our vocabulary must change. The words we use have meaning, but we don’t always get to determine those meanings. We must, therefore, find new ways to talk about some of the same things: people who know Jesus moving across barriers of culture and distance to proclaim the gospel in word and deed. In upcoming posts, I’ll review come of the current missions vocabulary and propose some new ways to talk about mission that communicate better and leave out some of the baggage of modernistic taxonomy.

Thirdly, we need to adjust our perspective. So often, the conversation centers around things that seem incredibly important to us, but trivial to God. Statistics and percentages. Resources and need. Categories and strategy. Opportunities and chance. A few years ago I wrote a post on the idea that no one should hear the gospel twice while some have yet to hear it even once. Quite simply, this is not a biblical idea, and it has ruinous implications for our understanding of our part in God’s global mission. Soon, I’ll post further about this and other problems with our perspective on global mission.

Finally, we need to develop our scriptural literacy when it comes to missions. What does the Bible say about our role in the world and our part in His redemptive activity among its peoples? Have we extrapolated, inferred, deduced, and applied ourselves into bad missiology?

Finally, I want to make one thing clear: I am not so proud (or stupid) to think that I know better than prominent theologians or missiologists. I understand that some people are threatened and offended by questions and disagreements. I believe questions will only help us find better ways to talk about mission. I don’t have any special insight that everyone heretofore has missed. I’m just a practitioner who loves the church and has a strong desire to her obedient on God’s global mission. Any ideas posted here are probably not original to me and likely better said elsewhere. I value the discussion and appreciate the opportunity to think through what God work among humanity.

NEXT: Missional… Missionaries?

Unreached (Again) People Groups

Is New England the new “American missional frontier?” Vermont pastor Jared Wilson thinks so. He writes about it in a recent post on the Resurgence. Wilson points to statistics showing that the Northeastern U.S. is the least churched region in the country, and that existing churches are not thriving. “New Englanders have little desire for anything to do with Christianity or church,” he writes. “Even those who have it have little opportunity to explore it.”

I agree with Jared. And my friend David Phillips. We need to focus more attention and resources on church planting efforts in New England. For too long, the Northeast has been neglected.

I’m fascinated by how familiar Jared’s post sounds, so similar to posts I wrote here while I was in Western Europe. More and more, there are places like Europe and New England that have returned from Christian influence to the status of “unreached.” This isn’t a case of “my people group is loster than yours,” it’s a heartfelt call to action by someone who God has called to service.

To be sure, chasing the least-reached regions of the United States is like trying to put out flareups after a wildfire. The west coast, the southwest, the east- each are defined by their sins ans spiritual strongholds. Vegas rife with debauchery. Seattle stricken with irresponsibility. San Francisco overrun with homosexuality. Boston filled with post-Catholic angst. The Bible Belt rife with cultural Christianity and political moralism. All of these places need the freedom that is only found in Christ.

What we’re seeing is the rise of a new category of missions. Some missionaries focus on unreached people groups. But God is raising up faithful people who recognize that “reached” isn’t a permanent status. Just as the gospel comes to a people through the obedience of some, it can soon be forgotten through the disobedience of others.

Surely some would say, “New England! The birthplace of the Great Awakening? They’ve had their chance!” To them I would ask, is our task to give everyone a chance to hear, or to proclaim the gospel where it is not proclaimed and cross cultures as we’re led by the Spirit? In the present age, unreached people groups are constantly emerging.

Indelible Spirituality

It used to be that there was a certain type of person who got a tattoo. Sailors, bikers, convicts. Tough guys in sleeveless shirts sported tattoos that depicted manly, outlaw rebel stuff like mermaids, warships, and skulls.

But the type has changed. These days, everyone– from pastors to soccer moms– seems to be inked. Tribal swirls, Celtic knots, and (“The guy at the tattoo place said it meant love”) Chinese characters have become common sights in almost any social circle.

Tattoos are a personal thing. Even those that are publicly displayed carry deep meaning. They commemorate the passing of the old and mark the beginning of the new. Symbols are used to mark identification with someone or something (fraternity Greek, armed forces, “I love ______ forever.”). The ink can be a celebration of the survival of an ordeal (cancer, war, rape, natural disaster), a declaration of resolve. Tattoos help people mourn, remember, and mark milestones. Something about the unique, artistic, painful (not to mention permanent) act of getting a tattoo, makes getting one unlike any other human ritual.

And that’s what it is. A deeply personal, often spiritual ritual. The process of getting a tattoo, painful and private, is a powerful experience. The tattoo artist makes herself vulnerable by suggesting a design and by assuming the risk of permanently marking the client’s body. The client, on the other hand, exposes his body to a stranger wielding electric needles filled with permanent ink. The artist is a medium– opening up a channel of memory, emotion, and expression.

Move over pastors, tattoo artists are the new priests.

If you ever get the chance to watch someone get a tattoo, do it (if you don’t have any of those kind of friends, one of the tattoo parlor reality show on TV will do.) Watch the timid resolution of the client as he enters the shop. Nobody (sober) walks into a tattoo parlor by accident. Listen to the explanation of why he wants a tattoo and where he wants it placed on his body. Often people have thought through it enough to apply symbolism to ever aspect of the experience. “I came in today because it’s my birthday.” “I ship out next week.” “She died four years ago today.”

People come out of the tattoo parlor with an emotional high. The endorphins (from the pain) mix with the rush (from the magnitude of the permanence) and the power of the memory to create the euphoria of having connected with an artist who understood well enough to depict the emotion graphically. For the rest of his natural life, the wearer has something to illustrate something that defines his life.

This is powerful religion. It requires great commitment, financial cost, artistic expression, physical suffering (or at least discomfort), and it publicly marks a person for life. How does that compare with what your church promotes?

The Commission According to Us

“Therefore go and provide access to the gospel for all unreached people groups, engaging them them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. If you get your strategy right, I’ll be right there beside you until you finish the task.”

This is not the Great Commission found in Matthew 28. It is, however, our much-improved interpretation of those final earthly instructions Jesus gave to His disciples and (therefore) to the church. You’ll notice quite a bit of jargon in there, but don’t be alarmed, It all makes sense to us, and we’re the professionals. We’ve made some slight modifications to the wording in order to help make the our obedience in the matter much more organized and easily measured; two things that certainly matter to Jesus. He clearly didn’t have time to expound on His instructions, (what with His impending ascension into heaven and all), so we’ve added some vital details.

He said “I have the authority, so make disciples.” What He obviously meant was “engage” them. Get at least one person to adopt each group, and you can check them off your list. The bit about “all nations?” Time and social sciences have demonstrated that people are organized into static, measurable “people groups” that we need to reach in order to fulfill the Commission. We know where the unreached ones are. If only we had enough people or enough money, we could engage them all right here and now.

“Make disciples” is clearly a euphemism for “provide them with access to the gospel,” isn’t it? If we can just get the Bible (the most gospely parts, of course) translated into words, pictures, or dramatic re-enactments that the people will understand, we’ll be well on our way. After all, “God’s word will not return void,” right? Incarnation isn’t necessary, information is the key.

Sure Jesus is with us, but only if we’re on the front lines, driving back lostness. It’s fine if you want to live in South America, just don’t call yourself a missionary. We reached them already. Now it’s on them to compete with the Mormons, atheists, and Mary-worshipers. There are enough Christians there already– if we do it for them, they’ll never be as mature as we are (spiritually, I mean).

So we’re missions-minded people, engaging people groups and providing access to the gospel. We can do it. If not, why would Jesus have commanded us to go? If the task isn’t finishable, it could, like, go on forever. If you really want Jesus to come back, you should adopt an unengaged, unreached people group today.

Ed Stetzer Is (Probably) Not Your Pastor

At the “amen” of the closing prayer, the man bounded up to the stage with a satisfied look on his face. “Dude, you really brought it just now!” he exclaimed. “That was just what we needed to hear!” The Dude in question was Ed Stetzer, missiologist, author, preacher, researcher, and popular Christian conference speaker. The excited guy from the audience was going in for the hug when he uttered some very telling words: “Thanks for being a pastor to all of us.”

Ed had no idea who this guy was. Not because he’s especially forgetful (he’s a human Wikipedia of missions and the church), and not because he’s bad with names (he isn’t– except maybe with mine). The problem was that Ed had never actually met this man who was clearly his biggest fan. (Though anyone who knows germaphobic Ed would know better than to actually touch him.)

Ed Stetzer is everywhere. He spends lots of time on the road, speaking at conferences, teaching in seminaries, and consulting with various organizations and denominational groups. He puts out several books each year. He blogs regularly and Tweets like a spambot. His brain never shifts out of overdrive. I’ve seen him answer text messages while making a keynote presentation without ever missing a beat. Despite his crazy travel schedule, he’s home every weekend to spend time with his family and preach at church every Sunday.

It would be easy for anyone who reads his stuff and sees him speak a couple times a year to feel as though they knew Ed. His commitment to biblical truth might even make some of his fans feel as though Ed was their pastor. He’s not, and he doesn’t claim to be. Neither are any of the other two dozen or so other big names in evangelical circles. Unless you go to their churches (and in some cases, even that won’t do it), authors and conference speakers aren’t your pastors.

A pastor knows you well enough to preach the gospel into your community of faith. He holds you accountable for your missteps and encourages you through the rough patches. As described in 2 Timothy 4, a pastor is more than just a presenter of gospel teaching, he’s a shepherd who supervises your spiritual formation. The conference stage, book, (and, in many cases, the megachurch pulpit) serve as two-way mirrors; allowing us to be taught without being seen, to be preached to without being cared for.

We need thinkers, teachers, authors, and speakers. On the corporate level, leaders like Ed Stetzer are the people who drive the conversation and inspire with new ideas. They teach, equip, and challenge us publicly. They speak on our behalf. But believers need more than just sound instruction. Every Christian everywhere needs a pastor who knows them and speaks into their lives personally.

Ed Stetzer isn’t your pastor. Neither is Francis Chan, John Piper, or Matt Chandler (unless, of course, you go to their churches.) If you don’t know who your pastor is, you need to find one. If you don’t know of any in your area, ask Ed Stetzer– he probably does.

On Church Planting

I love church planters. They really are a unique breed. Anyone who would launch out on their own to navigate the waters of societal indifference, institutional competition, and sustained discouragement  in efforts to start a church deserves some respect (Or pity. Maybe both.) I get to meet a lot of church planters from across the country, and they are invariably passionate and highly motivated.

I always ask how far into the process a planter is. The brightest-eyed always answer in terms of months; the more haggard of the bunch in years. Others still will answer in depth, as in “About up to here.”

I never ask how many people participate in the church plant. I think it’s a terrible question that only perpetuates the “numbers= success” mentality. I love to ask planters about the challenges they’re experiencing. Most are struggling in some way or another, and many don’t have anyone to talk to about those struggles. You’d be surprised how many of them have no peers to talk to about behind-the-scenes ministry-related stuff. Lots of them have wives that just aren’t into the whole thing. Most are struggling financially. Assessment and accountability can help with some of these things, but you’d be surprised how much springs up only after the planter is well into the church planting process.

On the international mission field, those who work among the unengaged, unreached people groups in undeveloped places are considered the “elite forces” of the missionary world. They work under constant opposition, threat of persecution, and with daily physical hardship. Theirs is important work, but not because it’s difficult. The value in their service is their obedience, not their sacrifice.

As much as I love church planters, I don’t like the way we’ve glamorized what they do. When we treat church planting as the ultimate accomplishment in Christian ministry, we make it into something that actually competes with our obedience. People who have no business planting churches pursue it for the sake of the challenge and the status it brings. Others walk away from ministry completely when they don’t see the results they were expecting. For every Rick Warren and Mark Driscoll there are hundreds (thousands?) of, well, me.

I worked hard for several years to plant a church (actually, a movement of churches) in Western Europe. I had a great team, good accountability, a sound plan, and a passion for God’s church. Through our work, we saw lives transformed, community formed, and the gospel proclaimed among unreached people. In the end, we didn’t see God do what we thought He was going to do. I certainly couldn’t plant a church and God, for whatever reason, didn’t.

You may be surprised that I don’t feel like a failure (anymore). I learned a lot through my experience, and I know that my obedience matters more than my accomplishments. I realize that my plans and strategies don’t guarantee results. I also came to realize that I’m not a church planter. In fact, none of us are. God plants and builds His church. We’re just the means by which He doe it.

Love Your Filthy, Disgusting, Sinful City

I meet lots of pastors, church planters, and Christian leaders in my travels. Usually, “Where are you from?” comes only after, “What’s your name?” If you’re planting a church in inner-city Pittsburgh or rural Oklahoma, I’m going to assume that it’s because you feel called to that location. I’m not here to judge, but what other reason could you possibly have to live in Needles (which probably shouldn’t count as “California”) or Kentucky (which probably shouldn’t count as the “United States”)?

How you talk about your city says a lot about how you see it (and how you see yourself in relation to it).

“We have the largest homosexual population after San Francisco.”

“Most violent city in America.”

“Worst traffic in the country.”

“Most unchurched.” “Least evangelized.”

“Highest percentage of (_insert sin/vice/malady here_).”

If God called you to live in and love your city, why can’t you tell me anything good about it? Why not tell me about how creative the people are? Or how active? I’d like to hear about how friendly people in your town can be, or generous, or hospitable. I’d know you loved your city if you lead by bragging about its commitment to literacy, its efforts toward public health, or its fascination with high school sports. Tell me about the great food, the well-kept parks, or the quaint downtown. You say you love your city. Don’t you want me to love your city too?

My perception of many cities was colored by your description long before I even visited them. Houston and Amarillo smell bad. L.A. has gangs and traffic. Everybody in Tennessee is a narrow-minded bigot. Detroit is falling apart. Seattle is lazy (I just made that one up), and the gays are taking over Minneapolis. You don’t get extra points for living in a place you hate. The value of your presence isn’t determined by the lostness of your city.

Your focus on the negatives says a lot about how you engage the people of your city. Are you for them, or against them? Do you see them as guilty sinners (they are), or as powerless slaves? (They are.) Do you see the creative spark that God put in every human being? Do you see value in their existence? If you do, I can’t tell, because all you’ve talked about are the challenges and obstacles.

How do you talk to the other people who live in your city about your city? Say you’re watching your kids at the playground, talking to some of the other parents. Do you sound like someone who wants to be there? In line at the bank, do you come across as someone who loves your city, or someone who’s afraid of it?

Next time we talk, I’m going to ask you about your city. If you don’t have anything good to say, I’ll encourage you to move.

The Very Worst Missionary, The Very Best Blog

I’ve often written about the importance of good communication from the mission field. You’d be surprised, though, how many missionaries I meet that don’t even know what a blog is. Many of those who do have blogs are forced, fake and over-spiritualized. I won’t name any names here, but I could.

Let me point you to Steve and Jamie Wright, or, as they’re known in the blogosphere, El Chupacabra and The Very Worst Missionary. Theirs are perhaps the best examples of missionary blog anywhere. Really. They write regularly about their daily lives in Costa Rica, turning the mundane into witty, fun-to-read insight into the lives of the missionary. They use healthy doses of unsettling candor, biting sarcasm, earnest confession, and self-deprecating humor that make readers feel as though we’re right there with them, caring for kids in poverty, struggling with Spanish, and not flushing toilet paper down the toilet.

If more missionaries wrote like this, we’d have more and better missionaries on the field. Seriously. Everyone would have a more realistic understanding of what a missionary is and what life on the field looks like on a daily basis. The horror stories would weed out the tourists. The full disclosure would demystify the role while making it attractive to accessible, creative, brave, and interesting people.

The best thing is about the Wrights is that they’re interesting. These are blogs you want to read. People you want to know. They point you to Jesus and make you want to be in community with believers like them.

Steve and Jamie, thank you for writing. Thanks for opening a window into your lives, and for being obedient to what God has told you to do.

Be sure to bookmark/RSS both blogs. Also, you can follow Steve and Jamie on Twitter.

Bible Stories

Growing up in church, kids always got special treatment. At my church, for example, there was some unwritten rule giving all adults in church “special” permission to “discipline” us as though we were their own kids. Doyle Braden was an arm-grabber, as I recall. Mr. Lettow would flick the backs of our heads. Sean’s dad pinched ears. Hard.

I digress.

Church kids didn’t have to listen to sermons. We were allowed to draw on the backs of bulletins and take naps. The sermon was for “grownups.” The kids, well, we were told “Bible stories.”

I remember my Sunday School teacher pulling out the flannelgraph and using felt-cutouts of camels, caves, and men with beards retell (okay- summarize) the stories of the Bible. Noah and the Ark. The Fiery Furnace. The Good Samaritan. Great stories, all told in kid-friendly ways. You know, like on Sesame Street.

And that was the problem. Our little kid brains had a hard time telling the difference between Bible stories (which, I presume our teachers believed to have really happened or, in the case of the Samaritan, to have really been told by Jesus) and every other story we had been told. After all, David and Goliath had a giant, but so did Jack and the Beanstalk. Jesus was resurrected by the power of God, Sleeping Beauty was revivified by the Kiss of a Prince. To us, it was all kind of the same.

To make matters worse, our teachers often oversimplified the stories, diluting them into moralistic tales that they were never meant to be. Adam and Eve, Jacob and Esau, and Achan, taught us that is was bad to tell a lie. David and Jonathan showed us that sharing made us a good friend. Jonah was a lesson in obedience. Sunday morning Bible stories were like lo-tech Saturday morning cartoons. Only boring.

Looking back, I recognize that each “story” was an opportunity to share the gospel; to demonstrate our need for a savior and to recognize God’s provision in Christ. But instead, we learned that sharing and using good manners made Jesus happy. As we grew up, those stories were left behind for more practical topical Bible studies and the abstract “meat” of Pauline theology.

Of course, we eventually learned that The Three Little Pigs, The Seven Dwarfs, and all the other protagonists in our childhood stories weren’t real. How were we to know that their Bible story counterparts were?

I suppose what I’m getting at is that we need to be careful how we communicate things. The Bible isn’t God’s Cautionary Tales. Sure, there are lots of examples in the history of the Creator’s interaction with creation, but there’s more to it than that. Everything recorded in the text points to humanity’s relationship to God, made right only through the life, death, and real resurrection of Jesus. The way we talk about that history will affect how it is understood by those we tell.