Grown-up Church

ranch-1983If everything I know about church was learned in youth group, I’d be inclined to think that:

  • Church should be a good mix of games, singing, a short devotion, and pizza.
  • Accountability is meeting with a “grownup” who asks me if I’ve been reading my Bible.
  • Socially, it’s easier to be a big fish in the “small pond” of church.
  • All the hype is to get me in the door. This all happens for me.
  • Discipleship happens through events and programs- Camp, Mission Trip, Lock-ins, Disciple Now Weekends.
  • Spiritual maturity is measured in terms of event attendance.
  • The space in which we meet is very important.
  • Evangelism means inviting my unbelieving “friends” to church.
  • Missions is backyard Bible clubs with poor kids one week every summer.

I’m not against youth ministry. But I suspect a generation (or two!) of pastors and church leaders who are products of youth group have heavily influenced the way church is done. So we’ve traded “pizza, games, singing and a short devotion” with, well, “donuts, drama, singing and a slightly longer devotion.” But the idea is the same- events, programs, attraction, and t-shirts are not what church is about.

We need to grow up.

Grown up doesn’t mean boring. It’s not the opposite of attractive. Grown-up church is unabashedly intrusive. It’s boldly personal. It’s radically Christ-centric. It fills in the gaps between “mountaintop experiences.” It replaces accountability groups with discipling relationships. It moves beyond “lend a helping hand” mission trips to entire churches taking spiritual accountability for unbelieving people groups. Grown-up church survives economic recession, moral failure on the part of the leadership, tragedy, marginalization, and persecution.

Is your church growing? Is it growing up?

Contextualization

Contextualization is the active work of translating the gospel into a culture that doesn’t have an indigenous expression of Christianity. The problem is that we all seem to be “contextualizing” for a culture that we don’t live in. We all look alike because we were all mentored by the same six guys (John, Rick, Mark, Brian, Tim, and Andy). We look like them because we know we don’t want to look like where we came from. We assume that if it seems new and cool and more biblically sound than whatever it is we’re reacting to, that it’s suitable for the context in which we minister.

Slapping a new coat of paint on the same old conventions is not contextualization. We need to be sure we’re contextualizing for the context to which we’re called- the ones in which we find ourselves. It won’t do to make your church look like someone else’s. You can’t just steal somebody else’s sermon. You can’t pipe in a great speaker who doesn’t know your context. You must be an expert in the people to whom you minister.

If you don’t do the missionary work of contextualization, you still can grow your church. But it won’t belong to the culture in which it’s planted. In order to be discipled in the foreign system you set up, people will have to first be converted to your culture- the one you imported from Grapevine, Texas, or Minneapolis, Minnesota, or Seattle, Washington. Then, you’ll find yourself having to train people to interact with the culture from which you’ve extracted them.

Which is the point, really- contextualization should be worked into the essence of every expression of Christianity. It is the key to indigenous church, and it is the key to communicating the gospel in a way that connects with your audience.

So you should wear cool glasses. If you have hair, you should either spike it up or grow it out. If you can handle a neckbeard, that’d be good. Do your best to squeeze into skinny jeans. Find a keffiyeh, and wear it even when it’s 90 degrees out. Watch Lost and 30 Rock. Talk about when Grey’s Anatomy jumped the shark. Become a vegan, or at least a part-time vegetarian. Listen to hip-hop, indie bands, alt-country, and  Drink fair trade coffee-with organic soy milk, of course. You also need to ride a fixed-gear bike, smoke a cigars, drink microbrewed beer, and play hours of video games. Get a Mac, and talk about how long it’s been since you even tried using a PC. Oh, and an iPhone. You definitely need an iPhone.

Why? Contextualization, of course. But to which context?

My point is this: contextualization isn’t looking like the culture; it’s having lived in the culture. It’s how you think and communicate after putting yourself in someone else’s shoes for a while. Knowing the way it feels. Understanding how people treat you when you’re one of them. The experience is what makes you able to translate the gospel into a (sub)culture in a way that makes sense to the people who live there.

If you’re ministering to the homeless, you might try spending a night (or a month) on the street. If you’re in a community of Arabs, you should consider praying 5 times a day, seasoning your conversation with, “God willing,” and skipping the pulled-pork sandwich. Not to fool them into thinking you’re the same as them. You’re not. But until you’ve put yourself in their shoes, you really don’t have any idea what life it like for them- what’s important to them, what speaks to them, how they see you as an outsider.

Lugging around a camera doesn’t make you an artist, but it might help you understand one. Understanding one is key to communicating with him. Communicating with him is the key to sharing the gospel with him in a way that he can understand and respond to.

Mind Your Accent

If a New Yorker stepped the pulpit of a Savannah, GA church to preach on a Sunday morning, his accent would undermine his message. To Southerners, a “yankee” accent means a person isn’t trustworthy. A Northerner is seen as “slick” and “smooth talking.” When he comes in to preach, even if he’s preaching the infallible and inerrant Word of God, people aren’t readily going to trust him.

Consider the reverse situation- outside the deep south, a strong southern accent (or southwestern drawl) makes a person seem stupid and slow. One man’s “Good Ol’ Boy” is another man’s “Country Bumpkin.” Just ask George W. Bush or Perry Noble. Respected in their neck of the woods, ridiculed elsewhere. This is why newscasters work hard to lose their accents. It’s why politicians play their up. An accent either says “I’m one of you,” or it says, “I’m an outsider.”

Consider the accents you might find just within the U.S. and what they might mean to different audiences. A Surfer Dude’s “bro’s,” “dude” and “right on” make him seem irresponsible and aloof to others. A Floidian’s Latino twang might make his message seem a bit foreign around the Great Lakes.

So it’s not just what you say, but how you say it that makes communication effective.

This brings me to another missiological concept- contextualization. A person needs to hear the gospel in a way that makes sense to him. Of course it needs to be in his own language. But it also needs to be in his own dialect. Indeed, his own accent. Is your church preaching the gospel in your community’s accent?

Missions Motivation

“If you really cared about the unreached peoples of the world, you’d be more involved in missions.”

“If you truly understood the Great Commission, you’d be a missionary.”

“If only you were made aware of the opportunities to share the gospel, you’d go on a mission trip.”

“If you honestly saw the need, felt the urgency, or recognized the importance of the task, you’d be more supportive of missions.”

Guilt, obligation, shame. This is how we motivate people to do missions. In a condescending and patronizing tone, we declare the people in the pews ignorant, apathetic, and lazy. We judge them to be sinful.

The thing is, guilt, fear, judgment, and shame aren’t the best motivators. Don’t get me wrong- they work just fine. For thousands upon thousands of people, a mission trip started with a guilt trip. But a person who’s been motivated this way will always default to acting out of obligation. She’ll get involved, but it will be because feels like she has to. Every decision along the way is a blind stab in the dark in search of “what works” or “what makes me look busy enough that I don’t risk loosing my support.”

The best motivation for missions is inspiration.

“You can make a difference in someone’s life.”

“This is what you were made for. It’s your destiny.”

“This is something that really matters.”

“You can be part of something that will provide profound connection to God and to others.”

When someone’s been inspired to missions, they live for it. Every decision is made in light of the vision they have for God’s redemption of the world. These are the people that throw themselves into relationships and work backward from the vision to develop progressive strategies toward the goal. We need inspired missionaries, not reluctant ones that constantly need to be convinced and cajoled.

In Matthew 24, Jesus gives us a glimpse into the future- a future where people from every tribe are worshipping at the throne of the most high God. The vision can be inspiring- that’s what we’re created for! We can be assured of that victory! Or, it can be twisted into a tool of manipulation: “Jesus can’t come back until you finish the task!” “Their blood is on your hands!”

Are you motivating through inspiration?

Everyone A Missionary?

We’ve got to stop distinguishing between “missions” and, well, “not missions.”

The old paradigm was this: ministry is sharing the gospel. If you preached to believers, you were called a “pastor.” If you preached to non-Christians in your own culture, you were an “evangelist.” If you needed a passport to get there, you were a “missionary.” If those distinctions were ever helpful, they certainly aren’t today. Not when “the nations” are moving in next door and going to school with your kids. Not when there is yet to be an expression of Christianity that is truly free from modern rational humanism. We’re all missionaries because there is no “home.”

The division has resulted in “that’s not my job calling” on both sides of the divide. Many missionaries today see the church as a major distraction from their focus on evangelizing unbelieving people. Most churches outsource missions to a homely couple they send money to and pray for once a year.

The new paradigm is simple: all Christians are missionaries. They must be, because none of us are at “home.” Even if your ministry is to a group of people that you grew up with- a group that looks, talks, and acts just like you- you must recognize that your transformation in Christ necessarily makes you an outsider- a foreigner- to even your own culture. You can’t afford to assume that you are ministering in your own context. You don’t have a context in the world anymore.

Saying that all Christians are missionaries doesn’t mean we’re all good missionaries. Most Christians lack the skill, sensitivity, intentionality, and to truly be effective missionaries. Most Christians don’t worry about working to enter and engage culture because they think they’re already immersed in it. They may be, but the vast majority still step out of their cultures and subcultures and into an artificial “Christian” one every Sunday in order to worship and be discipled. We need missionaries.

If you are a Prius-driving, Lego-modding Starbucks barista, you’re uniquely qualified to be the missionary to that tribe. If you’re a Mac-using, soccer-mompreneur PTA member, your job is to incarnate the gospel among your people. It’s not enough for you to just try to fit in. You were saved to live out a Christ-transformed life in the midst of your social circles. You are where you are for a purpose.

There is no “home” and “foreign.” You are a missionary.

Syncretism

Syncretism is a key missiological concept that refers to the all-too common practice of overlaying one set of beliefs with another, disparate one. People often go to great lengths to reconcile different, even opposing, belief systems in order to make sense of the world around them.

When African tribes were (forcibly) “converted” to Christianity by imperialist missionaries in the 18th century, tribal leaders responded by adding the Holy Spirit to the collection of spirits they depended on to keep them safe. As the “Holy” Roman Empire expanded, nations were assumed into it by renaming their pagan gods, saints, and feasts after Christian ones.

This kind of syncretism is bad because it ignores the transformative power of Christ. It creates a veneer of Christianity that is devoid of the character of the Most High. The result is a broad misunderstanding of what life in Christ truly ought to be. Jesus isn’t just another prophet. Mary isn’t analogous to “Mother Earth.”

Of course, it isn’t always the pagans adopting Christian language and imagery; syncretism works both ways. December 25 was the date of a Roman pagan festival having to do with stars long before it was selected by the Church for the celebration of Christmas. Easter wasn’t always a holiday of remembrance of Christ’s resurrection- it began as a celebration of Spring, fertility, and an Anglo-Saxon goddess called ?ostre.

syncretismThe problem with this “reverse” syncretism is that changing the name of a holiday doesn’t necessarily replace the object of worship with Jesus the Christ. Equating freedom in Christ with political freedom grossly understates the true meaning of freedom and makes too much of the worldly version.

Adopting cultural forms and methodologies without retaining a prophetic voice is syncretistic mimicry. But interjecting the God narrative into the culture is different from syncretism.  As Christians engage the cultures in which they live, they retell the culture’s stories back to it from God’s perspective.

The culture’s worship looks to the stars? We can’t say, “At least you’re looking up!”  We can say, “Let me tell you about the star that led wise men from the East to worship a baby in a feed trough.”

The culture celebrates new beginnings? It isn’t enough to encourage that celebration- we must point people to Jesus, whose resurrection makes possible the ultimate new beginning for humanity and all of creation.

Our culture values freedom? The Bill of Rights can only get you so far (and can be amended!). Only Jesus can make you truly free.

Jesus did this with Jewish law in the “You have heard… but I say to you…” sayings of His Sermon on the Mount. Paul filled in the blanks of Athenian religion when he addressed the philosophers at the Aeropagus. It is the spiritual takeover of a worldly stronghold. This isn’t syncretism, it’s redemption; reclaiming the truth that can be found in all cultures as God’s truth.

Image HT: Eric G. at Circular Thoughts

Metrics

Much of what I write here centers around metrics- how we measure what we do. I believe that our desire to have measurable results of some kind has driven our strategy into a deeply human-centered pragmatism. From numbers to feelings, we try everything to try to get a handle on what it is that God wants from us. To illustrate:

  • If you believe that God does the saving (and not us), then measuring the number of salvations is kind of silly.
  • The story of Gideon’s army against the Midianites should prevent us from concerning ourselves with the number of people we have in the field.
  • By even attempting to measure resources we elevate them to a status they don’t deserve.
  • Holiness is commanded, but hard to pin down. The sin we see is usually just the tip of the iceberg.
  • Theology would be much, much easier to hold up as a standard if it weren’t for the continuous evolution of language and communication.

I’ve always  been a firm believer that obedience is the only standard we have for measuring our success. The Bible gives us clear directions in many cases, but it usually leaves the finer details to us. Sure, we’re supposed to “Go into all the world and make disciples,” but how? Obedience, of course, can be quite subjective (anyone can say, “God told me to”) and very hard to measure (89% obedient?). Nevertheless, the Bible does provide us with indicators of our obedience. Consider these:

Persecution, suffering, death. In John 15, Jesus offers this ominous warning, “as they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” In many ways, our calling as Christians is to share in Christ’s sufferings. While persecution is an indicator of reckless obedience, it is also an indicator of reckless stupidity. Chasing persecution is not a good idea, but if you’re not seeing any resistance to your ministry, you might be missing something.

Fruit. Jesus reminded us that a tree is known by its fruit. Galatians 5 outlines the fruit of the Spirit- when the Spirit of God does something, you can know it’s Him by the outcomes. Is fruit a good indicator of our obedience? Yes. And no. Unfortunately, just like at the neighborhood supermarket, good fruit can be hard to verify. Lots of people seem to be effective in ministry, but many are quite good at polishing up bad fruit to make it look good on the outside. A watered-down gospel may result in more initial commitments, but is that “fruit that will last?” Obedience results in lasting fruit that runs contrary to the work of the flesh.

Unity. One way to measure our obedience without buying every crazy “God told me to” idea is the fellowship of the Spirit. When someone claims to have a directive from the Most High, the Spirit in us should confirm that. We may not all be in total agreement, but affirmation of calling is a function of the church. Unfortunately, this is precisely why trouble-makers church-hop; they’re looking for leadership that will affirm (and fund) their “Christian postage stamp ministry” idea.

In the end, the question remains- how do we know that we’re doing what God wants us to do? How can we be unified in our efforts to be God’s people and build His kingdom? Some things are clearly spelled out in scripture (proclaim the good news in and out of season, make disciples, forgive our enemies) but it all comes down to obedience.

And obedience is hard to measure.

Marketable Skills

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

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

Or have they?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

If I Were Mark Driscoll

Mark DriscollObviously, I’m not Mark Driscoll. I couldn’t be, even if I tried. The man is an amazing communicator, a fearless preacher of the scriptures. Through his sermons, interviews, debates, and seminars, Pastor Mark makes the Truth understandable, accessible, and applicable for thousands of people on a regular basis.

Beyond the teachings of Mark Driscoll is the persona of Mark Driscoll. The dynamic pastor of Seattle-based Mars Hill Church doesn’t just set an example for young pastors across the country, he’s a role model. The regular-guy with working-class roots who’s cool but tries not to try too hard. He’s into music and art, pop culture, theology, and sports. In my interactions with pastors and church planters everywhere, I’ve met several who are Mark Driscoll fanboys, choker necklaces and all.

While I could never build and maintain a megachurch like Mark has, I’d love to step into his role for just a day. For one day, instead of Mark Driscoll, Mars Hill (and the hundreds of churches it influences) would get me- a burnt-out former church planting missionary to Western Europe. For that one day, here’s what I’d do:

I’d start the morning with a staff meeting. I have no idea what sort of leadership team Mars Hill has, but I’d call in all the elders and pastors to tell them the big news: Mars Hill is selling their building(s). The goal would be to sell or give away all of their properties by the end of the day. Why? Because Mars Hill has a vision of growing their church to 50,000 disciples by the year 2019, and getting rid of the walls and grounds that tie them down would really pave the way for that to happen. Buildings only create bottlenecks in the expansion of the kingdom. If they publicized the sell off/giveaway, they’d give instant credibility to their claim that the Church is the people, not the building.  Giving some of the locations away to local nonprofits and needy people would be another opportunity to put into action what they already believe about grace, compassion, and social justice.

Next, I’d resign as pastor of Mars Hill Church. Not that Driscoll isn’t a good pastor or great communicator- he is. But that’s precisely why he should resign. For nearly ten years now, Driscoll has served an apostolic role in evangelical circles; writing, teaching, leading, and casting vision. He spends hours per week in study and sermon preparation, and it shows. If you  haven’t seen Mark field questions on the fly via SMS, you really need to. His wit, and wisdom, fueled by his knowledge of scripture (and what seems to be an inability to filter his thoughts before voicing them) are really nothing short of divine gifting.

Which is why he should resign. Mark isn’t the pastor of Mars Hill Church. He’s a spiritual entrepreneur and visionary. He’s not a people person. I’ve never met him personally, but I suspect that Driscoll doesn’t care about your sick aunt or your new job. He’s probably not going to sit for hours by your side as you work through your marriage. No, Mark Driscoll needs to quit calling himself a “pastor” and reframe his role for what he is- an apostolic leader for the Church. Look at his aggressive expansion of Mars Hill through the opening of new campuses and video venues. Pastor Mark is a de facto elder of the Church at the city/region/nation-wide affinity/demographic level. He’s not trying to build an empire, he’s trying to be apostolic within the confines of his role as pastor.

Mark could still draw a paycheck from Mars Hill, and I would hope the he would continue to teach and answer questions. So much of his identity is wrapped up in his being considered a pastor, letting go is control would be an extremely difficult thing to do. But his resignation would take loads of pressure off of young leaders across the country who struggle to fill the role of Pastor as Driscoll has practiced it. Conferences? The Acts 29 Network? Resurgence? Debates on ABC? Those aren’t pastoral things, they’re apostolic things.

After resigning, I guess I’d go to lunch. But not without holding a press conference. On my way to Chili’s (or wherever Mark likes to eat), I’d meet with reporters, bloggers, protesters, and followers to ask for help. If the church suddenly doesn’t have the central location(s) in which to meet, they’re going to need somewhere else to go. As Mark Driscoll, I’d use my sizable influence to ask for hundreds (thousands) of places to meet in the Seattle are. Bars, theaters, coffee shops, living rooms, bowling alleys, high school gyms, Lion’s Club halls. These smaller meetings would spread Mars Hill church out into the community, rubbing Salt into Seattle’s mundane spaces and forcing parents and leaders to take spiritual responsibility for the few they meet with. To be pastors. Those are the people who I’d want to read my blog and listen to my podcast. As an apostle, my goal would be not to pastor the thousands of people who participate in Mars Hill, but to mentor and coach the pastors of small Mars Hill gatherings wherever they meet.

As I wrote, I’m no Mark Driscoll. I’m just a hack missiologist. But I’ve been to America’s future in Western Europe, and I want the Church here to be prepared for it. I believe that Mark Driscoll is one of many leaders God can use to get us there, if only we can free them from the modern pragmatism that keeps them from being truly missional.