I’m Running for President

That’s right, of the U.S. of A. The way I see it, an anonymous blogger has just as good a chance as anyone these days. I’m not sure if I’d run as a Democrat or a Republican; I may even start a new party. My platform will be “I’m not a politician,” and my strategy is “cut the crap.”

For starters, I’d refuse to play political word games. “Tax cuts,” for example, is a really bad way to say “collect less taxes.” Also, when Hillary Clinton accuses me of “tax cuts that go to help the wealthiest 2% of Americans, I’ll show her the math- taxes are charged in the form of percentages. Because the wealthy people pay a whole lot in taxes, lowering them will “help” them more than, say the welfare recipients that don’t pay any.

Criminals are not all the same. Violent criminals should be punished, but more effort should be made to rehabilitate criminals such as drug dealers and users, prostitutes, and people who commit fraud. Besides, if we really want to punish them, we should make them go to school and work 9-5 jobs on construction crews.

And then there’s gun control. I hate guns. People that play with guns are creepy. But setting stricter gun control laws (background checks, waiting periods, taxes, requiring licenses and locks, etc.) is really ridiculous. Criminals don’t buy their guns at Wal-Mart. They either steal them or buy them from a guy named Skeezy who stands on the corner all day in a puffy jacket. (Skeezy, by the way, isn’t disposed to conducting background checks or paying taxes. )

I’d bring home nearly all of our troops, and make the U.S. military in charge of protecting our borders, ports, and resources. Isn’t that what they’re for anyway? Defense? I’d put military air marshals on every plane, and I’d put lots of money into cyber-, psych-, mech- and other non-lethal types of warfare.

I’d ask Americans to tighten their belt buckles. It seems that every U.S. president has resisted doing this, but for the sake of our economy, our resources, and our health, we need to spend, drive, and eat less. “We’re in this together!” reminds my favorite WWII propaganda poster. Scaling back voluntarily would help balance our trade deficits, and unify our people. When more money stays in the country, we do better. Collect less taxes from those who really cut back as an incentive, and we might get right-side up in our national debt.

I would increase the base salary for public school teachers and administration, and start a government placement program for student teachers. The only way we’re going to get good teachers in our rougher schools is to pay them well. Oh, and to require them to do some time teaching in rough districts before we grant them their teaching certificates.

Health care seems like it would be the easiest. Require all employers to cover their employees regardless of the hours they work, and collect less taxes from those small business that can’t otherwise afford it.

Okay, so I’ve solved all the world’s problems. Any questions?
Vote for me!

Arts and Sciences

We read church planting books, we go to seminars, and we study models, strategies, and formulas. We are driven by statistics of measurable lostness, reached-ness, and saturation. We calculate number of personnel, availability of resources, and total cost involved.

When it comes to missions, as with the rest of Christianity, we’ve tried to make a science of what is essentially (and necessarily), an art.

According to the unquestionably reliable Wikipedia,

Art: “…is the product or process of the effective application of a body of knowledge, most often using a set of skills…”

Science: “…is an attempt to explain the complexities of nature in a common, known and replicateable way.”

While I’m not entirely certain that “replicateble” is even a word, I am convinced that the scientification (also not a word) of missions is the main factor that keeps us from knowing and participating fully in what God is doing around the world.

Most of the great artists in the world started as apprentices to great artists, not to great art teachers. Art lessons begin with philosophy; the master instills in his student a vision of why he creates, and then goes on to share how he creates. But a student will never be considered himself an artist so long as he is content to only copy the master’s work. No, he’s got to take what he’s learned and use it to express his own creativity, applying the master’s wisdom while creating a work that is uniquely his.

Discipleship cannot be taught in a classroom. Reading a good book by a proven and experienced church planter is not enough. We need mentors. We need current practicing disciple-makers to be teaching and leading others as they make disciples.

If I could have a conversation with someone of the IMB’s Board of Trustees, this (among other things) is what I’d say. We need to radically rethink our approach to training and equipping disciple-makers. The bar has been set way too low. It isn’t enough to have a seminary degree or to have signed the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. We need to be mentored. We need leaders who are currently in the thick of cross-cultural ministry to guide us in wisdom and that long-lost art of missions.

Until we have such a network of relationships, we will not be able to guarantee the theological integrity of our work. We will continue to be criticized by seminary professors and denominational politicians. We will remain on the sidelines of what God is doing around the world because we are debating the science of Christianity and mission while the artists are being used to build the Kingdom.

Encore

In my last post, Welcome to the Big Show, I tried to stress the importance of making ministry as personal as possible by keeping events small and culturally appropriate. Still, there is something I’d like to add:

I’m not against big events because they don’t “work.” Many people have come to faith in Christ through crusades and circus-tent revivals. Pizza parties and sports camps and choir performances have all been used in evangelistic endeavors. But I wonder how often we think about what affect the medium might have on the message.

I’ve posted about this before, but is there a difference between sharing one’s faith through a gospel music concert and sharing it over dinner in someone’s home? Might the message be inadvertently changed by the means of presentation? Maybe it depends on the cultural context. If the message is preached with a bad accent, or with an aggressive tone, or using some cheap gimmick, is it the same message?

I believe that God is sovereign. He also gives us the responsibility of instructing others in the Truth. What if a generation of believers came to faith through Peer-pressure summer camps, “Judgement House” Halloween parties, and “Thanks you, I see that hand” invitations? Would we have any reason to be concerned about their understanding of the gospel?

Welcome To The Big Show

A key element to many (most?) church planting strategies is what I call “The Draw.” The Draw is an attempt to attract and engage people, usually in the form of some sort of event. A concert, a game, some kind of activity for the kids… anything to gather people so that interaction can occur. I’ve heard of church planters talk about organizing sports tournaments, throwing pizza parties, and bringing in a group of mimes to perform in the town square.

Events can be pretty expensive, and usually require a lot of hard work to put together. Add to that the governmental bureaucracy found in most Western European countries, and putting together an event can take over your life.

Unfortunatley, we waste a lot of time, money, and energy on events that seem like a good idea. They might even attract masses of people. But what then? Preach the Gospel over the sound system and call it good? Hold an Altar Call? Most of the time, big events fail to get us any closer to a personal interaction with lost people that door-to-door cold calls. Five hundred people come to your Sandi Patty concert. Maybe you get their names and contact info. What next, “Spamming for Jesus?”

And now, dear reader, you are likely anticipating a diatribe of disparaging remarks about events and those who organize them. You know: “What’s wrong with you people, don’t you know that mimes are scary?” or “Bringing in a group of High Schoolers to perform a series of offensively trite “Christian”skits in the mall is lame.”

But not this time, reader. I’ve learned that there are better ways to challenge the tactics of my coworkers than spouting off, “What on God’s green earth made you think it was a good idea to pass out ‘Jesus Hearts You‘ yo-yos on the Metro or bring in Kirk Cameron to autograph copies of Left Behind DVDs?”

No, this time, I’m going to be affirming. Today I offer encouragement.

Events aren’t always a good idea, but they aren’t always bad, either. I understand that you’re desperate to meet people with whom you can share the gospel. I understand how hard it is to break into the existing social structure, especially when you’re a professional missionary with poor social skills. Believe me, I know.

Why not try to keep events small and personal? Instead of renting out a concert hall, try your living room (or better yet, someone else’s?) Instead of shelling out the big bucks to bring in Mercy Me, why not invite a local musician? Events can be great tools for building relationships that extend into local social structures. Throw a party, and invite a friend to invite his friends. There’s power in the interaction of a lost person with a believer. It’s easier to love people from close-up.

How about doing everything you can to avoid the “bait and switch?” Don’t put together a movie night that is actually a presentation of the Jesus film. If any of the people you invite have actually seen a real movie, they’re either going to question your taste in movies, or feel totally deceived. Don’t call it “open discussion,” “free to all,” or “Family Fun Night,” if it isn’t any of those things.

We’re learning the importance of getting involved in activities that are already going on in the community. If you go to a movie with national friends, you could have a great opportunity to pick out Truth from the film and talk about it over coffee afterward. Through this we’re finding that our host culture is full of Truth and wisdom and indirect references to the Creator. Tapping into that really goes a long way toward presenting the Gospel not just as “We have a message for you and your people,” but as “Hey, look, we’re part of a Divine Conspiracy, in which God is using all of creation to call you to Himself.”

The Draw is good, just be sure we’re doing it on the right level. I say, keep up the events. Let’s just be sure that we keep things as real, honest, and personal as possible.

Language Exchange

In my country of service, the culture has a built-in opportunity for meeting people. It is perhaps the one activity to which we can naturally contribute. They are called “Language Exchange Partnerships,” and basically make up an underground network of nationals who are interested for whatever reason in improving their English through conversation with native speakers. It usually works like this: English-learner posts an online ad, introducing himself as vaguely as possible and stating his intentions for the exchange. “I am looking for an American guy to have a drink with and to practice English.” Most of them are pretty much the same.

There are the expected, “I just started a new English language course at university,” and then there’s “I have an English exam in four days, and I want to to cram for the test by pretending to be your best friend until then. After that, I will never return your calls.” Okay, so maybe they aren’t that honest about their intentions, but you’d be surprised. The other day I saw one by a brutally honest 32 year-old guy. “I an looking for an American or British girl to…” well, let’s just say he was interesting in exchanging a little more than language.

A sort of etiquette has even been developed for these partnerships. Usually an exchange entails getting together over coffee or drinks and talking. The first hour would be in the national language, and the second or third in English. However awkward the actual conversation might be, it’s the easy part compared to finding a willing partner. Contact begins with an email or text message, but such contact does not necessarily imply commitment. The return email or message establishes the meeting point, usually some busy and crowded public place that would make finding your mother difficult. Sort of like “In the middle of Grand Central Station. I’ll be wearing a coat.” Something like that.

When you finally identify and meet your new language exchange partner, it’s exactly like a blind date (from what I’ve heard). You exchange the usual formalities, where are you from, how long have you been here, why are you learning the language, and so on. This part usually goes as though it were scripted, and usually lasts between fifteen and twenty minutes. That’s when The Silence hits. You probably know what I mean, and why I choose to capitalize it, but The Silence can drown you in overwhelming awkwardness. “What more could I possibly say to this person?” you think. “How could we already have exhausted ‘what’s your favorite…?’ -that should last for hours!”

And then it happens. Politics…
————————————————————————

I’ll spare you some of the experiences I’ve had with Language Exchange partnerships. I’ve had many that barely survived that first meeting, and one that lasted three years. The reason I share this is that I’m always talking about how we do relational ministry through activities that are already happening in the community. “We don’t do programs or big events,” I say. And people always ask what I mean by that. Language Exchange Partnerships are a big part of that.

Think about what an opportunity it is to build a relationships with a national that seeks you out. And not just some guy off the street, but someone who is open to spending time with a foreigner and has some knowledge of English. These relationships provide the perfect setting for us to share life with nationals; talking about our faith, asking questions, and getting to know them personally. For us, this is the beginning of church planting.

You Are What You Read

A couple of weeks ago, David Rogers tagged me with a game that asked me to list some books I’ve read recently. It sort of made the rounds through the blogosphere (again), and many of my fellow bloggers had played along. There are categories, such as “One book that changed your life” or ” One book you’d want on a desert island.” I posted my answers on the Stepchild blog, but that’s not the point. The point is that it took me a very long time to decide what books to list, and not for lack or plenty of recently read books.

At first, I filled out the questionnaire without putting too much thought into it. Nobody really reads that blog anyway. It was while I was proof reading that I hesitated. Every book I had listed was “Christian.” Every one. I stopped to think for a second. Was “Searching For God Knows What” my favorite book ever? Would I really want to read “A New Kind of Christian” over and over if I was stranded on a desert island? Had any “Christian” book made me laugh (on purpose), ever?

My mind flipped through the pages of some of the great literature I’ve had the privilege of reading (and -in the case of university- skimming): Dickens, Hawthorne, Steinbeck. These guys wrote books. Most “Christian” books are glorified how-to manuals or sermons I’d never sit through. They don’t really move you, and if they do, it’s likely because you’ve been lulled into a “Christian” coma by the garbage they sell in the local Bible bookstore.

How else can you explain 16 books in the “Left Behind” series?

So I went back to the book list game, and I filled in the blanks with non”Christian” books. Real books. And while I admit that I left out my favorite C.S. Lewis title just out of spite, I like to think that my “secular” list is more honest. Those are the books that have affected the way my imagination works. The best part about them, Poe and Salinger, is that they changed the way I think without actually setting out to do that.

When I think about it, nearly every “Christian” book I’ve ever read was written in an attempt to influence the way I think. It’s evident by the text (no matter what the genre) that most of the authors are trying to teach me something. From the beginning, they set out to change my mind about something. Instead of telling a story for the sake of the beauty or honesty of it, they start with an agenda and go from there. How to have a better understanding of ministry or steps toward the full Christian life. Even the biographies are trying to convince me that so-and-so was a good man or that what’s-his-name was what a Christian ought to be.

Beauty. Good story-telling. True creativity. These things, if you can find them at all in “Christian” literature, are accidental.

So I think I’m happy with my list as it stands. I did include one “Christian” book after all. Sure I’ve read some great religious books. Some have influenced me quite a bit. But despite all their zealous attempts at making me a better Christian, they remain largely forgettable compared to truly good books.

They Nothing Us

I spoke with a friend the other day who is constantly on his guard against what he perceives as a secular aggression against him as a Christian. In other words, he’s concerned that adulturers, homosexuals, drug users, and democrats all hate him and are out to take away his freedom. According to him, they all have an anti-Christian agenda and want to actively recruit our children, impede our ministries, and make us look bad.

I am aware that we as believers have serious opposition. I know that we face an enemy that doesn’t rest in his campaign against us. However, I know many non-Christians. I even know some anti-Christians, and a couple of gays. I’ve had long conversations with them about my faith. Guess what? The vast majority don’t hate us.

They nothing us.

See, for a person to hate another person requires something. You’ve got to put some energy into hating somebody. It costs you something. Hate means you care, just not in a good way. All of the nonbelievers I know do not even think about Christians, much less care enough to really hate us.

Most of the lost people I come across expect to be judged and persecuted by the people who do call themselves Christians. Some don’t even know that serious followers of Jesus even exist.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be on our guard. I’m just not sure we really understand who our enemy is.

My Favorite Part of My Job

My favorite part about my “job” is hanging out with people. Even if it’s just sitting across from a friend in a coffee shop, I enjoy being in the moment of spending time with them. Any time that I have with a national is a gift from God. Really. There’s no way someone would want to spend time with me other than God compelling him do do so. I am literally that uninteresting. It actually took some time for me to get used to having people from here call and invite me to hang out with them. For the first couple of years, it was all I could do to keep from asking “Why are you asking me, of all people?” But God called me here to minister to people, so I know what (Who) motivates them.

I love that subtle pressure to think of something interesting to talk about, to keep the conversation going with witty questions and by showing interest in the other person. Eventually, you get to the kind of casual interaction that is so natural that you don’t mind the times you run out of things to say. At that point, you’re in a constant attitude of prayer as the Spirit prompts you to say the right thing at the right time. My friend shares about a struggle; I want to express my sympathy without coming across as condescending. He thinks out loud about world events; I learn what’s important to him. I want to encourage him in the Truth, so I’m prayerfully considering what he needs from me. It’s in that relational balance and personal human interaction that ministry really happens, and Truth is shared. People don’t feel like targets, and I don’t feel fake.

And the best part about it? I’m intentionally in touch with God, who knows both my friend and me inside and out. I don’t have to guess what he needs; God already knows. There’s not some terrible spiritual drain on me, because God uses my friend to minister to me as well. I open up and share personal struggles, I honestly relate the difficulty of working out my faith, and he sees, first hand, what life in Christ is like. These are the times I see God working. I’m reminded what He’s called me here to do, and I’m humbled as I remember that I’m insignificant in the whole process. I am thankful that I get to interact with nationals. That’s my favorite part of my job.

That’s Not What I’m Saying

This is part 76 in my long-running series about word definitions…

Whenever someone shares a fresh perspective, or wants to challenge the status quo, he or she is bound to be misunderstood. It starts like this:

Copernicus:
“Hey guys, I’m thinking that maybe the Earth isn’t the center of the solar system.”

Well-Intentioned Misunderstanding Guy:
“So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.” Joshua 10:13

Misunderstanding Guy #1:
“Are you saying that all of the astronomers that have gone before you are stupid? How arrogant!”

Misunderstanding Guy #2:
“Oh, so you’re throwing out the entire concepts of planets, then? I suppose we’re all floating around in space on figments of our imagination, then.”

Misunderstanding Guy #3:
“You’re a liberal.”

Misunderstanding Girl:
“Why are you so negative all the time?”

Misunderstanding Old Guy:
“When I was your age, I used to think the Earth revolved around the Sun, too.”

Misunderstanding Guy #1(again):
“I defy you to prove your theory.”

Anonymous Misunderstander:
“Yeah, but the Earth is still round.”

Of course, I’m no Copernicus. While I realize that what I write here is neither fresh nor challenging, I run into the same sorts of trouble. Say I question a commonly held missiology. Someone is bound to accuse me of being proud or ignorant or both.

The worst part of the misunderstanding game is having to preface everything I’m trying to say with everything that I’m not saying. People read one bit of a post and jump to conclusions. If a key word is used or some vaguely familiar reasoning is appealed to, the labels come out and the communication ceases. That’s why we can’t talk about miracles without adding the disclaimer: “I’m no Charismatic, but…”

“I affirm the Baptist Faith and message, but…”

So someday, I’m going to put together a book that contains all the things I’m not saying. By questioning the wisdom of a rule, I’m not being disrespectful of those who set the rule. When I say that we need to live out our faith, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t tell people about Jesus. Don’t get upset when I write “I’m uncomfortable calling myself a missionary” or “I don’t go to church” until you know (or at least have made an effort to know) what I’m actually saying.
If you have a question, please ask! That way we can discuss what’s being said, instead of arguing over what isn’t.

Picking On a Commenter

An anonymous commenter on my last post disagrees with the distinction between home culture “missions” and what I’m calling “host culture missions.” You can thank him for this post. Unless, of course, you actually like this post. I which case, please thank me.

My assertion: If the word “missions” means “telling people about Jesus” or even, “Sharing one’s faith by living out a culturally relevant evangelistic lifestyle,” then we need to come up with a new word for cross-cultural, um, “missions.”

Let me be clear: I do not believe that international ministry is any better or more important than home ministry. Ministry to people of your own culture can be as difficult as crossing cultures, and there are many similarities. But they are not the same. Sure, there are culture differences between New York City and, say, Paducah, Kentucky. I think I experienced worse culture shock when I moved to the Midwest than I did moving to Western Europe. But kids in Dallas watch the same television shows and get their news from the same news outlets and eat the same cheeseburgers as kids in Boise. The commonality of influences serves to lessen the culture barrier.

I know I’ve got it easy here. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a culture that has absolutely nothing in common with my home culture. I live in Western Europe, in a country that westernized, civilized, and modern. Despite all that I might have in common with the people here, I am not like them. I did not grow up with the same influences and national experiences they did. This means that for me to share my faith in a way that makes sense to them, I must translate my relationship with God and it’s impact on my life into their culture.

By the way, if you’re out of touch with your home culture, it’s because you’ve taken measures to insulate yourself from it. We should all be students of the cultural context in which we minister, and if you don’t have anything to talk about with a lost person, you’re to blame.