A Little Defensive

Last weekend, I sent my Jman girls to Madrid for a church planting class taught by a visiting seminary professor from the states. They said that they really liked what the teacher had to say, but that they came away discouraged, feeling like he didn’t approve of our team’s strategy as they shared it with him. Now, he’s invited himself to visit our team’s house church time next week.

Now I’m feeling defensive. Is he coming to confront us about the direction of our work? Why would he want to sit in on our worship time? We don’t really invite others to come along, so it will be strange, anyway.

The Perfect Team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The "Saviors"

This post was going to be about the “Saviors.” I was going to write about the well-intentioned missionaries who come to the field thinking that their arrival somehow brings salvation to whatever unreached people group they have selected. The ones who feel needed, in my opinion, are missionaries that do not belong on the mission field.

I know. I know. Some of you were hoping for a post called “The Bloggers.”

In what has proven to be too long a story arc, I have outlined two “types” of missionaries that I think should not be on the mission field. These were taken from my personal experience. Some readers have anticipated the big reveal I hinted at in the first post: the Professional, the Lifer, and even the “Savior-complex” missionary that shouldn’t be on the field is me.

On a regular basis, I am tempted to try to make this ministry to which God has called me into a career. The Board hired me as a “Career Missionary,” and with that comes some pressure to professionalize what amounts to obedience. Sometimes it’s out of pride: “Hey, I’m special. Not just anyone can do this job.” But usually it’s out of the awkward embarrassment I feel when someone asks, “So, what do you do?” So much of my identity is wrapped up in my answer that question that I feel this constant need to justify the fact that I receive money to tell people about Jesus. But my time on the field has taught me that church planting is not a job, but a calling. It’s an intentionality that the churches back home graciously underwrite. But then I go to a meeting or write a new personnel request, and I slip right back into the professionalism that only serves to separate me from nationals and other believers.

I am very much a product of the Southern Baptist Convention. Mission Friends. Royal Ambassadors. Centrifuge. God called me to cultural translation of the gospel when I was in high school. By the time I graduated I had decided my career path: I was going to be a missionary. So here I am, a Lifer with the IMB. Because of my exclusively Southern Baptist education, I am not qualified for any “real” job. I am extremely grateful for the support of the organization that sends and maintains me, but I have become fully dependent upon the Board for everything that I have. Housing. Stipend. Insurance. I couldn’t begin to answer the question of what I would do or where I would do it if I weren’t doing this. Unfortunately, such dependence sometimes breeds complacency. I know what’s expected of me, and there are times I’m tempted to do only that.

My motivation for being here changes pretty regularly. There are times when
I pity the people around me here, but not in a good way. On a really bad day, I have caught myself feeling very superior. As if the reason for the lostness here is that the people are too stupid to find Jesus, and it’s such a good thing that I’ve finally arrived to set the straight. My savior complex should disqualify me from service.

This “series” began as a journal entry. I was venting my frustrations with some coworkers, and dreaming of building the “perfect” church planting team. I was writing about the Professionals, the Lifers, the Saviors, and the Whiners (don’t ask) when I was convicted of being and doing those same things that I resented so much about my fellow missionaries. I’ve come to believe that many of the characteristics that mark “someone who shouldn’t be here” aren’t brought to the mission field, they’re picked up here. Sometimes we’re tempted by laziness, other times by pride; all of them, I think, are defense mechanisms for dealing with our strange lives.

I really am convinced that not all believers belong on the mission field. Not everyone is cut out for it. I’m intrigued with that idea, because in never really occurred to me. And though I have known coworkers that have exhibited some of these same characteristics and, I suspect, struggled with these same attitudes and tendencies, I realize that judging them is the Pot calling the Kettle black.

Lifers

I was home from college for summer break, and our pastor began a sermon series on the book of Romans. When I returned home for Christmas, he was on chapter 2. I’m convinced that’s why our church wasn’t Calvinist. I never thought I’d post a “series” of posts. I guess I’ve never had a single coherent thought that would call for it. (Not that I do now, mind you.) But here I am, posting what will be part three of my “Some of Us Shouldn’t Be Here” “Series.” How many parts does “Left Behind” have?

If the Professionals are the most visible missionaries that shouldn’t be on the field, the Lifers are the most common. Imagine a person who grows up in the American Christian subculture: youth group, visitation, mission trips, Sunday School. He responds to the invitation to consider “Full-time Christian Service.” Twice. When it’s time to go to college, he chooses a fine Southern Baptist institution, and majors in missions. Then he’s off to seminary for the MDiv. He takes his first pastorate at the age of nineteen, marries at twenty, and has three kids by the time he reached the IMB’s minimum age requirement of 24. He makes contact with a Candidate Consultant, answers all the questions right, and is appointed for missionary service. He prayerfully selects the field to which God is calling him from the Board’s list, and the next thing he knows, he’s on the ground as a career missionary. In many ways, he’s prepared for this his whole life: he has the degree, the “experience,” and the endorsement of his home church. He’s a Lifer.

I call them “Lifers” because while these folks actually worked very hard to get to the mission field, they only do just enough to stay on the mission field. Their label comes from the fact that if they can just stay beneath the radar, not draw too much attention, they can be supported by churches back home for life. Never mind that they don’t have the gifting, people skills, or work ethic to be church planters. Ignore their inability to detect differences between their host culture and the American culture they miss so much. Overlook the fact that they don’t have any friends back home, either. We, the Convention, called them to full-time service through our altar calls and missionary slideshow guilt trips. There is great need, and they answered the call.

Sure there are drawbacks. Separation from family. Monthly Ministry Reports. No Dr. Pepper. The whole “living in a foreign country” thing. But for lifers, it’s worth it. You get paid to do… well, no one is sure what it is you do, exactly. Great insurance. A month’s vacation. And a hero’s welcome every time you’re home on furlough.

Besides, you can stock up on brownie mix and your favorite jeans on your next stateside assignment.

Lifers shouldn’t be on the field because they may or may not have heard God calling and then they quit listening. They have the Board to maintain them in a strategic place where they live in permanent survival mode. They’re content. Fat and happy. Apathetic, even. But this is what they are. If they weren’t missionaries, what would they be? What would they do?

Lifers love to suffer for Jesus. If nationals don’t like them, they count it as persecution. Their loneliness is due to the “soil being hard,” not their abrasive, annoying personalities. They blame not knowing anyone in their city on “Things are slow here,” instead of the fact that they tell the same stories over and over. Hey, it wasn’t that funny the first time. They sign their prayer newsletters with subtle lines like “Blessedly Tired,”or “Joyfully Busy,” just to let you know how much missionary stuff they’re doing. Their reports reveal how much they dislike and distrust the people they’ve been sent to work with.

Lifers shouldn’t be on the field, but they are. And they will be long after I’m gone. They’re in this thing for the long haul. For them, being missionary isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle.

The Professionals

Perhaps the most visible type of missionary that shouldn’t be here are the Professionals. They are the missionaries that built the IMB into the huge corporation that it is today. These are the folks that fill their days with professional missionary things like going to conferences and making appearances at meetings. Usually, the Pros are big on networking. They like to name-drop, brag, and make guys like me meet people that they think are like me so that we can know each other and so later, when they drop our names, they can say things like, “You know, I introduced them!” The Professionals are the ones who have a hard time not having a “real job,” so they put lots of effort into making church planting look like one.

The reason professionals shouldn’t be on the field is that they are not really planting churches. They are not really sharing life, culturally translating the gospel, or facilitating a house church movement. No, these guys don’t have time to do real ministry, they’re too busy being missionaries.

Professionals are usually the ones that get promoted up the responsibility food-chain and put in strategy leadership positions. At first glance, they look like they’re really doing something. They’re well spoken. They have a great web site. They bring in lots of volunteers. They’re sharp dressers. They prioritize primary action items and draft mission statements and publish team goals and objectives in sleek .pdf prayer newsletters.

The reason that Professional Missionaries shouldn’t be on the field is that they have effectively redefined the concept of missions for the churches that support us. They have changed the stereotype from the four-pocket short-sleeve dress shirt wearing homely couple with seven children to a jet-set Blackberry addict with places to go and people to see. They are the reason we have conferences about how to “reach” people and strategy documents and ASR reports instead of, well, churches.

Don’t worry, I’m not saying we need to fire all of the Professional Missionaries. We don’t need to. They are the ones that get burnt out and go home as soon as they realize that no matter how hard they try, they cannot make church planting into a corporate position. They realize that no one is competing with them for the next leadership position, and that there is no prize for starting a new church planting partners network. They go home to work for Xerox or Saddleback.

Some Of Us Shouldn’t Be Here

While the timing of this post does not intentionally coincide with the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, I’ll admit that it seems like a relatively safe time to write such a mean post. Hopefully, everyone that might read this, especially the people I’m actually referring to, are either at the Convention or busy reading about it over at SBC Outpost.

Yes, we’re all supposed to be “missionaries” in the “Go ye therefore” sense of the word. Yes, the Lord of the Harvest calls workers to the field. But anyone who has spent any amount of time with IMB personnel and is willing to be honest will tell you that we’ve got some people on the field that shouldn’t be.

Call it a result of the days when there was plenty of money and “Any Warm Body” was the candidacy policy. (Wow, we’ve gone to the opposite extreme, haven’t we?) The IMB was all about momentum in those days- being able to report sending more missionaries and reaching more people groups really got people excited about missions. Volunteering was up, giving was up, and people were signing up for career service. The ranks of the IMB swelled with willing , if not capable, missionaries.

If you were to try to deduce the hiring policy of the IMB by conducting interviews of our career people on the field, what would you come up with?

I think this explains the recent actions of the IMB’s Board of Trustees; “We’ve got people on the field that don’t belong there, and we need to do something about it.” It wasn’t so bad when there was enough money to go around, but nowadays the Board can’t afford to send just anyone. We’ve got people on the field that don’t speak the national language, aren’t actively involved in ministry to nationals, and don’t have a clue of where to begin.

But we can’t fire them, can we? On what grounds? “God hasn’t used you to start a church planting movement?” No, the only way we can fire someone is if they steal money or sleep with a Journeyman. So instead of sending people home, we shuffle their incompetence around the globe. As if moving to a warmer climate would heal laziness. We could have all of our personnel on the field sign a new, even more exclusive document that includes a statement of belief, proof of effectiveness, and pledge of allegiance. You know- to get people to quit. The problem with that is the ones who get worked up about that sort of thing are usually the good ones. They were last time, anyway. So we’re sort of stuck with the people we’ve already got on the field. For now.

Everyone is talking about the new, narrower, theological requirements for appointment, but those aren’t the only changes being made to help weed out the dead weight (pardon the pun) and save some money.

There has always been a health requirement for IMB personnel. Obesity, serious medical conditions, and emotional/psychological issues have always been red flags in the consideration of potential candidates. But recently, the Board has adopted even stricter policy concerning overweight personnel. As a self-insured mega-organization, we can save a lot of money by not employing the fat people that are sure to use up a lot of money through medical claims. Recent changes have lowered the acceptable body-mass index (BMI) for all employees of the IMB. (Though I’m pretty sure trustees are exempt…)

The Board will continue to adopt very restrictive hiring and employment policies, but always leave a loophole for “exceptions.” That way they only get people that meet all of the requirements, and screen out those that don’t belong.

So who are these missionaries that shouldn’t be on the field? Sorry SEBTS folks, I’m not naming names. Besides, they probably aren’t who you might think.

Oh, and I’m probably one of them.

Stay tuned…

Losing My Accent

Learning a second language is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It’s frustrating and humiliating, and the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know. Sometimes, you just want to give up. But we put forth the effort in order that we might be able to share our lives with the people of the places we’ve moved to. If only recognizing the importance of language learning was enough to, you know, speak it.

I used to like the television show “Alias.” The main character, Syndey Bristow, was the best secret-agent ever. She was sort of a cross between James Bond and Lara Croft. I watched faithfully through the first season. I was half-way through season two when someone asked me what the show was about. “Well, there’s this college-student-by-day, undercover-super-agent-by-night whose dad is a double agent but she doesn’t know it and whose mom was a double agent for the KGB but her dad didn’t know it, and her dad’s best friend is the villain posing as a good guy, until they introduce her long-lost sister.” I was overcome with how ridiculous it sounded as I spoke. After that, I never watched the show again.

The worst thing about the show wasn’t the spy family, triple-agent, gadget-for-everything, plot, it was the fact that no matter what obscure country Sydney found herself in, she spoke the local language perfectly. Chinese. Tagalog. Welsh. She spoke them so well that not even the local bad guys could tell she was a foreigner. Stealth-ninja swordplay skills I’ll buy, but fluency in fifty languages is just too unrealistic for me.

Which brings me to I asked a friend who is a church planter in the UK about this a few weeks ago. Maybe he’ll post his response in a comment, but really can’t get past this. We’ve got people on the field who speak the national language very well. They’ve been around a while, they can do everything they need to do and say anything they might need to say in the language. But they have accents. Strong ones. They butcher the language with the typical American “R’s” and lazy vowels. In the phone, no one mistakes them for nationals. In person, the listener still has to contort his face as he strains to understand. So my question is this: Do our personnel working in English-speaking contexts take on the local accent?

For me, the accent is the key to true cultural relevance. Think of it this way, if I were to speak with a guy in London, he’d surely notice my American accent. But after a couple years of living in Covent Garden, I’d surely be able to put on a pretty good English accent for my friend. Not that I’d be able to pass for a Brit, but I bet he wouldn’t say, “Hey, you’re putting on an English accent.” No. I’m pretty sure he’d say something like, “Hey, you’re losing your American accent.”

I’m sure there are probably all sorts of ministry applications to the idea of losing our accents. To me, it just reminds me that there is more than just a language barrier between me and the people to whom I minister. It makes me want to live in such a way that the people around me start to say: “Hey, the longer you’re here, the less your faith seems foreign to me.”

The Other Side of the Coin

This blog is a companion to Missions Misunderstood, where I post my thoughts on missions, misiology, and church planting strategy. Unlike that site, where posts are long (more often than not), thought-out (sometimes), and pedantic (invariably, but unintentionally), I’ll use this blog to bore you with the details of my life.

Believe it or not, very little of my time is spent wrestling with the ideas and philosphies I write about at Missions Misunderstood. Those themes are the background music to my daily adventure as a church planter in Western Europe, but they don’t fully reflect what life is like for me and my team. I want Stepchild to be a blog in the truer sense of the word, with pictures, a wider range of topics, and running commentary to our experience.

So, let’s just say that you’re interested in deeper, missiological ideas. Well, then Missions Misunderstood is for you. But if you’re curious about who we are and how all of that plays out in real life, this is the place for you. And my Mom, who is the only person confirmed to be a regular reader.

Personality

One of the things God has been teaching our team lately is that personality matters. No, I’m not talking about the mega-churches in the United States that seem to be built entirely upon the charismatic and inspirational personality of its pastor. Strangely enough, it is just occurring to us that God may have given us our personalities on purpose.

See, I grew up in a very ministry-minded church environment. Everyone was encouraged to think of others first. To us, being a minister meant ignoring your “self” and intentionally becoming a servant; something that was not natural to any of us. We loved the idea of getting out of our comfort zones and being stretched and challenged in new ways. I’m very thankful for that church family.

I’m pretty sure Jesus had a personality. He was harsh about certain things, had compassion toward needy people, and ran away from his parents at least once (ok, so maybe what He did was nothing like the time I packed up my G.I. Joe backpack and “ran away” to the back yard when I was six, but you know what I mean). But can we say that there is a “Christian” personality?

With our practice of that good theology (“Be like Jesus”) also came a subtle, implied message: “It doesn’t matter who you are.” If you were an impulsive, gregarious person, you needed to cut it out so as to maintain self-control. Shyness was the opposite of boldness, which is something all believer must have, so the timid folks needed to get over their inhibitions. The stoic or melancholy needed to have joy, the dreamers needed to keep their feet on the ground. What we ended up with was a bunch of people who knew a lot about the fruit of the Spirit, but knew nothing about themselves. Ultimately, we couldn’t relate to lost people at all. We had worked so hard to be more like who we thought Jesus was, that we had lost our personalities. We became boring people, with no interests, hobbies, or passions. We didn’t even enjoy being around ourselves!

So now God is teaching us about personality. That it’s ok for some of us to be risk-takers and others to be cautious. We need to class-clowns to keep things interesting and the sensitive ones to feel for us. The optimists, the pessimists, the intense, the cool; they are parts of a healthy and interesting community. The outspoken are as needed as the introspective. I think our personalities are tied to our Spiritual gifts. They are all needed for diversity and balance within the body of Christ.

Maybe God made us the way we are so that we’ll have something in common with people who are like us.

I’m really interested to see how this plays out in church planting. We’re working to plant churches within existing social structures. People are drawn to others like them, and that’s where they are comfortable and have a sense of identity. But I think that’s a good thing. Churches should have distinct personalities. The intellectuals meet on Thursdays at lunchtime and pour over theology. The sensitive ones spend a lot more time in worship and prayer than the rest, and are very sensitive to the needs around them. The outgoing and outspoken do a bit more preaching and evangelism, while the social butterflies have lots and lots of fellowships. Who knows? Maybe this would be a healthy alternative to denominationalism.

What if the balance we’re so worried about maintaining is kept at the city-wide level as opposed to the local group level? While we cannot tolerate sin, heresy, or disunity, what about diversity in the ways we express our life in Christ?

The Evils of Modernism?

Even though I use them all the time, I hate post titles that end with a question mark. I guess that’s what I get for having a blog that is about asking questions…

My last post, “Adapt, Adopt, Reject,” was an outline of a paper that some friends and I came up with. I’ve had a couple of good responses. I got a few “let me chew on it and get back to you” messages, and I’m sure many of you are still trying to swallow the idea that I would have friends to work with at all.

I’m really interested in looking at Christianity from this perspective: What would our faith look like without the influence of modernism? The more I thought through the paper’s outline, the harder it was for me to come up with any modern contributions that we should adopt outright. It’s strange to think about, because we interpret everything through the modern worldview. I’m no historian, but I think we could learn a lot about being followers of Jesus in postmodernity by looking at the pre-modern expressions of Christianity.

In his book, Ancient Future Faith, Robert E. Webber gives a helpful outline of “Paradigms Of Church History.” He breaks down church history into these worldviews (paradigms):

  • Classical Christianity (100-600)
  • Medieval Era (600-1500)
  • Renaissance/Reformation (1500-1750)
  • Modernism (1750-1980)
  • Postmodernism (1980- )

As the church moved from one worldview to another, I imagine that there were many Christian leaders that warned against the dangers of the coming worldview. For example, during the rise of the modern worldview, there were probably plenty of godly folks saying things like “Buyeth not into modernism…” or something like that. What would they warn people against? Elevation of logic/human reason? Too great a focus on the individual? The limitations of linear thought?

But here we are, on the tail end of modernism, and the only expression of Christianity that we see is heavily influenced by the modern worldview. We read it into history and revelation. Our understanding of God is a modern one. We study systematic theology, we’re used to hearing propositional exposition of the scriptures. We feel this huge need to nail down the specific time and date of our salvation. We use mass-market evangelism. We look for ways to measure our holiness. This is the modern church.

In an online audio chat with Derek Webb, Donald Miller talked about how Jesus gave many different answers to people who asked Him “What must I do to be saved.” But modern Christians only have one answer to that question. Why is that?

I don’t think that the modern worldview is bad. But I’m certainly weary of anyone who asserts that it is the “Christian” one. I’m interested in discovering and recognizing the influence my worldview has on my faith.