First Person Plural

Most of us change pretty dramatically after just a short time on the field. As we begin to identify with nationals, we are exposed to different perspectives (many of us for the first time) that we never really got from previous experiences or short-term trips. Right away, we start to see ourselves through other people’s eyes, and we can’t help but rethink some of what we’ve always believed about politics, social issues, and our faith. We are compelled to begin the process of determining what is truth and what is culture.

Even though we all go through this transition from our home culture to our host culture, it’s a lonely time for us, because we must go through it alone. Sure we try to relate our experiences to our friends and families back home, but how can we express the disillusionment, frustration, and doubt we struggle with? After all, we’re paid to be professionals. We ought to know our role, and we certainly should be beyond the basics. If we are open about these things, people get nervous; the Board of Trustees thinks we’ve gone liberal and makes a new policy to help straighten us out. If we seek the counsel of our stateside pastors, they inadvertently give us a distinctly American perspective. If we ask our Southern Baptist constituency, the people in the pews, we risk losing their confidence in us and therefore their support.

So the norm these days is to keep quiet. Don’t tell the people back home that we’ve changed our minds about alcohol and the death penalty and spiritual gifts. Don’t let them know we’re against the war in Iraq and embarrassed by the overweight, ignorant volunteers that come and perpetuate the American stereotype. But as far as I can tell, saying nothing hurts accountability and unity. So I blog. And fortunately, I’m not alone. Coworkers from around the world are writing posts about some of the same things. I can’t tell you how encouraging it is to me to read fellow IMB M’s blogging about the issues they face, and knowing that the people who send us can read about our experiences first-hand.

But the comments that followed my last post reveal the difficulty of communication between the field and home. Here are some reasons for the breakdown:

Learning living languages brings a new perspective to our understanding of biblical languages. If it takes me years to learn the subtle nuances of the twelve different ways to say the same thing in my host language (a language I’m immersed in), maybe I’m going to be a little skeptical of the preacher back home who claims to know the one true meaning of the original Greek of a biblical text.

We are consistently exposed to the spiritual enemy in ways we normally wouldn’t experience back home. On a daily basis, we come face to face with principalities and powers that have ruled these countries for generations. Even those strongholds that are familiar to us: bitterness, materialism, and idolatry, seem to have extra-sharp teeth out here. All we can do is hold tightly to the Holy Spirit. But if we talk about what we’ve seen, we’re labeled charismatic.

We are seeing strong and healthy churches born all the time. We learn more about the body of Christ from this adventure of being the church than we ever did by going to church in the States. We don’t miss one bit the politics, fund-raising, or programmed activities of the congregational churches we come from. These groups were started by the Holy Spirit and accountable to Him as they seek to obediently work out what it means to be believers in their own culture. But because these churches don’t fit the SBC mold, seminary presidents and big-name pastors back home are questioning our ecclesiology.

I’ve often heard that missionaries should just preach the gospel, and not worry so much about the culture. My time on the field, however, has taught me that the gospel is impossible to share or even comprehend outside the context of a culture. So I will keep seeking cultural translation of life in Christ. And as long as I have something to say, I’ll keep blogging about it.

I’d Like to Make a Toast…

I’m glad to see the controversy move from speculation to discussion. With the release of the “position papers,” IMB Board of Trustees Chairman Tom Hatley breaks the silence and attempts to explain the reasons behind the Board’s new policies on prayer languages and baptism. Another trustee who voted in favor of the policies, Jerry Corbaley, has really opened up to hearing from M’s and stateside folks alike over at his new blog.

The Trustees are getting hit from three sides: on the one hand, there are the ultra-conservatives who were likely behind the policy change to begin with. They point to house church ecclesiology, the role of women, and the treatment of spiritual gifts as evidence that the IMB is becoming a bastion of liberalism. On the other side are those that oppose the policies. They see signs of Landmarkism, lack of accountability, and power plays and are voicing their concerns through blogs. Finally, there are the (mostly anonymous) M’s on the field. They seem to be most concerned with policies, guidelines, and strategies dictated from Richmond with no regard to cultural context. Oh, and they’re worried they’ll get fired if they complain.

Since I fall into the third category, I’ve got to ask: what about alcohol?

It seems like the part of the discussion many find most troubling (besides how Wade Burleson was treated) is that the policies go beyond scripture, and beyond the BFM 2000 to disqualify many Southern Baptists from missionary service based on a narrow interpretation of baptism and tongues. Everyone is upset about extra-biblical requirements for IMB personnel, but the Board has always required M’s to abstain from drinking. People are refusing to accept “because the majority of Southern Baptists believe this way” in place of scriptural support for the new policies, but alcohol is forbidden for this reason. Never mind what the Bible says, never mind the M’s host culture; drinking is grounds for termination. Abiding by the rule has always been seen by our folks on the field as one of the concessions we have to make in order to receive support. Most of the people I know disagree with this policy.

For the sake of ministry, we have eaten some crazy things. We’ve hung out in smokey bars. We’ve stayed out all night with friends. Though we’ll always be foreigners, we do all that we can to minimize the differences between us and the people to whom we minister. In my own experience, there have been times when that ministry has been hurt and opportunities have been missed because I (by kindly abstaining) made an issue of something that ought to be a non-issue.

Even though caffeine is a drug, we wouldn’t make a new policy that prohibits M’s from drinking tea when they go into a Chinese home. Sexual temptation is a reality, but we don’t have a rule against greeting people of the opposite sex with a kiss, as they do in Spain. But because “most Southern Baptists don’t approve” of alcohol consumption, our M’s are required to abstain.

I’m not trying to rekindle the debate over drinking. For a great perspective on the subject, check out Steve McCoy’s post: “Alcohol, Abstention, and Redemption.” I just thought I’d point out what has been an IMB-imposed obstacle to ministry.

Here’s to good discussion.

Postmodern, Predestined

In my experience, people who are less modern tend to be more fatalistic. We don’t normally believe that what we do will make a difference in the world. Sure, I’ll keep on recycling, but because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s going to save the environment. I don’t believe that buying a cheeseburger for the homeless guy on the street will end global hunger (I don’t even believe it will end his hunger), but I do it anyway, because Jesus talked a lot about it. I vote, but hey, I’m registered in California. A lot of this is about doing what’s right because it’s right and not because it works, but that’s another post.

Lately I’ve started to wonder if maybe this fatalistic attitude (which most Christians decry) is why the doctrine of predestination makes so much sense to me. Now I’m not talking about Calvinism, mostly because I don’t want to be lumped in with that crowd, and because I won’t pledge my allegiance to any guy who started a Christian Taliban in Switzerland. For me, I recognize that though I should do the right thing, and I want to do the right thing, I probably won’t. Even if I were to do the right thing, it wouldn’t really make any difference anyway. Thankfully, the eternal destiny of the world doesn’t depend on me.

So, if it is God who chooses us, and not the other way around, by what criteria does He choose? That question is just so, well, modern. I really never stress about that. In fact, I find beauty in the mystery, and I’m humbled that He elected me. (Proof that being handsome, smart, or nice aren’t among the criteria.) Predestination is fatalism with a face, and in case you haven’t heard, Grace is the new Karma.

If I truly believe that people’s salvation doesn’t depend on me, why am I here on the field? (I figure that of my small audience, there’s got to be at least one person wondering about that.) I’m not here to make an impact on “lostness,” or to “finish the task,” because I couldn’t if I tried. Not even all of us, working together in Christian unity could do those things. No, I’m here because God called me to go. Perhaps you could say it was my destiny.

Spirit-ectomy

One of things I struggle with is our tenancy to separate the spiritual from the social. You know, the idea that we shouldn’t get caught up in social issues because we’re working to see people’s soul’s saved. I’ve heard this type of thing a lot. The other day I read a blog post that said:

“To feed the poor without telling them of Christ is wrong…now all you’re doing is sending them to hell with a full belly.”

This blogger was saying that it is a distraction from the “main thing” (evangelism?) for us to concern ourselves with feeding the hungry, or advocating the oppressed. I’ve also heard people say, “I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to share the gospel.” (I’ve written about that in previous posts.) To a certain extent, the current strategy of the IMB reflects this “one or the other” mentality. “New Directions” was all about a shift in focus to church planting, but in many places we pulled out of social ministries such as schools, medical clinics, refugee services, and orphanages. My concern is that by separating the spiritual from the social, we are changing the gospel. We say we are concerned about people, but practically, we’re only concerned about, well, part of people.

The good news is not only spiritual in nature; it is social. New life in Christ is about community. Before Christ, we are out of fellowship with the Most High God. Jesus is the way to community with God. But this isn’t all there is to it. The gospel is also about community with others. In Christ we are brought into fellowship with other believers. Also, life in Him provides us with Christ’s perspective, through which we can begin to have a right relationship with the world around us.

Our focus on the “spiritual” might be why Christians struggle socially. We have a hard time relating to lost people. We are pretty ignorant about other cultures, and anything that doesn’t directly affect us. Our divorce rate is high. Lots of us fear the world and hide from it inside the walls of the “safe” “Christian” subculture. We treat people who disagree with us pretty badly. Spiritually, we’re great. Socially, it hardly looks like we’re saved. Maybe we’ve only heard the spiritual half of the gospel.

For some reason, people are afraid that I might give “a cup of cool water” to someone in need without telling them that I’m doing it in Jesus name. To me, that’s the same as sharing the “plan of salvation” and not addressing physical/social needs. It only presents a part of the gospel. Many of my missionary friends would probably say, “Yeah, but it’s the most important part of the gospel.” But I don’t think we get to make that distinction, either.

“You Know What Your Problem Is?”

Don’t you hate when someone starts a discussion with “You know what your problem is?” They should just say, “You’ve got a problem, and you obviously don’t know what it is, so I’m going to tell you.” Either way, everyone is a critic (even me).

Some of the IMB’s most vocal critics are a group of folks within the SBC who are concerned about the theology of the Board and the missionaries it sends. Our president, they say, is too charismatic. ILC (MLC) training, they charge, is theologically weak. CPM, they claim, leaves too much room for heresy to sneak in. I’m not exactly sure who “They” are, but “They” are concerned that we’ve got a bunch of liberals in the mission field. That’s why, even though the Board requires that all missionary candidates be members-in-good-standing of a Southern Baptist Church, and that career personnel have seminary training, we all had to sign the BFM 2000- to prove to “Them” we weren’t liberals. Somehow, our signatures didn’t help ease “Their” concerns, so “They” had the trustees adopt some new policies that would keep liberals out of the ranks. Now, Southeastern Seminary students are organizing to collect evidence against IMB personnel who might be labeled liberal. (Ok, so maybe I do know who “They” are.)

If you’ve read any of my posts here, you know that I, too, am concerned about the strategy and missiology of my coworkers. But I’m coming from a different direction. I’m not worried about chasing down liberalism, or defending the faith. Because they are in different cultural contexts, and because they are seeing God move in different ways, most of our personnel who have been overseas for very long would seem liberal to many of “Them.” It might also have to do with the fact that most of our M’s in the field don’t get Fox News…

The churches that we are planting (or working to plant) are not drowning in watered-down theology. They are being suffocated by our models and worldview.

If you were to ask me (and yes, I realize that you didn’t), the best thing that the IMB could do to further our church planting efforts would be to stop hiring and sending Missionaries. I’m not talking about slowing the flow of personnel to the field; we need all the businessmen and artists and chefs and computer programmers we can get. What we don’t need is more Missionaries. Most of the people sent by the Board are pastors (who end up pastoring the churches they plant), youth ministers (who tend to build strong seeker-friendly youth groups instead of churches), or ministers of music/associate pastor types (who are all about new programs and events). It seems to me that the best way to avoid the influence of the American Christian religion and subculture on the churches we plant is to stop exporting it through our personnel.

I agree with those who say we need to rethink our understanding on missions and the church. We need to send people who are well-trained and qualified to plant churches. But the solution to our struggles isn’t a liberalism witch hunt, it’s in open dialogue.

Speaking of open dialogue, what do you think?

PG People in an R-rated World

At the beginning of the Iraq war, I heard an American military analyst on CNN talking about how young American troops had a major advantage over their enemy due to the fact that most of them grew up playing video games. He went on to say that training time for pilots and drivers had been drastically reduced since most of the military machinery (fighter jets, tanks, etc.) had been outfitted with interfaces and controls that mimicked the those of video games. I thought that was interesting. It also makes me glad that Japan is an ally- those kids play video games in their sleep!

I wonder about that element of desensitization, too. You know, when a kid sees however many thousand acts of violence on TV before he reaches the age of twelve, it’s bound to make him flinch less when he sees people being shot. From a parent’s perspective, this is an outrage. From a military strategist’s point of view, however, it can actually be a good thing. It means that your soldiers aren’t going to be distracted from the job they’ve been assigned to by the violence it requires. Of you’ve seen it in “Saving Private Ryan” and “blackhawk Down,” you’re going to expect it in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Which brings me to the meeting we had the other day. Our leadership team was going over the information we use in training new personnel before they come to the field. One of the hardest things about preparing folks before they come is getting them ready for the postmodern Western European worldview. We assign books like Stan Grenz’s “A Primer on Postmodern” that teach about postmodernism, and we have them check out websites like Andrew Jones’ blog. But we still have people come over who have no concept of life beyond their modern rational worldview. So I put together a list of movies that do a good job of showing postmodernism as we seen it in Western Europe. The list included movies such as Fight Club, American Beauty, and Vanilla Sky. Oddly enough, almost all of the films on my list came out between 1999 and 2001. Unfortunately, all of them are rated R.

Even though there are many films that do a great job of illustrating postmodernism, we will not be sending this list of movies to new personnel. There is no way we can even suggest, much less assign, an R-rated movie as preparation and training material for new missionaries. The reasons, I think, are obvious.

I think there is value in studying the culture and those things that influence it. What if we could get our people used to European culture before they got here? The problem, of course, is that so much of the culture is defined by it’s sin. There is value in being exposed to the relativism, anti-consumerism, and cynicism that define this culture. But how can we expose ourselves to those attitudes without sitting through the foul language, sex, and violence that usually accompany them?

On the one hand, I want to say, “Watch the movie. Life and ministry in Europe (and the States, for that matter) requires that we be exposed to things that are not God-honoring. If you’re going to be offended by lost people doing lost people things, how are you going to spend time with them? That’s what the spiritual armor is for.” But on the other hand, I would say, “We’re surrounded by sin. We see it every day. What good can come from exposing ourselves to any more of it?”

So the question remains: How can we be PG people and yet minister in an R-rated world? I guess my answer would be that if we equip our people to be in tune with the Holy Spirit and to be students of the culture, we can be incarnational without becoming carnal.

Emerging

There is an ongoing discussion within the convention about the Emerging Church Movement. Originally, it was seen as a mostly harmless group of “younger” leaders who pushing for authenticity and social involvement. Since then, due to the ambiguous nature and “more questions than answers” style of emergent authors like Brian McLaren, popular opinion has changed. Now, the label “emergent” is equated with “liberal” (or worse). People who are sympathetic to emerging church ideas are accused of abandoning truth in order to make our faith relevant to the world.

I admit that my worldview is different from most of my fellow missionaries. This is due in part to the fact that I am younger and that I was raised outside the Bible Belt. It may also be that living in Western Europe and investing my life into studying the culture and integrating into the community has led me to adopt some of their worldview. Either way, I am not typical.

Unlike most of my coworkers, I have yet to see a contemporary expression of our faith that I am comfortable with. I am tired of labels. I believe in God’s sovereignty, but I can’t stand the arrogance of most Calvinists. I’m open to new ways of doing church and living missionally, but I don’t want to be written off as “emergent,” “Generation X,” or “Postmodernist.” I can’t even grow a goatee. If I were to have a conversation with a member of the Board of Trustees about politics, they would most likely label me a liberal. Theologically, I’m very conservative, but our style of ministry would make many church members back home scratch their heads. I have a hard time trusting institutions; even the one that sends me. I believe that the Bible is without error, but that none of our interpretations is. I believe in truth, but I don’t believe any of us have it contained in a formula, book, or study guide. I am not Purpose Driven.

All of this is to say that most of my questions here are not born of any desire to make the gospel “cool” or “relevant” or “easier to swallow.” I understand that the Truth is offensive, and that it always runs counter to both human nature and the flow of culture. No, my questions aren’t about me making things work for them, I’m trying to make it work for me. (Philippians 2:12,13)

So even though a lot of my posts sound like sermons, and I tend to state my opinions as though they were fact, the purpose of this blog is for me to work out my salvation- my calling and ministry- by asking questions, exploring ideas, and being critical. I appreciate those of you who read, and those who take time to comment. That’s why I’m doing this, um, publicly; to hear from others who might be able to encourage and challenge me.

I want to understand my faith, and to be able to share it with others. I want to plant churches that are free of the modern American religion that I’m having such a hard time with. Marty Duren wrote an excellent post on this at SBC Outpost. If you haven’t read it, you should. I think many of us can relate to what he says about legalism.

One thing I’m becoming aware of is how negative some of my posts may sound. (All of my posts?) In my next couple of posts, I’m going to try to propose some positive solutions for making sense of things for myself and the culture I live in. Please feel free to add your own.

Church in a Box

We’re always looking for churches that are interested in partnering with us as we plant churches here in Western Europe. God has been good to provide us with mission-minded churches that participate sacrificially in what God is doing around the world. Sometimes we go looking for partner churches. Every once in a while, one comes looking for us.

Recently, we were contacted by a well-known megachurch in the Convention that was looking for opportunities to plant “postmodern” churches in Western Europe. For us, that’s a pretty big deal. It’s like landing a big account, picking up a high-profile client, closing a big deal. Or some other corporate term that means “good for us.” Having big and rich partner churches means an unlimited volunteer pool, round-the-clock prayer support, and a few items crossed off the unfunded needs list. Immediately we started planning vision trips and prayer materials for our new partners. It wasn’t until we met with the church leadership back in the States that we realized things we’re going to work out.

Their idea of church planting was to reproduce their successful stateside model in other countries. They explained to me that they had been hard at work putting together resources that would make it easy to implement their strategy. All I had to do was join their church planting network, and for $250 US per year they would send me recordings of their pastor’s sermons and some study materials. My membership also qualified me to shop in their church planting network resources store, where I could buy a state-of the-art sound system, a video projector, and padded seats in one of three tasteful colors. That’s right, they wanted to sell me church in a box.

Picture it: a mini-megachurch in the heart of Western Europe. Weekly sermons, already translated into national languages, ready to be shown on the big screen. A video of inspirational, seeker-sensitive worship music, complete with a powerpoint presentation of the lyrics. The package even included advertising materials, such as professional-quality brochures, vinyl banners, and pre-recorded radio spots.

When I told the church leaders that we were trying to start churches that would be a little more indigenous, they stared blankly. When I asked if we could try something that was a little more culturally appropriate, they offered to take a hundred dollars off the cost of my membership to their church planter’s network. When I outlined our strategy, they laughed. “We’re not going to get involved in anything that won’t let our people see immediate results,” they said. “Our model has been proven to work here in the U.S., and we’re just looking for someone to do it overseas.”

Looking back, the whole interaction sounds silly.

Front Burner

This is a follow-up to my last post, Back Burner.

I believe that relationships are the context in which the gospel should be shared. Real relationships. This means that the only filter I apply to my ministry is my trust that the people that God brings our way are the people in whom He is working. I pursue natural friendships with these people that don’t depend on them becoming believers. I intentionally take every opportunity to speak into their life. I walk with them through the daily grind and I’m there for them when the big things come up. I don’t believe there’s any higher calling or better use of my time.

I refuse to buy into evangelism economics. I’m tired of counting numbers and measuring success by visible results. There aren’t any formulas for getting the most bang for our ministry bucks, and I don’t want to pimp out relationships like some sort of Amway salesman. Artificial relationships that have strings attached make me feel fake. I’m sick of hearing “But we aren’t here to make friends, we’re her to plant churches” as though the two were mutually exclusive. I think that “broad seed sowing,” as it is commonly understood, requires dilution of the gospel, something I’m not willing to do. I know that an American Christian has coming to share the “plan of salvation” with a Western European does not necessarily mean that the gospel has been communicated, and so I’m not willing to “move on” if someone doesn’t respond the way I want them to.

I have a good friend, a national, who calls himself an agnostic. He does not believe in a personal, “knowable” God. In the beginning of our relationship, I was encouraged every time I had the opportunity to share my faith with him. I prayed that he would show interest in spiritual things, and that he would come to know the Lord. Even after years of sharing life together, he showed no signs of faith. He knew what I believed; I’ve never been shy about the fact that my life is founded in Christ. He just didn’t want any of it. My ministry seemed to hit a plateau; no “progress” was being made. I went through a time of really questioning things. Was I wasting my time with an unresponsive individual? Was it time to “move on?”

One day, my friend and I were having coffee when an acquaintance joined us. The conversation turned, as it often did, to spiritual things. The guy heard me mention my faith, and asked me what I believed. Before I could respond, my friend jumped in and, in the most articulate way, explained exactly what I believed: that Jesus is the only way to God, and that there is no spiritual life apart from Him. That a person is saved by grace alone, regardless of his or her deeds. He even mentioned “life more abundant!” Here, my unbelieving friend was sharing the good news to someone I hardly knew.

Who knows? Maybe this is how God is going to do things in Western Europe. Maybe He’s leading us to “waste time” on “unresponsive” people that He sees fit to us in the cultural translation of the gospel. Does my friend’s “gospel presentation” lack the power of the evidence of a changed life? Yes. Is my friend, who does not have a relationship with God, in a position to disciple others? Of course not. Maybe that’s why I’m here. Either way, I’m going to continue to invest my life in the lives of the people God brings to me, however inefficient that my be.

Back Burner

Sometimes missionaries struggle with the reach of our influence. In their efforts to start a church planting movement, they see it as a good thing to interact with as many people as possible. This is the basic mentality behind most of the “broad seed sowing” activities our people do. Tracts, door-to-door visits, and drama in the park are all efforts toward sharing the message of Christ with as many people as possible.

But how does this play into a strategy that doesn’t include distribution or public events? If a person can only have so many real friends, and my ministry is intentionally limited to personal relationships, how can I “reach” a wide audience?

I’ve been asked these questions several times by different people. In fact, this seems the be the one issue that most people have with our “strictly relational” approach to church planting. It just isn’t a good use of our time, they reason, to spend it with people who are closed, indifferent, or hostile to our message. Strategists have come up with all kinds of solutions to overcome the limits of our relational reach. The IMB trains us in the use of programmed “filters.” These are built-in means by which we can find those people who are spiritually searching, and screen out the people that are less open to accepting the gospel.

One example is a change in the traditional use of the “Jesus Film.” Rather than passing it out indiscriminately, our strategists now recommend sending out invitations to receive the movie. This, they say, saves lots of time, effort, and money, by focusing on those people who are already interested enough that they would put forth the effort to answer an invitation and request a film. Having identified the people that are spiritually “good soil,” the missionary doesn’t have to waste time on people who may never respond to the good news.

On more than one occasion, I’ve had colleagues express concern over our short-reaching influence. And each time, their advice included the Front Burner/Back Burner analogy. Their take is that sure, it’s ok to be relational, but that we need to be discerning in how much we invest into those relationship. Those relationships that seem to be “going somewhere” (the person is showing interest in coming to Christ after we share the gospel with them) are the ones we need to put on the “front burner;” those are the ones we need to pour our lives into. But if we have a relationship with someone who, after repeated contact still do not show signs of interest, we need to put them on the “back burner.” They wouldn’t say that we should ignore these uninterested people, but we would recognize that our time might be better spent elsewhere.

After a lot of thought, I’ve decided that I really don’t like the “Front Burner/Back Burner” strategy. It’s basically a “filtering” technique, applied to relational ministry, and I think it misses the point.

Look for part two in my next post.