Thoughts on Authority

One thing I’ve noticed over the years is how very dependent ministry tends to be on authority. Pastors preach with the authority given to them by their calling, position, and seminary education. Church planters operate out of the authority of the Great Commission and of the agency that sends them. We teach our people to evangelize out of the authority of scripture. What I’ve come to understand, though, it that I don’t actually have any authority. Not only that, but I’m better off without it.

Pastors who lord spiritual authority over their church members end up being resented. I know this because I once had a pastor who knew ancient Greek. To him, this secret knowledge made him the authority on all things pertaining to the scriptures. His sermons were long, boring lessons in parsing Greek verbs and ancient etymologies. Anyone who questioned the pastor’s interpretation was answered with, “But you don’t understand the original Greek.” The attitude of the entire church was affected by the pastors “authoritative” influence. Members eventually gave up trying to search the scriptures, because they felt inadequate.

When I was a kid, we went through evangelism training that focused on the authority of the Word of God. “Don’t share the gospel out of your own experience,” I remember the teacher saying, “only the Word of God has any authority in evangelism.” At the time, we agreed, because, as we had memorized in week six, it was “the power of God unto salvation.” The idea of having authority was empowering to us. From then on, when we were made fun of for trying to share the Roman Road with the cool kids at school, we comforted ourselves with, “They aren’t rejecting us. They’re rejecting God.”

Church planters often cite Matthew 28:19-20 as the passage of scripture God used to call them to the mission field. The verses speak to the subject of authority with Jesus saying, “All authority in heaven in earth is given to me. Therefore go…” I always took this to mean that He was the boss, and therefore we, as His followers were obligated to obey. Maybe that’s where we get the idea that we need some sort of authority in order to do ministry.

Authority is a funny thing, though. It has to be given by someone higher up in order for it to be legitimate, and it has to be honored by the people under the authority in order for it to be any authority at all. The scriptures, for example, are indeed authoritative. But there are millions of people who do not respect that authority. Their disregard doesn’t make the Bible less true, but it makes its authority a moot point as far as they are concerned.

So in sharing the gospel with people, we could assert the Bible’s authority (or our own, as professionals), but it seems that what people need to hear is the usefulness, or the beauty, or the power of the Word. Rather than “Because it says so, that’s why.” (Did your mom ever pull the “Because I said so?” How did you respond?) We might instead share our personal stories, even though we have no authority at all. We could even ask permission to speak to certain issues, and follow cultural norms in order to get to a place where we can share personal spiritual experiences in appropriate ways. I know. My Evangelism Explosion teacher would be very disappointed with me.

I know what you’re going to say: “The Bible is our authority, and it’s theirs too, whether they like it or not.” And then you’ll say,”The gospel is offensive. You shouldn’t water it down or candy-coat it in some lame attempt to make it attractive.” While you may be right, I would probably just delete your annoying comment because, well, I have the authority to do that sort of thing around here. Even if you post in ancient Greek and quote lots of scripture.

I’m kidding. Mostly.

Why I Don’t Like the Board’s New Policies

I’ve had plenty of time now to think though the Board’s new hiring policies regarding baptism and tongues. I’ve decided that I don’t like them, but it’s probably not for the reasons you might think.

The trustees have made it clear that the new restrictions are not retroactive; that is to say, they don’t apply to those of us that are already on the field. But the new policies nonetheless affect me directly. How? I’m glad you asked.

I have a job request on the books. The new policies shrink the pool of candidates from which this job will be filled. “But that,” you might say, “is the point.” I understand that the trustees were trying to keep people certain people from being hired by the IMB; namely, those who speak in tongues and anyone who was baptized by someone with bad theology. Though I’m not aware of any place where we’ve got charismatics in the field, I understand that the trustees want to be sure their missionaries share the Board’s interpretation of certain scriptures. My problem is that these decisions essentially guarantee that I won’t get the type of church planters I’m looking for.

I’m not looking for people who speak in tongues or who might have been baptized by someone outside the SBC. I am looking for people who would defend the service of such individuals. I’m looking for people with a real understanding of what the Bible actually says about things like baptism and tongues. You see, our church planters often fall into the trap of teaching interpretations of scripture rather than the scripture itself. Our concentration on church forms and models has led to us planting churches that are hardly indigenous, and our focus on teaching our interpretations is like replacing the scriptures with an SBC-approved commentary.

So the new guidelines don’t just rule out the Charismatics. They rule out anyone open to a different understanding of passages like Acts 8:36, when the Ethiopian asks Philip a pertinent question:

“As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?”

How would I answer the Eunuch’s question? I probably wouldn’t be able to say, “Well, we can’t baptize you here and now because, well, the two of us don’t count as a church, and because I’m still not sure you fully understand the ramifications of eternal security.”

A byproduct of the change is that the type of person we’re looking for is so tired of the politics, infighting, and bullying, that they’re not applying to be sent by the IMB.

IMB Policy Clarification?

I haven’t posted anything about the newly adopted IMB policies concerning tongues and baptism of missionary candidates. If you want some background on this issue, check out SBC Outpost, Wade Burleson’s blog, or the Associated Baptist Press.

For the record, I am against them. What’s more, I have yet to find any IMB missionary on the field who agrees with them. But you won’t be hearing any dissent from within the ranks. The current attitude out here is “If you want to keep you job, keep you mouth shut.”

No, there haven’t been any threats (that I know of). And no, the new policies do not apply to personnel already on the field. But with the Board of Trustees voting to remove trustee Wade Burleson for voicing his opinions on the new policies and the politics among trustees, everyone is being extra careful.

Last week, the R. Gordon Fort, IMB Vice President for Overseas Operations sent a memo to all personnel “clarifying” the new policies. It was this “clarification” that has prompted me to write about the issue. Because the memo is presented as “the specific wording” of the policies, I’m assuming that this was not intended to stay “in house.” I post the main text of the memo here:

The specific wording of the policy on Tongues and Prayer Language and the Baptism Guideline are as follows:

Tongues and Prayer Language

That the following policy regarding tongues and prayer language of missionary candidates be adopted:

GLOSSOLALIA

1. The New Testament speaks of a gift of glossolalia that generally is considered to be a legitimate language of some people group.

2. The New Testament expression of glossolalia as a gift had specific uses and conditions for its exercise in public worship.

3. In term of worship practices, the majority of Southern Baptist churches do not practice glossolalia. Therefore, if glossolalia is a public part of his or her conviction and practice, the candidate has eliminated himself or herself from being a representative of the IMB of the SBC.

PRAYER LANGUAGE

1. Prayer language as commonly expressed by those practitioners is not the same as the biblical use of glossolalia.

2. Paul’s clear teaching is that prayer is to be made with understanding.

3. Any spiritual experience must be tested by the Scriptures.

4. In terms of general practice, the majority of Southern Baptists do not accept what is referred to as “private prayer language.” Therefore, if “private prayer language” is an ongoing part of his or her conviction and practice, the candidate has eliminated himself or herself from being a representative of the IMB of the SBC.

APPLICATION
1. This policy is not retroactive.
2. Any exceptions to the above policy must be reviewed by the staff and the Process Review Committee.

Baptism Guideline

That each candidate’s baptismal experience be examined, during the application process, in light of the Baptist Faith and Message statement and the points listed below:

BAPTIST FAITH AND MESSAGE: ARTICLE VII – BAPTISM

Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Savior; the believer’s death to sin; the burial of the old life; and the resurrection to walk in the newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper.

POINTS TO BE COVERED DURING THE APPOINTMENT PROCESS:

1. The Individual

a. Believer’s baptism by immersion

Baptism by immersion follows salvation

b. Baptism is symbolic, picturing the experience of the believer’s death to sin and resurrection to a new life in Christ.

Baptism does not regenerate.

2. The Church

a. Baptism is a church ordinance.

Baptism must take place in a church that practices believer’s baptism by immersion alone, does not view baptism as sacramental or regenerative, and a church that embraces the doctrine of the security of the believer.

b. A candidate who has not been baptized in a Southern Baptist church or in a church which meets the standards listed above is expected to request baptism in his/her Southern Baptist church as a testimony of identification with the system of belief held by Southern Baptist churches.

3. The Candidate
The candidate is responsible for meeting this doctrinal commitment to the above points.

4. The Consultant
While the candidate consultant should have a working knowledge of many denominational groups, he is not expected to investigate every church.

APPLICATION
1. This guideline is not retroactive.
2. Any exception to the above guideline must be reviewed by the staff and the Process Review Committee.

So here’s my initial concern: No scripture to support the new guidelines. What do you think? I’ll post my thoughts soon.

Strategic Planning

Marty Duren at SBC Outpost has written a short note about planning. I really liked what he had to say. Though he isn’t specifically talking about missions, his words got me thinking about everything I’ve been writing here. In my criticism of the Board’s current strategy, and my call for more step-by-step following of the Holy Spirit, do I sound like one of those who doesn’t think we should have a plan? I hope not.

I used to go to a church that was very programmed. We had a music minister that knew how to plan a service. The order of worship was planned and rehearsed two weeks ahead of time. The hymns and the pauses between them were timed, and the special music was chosen according to how much time we had to fill. I often heard people complain that the service hardly left room for the Holy Spirit to work. I’m sure the music minister was aware of the complaints, but for years he continued to plan the services down to the minute.

The music minister eventually decided to respond to his critics by not planning two weeks’ worth of church services. The result, as you can imagine, was not a spontaneous time of praise. It was, well, nothing. After the deacon welcomed everyone to the service (apparently he hadn’t gotten word of the “no programming Sunday”), nothing happened. Someone stood up and started taking hymn requests from the congregation, but we really struggled to make it through all eight verses of “Just As I Am.”

No one complained after that.

When I finally asked our music minister what he thought about leaving more room for the Holy Spirit, his response was: “I wish our people knew how much prayer went into the planning. God leads us throughout the week as we put together what we hope will be a tremendous time of teaching and worship.” (He always used the word “tremendous.”)

I believe that planning is necessary. Our team likes to think of it as “intentionality.” We have a clear strategy for interacting with the people around us, and have a clear plan for discipleship of the folks God brings our way. I just want us to be sure that our plan is based on God’s leading, where He is working. I guess my concern with the Board’s strategy is not that we have one, but that the one we have is based on human-centered, “logical conclusions.”

Oh, and just because we have a plan, let’s not assume that God has to follow it.

The Task

When it comes to missions, we often hear reference to “The Unfinished Task,” or, sometimes just “The Task.” I’ve heard it presented as our mission agency’s slogan, other times it seems to be offered as the key to mission strategies. This term is often left undefined, but its implications are disconcerting. What is our task? As individuals, we are accountable to the leadership of the Holy Spirit in whatever form of service He has for us. As disciples, we have been instructed to “go and make disciples all nations.” Many have received a specific calling to some sort of international service. We call these people “missionaries.” But as a missions organization, it seems we have misunderstood that mandate to mean that we are to bear the burden of strategy for global evangelization. We have meetings of committees and leaders in which we try to map out a plan to reach the unreached. We calculate “need” and “priority” based on what we think will “get the job done.” But maybe we’re getting ahead of God. Maybe it’s a mistake to allow the “lostness” of a people to dictate our strategy for the work we do. Perhaps we’ve fallen into the trap of depending on statistics to determine how many missionaries we send and where. After all, how do we measure “lostness,” “need,” or “priority?” Does the number of churches in a given country or among a given people group determine its status before God? What if those churches are dead, ineffective, and irrelevant? What if, by the disobedience and unfaithfulness of God’s people the gospel leaves a place that was once “reached?”

We depend on the terms “lostness,” “unreached,” and “the Task” to provide a standard by which we can measure our success. They were invented by strategists to help us get a handle on what we’re doing, and to assure the people back home that we’re making progress. We recently received a strategy report from the home office, in which our leadership outlined our strategy for the coming year. Basically, it stated that our organization needs X number of missionaries on the field in order to “finish the task.” They looked at the number of “unreached” people groups and decided that if we placed missionaries from our organization among those peoples, our job would be done. This plan was passed by the board and sent on to our leadership in the field. But this is a case of the performer dictating the standard by which his own performance should be measured. By sending out brochures and flyers and promotional videos, we teach people that success is possible and tangible and just around the corner. This works well to show that we are professionals who know what we’re doing. We’re in control, and you can trust us to use your donations well. But the basic ideas behind the strategy we teach and follow are flawed.

The first problem with “unfinished Task” strategy is that it maintains a static view of a dynamic world. We use terms like “the final frontier” to refer to those people that have yet to hear the gospel in a way that they can understand and respond to. Most of those people live in certain area that covers northern Africa, the Middle East, India, and most of Asia. The idea of the “10/40 window” was first proposed and promoted by Donald McGavran and C. Peter Wagner in the early 1970s. It says that as the church, our task is to reach all of the unreached people groups in the world with the good news. They said that the 10/40 window was the Last Frontier of the gospel, and that we needed to focus our energy and resources there. But casting this “Final Frontier” as the last place on earth that has never heard the gospel really overlooks a few things. Firstly, that the heart of the 10/40 window is precisely the geographical region where Jesus himself preached His message. The disciples were sent out from this place where the gospel supposedly never has been!

Secondly, the “Final Frontier” ignores the fact that people groups change. Through moves and intermarriages and other societal changes, some people groups have ceased to exist. Today the world is full of dead languages and lost cultures. At the same time, new people groups are being born all the time. Forty years ago, it would have been ridiculous to talk about “the Homosexual Community” or “the Postmodern World,” but today, these are people groups; they have culture and language unique to them.

Most importantly, a focus on the 10/40 window’s “unreached” people groups assumes that once a people group is “reached” with the gospel, it will always remain so. My time in Western Europe, in a “Christian” nation full of empty churches and faithless people, has taught me otherwise. Just as by faithful people the good news comes to a people, so too, by unfaithful ones, does it leave a people after just a few short generations.

The idea of “lostness” as our motivation is not a new one, but it is based on human logic rather than what the Bible says. In His “Olivet Discourse” (Mt. 24- 25, Mk.13), Jesus answers the disciple’s questions about the time and events of His return. “…and this gospel will be preached to all nations, and then the end will come.” Many missionaries and missiologists use this verse as a foundation for their “unfinished task” motivation. But the verse is meant to be descriptive rather than prescriptive; that is to say, Jesus is here providing a general idea, setting the background for the time of His return, not giving a mandate or outlining a strategy for global missions.

“All Nations”

My last post was about the Board’s current missiology; specifically, Jeff Lewis’ study posted on the imb.org website. I need to start by saying that I’m questioning the Board’s philosophy here. I don’t have anything against Jeff Lewis, and I don’t want to offend anyone. Again, I’m just looking for people who will discuss the questions I have.

Now, most missionaries and missiologists these days seem to be saying that God’s big plan is to “reach” (by this, I’m guessing they mean “save” or “redeem”?) all nations across the globe. Most of the books and websites I’ve read like these verses as insight into God’s “heart for the nations:”

Of course, there’s the Great Commission:
Matthew 28:19
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”

So we know the term “all nations” is a Biblical one. We usually define nation as “peoples who group themselves according to geography, language, and culture.” There are other passages that talk about “all nations,” but it’s harder to see the direct application to missions. This one, for example, from Mark:

Mark 13:9-11
“You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.”

Does “must first be preached” here mean “primarily,” or “before any of the above happens?” And does it mean we should come up with a plan to preach to all nations? Is preaching to all nations the same as missions? Where might church planting come into play?

Anyway, the most often-cited verse is usually this one:
Matthew 24:14
“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”

Everyone I’ve read on this one seems to take this verse as a prescriptive directive. That is: “You must preach to all nations before the end will come.” I’ll write about this in a separate post.

Finally, there’s the Revelation passage:
Revelation 7:9
“…after this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.”

Here, John says he sees people from every nation worshipping. Not to split hairs, but is he talking about all the ones that were around back then? Maybe he had the insight to recognize all the people groups that every existed and ever would in the future. Or maybe he just means “lots of people from lots of different places.”

One verse that also uses the “all nations/every nation” terminology is this one that tells about the Day of Pentecost:
Acts 2:5
“Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.”

I find it odd that this one doesn’t figure into the discussion. Does it mean that there were literally Jews in all nations? Or is it saying “of the nations in which there were Jewish people…” If we’re going to base our missiology on a concordance search for “all nations,” we need to talk about this one, too.

And another “all nations” passage in Revelation that isn’t considered relevant:

Revelation 14:5-7
“Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earthÂ? to every nation, tribe, language and people. He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.”

I’m of the opinion that we shouldn’t assume a destination when God gives us a direction. I believe that Jesus will come back whenever He wants to (later in Matthew 24, and 1 Thessalonians 5). It really doesn’t all depend on us. I find that Revelation 14 verse very assuring: “The Task,” if it is our task, can and will be “fulfilled” by God’s heavenly messenger in one fell swoop- a sort of evangacube in the sky, if you will. Hey, maybe that should be our new strategy (he said with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek).
Evangecube

“God’s Heart for the Nations”

When I was in college, my friends that wanted to be missionaries were really into John Piper. He wrote a book called “Let the Nations Be Glad” in 1993 that really challenged popular thought concerning missions and God’s gloy. The basic premise was the God is mostly concerned with His glory. God is a jealous God, and His greatest desire, according to Piper, is that all the nations of the world worship Him. Piper makes the application to global missions by saying that the goal of the Church’s mission is that all nations worship God. I recommend the book to anyone who hasn’t read it.

About that same time, a guy named Jeff Lewis (the professor of missions at Cal Baptist, not sure what he’s up to these days) was making the rounds talking and teaching at Christian Universities about “God’s Heart for the Nations.” He built on Piper’s idea that the main reason for human existance is that we would worship God, and that our act of worship ought to be leading others to worship Him as well. Lewis was also really into people group research, and was therefore focused on the 10/40 window. His teachings had a profound influence; not only on my “Mission Friends” (get it?), but also on the IMB. In 1998, the Board adopted its “New Directions” campaign and strategy change, shifting it’s focus from countries to ethno-linguistic people groups. This “paradigm shift” echoed Jeff Lewis’ call for the Board to take the focus off of “reached” people groups and to concentrate it’s efforts and resources on the “unreached.” In fact, Jeff’s study on “God’s Heart for the Nations” can still be found here at the imb.org website.

Anyway, Jeff asks the reader again and again to consider:
“Start Pondering … What is God’s ultimate passion? Not His only passion, but what is His chief end? When everything is eliminated but one, what is His central motivation?”

I’d like to hear what you all think about this. I’ll post more thoughts in a couple of days.

What’s It Gonna Take?

One of my biggest pet peeves is hearing someone from the IMB (usually it’s someone in leadership) say, “What’s it gonna take to get the job done?”

Now I’ve gone through my thoughts about the “Unfinished Task” in previous posts. As far as I can tell, “the Task” we’re called to is nothing less than a step-by-step following of the Holy Spirit. But the IMB has scrapped that for something more practical. It’s like we read the instructions Jesus gave in Matthew 28:18-20, and we say, “Ok boys, you heard Him. All nations. Let’s get the job done!” It started in the 1976 with “Bold Mission Thrust,” a massive campaign the IMB launched to “Evangelize the world by the year 2000.” (Followed by “A Church for Every People by the Year 2000″ in 1980, “Strategy to Every People” in 1984, “One million native missionaries” in 1986 and “Decade of Evangelism” in 1990.) Like all of the Y2K Doomsday Prophets, we don’t really talk about this any more. These fund-raising campaigns (our strategies have proven that they were never really goals after all), did little to advance our overseas ministries, but they went a long way to giving Southern Baptists across the country a false understanding of missions.

All along we’ve set ourselves up as the missions experts, and told people that missions is about “reaching” people. We’ve developed mathmatical equasions for calculating a people group’s “need.” We ignore places in the world where God is working in ways we can’t use to raise money. We plaster pictures of needy dark-skinned people in the “-stans,” and tell the people in the pew that it all depends on us. We settle for evangelism because disciple-making (church planting) is too abstract and hard to measure. We worship missionaries as “super-Christians,” perpetuating the lies of professional clergy and highter callings.

Now we’ve decided that God’s goal is to “reach” every nation in the world (apparently not by the year 2000). We’ve gone to great lengths to develop strategies to get us to that end. We’ve even calculated how much money, how many people, and how long it’s going to take the IMB to fulfill this task. The problem is that we’ve made a “goals and action plan” project of God’s call to ongoing obedience.

What’s it gonna take? Us admitting that our human-centered understanding of missions and our plans for doing it are prime examples of us getting ahead of God. If we want to be involved in what God is doing around the world, we’re going to have to stop assuming we know what God is doing and that we know the best way to “get it done.” It’s going to take our churches (not our organization) sending people who are committed to going where God calls them and doing what God leads them to do, even if it doesn’t seem to fit our strategy.

Finally, why aren’t we suspicious of the extremely pragmatic nature of our question? Asking “What’s it gonna take?” is focusing on the end, ignoring the means. I believe the same sort of thing happened when Jesus talked about His kingdom and Peter reached for his sword.

Can I get some feedback here?

Missions Misunderstood

I am not a missionary. It’s kind of a big deal for me to admit that. Yeah, I know that “we’re all supposed to be missionaries,” and that people who bring the good news have beautiful feet. I’m struggling with the whole thing because of all people, I’m supposed to be a missionary because I’m employed by the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. They hired and appointed and commissioned me to serve as a church planter here in Western Europe. They interviewed me, checked all of my references, confirmed my calling, examined my theology, gave me a physical, trained me, and sent me out. The organization is considered the most effective missions sending agency in the world. Surely, they know what missions is, right? Obviously, they know how it should be done, wouldn’t you think? So when I find myself disagreeing with some of the Board’s basic missiology and methodology, you can understand why I’m assuming that the problem is with me and not the wise men and women (but mostly men) who are responsible for our operations.

My problem is one of conscience. As the concept of missions is further defined by both the organization and the Christian subculture, I continue to grow less and less comfortable with the title “missionary” and with “missions” as it is understood within the organization. If, because of certain differences, I can’t represent the Board as they would like me to, how can I, with integrity, continue to take their financial support? If the people in the pews that give sacrificially (and even the stingy ones that give way less than they could) think that they’re funding certain mission endeavors of certain people, and I, in all honesty, am not one of those people, shouldn’t I quit? This isn’t a new problem. I’ve been struggling with this since before I ever got to the field. But as time has passed, and as I’ve invested myself into ministry, I’ve found myself becoming increasingly unlike the missionary I know the IMB thinks I am.

I have sought the counsel of wise coworkers. Most of them have said something to the effect of, “Don’t worry- the Board needs people like you with a different perspective on things to take a different approach toward our work.” Others encouraged me to keep seeking God on the issue. A few (usually the seasoned veterans) gave me the “when I was your age…” routine. Maybe they’re right. Maybe this is all a phase I’ll grow out of, or some immaturity I need to grow through.

Which is why I’m posting my thoughts here. I guess it’s probably cowardly to post my opinions anonymously, but I don’t want to offend any of my friends and coworkers. Even though I tend to express myself in a way that sounds confident (hopefully never arrogant), I admit that I don’t have all the answers. Sometimes I wonder whether I even have one or two answers. My intent here is to question some of the things about missions and missionaries and our fine organization that I don’t hear anyone else questioning. I won’t assume that anyone else struggles with these things, but I will hope that someone out there might share their thoughts on these things.