People Group Advocacy

Most missionaries see themselves as having been sent to a particular people group or population segment. This makes sense, as each subculture requires a unique methodology to church and gospel translation.

Most missionaries establish themselves as advocates for their people. They promote their work by highlighting the needs, both spiritual and physical, of the group. They present statistics demonstrating their “unreachedness” and relative separation from Christ.

I’ve written before about the need to love your city. But I would love to see missions advocacy take a more positive turn. Why not set up a website promoting what your people group has to offer the world? Rather than focusing on their great need (let’s face it, the vast need is overwhelming), emphasizing the potential contribution of your group?

Perhaps your long-lost tribe in the Amazon could teach hunters in Arkansas a thing or two about bow hunting. Or maybe the women in your village in Sudan would give a mean seminar on basket weaving. The Yi of southwestern China are expert nomadic cattle herders, and could advise on land-sharing initiatives. From art to cooking to justice to living in balance with the environment, every people has something to offer humanity. Why not advocate for your people group by promoting their assets rather than lamenting their lostness?

To be clear: I’m not talking about exploitation; you should not be making money off of your people group. I’m not talking about starting business ventures, either. Some groups may be interested in this sort of thing, but many entrepreneurial Westerners have sold out their people in the name of community development.

Instead, I’m talking about establishing a platform from which those who do not know your people group might be able to relate to it. If you were to promote your work among the gemu otaku in Tokyo as having a tremendous ability to build and interact in virtual worlds, you’re building bridges for interested churches to connect with them. The Adyghe in the Northwest Caucasus all carry swords yet live peaceably with one another. Churches could ask them to speak into the U.S. gun control debate.

Leading with the need may raise awareness and pull at the heart strings, but advertising  a people’s skills provides a starting point for dialog. It would truly serve the church on mission if advocates would help them see people groups not at projects, but as people.

The Missionary Blogosphere

Now that it’s 2011, many missionaries have embraced the 2000s and started blogs. Fortunately, there are hundreds of opportunities to stay in touch with what’s happening on the field. I try to monitor lots of these blogs in order to know what God is doing around the world (and so that I can make fun of missionaries).

As I scan the missionary blogosphere, it seems like they tend to take one of four distinct approaches to blogging. I summarize each of them here for your information and entertainment:

1.) Newsletter blogs. In the missionary snail mail era (pre-2004), missionaries took great pains to fire up Microsoft Word and put together a collection of thoughts, updates, Bible verses, clip-art and low-resolution photos. They would then print these out, fold them into thirds, and mail them to everyone in their address book (which, back then, was an actual book). The newsletter served as a sort of “don’t forget about us” message that hardly anyone read, but nobody had the heart to opt out of receiving them.

So when email came into regular use, workers everywhere started sending electronic versions of their newsletters (sometimes literally printed out and scanned back in to the computer). And when Geocities started offering free web hosting, missionaries around the world jumped at the opportunity to save some postage by transitioning their newsletters into map-themed websites with large hit counters and animated GIFs.

You can still find these sites, but now most of them use Blogger. The idea is the same– snapshots of the missionaries and their eight children, eating strange food, singing during a worship service, celebrating a birthday. The stories included are carefully selected to show that the need is great, they’re making progress, but the work isn’t done yet. They almost always conclude with a list or prayer requests and a reminder of where to send a check.

Look for blog names like: “Come 2 (Country Name),” or “ (Country Name) for Christ,” or anything with words from the local language.

2.) Every post is a theological treatise. These missionary blogs are easily identified: no images (with the exception of the occasional stock photo to illustrate a point) and lots of theology in a sea of text. Maybe it’s because they used to be preachers and still need to put together a sermon each week; maybe they’re working through a personal study of the book of Ecclesiastes and just thought the world would be interested. Whatever their motivation, treatise bloggers use their blogs like long-winded preachers use their pulpits– to bore their audience with content that we’d feel guilty to disregard publicly.

It should be noted that Missions, Misunderstood has always fallen into this category. Nine-part series. Lots of scrolling to get to the end of a post. Preaching to the choir. At times, even I was bored with my posts.

Look for URLs that include Ancient Greek, the name of an obscure Biblical place, or a veiled scriptural reference.

3.) Diary blogs. Sadza and cabbage for dinner. What the kids got for Christmas. The contents of a recent care package.Diary bloggers spare no detail to give you a front seat in the action of their daily lives. They want you to feel the frustration of a trip to the post office and to know the humiliation of language mistakes. These blogs walk the fine line between and LOL and TMI.

Look for blog URLs that include the word life– as in “Life In Ecuador,” or “The So-And-Sos In Someplace“.

4.) Devotion blogs. Somewhere between the Treatise blogs and the Diary blogs are the Devotion blogs, where every interaction is an object lesson and every life experience has deep spiritual meaning. Posts start out as an entertaining account of some daily-life experience, but then quickly take a turn for the spiritual, where the author reflects on what happened and how God must be using it to teach him something. Finally, Devotion blog posts end with a prayer, scripture, or both.

Look for blog titles that include the words: ramblings, musings, rantings, thoughts, or something to do with coffee.

To find all types of missionary blogs, visit the appropriately-named missionary-blogs.com, where you’ll find lists of missionary blogs according to country of service. Also, be sure to follow the link-trails from one missionary blog to another. Missionaries’ blogs are part of an ongoing conversation among workers around the world. The more missionary blogs you follow, the more you’ll be able to see the big picture.

Missionary Tech

Exploring her new city, the missionary located concentrations of her people group by scanning each block through a virtual reality heads-up display that showed demographics, statistics, and points of interest. She had only just started learning the local language, so she depended on her visual translator to read signs and labels. Her social networking application helped her meet young women in the area who shared her love of cooking and were willing to meet for coffee and practice English. A few text messages allowed the ladies to connect in a local cafe. When the missionary had an opportunity to share the gospel, she pulled up the book of John in the local language, and then showed a clip from the Jesus film, also in the heart language. As she Tweeted her experience, some supporters (who had been praying in real-time) were moved to give financially to her ministry via Paypal. That evening, the missionary sat down to edit the photos and videos she had taken throughout the day into a podcast and prepared for a video call to her church back home.

Your missionary needs an iPhone.

It’s funny to think that not long ago, missionaries were only seen once every four years or so. Communication consisted of letters and care packages, which had to travel by boat (slow, expensive) or by air (faster, even more expensive). Locally, the missionary had only word-of-mouth and find nationals who might be interested in knowing Jesus. Scripture translations were few and hard to come by.

The separation meant that churches were less likely to be directly involved in the missionary’s life, less engaged in what was happening on the field, and less informed by the lessons learned though the missionary endeavor. Those days are gone, and now, there’s no excuse.

Your missionary needs an iPhone.

What once would have been science fiction, is now part of everyday life for millions of iPhone (or other smartphone) users. The device facilitates much of what missionaries do: navigating, mapping, and communicating. Downloadable apps (even the free ones) make short work of producing a continuous stream of information that keeps supporters actively involved.

Despite leaps in technology, not much has changed for most missionaries on the field, who rarely have access to things like iPhones. Overseas, smartphones sell for hundreds of dollars, and require either expensive and restrictive contracts or technologically-challenging “jailbreaks” and SIM-unlocks in order to work.

Sure, in some places, missionaries can’t justify carrying a luxury item like an iPhone. In other places, the iPhone’s poor signal reception would severely limit it. And far be it from me to send a missionary something that would cause the natives to worship him as the god of Angry Birds or something. But as iPhones and iPods become increasingly common, they are less conspicuous. Cultural acceptance move them from opulence to curiosity to “does anyone around here not have an iPhone?”

Now, more than ever, we have to tools to bring our churches in regular direct contact with what God is doing around the world.

Why not include an iPhone in the next care package you send?

Francis Went First

Last year, Francis Chan left the Southern California megachurch that he planted for reasons that weren’t clear to anybody (including Francis). Last Fall, he announced that he and his family were heading to Asia to visit the churches there and to get an idea of what God is doing around the world.

Mark Driscoll thinks Francis is crazy for walking away from his Cornerstone. Francis says he left his church because he wants to live a life that fits in the context of the Bible. His point is that leaving a healthy ministry and the comforts of home in order to be part of what God is doing is a relatively tame move in light of scripture. He jokes about how his life would fit into the New Testament: “James, killed. Peter, imprisoned. Francis goes to Asia.”

I’m proud of Francis and his family. Not because we need to seek out suffering. Not because we’re in a race to see who can “give up the most for Jesus.” But because they have stepped out in radical obedience, even when others didn’t understand.

Francis didn’t want his church to depend on him. He didn’t want his audience to think that planting a church in an affluent suburb was the standard of success. But now, more than ever, I wish they would imitate him. As a prominent pastor in the U.S., Francis is doing something that others should consider. Rather than building a kingdom, why not plant and move on? Why not leave what you’ve built in order to have your worldview influenced by first-hand accounts of what God is doing outside your cultural context? Why not venture out beyond a short-term mission trip to allow believers from other parts of the world to influence your perspective on faith, church, culture, money, and life?

Francis didn’t do anything crazy, he just went first.

Who’s next?

We’re In The Lord’s Army

Six people were killed on Saturday, and thirteen injured, when a gunman entered a townhall meeting held by Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D–Arizona), and opened fire. The congresswoman was among the injured. Today, politicians are calling for an end to gun rhetoric that has become popular among pro-gun public figures such as Sarah Palin and others. Each side, of course, blames the other.

Some are saying that the shooter was incited by the militaristic rhetoric of conservative pundits. While the gunman’s motives are yet unknown, the discussion got me thinking about some of the militaristic terminology we use in missions today. We “mobilize” missionaries when we mean to “send them out.” We “enlist” the “support” of “prayer warriors” as we “strategically” “engage” the people of our “target” audience. Might the words we use lead some, both believers and unbelievers, to come to the conclusion that Christians are warring against non-Christians?

The problem with thinking of ourselves primarily as “Christian soldiers” (rather than “Christian peacemakers”) is that we’re always looking for someone to fight. The spiritual enemy is very real, but we’re easily distracted by the human ones (both real and suspected). The Bible includes militaristic imagery (Ephesians 6 tells us to “put on the full armor of God”), but it’s clear that our war is a spiritual one. In the scriptural analogy, unbelieving peoples aren’t the enemy, they’re the captives.

I’m choosing to replace the militaristic terms in my missions vocabulary with words that better communicate my intentions. In any land, among any people, I mean no harm. I’m not that sort of soldier. I’m here to bless, reconcile, and bring peace in the name of Jesus. That’s my mission (okay, so that’s one military word I may have to keep!)

The Mormons Own Coca-Cola

…or is it Pepsi?

Surly you’ve heard this rumor repeated as evidence the the widespread and subversive influence on American culture. It was repeated to me recently during a conversation about missionary businessmen. Several church leaders were talking with a young man who is starting an internet research company so that he and his family could live wherever God sent them without having to raise support or look for a job. A noble concept, for a businessman. As soon as he’s up and running, I’ll post a link to this entrepreneur’s website.

The church leaders were intrigued. The idea of developing a business that would make money while fulfilling the Great Commission seemed like the silver bullet to “getting the job done.”

That got me thinking. If the rumor that Mormons own Coke was actually true, how awesome would that be for, you know, the Mormons? A single share of the Coca-Cola Company is worth over a billion U.S. dollars. That would buy enough white shirts, black ties, name tags, and bicycles to put pubescent Latter-Day Saints elders in every city in the world (with enough left over to keep their families in trampolines and special underwear).

The biggest problem in missions today isn’t a lack of willing workers. In this economy, any eight-year seminarian would jump at the chance of a full-ride to missionary superstardom. Nevermind what the Bible says, the problem isn’t people, it’s money.

Missions would be a lot easier of the churches didn’t hold the purse strings. Churches who get no say in what happens on the field, or even who is sent, but are expected to bankroll every initiative missionaries want to push– clearly, they are the problem. If churches are too stingy to fund strategic requests (church planting among some people groups require a Range Rover), I say we go Silicon Valley on them.

Why not start a business (or network of businesses) that would support the work around the world? Something that would fund missionaries while allowing them the flexibility to travel, plant churches, and disciple nationals. A legitimate business that would secure access into closed places and help develop community in positive ways without requiring them to do any actual work. Something like Google, but without all of the programming; like Coke, but without the overhead. Like Amway, but respectable and not so predatory.

Insurance comes to mind.

Why don’t we own anything that might help fund our missionary ventures? Why don’t regular old missionaries get in on the business-as-mission game? Banking, for example, would be an obvious choice. Or stocks– shares of Google, Apple, or even The Clapper, would buy a lot of plane tickets and ship a lot of peanut butter (everyone knows that Skippy is the key to retention of field personnel).

The answer is simple: most missionaries on the field today (and nearly all of the students coming out of the seminaries) are not business people. Many are talking about business as mission. It’s a great way to show businesspeople that what they do can have kingdom value. Whether it’s coffee shops, agricultural irrigation specialists, or pharmaceutical consultants, we need more businesspeople on mission. Folks who run and own companies naturally think strategically. They tend to be very good at networking (business often depends on it), and, except for the occasional used-car salesman or investment banker, they understand the need for a good work ethic.

Missionaries, not so much.

“Start a business” is not the answer to decreased giving, a right relationship to the sending church is.

A Cynical Moment

While most bloggers out there are starting the new year with a positive and hopeful outlook, I’m starting with what some may call a cynical (I say realistic) moment.

Most churches are woefully unengaged in God’s mission, and this won’t change in the coming year.

There are too many “experts” using the word “missional” to refer to traditional missions or serving in the local elementary school. Without a radical shift in the basic understanding of what it means to be on mission, we’re just doing more of the same.

There are too many books out there with no real solutions, no new ideas. Yes, I’m aware that there’s nothing new under the sun. But there’s a whole lot we can do differently that would result in us being better missionaries. The practitioners tend to be left without a platform from which to share what they’re seeing God do.

There are too many missions organizations that treat non-professionals like a necessary nuisance. Until churches own the Commission and we’re all peers in God’s mission, churches will not learn to see themselves as missionaries.

There are too many churches that waste money on buildings, property, events, and staff. Our priorities are made clear in our spending habits, and most churches don’t care at all about anything but themselves.

There are too many believers who have had short-term missions experience that left them thinking either 1) they completely understand missions, did their time, and now they’re experts in the field, or 2) missions isn’t for them. A system with these results is broken.

There are too many more titillating things to read about besides the great spiritual need all around the world. It’s too hard to prayerfully read up on the Christian church bombing in Egypt when there’s another really good article on the latest iPad killer.

So change isn’t likely this year. There’s too much opposition. Too much noise.

Happy New Year.

Fortunately, most churches don’t have to get it in order for God to do great things among us. The few who will obediently turn outward and engage the world in redemptive relationships will be God’s means to the spread of the gospel and the planting of indigenous churches. The ones who know they have nothing to offer are the ones through whom the world can more clearly see Jesus.

This year, I’m not going to stop talking about missions; about our privilege and responsibility to translate the good news into every culture in which we find ourselves. I’ll continue to geek out on missions strategy and bridges to sharing the gospel. Lord willing, I’ll continue to be part of this ongoing conversation among those who are on mission (or at least want to be).

In The Fullness of Time…

As I think about the Christmas story, I can’t get Galatians 4:4 off my mind.

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”

The fullness of time.

Dr. Thom Wolf says that the “fullness of time” relates back to Ecclesiastes 1:9- “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun;” That humanity had progressed as far as we ever would; there would be no new worldviews, philosophies, or ideas (maybe “improvements” and syntheses of old ones). Once we had tried everything, literally exhausted our options at attempts at godhood, Christ entered the picture.

Look around. There really aren’t any new ideas. Looking for salvation, even a temporary one, people still turn to the lusts of the eyes and the lusts of the flesh. While chasing after these things may be easier than ever, they are no more functional as saviors than they were in Jesus’ day.

Jesus’ arrival in the manger so long ago meant salvation for humanity- a salvation we had tried so desperately to earn, invent, discover, buy, steal, or create. God’s timing was this: when we were at our end, He stepped into history to provide a way.

Thank you, Jesus, for lowering yourself to our level.

Happy Christmas, everyone!

Christian Christmas in Christian America

I’m still thinking about the ongoing controversy among cultural Christians over whether secular businesses greet them with “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” A comment from Seminary Wife on my last post has got me thinking:

The Christians who are worked up over this are spoiled.

In the Middle East, Christians suffer persecution. In central Asia, Christ-followers are killed. In China, Christians meet secretly. In America, their greeted with indifference at the mall.

When you’re in the majority, you get used to having things your way. The problem is that Americans decided (some time ago) that they didn’t want to act like Christians. The Christians, however, didn’t seem to notice it until they were greeted with “Happy Holidays” at the Gap.

The Bible says, “Bless those who persecute you.” I’m not familiar with any passage that reads, “Take offense at those who insult your sense of entitlement.”

As I celebrate Christ’s birth this season, I’m choosing to feel compassion for (not frustration with) those who won’t acknowledge that Christmas is about Jesus. I hope you will, too.

And pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ who cannot openly celebrate with us. Pray for those who are losing their lives, even as we lose a bit of our comfort.

Merry Christmas.

God Is Most Glorified When Wal-Mart Says Merry Christmas

Is God pleased when a non-believer says “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays?”

Lots of people (mostly in Texas and Florida) seem to think so.  First Baptist Church, Dallas recently launched GrinchAlert.com, (HT) a website that posts user-generate lists: businesses that greet customers with “Merry Christmas” make the Nice list, while “Happy Holidays” earns them a spot on the Naughty list.

Nevermind that the idea of Naughty and Nice lists come from the secular Santa Claus myth. Forget that the Grinch is a (trademarked) character in a secular Christmas children’s story with a dubious humanistic moral at the end. Pay no attention to the overt consumerism displayed on the site. What’s especially troubling about this campaign is that these people actually believe that God is somehow honored by Christian-targeted marketing.

I blame John Piper.

I’m sure Dr. Piper would never advocate for something like GrinchAlert. But I can’t help but think that this sort of “boycott lost people for not acting like Christians” mentality has some relation to Piper’s assertion that the greatest good is whatever brings God the “most glory.” While I don’t disagree with his premise, I’m pretty sure we need to clarify what we mean by “good,” “glory,” and, well, “God” for that matter. Otherwise, we get GrinchAlert culture warriors who care more that people act like Christ-followers than that they would actually become Christ-followers because it, you know, brings glory to God.

Is it a “win” for Christians if secular businesses say “Merry Christmas?” Is that part of our mission on this earth? Is a coerced profession of Christmas our mission? I’m no expert in degrees of God-honor, but “If you don’t say Christmas we’ll go elsewhere to buy the Chinese-made junk we don’t need” doesn’t seem like it’d be that high on the list.

It all comes down to marketing. The reason Starbucks insists that its employees greet customers with “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is that they want to make money.  Their audience isn’t just Christian Christmas-celebrators. “Happy Holidays” covers everyone- Christians, Jews, Qwanzaans, and atheists who don’t believe there’s anything to celebrate, but still take a couple days off work this time of year.

The other side of the question remains: is the non-believer brought any closer to belief by saying, “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays?” Will the clerk at Borders know Jesus better if we include his store on the Naughty list?

By the way, my favorite comment on the GrinchAlert site?

“American Airlines: Excessive use of “holiday”, no mention of Christmas. With a name like American Airlines, come on.”