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).

Ed Stetzer Is (Probably) Not Your Pastor

At the “amen” of the closing prayer, the man bounded up to the stage with a satisfied look on his face. “Dude, you really brought it just now!” he exclaimed. “That was just what we needed to hear!” The Dude in question was Ed Stetzer, missiologist, author, preacher, researcher, and popular Christian conference speaker. The excited guy from the audience was going in for the hug when he uttered some very telling words: “Thanks for being a pastor to all of us.”

Ed had no idea who this guy was. Not because he’s especially forgetful (he’s a human Wikipedia of missions and the church), and not because he’s bad with names (he isn’t– except maybe with mine). The problem was that Ed had never actually met this man who was clearly his biggest fan. (Though anyone who knows germaphobic Ed would know better than to actually touch him.)

Ed Stetzer is everywhere. He spends lots of time on the road, speaking at conferences, teaching in seminaries, and consulting with various organizations and denominational groups. He puts out several books each year. He blogs regularly and Tweets like a spambot. His brain never shifts out of overdrive. I’ve seen him answer text messages while making a keynote presentation without ever missing a beat. Despite his crazy travel schedule, he’s home every weekend to spend time with his family and preach at church every Sunday.

It would be easy for anyone who reads his stuff and sees him speak a couple times a year to feel as though they knew Ed. His commitment to biblical truth might even make some of his fans feel as though Ed was their pastor. He’s not, and he doesn’t claim to be. Neither are any of the other two dozen or so other big names in evangelical circles. Unless you go to their churches (and in some cases, even that won’t do it), authors and conference speakers aren’t your pastors.

A pastor knows you well enough to preach the gospel into your community of faith. He holds you accountable for your missteps and encourages you through the rough patches. As described in 2 Timothy 4, a pastor is more than just a presenter of gospel teaching, he’s a shepherd who supervises your spiritual formation. The conference stage, book, (and, in many cases, the megachurch pulpit) serve as two-way mirrors; allowing us to be taught without being seen, to be preached to without being cared for.

We need thinkers, teachers, authors, and speakers. On the corporate level, leaders like Ed Stetzer are the people who drive the conversation and inspire with new ideas. They teach, equip, and challenge us publicly. They speak on our behalf. But believers need more than just sound instruction. Every Christian everywhere needs a pastor who knows them and speaks into their lives personally.

Ed Stetzer isn’t your pastor. Neither is Francis Chan, John Piper, or Matt Chandler (unless, of course, you go to their churches.) If you don’t know who your pastor is, you need to find one. If you don’t know of any in your area, ask Ed Stetzer– he probably does.

On Church Planting

I love church planters. They really are a unique breed. Anyone who would launch out on their own to navigate the waters of societal indifference, institutional competition, and sustained discouragement  in efforts to start a church deserves some respect (Or pity. Maybe both.) I get to meet a lot of church planters from across the country, and they are invariably passionate and highly motivated.

I always ask how far into the process a planter is. The brightest-eyed always answer in terms of months; the more haggard of the bunch in years. Others still will answer in depth, as in “About up to here.”

I never ask how many people participate in the church plant. I think it’s a terrible question that only perpetuates the “numbers= success” mentality. I love to ask planters about the challenges they’re experiencing. Most are struggling in some way or another, and many don’t have anyone to talk to about those struggles. You’d be surprised how many of them have no peers to talk to about behind-the-scenes ministry-related stuff. Lots of them have wives that just aren’t into the whole thing. Most are struggling financially. Assessment and accountability can help with some of these things, but you’d be surprised how much springs up only after the planter is well into the church planting process.

On the international mission field, those who work among the unengaged, unreached people groups in undeveloped places are considered the “elite forces” of the missionary world. They work under constant opposition, threat of persecution, and with daily physical hardship. Theirs is important work, but not because it’s difficult. The value in their service is their obedience, not their sacrifice.

As much as I love church planters, I don’t like the way we’ve glamorized what they do. When we treat church planting as the ultimate accomplishment in Christian ministry, we make it into something that actually competes with our obedience. People who have no business planting churches pursue it for the sake of the challenge and the status it brings. Others walk away from ministry completely when they don’t see the results they were expecting. For every Rick Warren and Mark Driscoll there are hundreds (thousands?) of, well, me.

I worked hard for several years to plant a church (actually, a movement of churches) in Western Europe. I had a great team, good accountability, a sound plan, and a passion for God’s church. Through our work, we saw lives transformed, community formed, and the gospel proclaimed among unreached people. In the end, we didn’t see God do what we thought He was going to do. I certainly couldn’t plant a church and God, for whatever reason, didn’t.

You may be surprised that I don’t feel like a failure (anymore). I learned a lot through my experience, and I know that my obedience matters more than my accomplishments. I realize that my plans and strategies don’t guarantee results. I also came to realize that I’m not a church planter. In fact, none of us are. God plants and builds His church. We’re just the means by which He doe it.

Bible Stories

Growing up in church, kids always got special treatment. At my church, for example, there was some unwritten rule giving all adults in church “special” permission to “discipline” us as though we were their own kids. Doyle Braden was an arm-grabber, as I recall. Mr. Lettow would flick the backs of our heads. Sean’s dad pinched ears. Hard.

I digress.

Church kids didn’t have to listen to sermons. We were allowed to draw on the backs of bulletins and take naps. The sermon was for “grownups.” The kids, well, we were told “Bible stories.”

I remember my Sunday School teacher pulling out the flannelgraph and using felt-cutouts of camels, caves, and men with beards retell (okay- summarize) the stories of the Bible. Noah and the Ark. The Fiery Furnace. The Good Samaritan. Great stories, all told in kid-friendly ways. You know, like on Sesame Street.

And that was the problem. Our little kid brains had a hard time telling the difference between Bible stories (which, I presume our teachers believed to have really happened or, in the case of the Samaritan, to have really been told by Jesus) and every other story we had been told. After all, David and Goliath had a giant, but so did Jack and the Beanstalk. Jesus was resurrected by the power of God, Sleeping Beauty was revivified by the Kiss of a Prince. To us, it was all kind of the same.

To make matters worse, our teachers often oversimplified the stories, diluting them into moralistic tales that they were never meant to be. Adam and Eve, Jacob and Esau, and Achan, taught us that is was bad to tell a lie. David and Jonathan showed us that sharing made us a good friend. Jonah was a lesson in obedience. Sunday morning Bible stories were like lo-tech Saturday morning cartoons. Only boring.

Looking back, I recognize that each “story” was an opportunity to share the gospel; to demonstrate our need for a savior and to recognize God’s provision in Christ. But instead, we learned that sharing and using good manners made Jesus happy. As we grew up, those stories were left behind for more practical topical Bible studies and the abstract “meat” of Pauline theology.

Of course, we eventually learned that The Three Little Pigs, The Seven Dwarfs, and all the other protagonists in our childhood stories weren’t real. How were we to know that their Bible story counterparts were?

I suppose what I’m getting at is that we need to be careful how we communicate things. The Bible isn’t God’s Cautionary Tales. Sure, there are lots of examples in the history of the Creator’s interaction with creation, but there’s more to it than that. Everything recorded in the text points to humanity’s relationship to God, made right only through the life, death, and real resurrection of Jesus. The way we talk about that history will affect how it is understood by those we tell.

The Church, On Mission

This the the third in what I didn’t realize was going to become a series on the relationship between missiology and ecclesiology. I believe this is an extremely helpful conversation. One that needs to happen more and more.

Missiologically-driven folks need to hear more about the centrality of the church in the Great Commission. Many of my missionary friends seem to be a bit, er, underdeveloped in their ecclesiology. They operate as though the local expression of the church is but one of several valid mechanisms for mission. As if things like pastoral care, personal accountability, and spiritual gift-based ministry were optional. But as I’ve written before, I believe that the Commission was given to the church, and that it is God’s structure for obeying that Commission. I believe that churches, not individuals, should be planting churches. I believe that church doesn’t just happen by accident, but that people must be discipled into becoming a healthy body of Christ.

The church has a mission.

The church-centrics, on the other hand, tend to lose sight of the fact that the church exists to do mission. Not in the pragmatic, “whatever works” sense, but in the “what’s the point of our presence on earth if we’re not deliberate about incarnating the gospel in our context?” sort of way. If the church, (lead my Christ Himself) were to organize itself around the mission, it might look a bit different than it does. You know, things like where we meet. How we spend money. The language we use. Our attitudes toward those who don’t believe. Our taste in music.

The mission has a church.

Just to be clear (I know, why start now?) I’m not calling for balance here. I’m calling for mutual influence. Missions-types need to hear from pastoral church guys. Without condescension, without ignorant over-simplification. The church-centered side desperately needs to hear from the missionaries among us. No guilt-trips, no judgmental disdain. When we get together and wrestle through conversations like these, we really are getting somewhere.

The Church Has A Mission

The Upstream Collective recently went to London and Paris on a Jet Set vision trip. We took 26 pastors and church leaders (and  a couple wives) to Europe to see first-hand what missions looks like in that post-Christian context. These trips have always been successful.  90% of pastors who participate find ways to become directly involved in missions within 6 months of the trip.

My favorite part of our Jet Set vision trips is the casual conversation that happens over coffee and on the subway. When you get a group of church planters and leaders together, we sort of geek out on theology, social trends, and technology. This trip was a great mix of highly motivated church planters. They saw the challenge of ministry in these global cities and had some great ideas for strategic engagement there. But every conversation seemed to come back around to one sticking point: The Stateside pastors/planters felt that the workers in the field had a low ecclesiologicaly relative to their missiology.

I think the pastors had a good point. Missionaries, acting as “free agents” without direct oversight from any local body of believers, were almost entirely focused on building relationships, studying culture, and looking for ways to move into spiritual conversations. I’ve written extensively here about the importance of these things. But I’ve also written here about the same concern the American pastors had– that the missionary teams were working hard to start churches without actually being a church.

The fellowship of believers is a powerful thing. The presence of the church can serve as an example of Christ-centered community that is attractive, incarnational, and redemptive. But these orphaned church planting team has to do quite a bit to make up for the fact that they are not churches. Outside the care, gifting, leadership, and authority of a local church, they’re in a spiritually dangerous place.

Some missionary teams join local churches (when there are any), hoping to be “adopted” by them as they work to plant new churches. But these local churches had no part in the missionaries’ confirmation of calling, formation, preparation, or sending. They don’t often share a common vision for church planting among their own people. Consequently, missionaries can be frustrated, sidetracked, or rejected by existing ministries among their people group.

When missiology is at the forefront– when it “precedes” ecclesiology, we send missionaries separate from the local church to do mission on behalf of the church. The result can be an isolated missionary that is estranged from God’s organizational structure, the church.

More soon…

The Mission Has A Church

There has been an ongoing discussion among Christian leaders about the relationship of the church and the mission of God. On one side, you’ve got those who say that ecclesiology (theology of church) should come before our missiology (theology of mission). In other words, the church is the most important thing in terms of how believers organize themselves, and that mission is a function of the church. If you get church right, these leaders say, then mission, along with the other functions of the church, will happen. If the church isn’t doing mission, it’s because the church isn’t healthy, obedient, and gospel-centered.

On the other side of the discussion are those would would flip that perspective around, making ecclesiology serve our missiology. My friend Alan Hirsch is an articulate advocate for this take on missional thinking, and he says, “Rather than say that the church has a mission, we should say that the mission has a church.” Believers have a mission, and what we know as “church” is meant to organize us to do that mission. From this perspective, our health, obedience, and gospel-centeredness are measured not by our leadership structure, but by our ownership of and involvement in God’s mission.

I believe that the two sides of this conversation represent the difference between pastors and missionaries. On the one hand, we’ve got pastors who major on church and minor  on missions. On the other hand, we have missionaries who major in mission and minor on church.

I’ll share more of my thoughts on this topic soon. In the meantime, be sure to check out this series by David Fitch and this post and comments from Jonathan Dodson,  and this Next Wave article on the topic.

Grown-up Church

ranch-1983If everything I know about church was learned in youth group, I’d be inclined to think that:

  • Church should be a good mix of games, singing, a short devotion, and pizza.
  • Accountability is meeting with a “grownup” who asks me if I’ve been reading my Bible.
  • Socially, it’s easier to be a big fish in the “small pond” of church.
  • All the hype is to get me in the door. This all happens for me.
  • Discipleship happens through events and programs- Camp, Mission Trip, Lock-ins, Disciple Now Weekends.
  • Spiritual maturity is measured in terms of event attendance.
  • The space in which we meet is very important.
  • Evangelism means inviting my unbelieving “friends” to church.
  • Missions is backyard Bible clubs with poor kids one week every summer.

I’m not against youth ministry. But I suspect a generation (or two!) of pastors and church leaders who are products of youth group have heavily influenced the way church is done. So we’ve traded “pizza, games, singing and a short devotion” with, well, “donuts, drama, singing and a slightly longer devotion.” But the idea is the same- events, programs, attraction, and t-shirts are not what church is about.

We need to grow up.

Grown up doesn’t mean boring. It’s not the opposite of attractive. Grown-up church is unabashedly intrusive. It’s boldly personal. It’s radically Christ-centric. It fills in the gaps between “mountaintop experiences.” It replaces accountability groups with discipling relationships. It moves beyond “lend a helping hand” mission trips to entire churches taking spiritual accountability for unbelieving people groups. Grown-up church survives economic recession, moral failure on the part of the leadership, tragedy, marginalization, and persecution.

Is your church growing? Is it growing up?

The Counterintuitive Church (pt.5, What’s Wrong With Pragmatism?)

PREVIOUSLY:  Let’s Be Clear

Some might read my commentary about widespread pragmatism in the American church today and ask, “So what?” Others might share my concern, but see few alternatives. I have never wanted to be merely a critic, so here I’d like to draw some conclusions. Next, I’ll try to share some ideas for what a counterintuitive church might look like.

As missionary church planters, we were constantly faced with the challenge of thinking through the eventual outcomes of our strategies and approaches to ministry. This was due, in large part, to the fact that our efforts to cooperate with the few evangelicals we found in Europe were often frustrated by their adherence to what their churches learned from the American missionaries who planted them a generation ago. European evangelicalism today looks a lot like American evangelicalism from the 1960s. Why? Because there are consequences to the decisions church leaders make.

Everyone’s traditional. Some of us just start new ones rather than following someone else’s. There are consequences to the tradition of pragmatism. You might be seeing “results” with the way you’re doing things but consider this:

  • If people come to faith through confrontational, guilt-trip evangelism, they’re coming to a confrontational, guilt-trip faith.
  • If your church’s myopic focus on Biblical knowledge makes it more lecture hall than place of worship, you’re likely going to get a bunch of armchair Reformation theologians and wanna-be ancient Greek scholars who are more concerned with being right than anything else.
  • If you allow your church to get so large that it’s a challenge to really know everyone (anyone) else in that local body, (versus starting smaller, more local gatherings,) you are discipling your people into a less personal expression of Christianity and, therefore, a less personal view of Jesus. [Pragmatic argument:] Of course, relational church can happen in your megachurch (through small groups, cliques, informal social circles, etc.), but as you add programs and square-footage, it begins to happen in spite of how you do church, not because of how you do church.
  • If your church mired in legalism, it won’t last. Legalistic religious people eventually can’t keep up with their legalisms. To them, God is only pleased with an impossibly demanding cycle of performance. They usually end up abandoning their “faith” or isolating themselves for fear of secular contamination.
  • If your church worships worship, your people might not learn to worship God. At the very least, they could be left unable to worship without a worship band and Mediashout® video backgrounds. Believers need to learn to worship, learn, serve, and share without the help of the professionals who make their livings by (intentionally or otherwise) perpetuating dependence.
  • If your church sits in grandstands with the lights dimmed, staring at a jumbo-tron, don’t be surprised if they act like spectators.

Nobody has a perfect church. I certainly don’t have all (any?) of the answers. And if we wait until we’ve got it right to do ministry, we’ll never start. Nevertheless, we must always be open to changing the way we do things- especially as we begin to see the potential detrimental results of  the way we do things. We must be sure that we know the costs before we say that we can do “whatever it takes.”

What’s wrong with practicing pragmatism? It tells people that we serve a pragmatic God. But we don’t. Ours is a God who time and time again shows Himself to do the opposite of what we would do.

NEXT: Impractical Worship