Christianity Out Of Context

Regarding the Upstream Collective’s Jet Set Vision Trip:

For some of the participants, this trip to Europe is their first experience of Christianity in context.

You see, though they apply to all peoples of all times, the words of Jesus were given to particular people in a particular time. He spoke in such a way that His listeners immediately understood that what He was saying was radically upside-down from what the world had been saying.

The American church, however, lives in a world that is completely opposite of that in which Jesus taught. It’s no wonder, then, that believers in the U.S. have such a difficult time applying Jesus’ words.

When Jesus spoke about war and kingdom, his audience was surrounded by an occupying army. In America, we are the occupying army.

When Jesus advocated the payment of taxes, it meant supporting a government that was hostile to His listeners’ way of life. We, however, enjoy freedom, tax exemption, and government influence.

The promise of a Comforter is a tremendous source of hope– assuming you know and understand discomfort. Many Americans have never been truly uncomfortable in their lives.

Jesus declared that His followers were “not of this world.” Peter reminded the early church that they were “strangers and exiles.” Many American Christians have never even left their home towns.

It’s harder to make sense of Christianity when “we” are in the majority. When the norm is to go to church and “love” your neighbor, Jesus’ words seem, well, normal. We get caught up in the material, the temporal, and the cultural. We build buildings, fight for our “rights” as Christians, and become indistinguishable from the rest of society.

Throughout time, Christ-followers have tried to remedy this sort of contextual incongruity by artificially re-creating the hardships of the first Christians. That’s why monks take vows (of poverty, celibacy, and silence), and cult-members whip themselves; they’re trying to better understand Jesus. And they’re misguided religious legalists. But originally, the Jesus understanding part.

A poster platered on a wall in Prague

Prague is the epitome of the post-Christian urban center. Empty cathedrals, celebrated pluralism, enforced relativism. The previous generation’s false gospel has been rejected in favor of the idols of progress, materialism, unity, and self-expression. Evidence everywhere of humanistic enlightenment and little to no gospel witness to speak hope into the city.

We’ve long talked about how a look at the European worldview is a glimpse into the future of America. This has become even more clear in recent years. Some have lamented the cultural shift in America away from its Judeo-Christian roots. Others have gone to great lengths to create artificial “kingdoms,” rules, and drama in their attempts to relate to Jesus (also misguided religious legalists). As it turns out, the bad news is actually the good news. Finally, Christians are finding themselves “right-side-up” in American culture. We’re starting to have to operate as the outsiders that we were always meant to be.

I believe that Christians, just in order to actually be Christians, must pursue life in the margins, where we’re the minority. Where we suffer persecution, opposition, and intolerance. Where we don’t have money, influence, and privilege. This is the mission field.

For some of the leaders on the vision trip, this is their first time out of the country. But even more importantly, this is their first step out of Christendom and into the context that we as Christians were meant to live.

I Hope You’re Paying Attention


While I’m on the subject of the Upstream Collective’s Jet Set Vision Trip to Prague an Budapest, I’d like to point something out: this is not more of the same. This trip is different.

I’ve already heard from a few workers on the field about the trip. As I mentioned in my last post, many are (justifiably) skeptical. A “Vision Trip?” they ask, “isn’t that just pandering to their consumerism? Aren’t you just bringing them over here to shop for their next mission trip?”

In short, my missionary friends, no. This trip is different.

Firstly, this is not a group of self-important, prima donna pastors on a promotional tour/vacation to Central Europe. The leaders on this trip are missional thinkers who are genuinely interested in leading their churches to be on mission abroad. I know many of you have put lots of time and effort into trying to “mobilize” churches to your field and work among your people group, but these leaders don’t need to be convinced of the importance of mission, or of their churches’ role at the center of it.

Secondly, when it comes to engaging unbelieving people with the gospel, they understand the need for incarnational, culturally-appropriate approaches. These guys aren’t going to come in with their “tried-and-true” methods and look for somewhere to implement them. You won’t get mimes in the mall or puppet shows in the park with these churches (unless that’s what God tells them to do!). They recognize that field workers have invaluable experience, cultural insight, and devotion. They don’t presume to know the best way to do ministry in your context. They’re here to learn.

Thirdly, these are leaders who take seriously their responsibility to lead their churches on mission. They’re not looking for opportunities that would most benefit their people, but they are looking for the Spirit’s guidance on their overseas involvement. The trip is not about shopping around for a partnership with the coolest missionary they can find, and they’re not impressed by all the insider jargon. They are truly looking for where God is working, and how their churches might fit in to that. A Jet Set vision trip isn’t a conversation between pastors and missionaries. It’s a conversation between God and their churches. Try not to get in the way.

Because the leaders on the vision trip are different from the usual missions tourists, they must be treated differently.


They want to part of a big-boy conversation. These are practitioners, not newbies. They want to talk about missiology, strategy, and methodology. They don’t need you to baby-sit them, and they know when they’re being “prayerwalked” because you don’t know what else to do with them. When they ask why you do or don’t do things a certain way, they’re not questioning your competence. They’re looking for a dialogue. (In case you’re not aware of this, dialogue is big among the missional set.) They will consider what their churches might have to offer in a given situation. These are not “volunteers,” they are partners and peers on God’s global mission.

That said, they will evaluate the ministries they encounter through the lens of scripture. As pastors and leaders, it’s their job to ask whether what we’re doing is God’s best. Missionary, if you can’t handle a bit of scrutiny, you need to check your pride. This is true accountability, and it’s a good thing. Would that all missionaries on the field had a high level of direct church supervision.

Finally, the Jet Set Vision Trips are not about the cities they visit. Those places are just the background, the classroom, for an intensive missiological discussion. The trip participants aren’t there to learn about how you’re being a missionary, they’re learning about how their churches can be missionaries. Practitioners like Michael Frost, Ed Stezer, and Daniel Montgomery are gifted communicators and vision-casters (and frankly, better than most of you at relating to, challenging, and inspiring these church leaders). Their participation in the trips keeps things from being about any one particular city, people group, or setting.

So the good news is that there are churches who “get it.” And not just a few. You just didn’t know about them because they’re not coming through your channels and programs. The bad news is that if you want to partner with these churches, you’re going to have to adjust the way you view their participation.

Missionaries, I hope you’re paying attention. These churches are the future of mission, and that is very good news indeed.

Something to Prove

Jet Set Picture

So the Upstream Collective is leading another of its Jet Set Vision Trips, this time to Prague and Budapest. I encourage you to follow along over at the Upstream blog, and on Twitter under #js2011.

Vision Trip, or Missions Tourism?

But I want to mention something that the trip leaders aren’t likely to. Something that most field workers would like to say, if they weren’t worried about offending churches or losing partnerships or support:

Churches, you’ve got something to prove. And no pressure, but this might be your last chance.

See, missionaries on the field are skeptical of your supposed interest in the work. And not without reason.

Nevermind the Great Commission. It takes a celebrity to get you to come to the field. You’ve been ignoring the Holy Spirit’s guidance for years, but when Ed Stetzer or Michael Frost come calling, you’re all in. And what happens when the next trip is to Tokyo? You forget all about Prague, Budapest, and the missionaries you met there.

Which brings me to another point: Rome? Marseille? Barcelona? London? Paris? It’s not hard to find pastors who would be willing to sit around in coffee shops in these European cities. Try Bangkok or Mumbai– those cities will get you out of your comfort zones. If the goal is to challenge the way you see church, God, and mission, these are the cities you need to visit.

Let’s be honest, there have been some complaints about the attitudes of past Jet Set Trips toward the missionaries who hosted you. Kind of a know-it-all condescension. No doubt this comes from your “success” in planting and leading churches in the United States. But surely you recognize that “what works” back home doesn’t necessarily “work” in other contexts. Even if your methods did actually work here, the truth is that we really don’t want to import a spectator, resource-intensive, attractional American megachurch model. Setting up franchises is not our goal.

Missionaries around the world are watching these vision trips, looking on with curiosity and cynicism. They hear you say that you want to be actively involved in all aspects of the mission, from selection to training to strategy. But no matter what you say, those missionaries don’t believe you. The truth is that they haven’t actually seen churches doing those things (at least not very well, anyway). So forgive them if they’re a little jaded, but they’ve heard all this before. Now, they’re just looking for reasons to write you off.

So you see, dear pastor and church leader, you’ve got something to prove. You say you’re serious about God’s global mission, but we want to see it. We want to see you lead your churches to think and act like missionaries, so that when you do come to the field, you come as peers– partners on mission– rather than as consumers, shopping for the next big thing.

Everyone’s heard all about your “missional” approaches to ministry. About how you’re concerned with incarnation and contextualization. But it’s time to put up or shut up. If you’re truly serious about your role as sending and being sent, let’s see it. We want to hear you asking the difficult questions. Let’s have some informed discussion about world events. Let’s consider together how we might engage people in redemptive relationships and proclaim the gospel to all.

You want to be on mission? Prove it.