Friday, January 30, 2009

Missions: Pregnant With a Baby

The following is part of a comment I left on one of Ed Stetzer’s posts recently. He has a great blog and some great books for all you who dream of church planting or for all of you missionaries who dream of, well, the same thing, finally getting a church going.

As a church planter I can attest to the pressure to produce that outward gem, the dynamic Sunday morning meeting. I am in an environment - Ukraine and a few other places for the last 16 years - where there is no choice but to be missional. I have started one church, and we are now on our second. Starting a work from nothing is not easy, and many things that might be taken for granted in the west just don’t exist here. For example, I have never met a Ukrainian who has gone to
Vacation Bible School. They were in Pioneers or Komsomol.

I was recently in the US where a pastor asked, “So, have you started your church yet?” This really bugged me because it is like asking a pregnant woman if she is planning to have children in the near future. It is as dumb as my redundant blog title “Pregnant With a Baby” which I saw in a newspaper. What else would a woman be pregnant with?

Having a child requires an initial interaction (sex), conception, prenatal formation and birth. Then comes parenting, etc. Each part of a child’s life is important as is each stage of a believer’s life. Just focusing on herding a bunch of people into a well-organized meeting is both shallow and short-sighted.

A photo of the newborn in the hospital maternity ward is great, but this does not portray the actual labor and pain of the mother in carrying and giving birth to that child. The plan of God is not represented just by a gathering of His people in one place once a week. Life is more than a snapshot and so is Christianity.

I remember reading about the life of
Hudson Taylor years ago and his passion for Jesus and reaching the lost. Later in his ministry he was hit with the reality of the need to start churches, but that was secondary to reaching the lost. For him it was about the people and their relationship with God.

In Ed’s blog he talks about pastors who burn out on church planting. They lose their passion and become “shop keepers” while ignoring the spiritual disciplines. If we focus on the basics without yielding to a success-motivation I believe that more of us will cross the finish line actually breathing. “Crossing the finish line first and dropping dead is not victory.”

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Missions: Ejection, Reflection & Reconnection

When I served in the United States Air Force my job was aircrew life support. This had to do with everything that kept the pilot of an F-15 fighter jet alive: parachutes, ejection survival kits, water survival training, helmets, oxygen masks, etc. One day I had just changed out the survival kit on an ejection seat before the pilot climbed in for a mission. The kit including a life raft that automatically deployed and inflated after the pilot was released from his ejection seat. Hopefully, he would never need this…

I had a few more jobs that day, and upon returning to the squadron shop I found out that the same pilot had just
ejected over the Gulf of Mexico. I froze and turned pale with fear, but we later found out that all my equipment had worked and the pilot survived with injuries after punching out at over Mach 1 and landing in the Gulf.

The pilot was not in error, and the cause of the crash was structural failure. The Air Force knows that a pilot’s confidence is often low after a mishap, so they always seek to get the pilot back in the cockpit as soon as he is physically able. Our pilot was flying again in a month.

On the mission field there are also mishaps of various degrees where the missionary has to punch out, leave the field (eject). This could be battle-fatigue, health-related, severe persecution, marriage or family related or even spiritual failure.

Regardless of the reasons I have found that even though many ministries do a good or average job of sending out missionaries very few know what to do when a missionary has to eject. This is true for small ministries and large denominations alike. The ministries and leaders do care about their people, but they just don’t have the experience with this phase of ministry.

Some missionaries end up as adjunct staff members of churches with little definition, few who understand them and little to do because it is believed that they need an extended break from all ministry. This is often called “being retooled”, but this is not only a misnomer but a total misunderstanding of what the missionary needs.

I have experienced this to various degrees during our 16 years on the field, and I now find myself advising other missionaries who feel that they have failed, been fruitless or found themselves on the perpetual “sick list” of their ministry because they needed to eject for a season.

While the needs of many missionaries are very unique and not easily understood by the sending agencies there are some simple principles by which we can keep our missionaries encouraged and moreover, in a state of health in all areas of their lives. There are not many who will uproot their lives to move to another country, so we would be wise to help those who do as much as we can. The bench of replacements is usually empty, so I have compiled a short maintenance list that will keep us flying. To be fair to my own ministry many of us are working on ways to better implement these ideas.

I hate the way this word has become a blanket answer for actually doing little, but in the right context it means to sharpen or give a better tool for the task. The zeal of the worker is not in question, only the effectiveness of the tool. This is a matter of training, and training does not mean sitting. It means doing.

When something has been built wrongly it needs to be repaired or built again from scratch. It might need a new foundation altogether. Some missionaries have a works or a man-pleasing foundation that cause them to burn out quickly. This might also cause them to burn others out. Unfortunately, this may take an extended season of sitting and learning how to be a follower of Jesus all over again. The famous racing horse
Seabiscuit had been trained so badly – trained to lose so other horses would feel more confident - that his new trainer said that he just needed to learn how to be a horse again.

This happens when an attempt at launch reveals a faulty strategy or poor state of readiness. Reassessment, correction, and subsequent better preparation will make a relaunch more effective. Again, inactivity is not the answer. Listen, study, Work!

Refreshing or Refueling
When someone needs encouragement then we should simply encourage them. This is not a complex or deep concept. The umbilical cord from sending nation to the field is often long with limited nourishment – encouragement, coaching, mentoring – coming through. The missionary might have done everything right and still have met with little success. Refreshing comes with periodic breaks in ministry to spend time with God, family and missionary friends who know how to encourage us with new perspective and wisdom.

On most computers there is a “restore point”. This rolls back the operating system to a time before the virus or mistake was made that caused the computer to shutdown. Restoration when there has been personal error is not easy, but suffice it to say that there must be a plan to remove the error and reboot the person’s life and ministry at that point. The restoration can occur in proportion to the health of that person and the renewal of trust with those who were affected by the failure.

To bring back to life, from death or near death. This is essentially CPR. All people, saved or unsaved, are valuable to God. If you don’t believe this then look at the average price paid for each individual life. A good shepherd will leave the 99 for the one.

A battered reed he will not break off, and a smoldering wick he will not put out, until He leads justice to victory. Matt 12:20

He gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power. Though youths grow weary and tired, and vigorous young men stumble badly, yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary. Is 40:29-31

Monday, January 19, 2009

Darwin, Evangelism & Community

Throughout history there have been many explanations for various things from science to spiritual matters. It was once thought that ocean waves caused the wind, and since one always came with the other that seemed plausible (wind causes waves). When I was young I thought that cold water passed through a glass, but I now know that it is just condensation. I was also puzzled and annoyed that the underside of my pillow was always cooler than the top side. What was the mysterious source of heat on the top side? It turned out to be my head.

There are as many opinions on evangelistic methods as there are abandoned exercise machines in basements and attics. Some methods work in one church only to fail in another as do exercise machines for those who place their hope in the machine. There is no mystery with the exercise machines because some people really think that if they buy one of those machines that they saw models using on TV then they will lose weight even if they continue a sedentary lifestyle in front of the TV while eating TV dinners and watching infomercials about exercise machines.

The same is often true of outreach ideas. Churches buy into something new without realizing what really caused it to work in another church in the first place. They thought it was the new form, but it is often a hidden principle behind the form. In deciphering why some things really work I would like to look at just one element. Community.

While I lived in Asia I saw tremendous growth in our churches, and my friends in the west attributed this to a new method for small groups. They copied these methods which simply did not work for them. In Asia there was this one thing that was so much in plain sight that it was actually overlooked. Community. Everyone knew everyone, and believers still had many friends who were unbelievers. It was natural to simply invite someone to a group.

In the west community has all but vanished in many areas. In my home state of North Carolina people are very friendly and polite, but they don’t really know their neighbors. When churches in these areas buy into a new outreach idea such as small groups they find that they are immediately intimidated by the fact that they don’t really know anyone well enough to invite them to a group. They try the new outreach machine for a season, but upon finding out that it requires work to reach people they soon send the new model to the basement.

Fortunately for missionaries like me – and unfortunately I might add – we can rely on little in Christendom to help us reach the lost in unchurched societies. Attractional methods don’t work well, and people are suspicious of us. We are left with little recourse but to actually start from scratch and build community.

I am not speaking of Christian community though. I am talking about spending an extended season getting to know unbelievers, doing things together; serving them until the point they “invite us in”. This is the tipping point where real ministry can begin, but it only happens in proportion to the net of community that we have built.

This is one of the missing links in outreach, and there are no shortcuts. It takes time. It takes patience, and the only thing that helps us stay patient is to have a goal of reaching people rather than a goal of filling a church building on Sunday mornings. God will add people to the church if we do our part.

A few more random truths: I still like cool pillows, Evolution is just a story with no scientific mechanism, glass does not sweat, fasting does not eliminate toxins (your liver and kidneys do that), running your car on a full tank does not give better gas mileage and those TV models did not get those fabulous abs on those exercise machines that were invented just last week.

However, people sweat when they exercise, and it would not hurt the church to start a few evangelistic exercises and fast from spiritual junk food and Christian infomercials that clog the airways.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Discipleship or Eugenics?

Most people know the first word but not the second, and few would ever guess the connection between the two in the context of raising up leaders. Eugenics is a dark science that sprang from Darwinism. It basically tried to improve humanity by sterilizing those races or economic groups deemed to be substandard so that only the so-called best of humanity could multiply. In other words it allowed only a special class to bear fruit. The worst modern example of eugenics in action was the Holocaust.

When I was a young believer a school of thought had crept into the church which said the people most capable of changing society with the gospel were the ones that were already the cream of the crop. Some Christians were even told to target these people with evangelism and to bypass “ordinary” people. Even recently in the former Soviet Union this teaching has gained new ground where one Christian leader actually said that revival or lasting change could never come from “ordinary” people. It would only come when great world leaders repented. See Gattaca for some shock value.

All of this runs counter to everything in God’s word, and the ultimate root of this perspective I believe is a desire for success in the eyes of men. I thought that I was immune to it myself until I found an inner voice saying, “Don’t waste too much time with these people. They are not movers and shakers. They will take too much work to clean up.” Ah! Even though I did not agree with this I had still heard this teaching enough to have been stained. I am now glad to be free of it!

The subtle cancer of eugenics pops up all over the place in Christianity, and I have wanted to say the following for over 20 years. Why do Christian ministries hire models for church or ministry promotional photos rather than using their own people? Wow, it felt good to say that! Even though most of us do not hire models to represent our faith we do hire professionals to do the ministry that we ourselves should be doing.

I am thankful to have heroes of faith, but an over-reliance on the “super pastor” can essentially render the rest of us fruitless. The biblical purpose of leadership is to lead and equip others to minister, not to atrophy the potential of others by doing it all ourselves because we think we are the best at doing it.

I am not naïve in my position here because I do know that functional people can bring stability to a ministry when they come to Jesus, and dysfunctional people can be high maintenance for many years. However, we should try to reach and train them all and not be a respecter of persons.

I have seen functional people get saved and grow quickly as leaders as God used their natural abilities to advance His kingdom. There are also functional people who are self-reliant and stubborn about yielding to God. I have seen people from the so-called bottom of society rise incredibly by the grace of God out of profound dysfunction and bondage to a position of leadership and fruitfulness that simply confounded my reasoning.

What is the lesson in all this? Judging people by their appearance, abilities and position in life is ultimately judging God as an inept creator and an impotent redeemer. It is also a subtle seed of humanism which is a nice way of saying a spirit of antichrist.

Below our skin we are all the same. The same DNA. The same nature. The same price that was paid. The same glory given to God when one is saved. Shepherds, fishermen and one Carpenter can still turn the world upside down.

For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. 1 Cor 1:26-29