Category Archives: missions

Smart Minds & Big Words

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2016_annual_logoI spent a recent weekend with a 350 really smart people who use really big words. Most, it seems, are PhDs or in the process of earning a PhD. They come from and have ministered on every continent of the world, with the possible exception of Antarctica. They are pastors and missionaries and university professors; anthropologists, sociologists, linguists.

I felt … not out of place, but out of my league—like a weekend soccer player taking the field with  the likes of Lionel Messi, Rolandinho, Neymar, and Cristiano Ronaldo.

The Evangelical Missiological Society gathers these academicians and missiologists each year to share research and practice around a central theme. This year’s theme was Missions and the Local Church — a matter close to my heart as a pastor, a missionary kid, and a missions practitioner and advocate.

Truth be told, I went for my own fifteen minutes of fame: I was invited to present a paper I had written about how a church I pastored sought to shift how and what we did in missions. But I have to confess: I also went with low expectations of the weekend; academic researchers are not always known to be dynamic presenters, and their papers are not always compelling subjects for guys like me who just want to lead a church to make disciples at home and somewhere around the world.

My low expectations were vastly exceeded. So much so, in fact, that I needed to take a break from the presentations that have greatly encouraged and challenged me in order to put some thoughts down on paper. (Or a computer.) A sampling:

In The Burden of Healing: How Pentecostal Believers Experience and Make Sense of Chronic Illness, Shelly Isaacs shared the stories of men and women suffering from chronic illnesses, whose burdens were made heavier by the unfulfilled promise and expectation of divine healing. The stories hit close to home, as I could relate each one to my own friends who also hoped, prayed, and had faith to be healed … yet never received the expected and desired answer.

Steven Weathers, a PhD student, shared research about ideologies that inform evangelical perceptions around Black Lives Matter. His words were often hard, and challenged me (as a white evangelical man) to again confront my own implicit biases—that is, those that I am not even aware of lurking sometimes deep in my heart and sometimes just under the surface. A couple statements worthy of noting:

Evangelicals are not countercultural, but call for personal change that leaves systemic cultural norms in place. [from Emerson & Smith; source unknown]

Black Lives Matter won’t matter to white evangelicals if we think individually; we need to think systemically. [Weathers]

These are particularly damning statements. They suggest we are willing to change ourselves just enough to be comfortable, but we won’t fight against the cultural realities that lie at the root of Black Lives Matter (or the civil rights fight of fifty years ago).

Some final thoughts from Ed Stetzer’s keynote address on Priorities for Churches in Missions: the decline of denominationalism and the rise of non-denominational churches has not been a neutral influence on cross-cultural missions. Historically, missions had a voice at the table with denominational leadership, and there was a clear and intentional pathway to missions through denominations. With the growth of non-denominational churches (400% since the 1980s—and now the largest evangelical bloc), “innovation is now a higher priority than missions awareness and engagement.”

Within evangelicalism, “missional” has grown while “missions” has declined; gospel demonstration has increased (a good thing), but gospel proclamation has taken a back seat (not so good).

We must no longer merely give lip service to balancing demonstration and proclamation; we must actively practice both.

In my own paper about engaging the local church in global missions, I included this statement from a book by three missiologists: “the center of gravity in missions has moved from the agency to the local church.” I think that’s a good thing; but Stetzer brought a tempering perspective: Churches are vexed about the nations, but don’t have the connections, training, or constructs to engage well and effectively.

The great charge to the Church is to make disciples of all peoples, everywhere. One of my great burdens is to help local churches do that well and effectively … whether it means engaging with the Black Lives Matter movement, offering hope and healing to the chronically ill, serving refugees, rescuing victims of human trafficking, or preaching Jesus where His name has not yet been heard.

Of Pith Helmets and Snake Skins and Coffee Shops

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Cardboard Record PlayerThe memory couldn’t be much clearer if I had a photo: a large classroom, probably twenty feet wide by thirty long. Tables in the middle and around the edges of the room covered with all sorts of exciting and intriguing things: photos, cardboard record players, blowguns. A twenty-foot snake skin, no less than eighteen inches across.

What else could a ten-year-old boy want in a church basement?

I grew up in church, and my parents have been what I affectionately refer to as “professional Christians” since before I could know anything different. They have never liked being known as missionaries, and I didn’t think of them as that until our fifth move—to the exotic foreign lands of West Germany—when I was fourteen. But from long before my birth, our family was involved with churches that were passionate about global missions, and that sought to instill that passion in their congregations through annual missions conferences.

While missionaries to India, China, and Africa shared their stories and gave their challenges to the grown-ups upstairs, the younger crowd of fidgety boys and girls wandered wide-eyed through the displays that had transformed their Sunday School rooms. In the same rooms where we learned ancient stories about lions licking their lips at Daniel, we now heard about men like Jim Eliot and Nate Saint who had, just twenty years earlier, died at the hands of the Aucas in Ecuador.

Long before Indiana Jones traveled the world in quest of the Holy Grail or the Temple of Doom, that adventure-laden classroom when I was ten grabbed my own heart. 

Long before the Jesus film became the most-translated evangelistic tool in history, that cardboard record player was the first audio New Testament I’d seen and heard.

It seems strange that only this one conference has wedged its way into my conscious memory. My family’s frequent cross-country trips to raise financial support and visit churches often coincided with those churches’ own missions events, but none evokes the memories of that snakeskin and blowgun.

I have been to many other missions conferences over the years, as well. The speakers and their presentations are often (not always!) polished and engaging. High-definition photos and professional-quality videos shown on massive screens bring the missions to life for those of us whose biggest adventure is often a twice-daily freeway commute. But for a ten-year-old boy, nothing could compare with feeling a snakeskin or shooting a blowdart.

Not everyone who sits in church on Sunday morning is called to cross oceans as a missionary. Jesus called some to follow him and others to go back to their homes. But every Christian has a part in the “all peoples” mission of God—a mission that reaches from our homes to our communities to our nation…and to the ends of the earth.

So how will we train our kids, our young people, our churches to reach those ends? How will we grab their hearts for places and people a world away? 

 

Papua New Guinea StarbucksAs I write this, I’m sitting in Starbucks working on a paper about engaging the local church in missions (and, interestingly, listening to Chris Tomlin’s “Good, Good Father” play over the house speakers!). I’m surrounded by a dozen books about the what, why, and how of missions. And on the walls, paintings evoke the many areas of the world where the company gets its beans: Sulawesi, Tanzania, Yergacheffe, Papua New Guinea.

Maybe the heart-grabbing could begin right here as we find those places on a map and start learning about the people behind the coffee.

Isolationism Revisited

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I had a very interesting experience a couple weeks ago. In desperate need of a haircut, I decided to try out a new barber in town. I’d seen his business card and website and his tagline had intrigued me: “Changing the world one haircut at a time.” I was curious what that meant, and how haircuts might be able to change the world. I got my answer!

During the course of my hour in the barber’s chair, I got an earful as “Bowtie” passionately talked about all that was wrong with our nation, its politics, its direction, its finances. Three other customers came in and sat down during that hour, readily engaging in a loud and sometimes contentious discussion. It was humorous, intriguing, and at times even educational – and not at all for the faint of heart or delicate of disposition! I left with conflicting feelings: that I needed to wash out my ears, and that Jesus – or at least Paul – would probably get their haircuts there just for the conversation!

What I learned was that Bowtie had two underlying philosophies that would “change the world”: first, get money out of politics; the president, congresspersons, and even local politicians ought to serve out of the goodness of their hearts, not for pay. Second, the US should get out of every other country and focus instead on our own interests.

I’ve heard the arguments before. The first fails to recognize that all humans are “desperately sick” (according to Jeremiah 17:9). The second is, frankly, naïve. From the very beginning, humankind was made for community, and I believe Scripture shows that that extends to the community of nations. Isolationism has never been good politics.

Calls for an American isolationism may have had their impact in the past, but they have been effectively silenced by the unavoidable fact of a world community that is linked by intricate economic ties, instant communication, complex and speedy transportation systems and the fear of nuclear destruction. (Reid, Daniel G. et al. Dictionary of Christianity in America 1990)

Isolationism has never been good discipleship, either. Yet I often hear calls for what amounts to a Christian isolationism. I hear questions like, “why are we going to Ethiopia or Mexico or India when there are so many needs here at home?” They’re not bad questions; they deserve thoughtful consideration. The simplest answer is this: “We go because we are called – to make disciples of all peoples, to be witnesses of Jesus Christ here, near, and far.

So now I have a question for you: As you are going – to work, to school, to the gym, on vacation – how are you “making disciples” of the people you come into contact with?

We Will Believe…

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Directly across from me, leaning back against a tree, sat the family patriarch. He looked 75 but was likely 15-20 years younger. Around us sat his family – young children, teenagers, and a few perhaps in their early 20s. My hosts brought me a small stool on which to sit, and for the next 30 or 40 minutes we talked about my faith and theirs, the Bible and the Q’ran, about Jesus and Islam. Several times, the patriarch – I never got his name – told me, “What you say is good.” As we concluded our conversation he invited us to return the next day to talk more, but with regret I explained that this was our last day in the area. Repeating his affirmation, “what you say is good,” he added, “We will believe, me and my family. Not today, but probably in two or three days, we will believe.”

“We will believe….” The words of this patriarch have come back to me again and again – sometimes almost hauntingly – in the three years since I sat with him in Ethiopia. I have prayed for him and his family often, and long to return and meet him again. Perhaps I will, or perhaps we will only meet when we stand together before the throne of Jesus.

This fall I have the opportunity to travel once again to Africa – not to Ethiopia, but to Liberia on the west coast. This oldest of African republics was devastated by civil war over the past two decades – a war that left 250,000 dead, thousands more displaced, a nation in economic ruin, and rampant corruption and unemployment. Significant portions of Monrovia, the capital, remain without electricity and running water.

Our global pastor, Josh Butler, and his wife, Holly, were recently in Monrovia. Read her first impressions: “The city is glum, there is trash piled everywhere and most buildings are either bombed out and empty, bombed out and being used still, or made out of pieces of trash. The poverty here is extreme.”

Our church here in Portland, Imago Dei Community, wants to be part of the solution in Liberia, and so we are beginning what we anticipate will be a long-term partnership with key Christian leaders there. In the midst of the corruption and largely ineffectual progress in other relief projects, the integrity and wisdom of these leaders has attracted the attention of the very highest levels of government.

In October, I will join an 11-person team from Imago Dei going to Monrovia to join the work already in progress. Mount Barclay, a refugee camp outside Monrovia, is home to about 15,000 residents living in abject poverty. Last September, working with Liberian pastor Saah Joseph, a Portland-based organization called Plan Loving Adoptions Now dedicated a school that now hosts 600 children in the Mount Barclay region. These children either walk or are driven to the school from several villages – requiring two vans and multiple trips per day!

Our team will focus on four primary needs:

  • Additional construction work on the elementary school, a kitchen, and a secure storage facility
  • Counseling and job skills training for girls transitioning out of prostitution
  • Pastoral training with local church leaders
  • Long-term strategic planning for our partnership

Over the past few years, God has been impressing upon me the changing role of the American church in global evangelization. While in Liberia, I will not only be helping with construction, but also listening to and learning from the pastors and other leaders there, with an ear specifically toward understanding how Imago Dei and other US churches can best support and serve our brothers and sisters in Liberia. (This will also benefit my seminary studies, as I was recently approved to do an “individualized study” course I designed on “Developing a Church-Based Short-Term Mission Strategy.”)

Of course, a trip like this is expensive – but what price do we put on the lives of people who may gain eternal life through our efforts? What is the value of the patriarch and his family with whom I sat under a tree in 2005? Or a child, orphaned by war, whose future is bleak except for the hope offered by a good education, healthy food, and loving caregivers? Imago Dei – an eight-year-old church – has already contributed more than $12,000 toward the construction needs, plus thousands more toward clean water wells in Liberia and elsewhere.

Eileen and I have prayed for this opportunity and the lifelong impact we believe it will have…for Imago Dei, for Liberia, and even for our family. We would ask you to pray about whether and how you might help make it possible for me to go. We would love to have your prayers, your encouragement, and your financial support.

Would you take a moment right now to pray for this opportunity? As God leads, please contact me for specific information on how you can support me.

– Randy

Short-Term Missions

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Welcome, MMI readers! Thanks to Todd Rhoades of MMI, I read a good Washington Post article about the changing face of short-term missions. You can read Todd’s post and the followup comments here, as well as link to the WP article.

What I’d like to hear is what your churches are doing in the way of missions…specifically short-term missions (STM). Hear are some things I’d love to know; feel free to go beyond these questions, though:

  • How does STM fit into your broader mission strategy? (Does it? Do you have a broader strategy?)
  • Do you have an ongoing relationship/partnership with a western/US-based mission agency through which you implement your STM strategy? Who/what? What is the focus?
  • Do you have ongoing relationships/partnerships with non-western agencies or churches?
  • Do you have a particular focus area? If so, how did you identify that?
  • What is the nature of your involvement? (e.g., relief, development, evangelism, medical, etc.)
  • How do you select and prepare short-term missionaries/teams? What do you do “post-field” with your team, the people you visited, the senders/supporters, etc.?
  • How do you seek to get your whole church engaged, versus merely the “mission zealots” (my term!)?

Finally, what is the one thing you wish you did better?