Tag 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.

Restoring the Fortunes

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Grace_wordleAs I continue, slowly, to work my way through the prophetic book of Jeremiah, I’ve come to a section of prophecies against Israel’s neighbors: Egypt, Philistia, Moab, and many others. It doesn’t make for nice, cheery reading! Words like woe, disaster, and desolation pepper the text. Shame, slaughter, calamity. Clearly, Yahweh—the personal, jealous, almighty God of Israel—is not happy with these nations that have waged centuries of war against his chosen people.

But then something else caught my eye: a familiar phrase that I’ve often read in reference to Israel’s own misfortune; a promise God has made to his people in the midst of their distress:

I will restore the fortunes….

What grabbed me this time, though, was the object of that promise: Moab, one of Israel’s perennial antagonists. Tucked in at the very end of a lengthy series of judgments against Moab is this promise to restore the very one against whom the judgments are made!

Wow! That’s grace. And it reveals God’s heart. The “chosenness” of Israel has troubled many people throughout history. Why Israel? Why is this tiny nation so special? Why—over some 8,000 years—has this people been so resilient? The “chosenness” of Israel drives politics even today, such that some believe any nation at enmity with Israel will bear the curse of God.

But these words—I will restore the fortunes—reveal God’s true heart, his true purpose in choosing Israel: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).

God’s purpose in choosing Israel was so that everyone on earth—all nations, all peoples, all people—might ultimately receive God’s blessing.

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (what we Christians call the “Old Testament”), God judges those nations that fight against Israel because he wants Israel to bless those nations. And he judges Israel when she walks away from him because all peoples cannot be blessed through an adulterous Israel.

God promises to restore the fortunes of Israel because he wants to bless her. And he promises to restore the fortunes of Moab—and Elam, and other nations—because he wants to bless them.

God’s heart, his great desire, is to bless all nations, and to welcome people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” into his kingdom (Revelation 7:9). That’s grace.

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.