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Archive for the ‘Great Churches Series’ Category

One of my favorite heroes of faith is the Thai minister of a church in Bangkok, who truly understands that there is not a distinction between mission field churches who are “receivers” of missions and churches who are “doers” of missions.  Although working in Thailand, itself a Buddhist country and the object of mission work, the Thai churches that he has planted are reaching out in Laos and Myanmar—and he has plans and dreams for preaching to the 40 million Thai-language Chinese people.

We know a church in Moscow, less than twenty years old itself, who is launching a mission effort into Istanbul, Turkey. Singaporean Christians are sending missionaries into Cambodia and China, while Christians from Ghana have planted large congregations in Western Europe.

One of the most impressive examples of great churches focusing outside, not in, is the Back To Jerusalem movement among Chinese Christians.  Christians from Mainland China have committed to send each other into ALL the countries of the countries, where 90% of the non-Christians of the world live.

If you go to the question and answer pages for mission efforts like Back To Jerusalem, the first question is always: why are you sending people other places; don’t you have enough to do at home? Every missionary and every mission-minded church has been confronted with the same question.  Here is my answer: Of course, the Great Commission includes home, but who will share the Good News with the billions who have never heard of Jesus, if the biggest churches with the most Christians in every country all stay home??

Great churches—wherever they are and whatever size they may be—understand that they are a part of the call to the Body of Christ to “go into the entire world.” Here are some practical suggestions for leading your church to go into the entire world:

  1. Put the whole world on display. What do your members really know about your own mission work? What do they know about the persecuted church? What do they know about the inspiring mission efforts of Christians around the world?  If your members are ill-informed, then they are uninspired. What can you do to change this?
  2. Talk about world Christians. Many of my personal heroes of faith are men and women that are virtually unknown in the United States. They do not make the lectureship circuits, they are not widely published, they are not center page spreads for Christian newspapers. If you are a church leader, you should get out, meet these unknown heroes, then come home and talk about them!
  3. Avoid protectionism. The era of allowing foreign evangelists and missionaries to talk, to preach, to show their slides in our assemblies has been over for decades. Most leaders decided their members needed protecting, although it may have been more motivated by efforts to keep their contributions at home.  Don’t be afraid. Raise the vision for global work by providing platforms—often—for those who are going out from among us!! Don’t be afraid. The local work will grow as people’s vision for the world grows.
  4. Abandon the idea of “mine” and “God’s”: Our members travel. We fly, we cruise, we RV, we camp, we hike, we backpack, we tour.  How can we give this part of our lives more to the Will of God instead of thinking of it as OUR special time?  At LST, we hear constantly from adult Christians who take their two-week vacation and go somewhere to share their faith that it was work, BUT it was the most re-creational activity they have ever done.  Great churches help their members give all of their life in God’s work.
  5. Great churches have leaders who GO! I really believe that every preacher/minister, every church leader would be a greater leader and better able to inspire if he/she would regularly be personally involved in evangelistic mission efforts—preferably outside of their own culture.

Great churches understand that they are not exempt from going into the entire world.

 

Next:  Great churches understand the relationship between benevolence and evangelism!

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A couple of nights ago, Sherrylee and I watched Keys To The Kingdom (1944) with Gregory Peck playing the role of Father Francis Chisholm, a Catholic priest who serves as a missionary to China for 40 years in the early 1900s. The film is quite inspirational in a black-and-white way, but one scene jumped out at me as we were watching. After struggling for decades with very poor facilities and limited resources, the priest learns that the Methodists have just sent new missionaries to the same city, but with a big new church building and lots of money. The first question everyone asks the priest is if he is resentful of the new workers. A good fifteen minutes of the film is spent showing the priest reaching out to the new missionaries, finding common ground, encouraging them, and making friends instead of enemies. At one point Father Chisholm says he can’t imagine what the Chinese would think about Christianity if all the Christian groups fought with each other.

Great churches focus on the unity of the body of Christ. Most religious movements have a long tradition of settling disputes by first contending, then condemning, and then eventually separating from each other, resulting in new churches, but always at the expense of the reputation of the kingdom of God. Jesus did say that “a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.”  The Kingdom of God will stand, but will our expression of the Kingdom of God survive disunity?

Here are my suggestions for churches who would seek the unity of the body of Christ:

 

 

  • Celebrate and acknowledge all faith in Jesus as Lord. Is their faith in Jesus not a gift of God just the same as your faith? And if the particulars of the expression of that faith are different from yours, must you ignore what you have in common?
  • Let mercy triumph over judgment! If you have been forgiven of your sins, is it possible that God might forgive even the sins of Others? If you have grown and matured in your faith since you first believed, is it possible that God allows Others the same process?
  • Seek relationships with Others. It can’t really be love to acknowledge that Others might be children of God, but intentionally avoid contact with them. Separate but equal has never worked in the Kingdom of God.
  • Believe that Good will triumph over evil. Have confidence that the Kingdom is eternal and if Hell cannot prevail against it, misunderstandings of God’s Will cannot destroy His Body.  Jesus was not afraid to eat with sinners—after all, who else could he have eaten with?
  • Don’t think greater of yourself than you should. If reading about the attitudes of the Pharisees begins to sound like your congregation, if the prayers are anything but “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner,” then you need to search for the seeds of self-righteousness.
  • Be a peacemaker and be blessed. Some churches, some church leaders see themselves mounted on white horses, leading the armies of God, but that role is reserved for the resurrected Jesus.
  • Encourage those who facilitate peace.  We were in Thailand and met with a good church attempting to mediate a national dispute between churches and Christians. Unfortunately, the result of their attempts to make peace only resulted in rancor and mistrust towards them from both polarities.  Jesus said that peacemakers are blessed!
  • Turn the other cheek. You are not greater than your Master. Others will malign and mistreat you—as they did Jesus. It is at that very moment that our prayer must be, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they do.”  Neither defensiveness nor counterattack is appropriate.
  • Don’t be afraid! Fear is the enemy of love.
  • Pray for unity, long for it as Jesus did. “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”(Jn. 17:23)

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Occasionally a book changes your basic philosophy of ministry. Struggles In the Kingdom by Jim Woodruff  and John Payne was that kind of book for me as a young missionary in Germany. The verses that undergird this story of a struggling mission church in New Zealand are Acts 14:21-22, where Luke writes that Paul and Barnabas strengthened the disciples and encouraged them to remain true to the faith, saying, “We must go through many struggles to enter the kingdom of God.” Until I believed this verse to be true, I confess being a sheltering, some might say paternalistic, church planter, always trying to protect the young Christians in our fledgling flock. I would say these were my most common mistakes:

  1. Providing all the answers to all of their questions—sometimes before they asked.
  2. Keeping the curtains around leadership closed, so they did not realize our struggles.
  3. Not letting new baby Christians out of the house because they might be exposed to something that would lead them astray.
  4. Not encouraging new Christians to share their faith; they didn’t know enough yet and might mess up and get discouraged.
  5. Pre-empting most difficult conversations by skillful direction away from anything likely to be controversial.

Great churches allow struggle because they are not afraid . Most of our reasons for avoiding struggle or protecting members from struggle are grounded in FEAR—fear of “losing” the struggle.  We can’t tell the members what that church leader really did because they might quit coming; we can’t study that question because it will just stir up too much controversy and make people unhappy. We can’t let them know how much that property really costs because they will think it is too much, and we won’t get to do what we think we should do.

Great churches anticipate struggle and prepare for that day. Notice I did not say that they run from the struggle or that they shelter members from struggles. Paul and Barnabas strengthened and encouraged the churches in preparation for their struggles.

Great churches teach their members about spiritual warfare and encourage them to avoid the trap of seeing the enemy as “flesh and blood.” The church we planted in Germany survived twenty years after the mission team left, but then Satan used personal immorality to attack the church leaders/pillars and this group did not survive as a church (Happily, very few members actually gave up their faith!).  In retrospect, I believe this congregation could have survived if anyone had been able to frame their struggle for them as spiritual warfare, instead of brother against sister—civil war!

Great churches accept struggle as an opportunity to learn, not a reason to quit. Great churches survive and grow stronger with the same struggles that diminish or destroy other congregations. What happens when sin is exposed among church leaders? When the local factory closes and the contribution is halved? When the preacher quits—today! When a member comes back with “new” biblical truths? When the elder’s wife shares that she prays in tongues? When the church leaders refuse to share the church’s financial statement with members? When the missionaries are dropped in order to expand the church kitchen?  Aren’t all of these opportunities to learn more about trust in God and grace toward others?

Paul said, “. . . the fire will test the quality of each man’s work” (I. Cor. 3:13), so fire should not surprise church leaders. Fear that God cannot or will not protect His Kingdom is what gives Satan the power to destroy.

Great churches are not afraid!

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In our fellowship, fulfilling the Great Commission is the responsibility of local congregations, not a large sending agency or mission board.  Let me put it another way:  for the most part, men (elders and missions committees) who have never done foreign missions nor received special training of any sort are deciding who goes to the field, how they will work when they get there, how long they will stay, how much they will receive for personal support and for working funds, and if they are doing a effective work.  Does this make sense to you?

These good men—all volunteers who can be commended for their willingness and the best intentions—are put in untenable positions of controlling large amounts of money, the lives of numerous individuals whom they may or may not know, and are answering to a congregation that usually knows even less about both the people and the mission efforts.

What these men naturally do is fall back on a model they are familiar with from their own experiences. Most are business people so they use one of the following models:

  • Business model: you hire a person that convinces you they can do the job, you pay them enough, but not too much, you give them time to prove themselves, and if they don’t produce, you let them go and look for somebody else.
  • Investment model: You invest in either a person or a site! You put what you can afford into the investment (which changes often with your priorities), you watch it for a while, and if it produces good results, you hold onto it—until a better investment comes along
  • Venture Capital Model: You find a young entrepreneur who has a good business plan, you decide whether you like the person or the plan enough to put money into it. You establish timetables and benchmarks to evaluate the work, and if you are displeased with the person or they do not meet the pre-established conditions, then you simply stop funding them.

Granted, some better congregations actually attempt to educate themselves about missions, usually by either attending missions conferences or bringing in missions consultants.  No doubt these churches do missions better—for a while, but what I see is that there is such high turnover in missions committees and/or elderships that all it takes is one new person on a committee or one experienced person dropping off for the whole mission program of that congregation to be tossed into the air and reinvented.

Here are some positive suggestions for great churches:

  1. Search out people in church (men and/or women) who have mission experience—the longer the better–and give them the mandate to coordinate your mission program.
  2. If no one in your congregation has mission experience, then give up the desire to control some mission work until God gives your church someone with the gift of missions. Instead, send some of your members to the field on short-term mission projects to work with established missionaries and contribute directly to works that you have experienced and trust—with no strings attached.
  3. When looking at new mission work, consider creating a spiritual relationship with this work instead of a financial relationship! The two key words here are spiritual and relationship.  When your church figures out what it means to have a spiritual relationship with a missionary or site first, then the financial side of it will be framed completely differently. Completely rid yourself of the employer/employee relationship model. That one does not work well.
  4. Base the length of your congregation’s spiritual/financial commitment on something other than results. If you believe that “God gives the increase” (1 Cor. 3:6), then are you not trying to evaluate God’s own work. The planting and watering are all your missionaries can do, and for that they should be evaluated.

We need a new model for missions! I don’t have this worked out, but I believe it is probably the Acts 13 model:

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.

Let me just put this verse into my own words:

As the Antioch church was together, worshipping the Lord and fasting, it became clear to them that two of their leaders Barnabas and Saul were called by God’s Spirit to go out from them to deliver the Good News to others. They knew these men, one who had been their mentor at the establishment of the congregation and the other who was a fairly new convert from Judaism, but had been gifted by God to work with non-Jews.  The both wanted to go to their home regions, but they didn’t really have a specific schedule, route, or cost estimate for the time afterwards.  After further prayer and fasting, the church still recognized these as God’s plans, so they  sent them with all they needed that the church could gather, they put their hands on them as a symbol of their relationship, and with great love and anticipation, they sent them off.

Great churches will use the Holy Spirit Model for missions. I cannot fill in the details of this model for you, but I believe God will—if you will!

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I suspect that it is people like me that drove the postmoderns to emergence!

As a college student back in the late 1960s, attending a Christian college, I volunteered twelve weeks each summer for four years to work on mission campaigns in the northeast United States.  Our teams went door-to-door, inviting people to study the Bible with us.  We typically had 30-40 Bible studies per week with people of all faiths and no faith. Our single goal was to help each person to be born again—as we understood the process.

We were not mean-spirited, but we often retweeted Paul’s words: “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others.” We did not doubt that what we were teaching was true—for everyone.  We were typically immature. I have certainly learned better what the gospel is and can present it more appropriately now, but we were not at all unusual for those times.

Recently, a college student wrote to me, requesting funds for her mission trip.  She wrote:  “We will be helping in any way that we can at a children’s home by painting, serving food, ministering to churches, and even playing with the children. . . . In this short time we hope to spread the word of God to the homeless children . . .  and help them see that there is hope.”

We will definitely contribute to this Christian girl’s mission, but I found her description of this mission trip a bit disconcerting, and all the more so because I know from our own work with students that she is as mainstream in her time as I was in mine.  She has a heart full of compassion, but is not yet aware that “people do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4).

Great churches know that compassionate service is integral to evangelism. Every church should be known for its compassion; every church should be known in its community—perhaps the world—for loving the unloved, helping the needy, protecting the weak, and serving everyone.  Then their message will be heard in a more receptive context.

Here’s the problem: virtually all of our young people—I’m talking about under 29 years old—understand missions as the Emergents have defined it, i.e., living a life of compassionate service because you are a follower of Jesus. In doing so you are redeeming the creation here and now.  And who can argue with this wonderful description of missions—but incomplete!

Also, they are right that churches/Christians have separated evangelism (missions) and compassionate service (benevolence) by what we today would call silo thinking.  Look at traditional church budgets for proof. I’m glad to be among those called back to a better understanding of our mission.

I do know, however, that a growing aversion to telling the Good News as God’s truth for all creation with words— typical of the Emergents and many of the youth in our churches—is everywhere. Our churches have substituted service projects for proclamation; our youth mission trips are exclusively service projects.  Two young ministers that I have heard recently both have publically preached the need for less emphasis on evangelism and more on Christian service—as if these two were mutually exclusive.

Great churches know that evangelism is integral to compassion. One of the saddest stories I know is about a young woman who was part of our ministry for a couple of years, sharing her faith boldly with people all over the world. She decided to spend an extended time in Germany, where she began sharing the story of Jesus with a Muslim asylum seeker who was very open to the conversation.  After a couple of months of conversation, this young Christian abandoned her faith in Jesus—completely. The reason she gave was that this Muslim person was more charitable and more loving, serving others with greater concern and greater humility than she had ever experienced in herself or the Christians she knew.

Jesus healed and preached. In fact, in every NT passage the order is first preaching, then healing—if that makes any difference.  If He had healed every sick person and raised every dead person, but had not preached the kingdom of God, how would the masses have avoided dying in their sins?  If He had only preached, would anyone have listened?

Since I started with my own confession, let me end with repentance. For thirty years, my wife and I have led the Let’s Start Talking Ministry. The method has been the same for all those years: LST workers offer to help people practice their English (compassionate service) while using the story of Jesus in the Gospels as the text (evangelism). Our experience is that most people become interested in what they are reading and begin to ask questions of the Christian, which leads to a natural conversation about Jesus, which for some, leads to saving faith.

I do believe that ministry and message are married in our method; however, the balance is probably 10% service and 90% evangelism.  In the future, I am committed to introducing more opportunities for our short-term mission teams to be involved in more compassionate service wherever we send them.  My hope is that we will include the local Christians as well as those who are not yet Christians in this service, so that working shoulder to shoulder, doing good, the non-Christians will see that we Christ followers so love the world!

That’s my plan. Yours may need to balance the other direction. I do believe that every ministry of compassion should not just have a vague goal of hopefully someday somebody noticing that we are Christians.  Each should give prayerful thought and planning to how people who are helped will learn about Jesus.

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Did Jesus come to “seek and save the lost” or to practice “pure and undefiled religion” by showing compassion on the helpless and needy?  Are Christians about declaring the Good News or about giving cups of cold water?  Does the word missional mean evangelistic or does it mean benevolent?

These are not new questions to those who are widely read in current religious thinking. You will recognize some of the tension brought to Christianity from what is generally known as the emerging church or emergent church movement of the last decade in the U.S., a movement that tries to exchange what they perceive as the “modern” (read rational) out of Christianity in exchange for a “postmodern” approach, one deemed more relevant for our current context.

Allow me to jump to some of the conclusions about evangelism from this movement without providing their arguments—because this is not an attempt to sort out the entire emerging church movement. Emergents generally believe that

  1. Evangelistic  Christians have focused too much on eternal redemption at the expense of living with compassion in the world.
  2. Conversation is more appropriate than proclamation.
  3. The interpretation of any message, including the biblical text, is a private matter.
  4. Insisting on boundaries that contain the gospel, the church or the saved offends, hindering  the spread of the Christian experience.

Bruce McLaren, a leading spokesperson for the emergent group, tells  me where these premises lead:

I don’t believe making disciples must equal making adherents to the Christian religion. It may be advisable in many (not all!) circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and remain within their Buddhist, Hindu or Jewish contexts … rather than resolving the paradox via pronouncements on the eternal destiny of people more convinced by or loyal to other religions than ours, we simply move. . . .   (Brian D. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing, 2004) 260, 262, 264. )

As is often the case, the gravest danger in these premises  may not be in their fallacies but from their truthfulness.

  • When Christians do not love the world the way God so loved the world, our message is hollow. Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (Matt. 9:35). Preaching without works of compassion is absent of living proof. Compassion without preaching  is absent the Good News!
  • Conversation is often more appropriate than proclamation. The conversations of Jesus far outnumber the public sermons.  My fear, however, is that the Emergents are really not talking about public versus private, but rather about the truth of the content.  Whereas, proclamation speaks “as the oracle of God,” a conversation may be simply an exchange of similar (or dissimilar) opinions of equal value. Christians should know how to “speak the truth in love” whether publically or intimately.
  • One is tempted to equate the emergent argument of private interpretation with the modern American protestant version of sola Scriptura, which is every man with his Bible starting his own church on the street corner, but that would not be accurate. What this argument really reflects is the postmodern rejection of objective truth.  Since Jesus said he is the Truth, I do not believe Christ followers can hold to “private interpretation.  Neither did the Apostle Peter. (2 Peter 1:20).
  • Again, the Emergents are correct. Boundaries offend; exclusivity offends. Jesus offended. The Story offended. The Church offended. The Acts of the Apostles are full of offense by those who believed that Jesus was raised from the dead.  Understandably, it is the gloating and self-righteousness that Emergents see in Christians that pushes them to the opposite wall.

I live and work in a very evangelistic environment—in the traditional sense. The church I attend is also overtly and aggressively evangelistic—and I’m glad.  Yet even among us, it is not rare to hear watered-down versions of the Emergent heresies.  Kool-aid is watered down, but still can be poisonous. I’ll continue these thoughts tomorrow.

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The Pew Forum recently surveyed the changing religious scene in America, and although not highlighted, one of the obvious conclusions from the report is that most religious decisions, including conversion, abandonment, and switching, are made before a person’s 24th birthday.  (http://pewforum.org/Faith-in-Flux.aspx)

My own experience is the same. Other workers in Germany often teased our mission team about not having planted a church, just a youth group! (Notice the just in that sentence!) We did have mostly children, university students, and young working adults.  But ten years after we began, we had a church of young marrieds, which after another few years was a church of young families. The church had matured into a vibrant community of faith.

Great churches focus evangelistic efforts on young people! Most churches focus on 30-50 year olds and then wonder why they don’t grow. Most people have already made their religious decisions and very few—comparatively—are in a searching mode any longer.  Here are my suggestions for focusing on young people:

  1. Every new church plant should be near a university and should include a campus ministry as one of its main thrusts. I would include a particular outreach to international students on that campus.
  2. Churches should plan events like camps, weekends, concerts, for highschoolers from the community, not just church kids (but these are great for church kids too!) These should have priority over gospel meetings, lectureships, and potlucks for adults.
  3. Worship services do not have to be completely focused on youth, but if your services are exclusively for the 50 year olds, then that is who you will attract (Not!).  What can you do for the teens/college-aged youth in your service?
  4. Youth mission trips should be a high priority for your church, and you should take non-Christian youth with you! There is no better evangelism than an unbeliever seeing a believer in action.
  5. Special Bible studies for youth—and not just a Sunday school class—are essential. Unaffiliated youth are not going to get up and come to Sunday school, but they might meet you at Starbucks on Thursday afternoon after school for a small group study.
  6. The minister and church leaders other than a youth minister MUST be involved with this outreach. Especially 18-24 year-olds want to be considered full members, fully adult, but in some ways, they don’t even understand what that means yet. Mentoring groups are great for this age group.
  7. Church budgets should reflect the emphasis on seeking young people.

I’m sure many of you have other ideas which I would love to see you share. Remember, I’m not talking about maintaining the church kids—although that will be a byproduct—but rather, reaching out to younger people during their age of decision.  If I were going to the mission field now, I would focus 80% of my time and energy on people 25 years old or less.

Question: What portion of your church’s time, resources, and energy are focused on evangelistic outreach to young people?

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