Sunday, January 31, 2010

where does it itch?

I recently read an account concerning an anthropologist interviewing some tribal leaders concerning their feelings towards the local missionaries.  Although the tribe valued tolerance, understanding and patience, the anthropologist coaxed them into politely revealing a mild critique.  They said, "the missionaries scratch where we do not itch."

Reading that made me recoil as I remembered my first sermon.  I had finished my first year of Bible college and was all hopped up on Schaeffer and worldview stuff.  It was some kind of drivel about existentialism.  Not that it is not an important topic or that Schaeffer was not a brilliant philosopher-evangelist.  It was a great sermon for a crowd of philosophically washed up college students who were ready to sacrifice truth for experience.  The problem is that I preached that sermon about 100 miles from Mount Airy, better known as "Mayberry."

I am in good company concerning this mistake.  This was a lesson learned the hard way in the animistic world.  Missionaries were interested in answering the typical questions about "where do we go when we die?" when the people were concerned with the reaction the ancestors and spirits would have if they turned to Christ.  Eventually missionaries learned that they were asking different questions.  As they answered the questions at hand, they began to see people commit to their message.

A common mistake people make in interfaith evangelism is to read a classic description of a religion.  They take the high version of the religion, build an apologetic against that, and try it on some hapless victim.  The problem is that few, if any, people practice the textbook definition of their religion.  Part of the problem is that there is more than on "text book".  Would someone assuming traditional catholic doctrine be able to build an effective presentation to witness to you?  How many branches of Christianity are there?  Take just one of those branches and then look for an adherent who is a textbook adherent.  Good luck.  Most people practice popularized forms and folk forms of their respective religions.  We need to listen long enough to understand who we are talking to.

Scratching where people itch requires sacrificing our prepackaged theologies, strategies, and CPM plans, in order to listen and build relationships.  I am amazed how patient Jesus was when he took time to answer the interruption concerning an inheritance and two brothers {Luke 12}.  Not only did he listen, but he shifted his teaching for the day.  We could learn something here.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

ours is a God of strategy

Over the past year, I have come in contact with a lot of missionaries.  To my surprise, many missionaries I have met are offended by the idea of strategy.  They hear some strategy coordinator talk about how they are going to reach people and why they are going to go about it the way he proposes, and these missionaries balk at the idea that God uses strategy.  In fact, some of them view "human" strategy as an affront to God's sovereignty!  Don't misunderstand me.  I am not really saying anything bad about these missionaries.  They are very spiritual and because of that they have the idea [this was more true of the newbies I met] that they are on a journey together with God and he will lead them step by step through divine appointments to the right people who will start a movement as the pages of Acts unfold anew.  I do not disagree with their understanding; I only do what I do because I believe that God is already at work in the world.  If I didn't believe that, I probably wouldn't get out of bed in the morning.  The difference between us is how we describe God's working and leading.  They view it to be spiritually (somewhat mystically) and I view it to be spiritual and strategic.  

Here is an example from a different group of the same problem--a lack of defining how God works.  We were talking in Sunday School one morning about how we were going to reach our community with Gospel.  One lady suggested that we should pray.  We all agreed and talked about it some.  Everyone seemed to be fine with this solution, and the discussion distracted them from discussing it further.  I called everyone's attention back to the task by asking "then what?"  The room went silent.  There is a popular understanding that we will pray and God will do the work.  We should pray.  God will do the work.  But how will he do the work?  No one denies that it is God who saves.  But when the praying is done--or as it continues--God wants us to do the work of spreading the gospel.  It does not happen via magic or osmoses.  It happens through various forms of proclamation.  

In the same way, God does lead us and guide a movement.  But God also uses methods and strategies to do so.  The person of peace is often misunderstood in mission circles.  These anti-strategy missionaries believe that this is a divine appointment and we can blunder about our day till we have a shazam moment when we find this person who is the magic key.  I am not against the concept of a person of peace.  If you are called to reach young urbanites in your city, however, would you try to find your person of peace by looking in a retirement community?  God is big enough to do anything, but that is like looking for water in the desert or jumping off a cliff in the belief that God is going to save you if it is not your time to go.  This is deterministic missiology.  In biblical terms this is called testing the lord your God.  As crazy as that scenario sounds I heard of a family who did just that.  They felt called to reach young families.  Served for several years with limited success.  After their first term they were discouraged and concluded that the people's hearts were just too hard.  Their problem was that their town was predominantly elderly.  It was a retirement town.  Had they gone to the local government office and looked at the demographics, they would have either moved in search of their people group, or changed who they wanted to reach.  While God can get blood from a turnip, He probably won't do it just to prove it to you, or just so you can prove it to your friend.  In order to show that Spirit-driven strategy is the friend and not the enemy, I want to take you on a brief foray into God's strategy.  

Life began in the fertile crescent.  This area is called the fertile crescent because it is the "land between the rivers" spoken of in Genesis which looks like a crescent; it is Eden.

It is also called this because it stands in contrast to the surrounding desert.  We rarely think of Israel as a land bridge since it is connected to land itself, but with the constraints of ancient travel and with Israel serving as the only watered piece of land connecting three continents, it was a land bridge in ancient times.  

If you are going to cross the land from one continent to another, you cannot cross the desert.  To get from Persia [Iran] to Egypt, you would have to follow the water up the Tigris and Euphrates rivers [Iraq] to Syria and then head south through Israel.  This was called the King's Highway.  So when God chose a people and gave them a land, he did not pick the house on the cul-de-sac in the quite neighborhood out in suburbia.  No, he gave them the only piece of arable land between the three continents of the known world.  Google maps of the Persian, Greek, Roman, and Ottoman empires.  Each of these empires occupied essentially the same piece of ground.  Do you think that this kind of thoroughfare is important in proclaiming the name of one true God?  Would you consider owning every port of entry into every country advantageous to the spread of the gospel?  Every airport, sea port and border crossing?  This is what they had in their time.  It was no coincidence that God gave his people the land of Canaan.  Below is a theological map of the ancient world.

This map is clearly not drawn to scale.  The arrangement of the continents reflects the ancient trinitarian symbol.  More importantly, however, is that Jerusalem is placed at the center of the world.  This map represents the common sentiment of that era.  Again, it is not an accident or a coincidence that God gave the land of Canaan to his people.  He placed them on the center stage.  He placed them there, that is, until he sent them into bondage.  Jeremiah 29: 4 says "Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent intoexile from Jerusalem to Babylon."  That's right, the dispersion of the Jews was not accidental.  One can obviously point to their sin and say that the purpose of the diaspora was punishment.  This is only partially true. I believe that the teleological [end purpose] explanation is missiological.  Little did the Jews know at the time, but their dispersion served to plant the gospel in the first century.  Look at Paul's strategy.  His first order of business when he reached any town was to go straight to the synagogue.  There is a smattering of verses throughout Acts [9:20, 13:5, 13:14, 14:1, 17:1, 17:10, 17:17, 18:4, 18:18, 18:19, 19:8 ]; synagogue ministry was central to Paul's strategy so much so that Acts 17:2 says that it was his custom to go to the synagogue.  This strategy hastened the growth of the early church.  This explains why, in Thessalonica, when he was kicked out three weeks later that there was an established church.

In addition to targeting synagogues, Paul's strategy was inherently urban. Paul made a 27 city tour over the course of his three journeys.  

Paul had a two-pronged strategy.  Prong 1: Go to a new city.  Prong 2: Go to the religious people.  There were two kinds of religious people he spoke to.  The first group was the synagogue.  He would stay there till he was kicked out.  Then he would go to the people who worshiped money and sex.  His message was different for the two groups.  For the first he would begin with "our father Abraham" and for the latter he would begin in culture.  His urban strategy should not be taken lightly.  He went to towns which were on major trade routs.  They were major ports, seats of government, and religious and cultural centers.  Just to emphasize this point, look at the map below.  Corinth was a key city in the Greek world.  It had a major sea port; and it was on a land bridge connecting two larger territories.  In addition to connecting these two territories, Corinth connected the Saronic Gulf and the Gulf of Corinth [3 and 4 on the map].  This is important because in that day most seafaring was done via heavy boats with small sails which required lots of paddling.  If a captain wished to bring goods from one side of Greece to the other he could cut of days of time by crossing the narrow land bridge in Corinth.  There were small tracks which would carry boats over the land.  Apparently the Corinthians were on to something because there is now a canal which serves the same purpose.

The advent of Jesus was not exempt from strategy.  Galatians 4:4 says that Christ was sent to earth in the "fullness of time."  Jesus did not randomly show up.  He came at a time when the world was united by the Romans.  They were builders.  The roads they built connected the empire.  The Romans also brought unprecedented peace, safety, and stability.  Travel was possible and relatively safe for the first time.  Hellenism bequeathed a common language on the world. Within Palestine there was growing discontent with the Roman empire and renewed messianic hope.  All of these factors [and many more] were providential in the advent of Christ and the spread of the early church.  

The time has come in global missions to think and act strategically.  Most of the missionaries I know [98%] come from small towns in the South.  This influences where they want to go when they go overseas.  It also influences where seminarians want to pastor.  We tend to focus on rural work or suburban work.  That is the case in my town stateside.  The majority of churches are middle class, suburban, and white.  My town is one of the most diverse in the world and it is a tragedy to see believers huddling up where it is safe and clean.  We need to have the mind of God.  And the mind of God is a mind of strategy with a deep and steadfast love for people.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

dare to fail

Fear of failure holds us back from ever trying.  Perhaps we should celebrate failure in order to encourage innovation.  Or there is always the good ol' party line we can follow...  We are trying to dig two holes by digging the one deeper; we need something new.