Thursday, August 30, 2007

Should Everyone be a Missionary?

The following are exerpts from my response to a discussion in my missions class on the definition of “missionary”:

Let me offer a few thoughts on the matter that, for purposes of discussion, will be labeled as “my opinion” :-)

1. While I do not call every Christian a missionary, the motivation for doing so is admirable. The point most are trying to make is that the Great Commission is for all believers and that evangelism is the job not just of the hired guns, but of every believer. Christians need to be motivated to share their faith to the world around them and the church should in fact be a sending agency (Rom 10:15) whether the place they are being sent is next door or across the globe. Many people do not like the distinction missiologists make [e.g., Olsen, What in the World is God Doing, 9-13] because they do not want to diminish the calling of every Christian to spread the gospel wherever they are.

2. At the same time, definitions are important. We use words to communicate and it is important that everyone understands what we mean by what we say. Precise words are often needed to distinguish between one category and another. One case is that of “missions” vs. “mission.” A generation ago, this distinction became extremely important as Christians debated just what was the primary task of Christians around the world. In a nutshell, the distinction needed to be made between the primary task of evangelism and church planting and every other good thing that Christians should do (feeding the hungry, medical care, social justice, etc.). As one theologian noted in the midst of that debate, “if everything is mission, then nothing is mission.” Words and their meanings matter.

Most of our discussion on this topic has been over the definition of “missionary” and whether every person should be one. While I do not think the use of the term is a major issue worth fighting over, I offer a few points for your consideration:

a. Since the word “missionary” is nowhere in the Bible, a precise definition is not a matter of biblical fidelity. Likewise, we are free to delimit our understanding of the word and its use. In doing so, we do not undermine the Great Commission, the responsibility of every Christian to be a witness wherever they are, or the tremendous need for the gospel here at home (cf. Acts 1:8).

b. In my opinion, I believe it is indeed helpful to narrow the use of the term missionary because, although there may be no difference in importance, there is a definite difference in expectation in what a missionary does. Among other things, missionaries typically must: leave their home and extended family, move to a distant location, learn a new language, adapt to a new culture, study the new culture in order to communicate the gospel effectively, change his or her diet, etc., etc. The call to be a missionary, then, is quite different from the call to witness to a neighbor or be a light in the workplace. Having a distinct and separate term helps us to define the specific task of leaving, crossing cultures, planting churches, and reaching the unreached peoples of the world with the gospel.

c. We have other terminology that is adequate to describe the task/role of every believer. Every believer is to be a witness (Acts 1:8). Every Christian should be active in evangelism (2 Tim 4:4). What is the purpose served in calling everyone a missionary? Using the term does not change our responsibility to spread the gospel wherever we are. It may be that by calling everyone a missionary we may inadvertently discourage missions. While highlighting the responsibility of every believer to share the message of Christ with those around them, we may blind ourselves to the great need in other parts of the world. By reserving the term for those who go to another place and/or cross cultures, we remind Christians of the billions of people in the world who have yet to hear the good news. We highlight the fact that while in America there may be one born again Christian for every ten people, in the 10/40 window there may be one for every hundred thousand. Having a distinct and separate term helps us to highlight the great need in other places and define more precisely the specific roles in fulfilling the Great Commission.

3. Of course, the discussion can get even more precise. Even when we agree that the term “missionary” should be reserved for a particular type of ministry, what are the elements that define the term. There are still a few areas that my colleagues debate. For example, how far does one have to go; How much of a cultural barrier does one have to cross before they are in fact doing missions? I am a church planter. If I plant a church in my home town, am I a missionary? What about the next town? California? Western Europe? Southeast Asia? Each location offers an increased level of spatial and cultural distance one must cross. (I know one professor that argues that Paul was not actually a missionary, since he did not cross any cultural barrier in his ministry). When we want to be even more precise, missiologists have ways to classify the different types of evangelism. Ralph Winter, for example, developed a paradigm to delineate the various barriers one might cross in missions: E1 evangelism—to those of the same culture and language; E-2 evangelism—to those of similar culture and/or language; E-3 evangelism—to those of a significantly foreign language or culture (originally developed by Ralph Winter in Perspectives of the World Christian Movement, William Carrey Library, 1981, 1992). The issues can be as complex as we want them to be.

Summary: In my opinion, we must strike a balance between the academic need to be precise in our language and the pastoral need to challenge our churches with the commission of Christ. The important point is to be sure that we are actively participating in God’s global mission—both here at home and around the world. Words are merely tools to help us communicate specific concepts. Whatever terminology we use, let us be sure that we are obedient to Jesus’ command to “go into all the world” with the gospel of redemption.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Korean Missionaries Freed -- What Now?

Thank you for all who prayed for the release of 19 Korean missionaries held in Afghanistan. Thus far, eight have been freed with the remaining hostages to be freed over the next day or so. Let us return thanks to the Lord for answered prayer.

This release, however, came at a cost. I'm not talking about the credibility Korean government negotiations gave to the Taliban. That is an issue for a political blog. The issue to which I am referring is the promised ban on Christian missions to Afghanistan by the South Korean government. Whether or not this will have a real effect on Korean mission work to Afghanistan remains to be seen. Nevertheless, it shows how much we must depend on the Lord who "who opens and no one will close, and closes and no one opens." Rev 3:7 (HCSB)

South Korean missionaries have been a vital witness to their Muslim neighbors, gaining access and open doors for witness that Westerners cannot. Many of my Korean brothers in our doctoral program are preparing for ministry among Muslims. Still others look for ways to penetrate this seemingly closed area. We can be assured that God continues to work in this region.

As God continues His work, we must remember Paul's statement about his own ministry in 1 Cor 16:9: "For a great and effective door has opened to me, and there are many adversaries."

With the release of these missionary hostages, our prayers for the region cannot end. We must pray both for a "great and effective door" for the gospel to go out to Muslims and the unreached people groups in the 10/40 window. We must pray for and support those missionaries who have committed their lives to taking the gospel to them despite "many adversaries." We must pray that the harvest be ripened and for God to send more laborers into it.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Friday is for funny -- A Pause from Serious Reflection for a Little Humor

Forgive me for this, but after this recent "close encounter" on campus at Southern, I just have to ask . . . Do you believe in Alien Baptism?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

My Baby is 10 Today

Today, my first-born turns ten years old. This is her first day as “a double-digit.” Like most parents whose kids grow up, I wonder where the time went and realize how quickly life passes us by. It is at these times that certain passages of Scripture come to mind and seem to have special significance. Passages such as,

“See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” Eph 5:15-16 NKJV


“teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Psalms 90:12 NKJV

Our days on earth are not infinite and we must be careful to use them wisely. This means as a parent, my days with my children are limited. I only have a little time to bring them up in the Lord, lead them to faith and growth in Christ, and teach them the skills to live a Christian life. This is something I have been thinking about (and teaching in Sunday School) over the past few months.

In Colossians, there is a parallel passage that has specific application for missions and evangelism:

“Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time.” Col 4:5 (NKJV)

It is in the context of his own ministry that Paul challenges us to make the most of our time not only in our life and family, but in God’s kingdom work. As stewards of our lives, it is incumbent upon every believer to be workers in God’s harvest field, to “pray, give, and go” with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Yes, my daughter is ten today and seemingly has her whole life ahead of her. Yet as someone who was once ten myself, I know that life is short. I must be conscious of the time I have left with my children. I must teach her the value time to make the most of every opportunity -- to use every moment to glorify God. Most of all, I must demonstrate a life that is “on mission” with God. I must be involved in spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ at home and to the uttermost parts of the earth.

God has only given us one life to live and we must be stewards of it.

How will I use it?

How will she use it?

How will you use it?

Saturday, August 18, 2007

I Still Believe in Church Planting

I have come full circle on North American church planting. I became a passionate supporter of church planting during my M.Div. studies and upon graduation, moved to a rural town to plant a church (which we did). I returned to Southern for Ph.D. studies with a bent toward church planting. In the middle of my doctoral studies, I became a bit disenchanted by the trendiness of it all. Yet, upon further reflection, I continue to see the importance and need for new churches and will continue to be an advocate for church planting here at home. I agree that there is ministry to be done in existing churches. I also am a strong advocate partnership and support for international missions. Here, however, are a few reasons I believe that churches should be involved in planting new churches in North America:

1. The population of the United States continues to grow at a pace that is continually increasing the church/population ratio. There is a need for new churches because the number of persons in the US continues to grow. At the same time, reports indicate that attendance in mainline and Catholic churches is steadily declining, and a large number of these persons remain unchurched.

2. Population shifts and development are seeing new communities emerging where there are few if any existing churches. New churches are needed to fill the gap.

3. The number of immigrants continues to grow. There is a need for churches to reach these rapidly growing ethnic populations.

4. Not all existing churches are willing and/or able to make the contextual and methodological changes necessary to reach our culture with the gospel. (Other churches are “unhealthy” and are unwilling to reform.) New churches often have a freedom and flexibility that established churches do not.

There are many more arguments in support of church planting. These are a few that I find compelling.

Author’s Note: This post was first written as a comment to a blog post entitled “Churches that Don’t Plant Churches” by a fellow PhD student at Southern.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Meaning of Missional -- How I Use the Term

On his new blog at LifeWay, Ed Stetzer has begun a much needed series on the “Meanings of Missional.” I look forward to his study on the history and usages of the word. In many ways, the current debate over the term “missional” is the new front on the old battle between “mission” and “missions.”[1] Of which of these words is “missional” the adjectival form? It appears that all depends on who is using the term.

For the sake of understanding this blog, however, here is how I presently use the term: The quality of being oriented toward or focused on God’s Kingdom mission. In my use, the term implies a strong priority on evangelism both to those around me and to the unreached peoples of the world. It involves intentionality in seeking ways to become increasingly involved as a “world Christian.” It constitutes a world and life view that focuses beyond oneself toward fully participating in God’s redemptive plan.

I will continue to think through this issue, as my explanation leaves much room for improvement. I will leave it to Dr. Stetzer to do the academic work here and to offer a precise, evangelical definition of the word (I am a little preoccupied with my dissertation:-). In the mean time, feel free to add your comments and suggestions to what I have offered here.

[1] For those not familiar with this distinction, here is the gist of it in its simplest form: Mission (singular) includes the entire program God has for His church. Missions (plural) refers to the specific task of taking the gospel to the world to bring persons to faith in Christ and establish churches. See, e.g., Olsen, What in the World is God Doing, p. 9-14.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Friday, August 10, 2007

Pray for Korean Mission Workers

To my limited readership, let us join in continued prayer for the safe return of Korean mission workers held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

"No matter what issues currently occupy Christians in the U.S., they should shift their focus to Afghanistan right now and join the churches in South Korea in vigilant prayer for the remaining hostages." -- Faith McDonnell, Institute on Religion and Democracy

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Advice for Next Year's Mission Trip

My kids started back to school today, and so for our family, the summer season has officially come to an end. With the end of the summer comes the end of the mission trip season as well. Now is the time to begin planning for next spring and summer’s mission trips (as well as getting a passport if you need one). Having both hosted mission teams as a church planter and planned trips for churches of which I have been a part, I have a few ideas (in the realm of “my personal opinion”) about avoiding some of the common pitfalls of sending and receiving mission teams. The following are a few tips for both the mission team planners and the host missionary:

Tips for Mission Team Planners. There are several pitfalls associated with mission teams. One of the big draws of mission trips is the benefit these trips have for the sending church. Because of these benefits, some churches send mission teams merely to provide an experience for their church or group and do not look at things from the host missionary’s perspective. While an uplifting experience is certainly one goal of m-trips, it should not be the most important one. Other churches come with a preconceived idea of what will work (usually a variation of what they are doing in their home church) with no knowledge of or regard to the cultural difference of the host culture, basic missiological principles, or the current goals of the missionary. Some groups arrive with their own agenda which has not been communicated and is often in conflict with the strategy goals of the missionary. Any of these scenarios can have serious consequences. At best these can lead to a reduced effectiveness of the mission team. At worst, the team can cause real problems or can even be detrimental to host missionaries and their work.

These pitfalls can be avoided, however, if the group approaches their planning with the proper attitude and perspective. Groups that wish to go overseas should do so with an attitude of humility and a servant's heart. They should be teachable and be willing to follow the lead of the missionary. They should seek and follow the advice of the missionary concerning cultural and contextual information needed in planning the trip. Additionally, churches need to make sure that the needs of the missionary shape the agenda of the trip. Team leaders should be in close communication with the missionary before the trip so that their visit is of mutual benefit to the m-trip group and the host missionary. In a mission-board model, part of this problem is addressed by having the missionary on the field request specific mission projects to be done by those teams. Churches who wish to take a group then are connected with missionaries requesting a team, etc. In an independent missionary model, or for “home” mission trips, churches should contact various missionaries to find out what their needs are and coordinate trips that are a help to them, allowing the missionary to take the lead. In all cases, team leaders should do their best to make sure the needs and goals of both the team and the missionary are a good fit. Finally, team leaders should do all they can to be as self-sufficient as possible during the trip. The less the missionary must be responsible for in terms of meals, lodging, transportation and other logistics, the better (obviously this will vary depending on the context).

Tips for Host Missionaries. Missionaries who do receive mission teams also have a responsibility if they agree to host a team. The missionary needs to realize that for an effective relationship, there must be a mutual benefit. Many mission teams have come home discouraged after investing their vacation time and financial resources on a domestic or overseas trip where the host missionary was disinterested, unorganized, or did not effectively use the team. Nothing is more discouraging for a mission team than to travel a great distance to sit around and do nothing for a missionary who is unprepared, or worse, really does not want them there (this does actually happen sometimes).

To be effective, the missionary can do several things. First, do your best to incorporate mission teams into your overall strategy rather than adding them on and trying to make them fit. This keeps the missionary from seeing mission teams as a distraction, but as an essential part of the plan. There are several things that mission teams can do well and that can be a real asset to the missionary. Second, recruit teams whose ministry goals meet the goals of the missionary. If a mission team is not a fit, it is better to acknowledge that before the trip is planned than after the team is on the field. Third, make sure the team has any essential information they need about the culture and how their trip fits in your overall strategy so they can orient themselves before they leave their home. Finally, see the hosting of the mission team as a ministry to that group. When done well, mission trips can result in significant spiritual growth of the participants, increased fellowship, and avid missions supporters.

These are just a few ideas. As always, there is certainly much more that can be said about the issue. I for one have an earnest desire to discover ways to mobilize churches toward effective partnerships with missionaries for the mutual benefit of both, for the advancement of God's kingdom.

(Disclaimer: This is advice for working with an existing missionary. New models are emerging for churches to make long term commitments to engage unreached people groups for which this advice may or may not apply. But that will have to wait for another post . : -)

Thursday, August 2, 2007

An Encounter with "Feel Good" Theology

While on vacation this week, My wife and I are visiting friends in another state. We were blessed to be able to worship with them and meet their pastor. Despite our denominational differences, the pastor and I hit it off as we were like-minded in our passion for the gospel. A couple of comments during the Bible study, however, (we were in Romans 3) caused a moment of concern. It had nothing to do with eternal security, the gift of tongues, or ecclesiology (though we likely differ on all of those). It wasn’t that he said something that bothered my Baptist sensibilities. In fact, I have heard the same thing said in Baptist churches. The belief he expressed has become widespread among evangelicals even though it has no real biblical support. It is an attractive belief -- real "feel good" theology. The pastor introduced the idea with the phrase “the Bible teaches that . . . .” At the end of the Bible study, when the floor was open for questions, a young woman (also a visitor) asked eagerly where she could find that in the Bible. She was not challenging the pastor as I would have been doing had I asked the question. Rather, she had never heard this idea before but really liked it and wanted the “proof text” to confirm it. The pastor could not come up with a verse on the spot (I whispered to my wife, “that’s because it’s not in there”) but he assured her that this was the Bible’s teaching.

This belief to which I am referring is the belief that all people in the world will have an equal chance to accept Christ. That is, because God is loving and fair, God will give everyone a chance to become a Christian. I understand the desire to have such a belief. For one, it helps resolve the tension in the question “What happens to those who have never heard.?” I helps us solve the dilemma of the fairness of God given the present situation in the world. There are several problems with this reasoning, however. Below are a few of those problems as I see it in the early morning before anyone else in the house is awake an functioning:

1. This is not the Bible’s teaching. There is no suggestion in the Bible that salvation is available to any without the preaching, hearing and responding to the gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact the book of Romans expresses this in chapter 10:

13 For "whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved." 14 How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? 15 And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, Who bring glad tidings of good things!" 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed our report?" 17 So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. Romans 10:13-17 (NKJV) cf. 1 Cor 1:21. There is no other biblical way. People must hear and believe the gospel to be saved.

Some try to explain away this lack of biblical support by saying that the Bible is silent about the fate of the unevangelized and claim that God is free to do whatever he wants. We don’t have to know HOW he will give everyone an equal chance, we don’t even have biblical precedence, we only have to know that God is loving and fair and fairness demands that everyone have a chance to believe. The problem here is two-fold. a. We are on dangerous ground when we say that go beyond what God has revealed in his word. We have enough statements about salvation and evangelism to rule out such a scenario. b. God already addresses the question of those who have not heard the gospel. God has already given revelation through creation, and even this light has been rejected. No one can say at the judgment “We never heard the message.” They are without excuse (Rom 1:18-20). Others approach the problem a different way by saying that is someone truly seeks God, God in his faithfulness will send a messenger. This scenario is also ruled out in Romans since “no one seeks God”(Rom 3:11).

2. In effect, this view undermines mission and evangelism. No longer burdened by the fate of those who do not hear the gospel, we lose our urgency for evangelism and missions. We may feel some guilt for lack of involvement in missions and evangelism, but the guilt is now only from not obeying a command of Scripture. Add that to the list of things I need to work on in my own personal spiritual development. Since God is fair, my lack of involvement puts no one’s ultimate destiny at stake. The urgency for missions and evangelism is lost.

3. Finally, such a view does not take our own depravity seriously. I say this because the idea of God’s fairness really reflects our own doubts about the seriousness of sin. The reality is that I deserve death and hell as does every person in the world. I am no better than the person who has never heard the gospel Without the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for my sins, I too would be condemned. When people die of a disease, it is not the lack of a cure that kills them, it is the disease itself. When God condemns sinners, whether or not they hear the gospel, they are condemned for their sin and nothing else. We have the cure, we must take it to them. Without the gospel, we too would be condemned.

I could take up much more space discussing this subject and really have not done it justice here. I bring it up because it is becoming such a popular view among otherwise bible-believing Christians. In any case, that’s all I can do while on vacation. My family is getting up and soon will be ready to get going on fun vacation stuff. There is much more to say on this subject. Feel free to add your comments.