When Theology "Justifies" Foolishness

When the Europeans were first arriving in the North America they were rejoicing over the slaughter of the natives. They’d share the gospel and, without near immediate repentance, they would slaughter and somehow feel guiltless as they moved on.

Today, missionaries are trying to learn how leave as little collateral damage as possible. But we still don’t have it figured out. Partly because our theology justifies our actions to ourselves now as it did then. Just for different things.

In what things do I use my theology to justify my actions—and will I one day believe I was way off base?

Comfort's Relationship with the Supernatural

Our level of comfort seems to affect our ability to see the supernatural. The more comfortable we are, the less we ask for the supernatural, or expect it, because we don’t feel we need it.

Certainly the finances to put food on our own table day in and day out has us seldom praying for food. And as such, the Lord doesn’t need to provide it supernaturally. But when you’re hungry, and your kids are hungry, you pray and pray, and your expectation that the Lord will provide is heightened because He has to, and He does.

The more spiritually oppressive the place is, the more you beg for mercy from the Lord just walking down the street. In the beautiful resort mountain town, you might be thankful (and you should be), but you probably aren’t begging the Lord to help you make it the next three hundred yards. When you’re sick, and the street is covered in filth, and the people are miserably lost and hopeless around you, then even making it to the next block requires incredible dependence on the Spirit, and the Lord provides.

God is not done acting in supernatural ways, be that in healing or other more controversial things. He is at work right now, all over the world. Even in your life (if you’re a believer you can be sure of this), but you might be less likely to expect it, or even to notice it, if you live in an incredibly comfortable place.

Living comfortably is not a bad thing, but be careful writing off the supernatural as a thing of the past just because you’re in a place of never needing it.

Good Christians Don't Play Video Games

A few years ago, when we were home on a furlough, a couple had us over to talk about our missionary life. After talking for a bit the father mentioned to me that his son liked to play video games, he said this with some disappointment in his voice. I didn’t notice at first and I expressed excitement. I also like video games. I talked with his son about the games I played when I was a kid and we laughed about a few he still knows.

But apparently I did that wrong. The father wanted me to condemn it. Maybe I should have been “hyper spiritual.” But I’m not. And I don’t think pharisaical behavior is something we should ever have patience for. Maybe it’s something people expect from missionaries.

Jesus saves us, not our stereotypical “good Christian” behavior. If behavior saved, Mormons would be a lot less hopeless.

Whatever the case, the meeting was over.

Sorry I disappointed you.

God Give Us Maturity, Patience For Your People

If you're in ministry, you know the feeling. You're sitting around a table and taking prayer requests—you have exactly 90 minutes to pray for just about every need in your church or ministry—and the person you're hoping wouldn't start talking, starts to talk. This is the guy who starts to tell about one thing and then tangents off to another, slowing only to glance at his notebook and make sure he hits every point he spent the morning writing down. Every time his speech lets up and you think you'll be able to interrupt, he just says "um, um, um," as loudly and quickly as possible to keep anyone from forcing him to yield the stand. Pretty soon you've spent 80 minutes hearing prayer requests and now you only have 10 left for prayer.

A huge percentage of ministry is simply listening and holding your tongue while people argue over things which seem painfully insignificant. But their opportunity to feel involved is of eternal significance.

Maturity as a leader is somehow figuring out where the line is between just having patience and then putting your foot down to move on. Sometimes you need to let people just talk because this is their favorite time of the week—the prayer committee. And then there are the times where Steve shares about his struggles loving his wife and, instead of praying, Bob lectures him for 10 minutes about the importance of loving his wife. Steve knows. That's why he asked for prayer. Sometimes Bob needs to be interrupted and reminded just to pray.

And immaturity as a leader? Well, that's when you slap someone so everyone is quiet five minutes in to the meeting. Then you stand and pray for 85 minutes.

God give us maturity.

The Dehumanizing Job Hunt

Giving up a career in the mission field was hard. I had a lot of authority. And I gave it up.

Now I'm looking at a industry change, and then it's even harder. Some people can see past the ten years experience as a missionary on my resume, and many cannot. Especially in Colorado.

About six weeks ago I flew out to Denver and interviewed with four different companies. All four interviews went fantastic. But once I got an official "no" from one of them, I went from thinking "I'm the most awesome person in the whole world and everyone is going to want to hire me," to "Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, guess I'll go file for unemployment."

And really, it's not the rejection that's hardest about this process. It's the incessant roller-coaster of emotions. My back locks up from stress, relaxes with a glimmer of hope, and then goes right back to lockup.

It's shocking to me that it isn't everyone else's highest priority to give me a job.

It's mine. Why won't the world of high-paying-with-great-family-benefits corporations get on board?

And then there's the whole depending on God thing. Because I often just start to panic and assume He's given up on the search. I know He hasn't. But I still kind of think He has.

Wonder and Information Uniquity

When I wonder about something—anything—I look it up. That’s the strange thing about the information we carry by way of devices in our pockets without wires. It doesn’t matter if I’m wondering what bird I’m looking at, how far it is from Denver to Cuba, or what movies Steve Martin has starred in. I don’t need to wait, I can know—this instant.

It occurred to me recently there are a lot of facts we used to all go look up, or ask someone who would know. How do you stain a cabinet made of a certain kind of wood veneer? YouTube tells me. Not my uncle Phil, or even my neighbor Steve who makes furniture for a living.

The problem is, results then rise higher and higher in the ranks and pretty soon everyone, everywhere in the world, stains cabinets all the same way. Or believes there are precisely 56.68 calories in an apple.

Information is now so available that I wonder if, or when, we’ll stop questioning it.

Never stop questioning it.

It's Not a Problem If It's Everyone's Problem

There are a lot of things in life for which the appropriate response isn’t to try and fix the problem, but just to recognize that everyone else has the same problem.

To realize we’re not alone in our experience or feelings is a significant part of living a satisfied life. 

On Formality

Suits and ties and expensive shoes. There are places where these are still prevelant, but they are less and less common. I had four job interviews recently and, while I wore a jacket and a tie on the off chance someone would care, I had a very large and slightly ungainly beard, and no one said a thing. Now, maybe I should wait until I actually get a job offer to assume it was fine—but it was fine. America always was an informal place (perhaps not on the same scale as Australia, yet still very informal), but formality is dying amongst the younger generations here.

Formality made sense in a world where you only saw your neighbor or church friends every few months. Where everything you (or any celebrity) said could be tightly controlled. You could put on a show. Wear nice clothes. Act proper.

But today there are tweets about poop every day. Formality is lost on us. We live in community, or something like it online, every day. And we can’t get over how funny it is.

Among non-Christians I would argue this is a culture shift in losing value for formality. Buzzfeed can write a terrible article about the attractiveness of male movie stars and then turn around and interview the president. Famous people, who could be held up on pedestals, are tweeting pictures of their messy bedrooms, or their making inappropriate comments on Facebook. We see the dark underbelly of everything because of social media and an “always connected” lifestyle.

Our generation of Christians has lost a value for formality because it wasn’t valuable in the first place. God sees our poop, and our attempts to hide our farts in crowds. He is not embarrassed by our bodily functions, he designed them. He knows we have a third nipple, or that our necks have an awkward bend in them, the tie hides nothing from God. So taking ourselves too seriously—in dress OR action—is like attempting to see ourselves as people who don’t have to scrub our own behinds in the shower to keep them from smelling. And even the richest CEO still has to do that. No matter how nice of a suit he wears on weekdays.

Don’t get me wrong—please continue to scrub your behind. But you don’t need to dress in a $1,500 suit to do a great job at work. You no longer need to appear perfect, because we all know you’re not. Your best foot forward, is increasingly, your authentic foot forward.

Formality is lost. And it isn’t coming back.

And I, for one, welcome the new world order.

Latest Greatest Methodology

Every few years there are some new trends that take the world by storm. Or, I suppose I should say, they take a little splice of white-collar American households by storm. There was an obsession with frozen yoghurt shops for a bit when really they seemed to do nothing new but sell the same product by weight instead of volume. It seems something called “essential oils” are now all the rage. I’m a bit confused why it took so long when they’re called “essential”, but I can’t claim to understand the minutae of American life.

Perhaps most obvious is there is always a new fancy diet coming down the pipeline. The first I remember being really aware of was the Atkins diet. Overnight steak and bacon became staples instead of something for a special occassion—and men everywhere rejoiced. Until those same men decided tacos really were better with a tortilla around them and that, if carbs are the devil, they may not want salvation. This was followed by variations on Atkins which kept certain amounts of carbs in the diet, or reintroduced them slowly. Then there has been preservative free diets, all natural foods, organic obsessions etc…

I get a particular kick out of something relatively new known as a “paleo” diet. The idea, as I understand it, is that we would all be much better if we just went back and looked at hour our ancestors ate many millenium ago. For some reason few of us believe we should go back to the way they handled santiation or sewage. No one really wants to hunt and gather anymore, but eating the way a hunter and gatherer would have is obviously the solution to all our problems.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m sure there are some significant merits to paleo diets, I’ve even met people who swear it changed everything for them. And I believe them. It doesn’t mean it’s what I want for myself, or even what I believe them to be universally good, but I understand and believe a considered diet can be helpful.

Christianity and missionary methodology has its own fads as well. But there is a big difference between diets then fads in Christian or missionary culture Folks who eat paleo may feel bad for you that you haven’t yet “seen the light” to do the same, but they don’t judge your character as a result. In Christianity we like to point the finger at each other and conclude that if a person doesn’t follow the latest fad that we ourselves have caught on to, it can only be because they haven’t really thought about it, or they’re living in sin. Maybe they haven’t been reading their Bibles enough. We think, “Obviously any person not living in overt sin would draw the same conclusions as me if they ever really considered it. ”

Obviously.

We simplify everything down to sin, or lack of consideration. This is obvious by the way we argue with one another. We try desperately to convince folks our way is the right way, but after we have made all of our arguments, if the other party doesn’t convert to our methodology we just write them off as sinners, or morons. We then assume they aren’t praying enough and move on.

Over the years this has been evidenced in missions theory first by way of missionaries exclusively doing evangelism. They felt if any time was spent doing any kind of social engagement it was just wasted time taking away from the real “lasting” work of evangelism. Later the pendulum swung to the other side until some folks argued for pure social engagment and ignored sharing about Jesus and His crucifiction. Some folks manage to find a middle ground, but each and every one of those who have considered this concept believe their conclusions are the only ones honoring to Jesus.

Jesus is so lucky to have me!

There are many other popular methodologies as well. If you’re a missionary to Muslims you are required to have an opinion about “Insider Movements”. Insider movements basically argue Christians are most effective in Islam if they don’t “come out of Islam” or leave the mosque when they convert, but continue on by becoming a follower of Jesus “from the inside.” Opponents of this methodology claim insider movement folks don’t understand that the word “holy” means “set apart.” Whichever way you lean, you simply must have an opinion, and the other side is clearly full of sinners or morons.

The thing I run in to the most is folks who live and die by Church Planting Movements (CPM) as a methodology. I’ve read several books on the methodology and understand the basic tenants and even really appreciate a lot of what is presented. In fact, I was all fired up about CPM when I first understood the idea, it was simple, seemed obtainable, and apparently was the method most glorifying to God (or so I was led to believe)—just look at the fruit it produced! I fell in love with the idea first when I was dealing with some church planters who moved at a speed I perceived to be painfully slow. CPM pushes for speed, almost above all else. In fact, speed seems to be the proof of success. Never mind the same denomination that made the methodology famous now has it’s own opponents.

The longer I’ve been in ministry the more the flaws in all of these things seem obvious. I’m not saying all methodologies should be avoided. That would be impossible. At the end of day everyone has to make a decision about what they are going to do, and action without strategy isn’t actually action. Even when a person doesn’t have a stated methodology, they are still following a specific stragey, even if that’s just walking around and talking to people. The problem is when we look down our noses at our fellow missionaries because they operate differently than us. Or when we refuse to work with people who think or act differently than us.

“If I’m not here for CPM then what I’m I here for?” One missionary said to me. I really respect the man, and even thinking highly of the work he’s doing, but I kind of wanted to respond, “How about proclaiming the glory of God? The resurrected Jesus?” CPM doesn’t save, but it’s strictest adherents might not want you to know that.

Just last month I met with a pastor who proclaimed to me the merits of CPM three years ago. As a church they refused to partner with any orgnaization that didn’t use CPM as their exclusive stated methodology. Now they don’t partner with any organizations because all the organizations are doing it wrong. Incidentally, they now believe DMM (Disciple Making Movements) is the way all ministry should be done. It’s exhausting really.

Praise God He is a diverse God and His church is diverse. Praise God His methodologies are diverse, and He will work through even the most incompetent of us as long as we’re seeking His will.

Like the paleo diet, there is a movement in Christian culture to get back to the way things used to be. Paleo adherents want to eat the way early man ate. Progressive Christian culture wants to worship the way the early church worshipped. Not all of it, mind you. I hope it’s over the top to imagine bringing back open sewers and wearing sandals around just so we can better understand the true meaning of washing one another’s feet. But while we don’t want to get crazy, we’d nonetheless like to have a church service which otherwise looks exactly like it did back in the time of Acts. Someone somewhere is, no doubt, requiring folks to dress in wrapped robes because if the early church did it it must have some spiritual significance.

I recently attended a gathering where the pastor stood up to introduce how this big church was different from other big churches in the area. “We began as house churches,” he said “because that is the Biblical way to have church—in houses.” Keep in mind he’s saying this to a room full of big-church pastors—nose firmly pointed towards the sky. As these house churches became more popular they began meeting on Sunday mornings in a refurbished strip center. This pastor explained, “What we’re doing is is Biblical because our Sunday morning service isn’t our church, that takes place at houses throughout the week. Our Sunday morning gathering is just a big gathering.”

This seemed to me an awful lot like most other churches but with different terminology. Normally a church would call their Sunday service “church” and their weekly meetings “small groups.” But they had turned it around, now the small groups were “church” and the Sunday service was “big group.” Brillaint! And way more Biblical (this is sarcasm, in case you’re missing it).

Fists are up and people are ready to fight. My diet is better than your diet. My oils heal better than your “capitalist pharmaceutical poisons”. My church planting method is more Biblical, more God honoring, faster moving, better looking, more racially diverse, AND sees a bigger number of converts than anyone ever. My evangelism method is so superior to using tracts it will blow your mind, and probably revolutionize missions agencies worldwide if they ever get wind of it. And my nose is raised higher in the sky than your nose and is therefore closer to God so neener neener neener.

As a person who has been there before, with his nose floating skyward, and on behalf of all missionaries everywhere, I apologize to future missionaries for the foolishness you will no doubt encounter. I ask your patience and pardon as we work through our theology regarding this particular methodology and force it on you until we find a “better” one. And I beg of you, occasionally at least, just put us in our place and move on.

Methodology, and those created by scholars or committees are painfully complex, because at the end of the day, faithfulness and obedience are the only measures of success in the Christian life.

Churches are SLOW

Goodness churches are slow.

Unfortunately, as much as it drives me nuts, I’m not entirely sure it’s a bad thing.

Now, first of all I should say, I’m an incredibly fast person. Once I discover a problem, or even something I’d just simply like to implement, I go about implementing it. Immediately.

And as a missionary with a parachurch organization and the blessing of my immediate supervisor (for some reason christianese dislikes the term “boss”), I could go about things quickly without issue. I simply made them happen. I would imagine the for-profit world is similar, sometimes.

But a church is different. At a church, it’s not just about the staff and what they want to do. In fact, it seldom is. The elders have to approve things and, sometimes more importantly, the congregation has to buy in. The primary goal of the pastors is well defined from the get go, and it doesn’t change: shepherd the flock. Not to come up with new directives and awesome projects, through that can be part of it—but it’s always second tier to the primary objective.

Shepherding is, you know, herding the sheep. Unfortunately the pastors can’t run ahead, out of sight up to the top of a mountain, and hope the sheep catch up eventually. The sheep might figure it out and get there eventually,* but it’s more likely they’ll get lost. They can lead, and point the sheep in a good direction, but they can only move fast enough to stay just out in front of the dang sheep.

I had concerns going to work for a church in America when I came back. And all of my fears thus far have turned out to be painfully accurate. But my fears were not so much that the whole system is broken, just that I might never be able to survive the system. That is certainly proving itself to be the case.

Goodness churches move slow.

*You’ll notice the metaphor God uses is sheep and not bloodhound. The flock (and I’m part of it), is not generally assumed to be particularly bright, or have any idea where it should go.

People Die on the Front Lines

I’ve been to the front lines and I strongly want to communicate, it’s not all that great up there. And without the people behind the front lines, there are no front lines. The smallest role is absolutely essential to what happens from the comfort of home, to the beach behind the lines, to the hospitals near the front, to the trenches.

I’ve been to the front. A cubicle, a 401k, and a water machine seems awfully comfortable from there.

Now I’m not saying no one needs to go, people need to be on the front lines. I am saying, however, that we romanticize it an awful lot in our minds and even our media.

"Mine!"

“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, 'Mine!'” 

― Abraham Kuyper

Serving In the Mundane (Colossians 3:17)

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Colossians 3:17

A significant majority of meaningful ministry is done in the terribly mundane. The driving across town, two hours both ways, just to encourage someone. Or carrying things across a church building. Or having God-honoring interactions while standing in line to get your phone fixed.

Some people only believe they can honor the Lord when they feel they’re being used to their full potential. And don’t get me wrong, it’s an awful lot of fun to feel like you’re using your gifts for the Lord. But Jesus was a servant. And we’re called to serve. And the servant takes care of the mundane. From taking out the trash, to stopping and helping someone even when he’s in a hurry.

In the name of the Lord Jesus, and with thanksgiving.

Avoiding Foolish Controversy (2 Timothy 2:23)

Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. 2 Timothy 2:23

Such talk leads either to a split in the church, or eventually to heresy. People start out arguing decent points about minutiae we can appropriately disagree on. But they end up, by way of arguing, digging in their heels and eventually forsaking the gospel in order to prove they’re right and the other person is wrong.

Have nothing to do with conversations crossing such lines.

When correcting people gently the Lord “may” grant them repentance (vs. 25).

But he might not.

Kingdom Kingdom Kingdom Kingdom

There is a YouTube video of Steve Ballmer (the then CEO of Microsoft) standing on stange and slapping his hands together saying, “Developers developers developers developers.” It was amusing enough to have become a pretty big internet meme with a four minute song made in its honor (a catchy one at that). Ballmer is a weird dude, but he was right, for Microsoft, at that time, it was all about developers.

A lot of my time is spent fighting against the common theme in churches where they want to see their name glorified. They want eleven campuses of Blue Hill Community Church. They don’t want to plant 10 churches, they want 10 churches all in the same network so they can look out and say, “mine”.

But it isn’t theirs. It all belongs to the Lord. He is the only one with the right to look out and say, “mine”. We, as churches, or organizations, or whatever, need to be kingdom minded.

Kingdom kingdom kingdom kingdom. We were not created to glorify ourselves. We do not live for the glory of the name of our church network, or head pastor, or to prove our elders are the best. We exist to glorify the name of Jesus.

We have to think Kingdom. Always.

And often that means giving up control we never really had, but nonetheless desperately cling on to.