As Our Nation Becomes Post or even Pre-Christian we need to rediscover the first circle of the Missio Dei (Mission of God).
In his book: Western Christians in Global Missions: What’s the Role of the North American Church? Paul Borthwick asks the question: With changing missions landscape, what is the role of the North American Church in Global Missions? In particular, he was looking at trends that indicate a growing missions movement from Eastern countries to western countries, particularly from Eastern Rim countries to Middle Eastern countries who are having a much easier time reaching the lost because they come from a similar culture and have no problem living among the people they are ministering too. This is in contrast to what a friend of mine from Ghana described of American missionaries living in air conditioned houses, only coming down to the village for photo ops and refusing to defer to indigenous leaders. Now, this is not the only model of American missions, but it has been the stereotype, as missionaries have sought converts, not disciples. This is also not the model of all missions agencies. Network Beyond, for instance, is training indigenous leaders and handing the local ministry off to those leaders. One of Borthwick’s suggested solutions is just this, that we provide training and resources to indigenous leaders, but we contextualize it so that it is relevant for a leader living in Brazil rather than one living in Chicago. There has also been much debate over whether or not we need to pull out of global missions altogether and simply: “fix our own problems.” I have weighed in on this debate in a paper you can find here, I will not rehash those arguments here. What I do want to do is dive into what it means to be a witness for Christ and a missionary in post-post modern America.
Let me begin with these stories….
When I was in Denver taking a class called “Street Psalms” where we went from neighborhood to neighborhood learning about the various unique contexts which the Church encounters in an urban environment. We came across a house with a high fence covered in that green paper. Where you could see through the paper you could catch a glimpse of what was a really nice home with a yard littered with items in various states of disarray and decay. One’s first thought upon seeing this sight might be that the house was foreclosed on and ready for demolition and had escaped vandalism. If you had thought that, you would have been wrong. The home, it turned out, belonged to a husband and wife evangelist team who were barely ever home. The neighborhood and city had reached out to them multiple times to ask them to clean up their yard, but the couple had never responded and certainly not cleaned up the eye-sore that was their yard. The teacher asked us what we thought the witness of that couple in Denver was? It did not take much guess work. “Not good” we could almost have said in unison.
A few weeks later I was talking Ben Edwards, who was the youth pastor at Joshua Station, a transitional housing ministry for those coming off the street which was housed in an old hotel. That week one of the suburban Churches sent their youth group down to run VBSs. We were standing on a balcony, watching what used to be the hotels conference room and patio where the kids were playing games when Ben said to me: “They come here for a week and fill our kids with some really bad theology and then we have to spend the next few months correcting it. But while they are here, we are not allowed anywhere near the VBS.” It made me wonder if our missions team in Dallas so many years earlier, running similar VBSs had done more harm than good. The neglect of local leaders and our local environments has done greater harm to our witness.
Before I am lambasted for being: “anti-short-term-mission” let me assure I am not. Short term teams can do a lot of good, especially if the missions work serves the local leaders, but it can also be harmful. If the attitude of the missionaries is “we are here to save you” and not “we are here to serve you” than we should not be surprised when we get the stereotypes I mentioned above. Short term missions can also be stepping off point into longer, full time commitments, as is the case with some friends of mine from college. But there is a bigger problem here than drive-by missions. It often comes at the expense of the mission at home. High-school and college kids get all hyped to go overseas or to another state or part of the city, but when they come home, there is no follow up and no continued mission. Missions is thus communicated as something one goes somewhere else to do.
Allow me one more story before I get to the Bible.
When I was a Freshmen at Sterling College we heard all the time about how important missions was and how everyone needed to go on a missions trip at least once in college. My wife heard the same message at her private Christian college. Missions and the students who went on them were often elevated above everyone else. One of the scholarships I got was simply because I had gone on a missions trip in high school. My summer in Denver, though part of my degree program, was actually considered cross-cultural missions by the college. But in day-one of my Urban Ministry Class we heard this little tidbit from our professor. The relationship between the college and the town was not as good as it once had been. It was broken. Part of the reason was that the town came to all our events and supported us. But when push came to shove, other than the financial boost of having 800 college kids in town 9 months out of the year, the college did not do much for the very people who were coming to events and supporting the students. As a remedy to this, we started the LOVE Sterling Day of Service. That first year we gathered at the lake and heard testimonials from the day from both the servers and the served. One of the students said the person he served had said: “I never thought much of the college, in fact, I hated it, but this changes that.” The man who had been skeptical to even have students at his house helping him, and was rude when they showed up, was buying them pizza by the end of the day and laughing and joking with them. The event continues to this day, 12 years later.
Which brings me to Jesus’s words in Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Here Jesus has just been asked if he is now going to restore the kingdom to Israel, as most Jews thought the Messiah would. But Jesus is not concerned with the earthly kingdom, but the heavenly one which He has been proclaiming since the start of His ministry. The time of final restoration is not for us to know. Jesus himself does not even know it, but since it is not to be known there is a task for the disciples to carry out. Similar to Jesus’s rebuke of Peter in John 21:15-25 when he asks what is going to happen to John. The message is clear, there is was: “What does it matter to you….follow me” here it is: “that is not for you to know, when the Holy Spirit comes you will be my witnesses.”
We often hear this verse used to talk about the concentric circles of missions. Jerusalem equals your town, all Judea is your state, Samaria is your country and the ends of the earth are…well…the ends of the earth. This is a proper way of understanding this verse, we run into trouble, however, when it comes to actually applying this passage. That is, we can be really, really good about the “ends of the earth” part, and most of the time the “Samaria” part, we might even be good at the: “and in all Judea” part, but the “Jerusalem” part, we repeatedly have failed at in the North American Church.
I think that has to do with our gaze, like the Disciples in Acts 1:10 we are often looking up to the heavens. We have been thoroughly inoculated with an eschatology that has taught us to interpret every little event as if it is the sign of the end times. We ignore Jesus’s words in Matthew 24 where he tells us not to do this very thing, and we ignore the angels who rebuke the disciples for gazing at the heavens. That is, the angels message seems pretty clear; “stop looking up, stop gazing into heaven and get to work, because he is going to return, so do what He has commanded you until he does.” Or, we are constantly looking within and around and letting our fears and anxieties get the best of us, like Peter on the waves, we are drowning because we took our eyes off Jesus, and though he stands there with his arm outstretched, we continue to flail in the water. Christians who have spent a life time living in a place where, until recently, Christianity was the norm and missions was something you do “over there” have never been discipled into Great Commission Christianity. A majority of Christians have never even heard of Jesus’s Great Commission (51% according to Barna), I wonder how many are familiar with Acts 1:4-11?
I want to come back to the Evangelists house in that Denver inner city neighborhood because it offers a perfect illustration of what I am talking about. The American Church has done a great job building a fence around itself. When people look through that the tears in the plastic covering they see the Church, glistening with her steeples and stained glass windows. It looks inviting, until you look at the yard which is littered with the decay and filth of sexual scandals, consumerism, theological heresies, apathy towards those perishing, apathy towards one another, hate and fear mongering and the general mess of what are supposed to be the transformed people of God, remaining untransformed. As a result, the neighborhood and the city in which we live are asking us to clean it up and whenever someone tries, they get torn down and yelled at. So the neighborhood we live in and the city in which we are part continues to get more and more hostile toward us, while we sit inside the fence, among the mess, wondering why the world wants nothing to do with us.
Before I go on, I have to say there are some very big exceptions to this parable, Mile High Ministries in Denver, Network Beyond in Greeley CO, Family Promise in Boston, The Simple Way in Philadelphia, Mission Arlington in Dallas, LOVE projects like LOVE Sterling and LOVE Wichita and many others. The landscape is not totally dim and dark. There are some very bright spots. But these need to become more normalized and they need to move beyond Urban Centers and Christian College Campuses. They need to make their way to the local, rural, churches where the demographic is getting both older and younger, and the younger families either have no interest in the Church, have been hurt by the Church or attend Church in the larger city close by because their local churches are seen as, and I quote: “For the olds.”
It needs to be stated that the Apostles made sure all these concentric circles were covered. Peter and James in Jerusalem, some in all Judea, some in Samaria and some, like Thomas and Paul, to the ends of the entire Earth. But they did not do this by themselves, instead the entire body of believers was united in bearing witness to Christ in the way that they lived and prayed and worked. Even under penalty of death, they did not back down from witnessing to Jesus and His work by their words and actions. When some issue arose, like the revolutionary fervor of the Zealots invading the Churches (James), circumcision (Galatians), Ascetism and division (1&2 Corinthians, 1 Timothy) or Antinominalism (Romans, Matthew) they addressed and corrected it. Today, we have a large set of evangelical leaders espousing the Arian Heresy (including eternal subordination of the Son), the majority of Church Members are practicing Gnostics or Antinomian and no one bats and eye. The name of Jesus is dragged through the mud, not only by secular people, but by those who claim the name “Christian.” Instead of learning to live as missionaries in a secularizing nation that is devolving into chaos, we are sitting in Sunday pews confused as to why the young people just do not come anymore.
There are now 3 generations missing almost entirely from the Church, Gen X, Millennials and Gen-Z (though not all the data is in here for them yet). That means a majority of the younger population is a missions field who has either never met another Christian, or who has been hurt by the Church and needs to be shown the real Jesus to help them heal and return to the body. Someone once said about small town churches: “Everyone knows where you are, they’re asking what you’ve done lately.” This is no longer true in the Northeast and West, but it is true in the small Midwestern towns like where we are here in Buffalo Center. It is heartbreaking for me as a Pastor to hear a business leader say: “It is so nice to see the Churches starting to participate in these events for kids.” Or for families to say: “It so good to see the churches doing things at times we can come to them.” The Church adapting its practices and times (not its message) to reach the maximum number of people possible should be the norm, not a surprise for the families that come.
I believe this is the biggest hurdle for the Church in America, especially in the small towns. We have been taught that Sunday morning between 8:30-12 is the churches time. The traditional time is favored and insisted upon. However, missional Churches learn to work in those who cannot make it to that Sunday Service. Scum of the Earth Church in Denver Colorado has a Saturday night service with a meal along with a Sunday morning service. Some Churches in larger cities are meeting in the afternoon, after a lunch provided by the Church. Some have even moved their services to what was traditionally the Sunday evening service to catch those who work Sunday mornings. Further, the events throughout the week are done at times which are sensitive to families with two working parents. They run latch-key ministries or after-school programs and host family oriented events on Saturday when most families are still home. They do all this as one way in which they are witnesses to Christ and His Kingdom in word and deed.
One more story.
There is a park here in town that my wife and daughter frequent. On Thursdays (my day off) we will often go as a family in the afternoon. Yesterday when we got there a woman was there my wife had met the day before. We got to talk with her and get to know her and her faith journey while my daughter played on the playground (she is two and already going down the “big(gest) slide). Soon, more families showed up, moms and their kids and their kids friends. I pushed some of the kids on the merry-go-round, being careful to make sure no one got hurt and we both interacted with the families and built relationships, or at least laid the foundations. My wife has had the chance to minister to needs at that playground (since she is there more than me, she has really gotten to know some people) and has even brought meals to families with newborns because the kids tell her if their parents are expecting. Bearing witness to Jesus is not just done in standing up and proclaiming scripture, it is done in the day to day, nitty gritty, at the park, in the market, at the coffee shop or deli. It is forming relationships at the park or letting your lawn be the gathering place for the neighborhood kids, as one gentlemen in our church told me this morning.
None of this is hard, especially because we have the power of the Holy Spirit who opens up the ears and eyes of the hearers to see Christ and who gives us the boldness necessary to live as witnesses to Christ. All we have to do is stop looking up, within or around and start just following Jesus, going to our small towns or big cities where we live and have been planted. So let us be a family on mission, wherever we live and wherever we go.
To God be the glory, forever and ever, amen.