Archive for June, 2011
Last week a friend of mine met with the president of one of the state SB conventions. According to him, the number of SB churches in the state that are dead or in decline was 85%. This number is troubling for a whole lot of reasons. While I am aware that there are significant changes in the U.S. church scene at present, no growth or realignment comes close to addressing an 85% decrease in the number of existing, functional churches in one denomination.
As this state is in the Bible belt, it doesn’t really matter where this interview happened. It seems that this statistic could very well be true for any of the Bible belt states–take your pick.
To turn it around and look at the positive side of the statistic, 15% of the churches are vibrant. A meager 15% are in a situation where they can be more concerned about loving the lost around them rather than being focused on self-preservation. This positive side for me is a bit depressing. Clearly, things as they have been are not working.
This image, a glimpse of the missio Dei, comes from a talk I have been giving for some time. Speaking to a group of people recently, several asked for the above image and the notes and other slides. On the resource page, you can find audio, notes and a pdf of the slides.
On recent travels (that I am one flight away from finishing up as I type), I had the privilege to provide some training and consulting for some international church planters in the Balkans. The stories there were encouraging and I am very excited to see what God will do there in the next year(s). For those from there that may be reading this post, know that I am cheering and praying for you!
So I finished up late one night and was headed to the airport before dawn the next morning. I was exhausted and, if honest, a bit proud that I had been able to share with others some of the things the Lord had been teaching me over the past several years. Then as I ambled toward the check-in line, I saw several children with a range of birth defects in the line ahead of me. Most of the defects were facial, though there were also crippled and severely autistic children. The ethnicity of the children was Roma. These gypsies are the outcasts of Europe. Discrimination against them is not just uncommon, but is expected. Leading these approximately 10 kiddos was a Bulgarian man and several ladies. These blessed servants were giving their lives away in anonymity to the “least of these.” It was beautiful. I was both touched and humbled.
While waiting for the plane, I saw the man–who was clearly the leader of the group and respected by both the children and the adults. He was interrupted as the youngest, who was sitting in front of him in a wheel chair with casts on both legs, wildly offered an empty paper cup. As the child gestured with the cup toward the man, he immediately stopped what he was doing and took a pretend drink from the cup. The child was elated. All the kids and ladies were smiling and laughing at the antics. This Bulgarian man was teaching the ways of Christ more than anyone else ever could have that morning to those kids, the ladies, and some other observers including me.
Maybe my time in the Balkans was a blessing to some others. Certainly, it was enriching for me. I learned a good bit about the ways of Jesus.
For some time I have followed the writings and blurbs put out by Justin Long with Mission to Unreached Peoples at his blog–The Long View. I would encourage those interested in mission to unreached, unengaged people groups (UUPG) to follow Justin on the Twitters or add his site to your RSS feed. One recent piece of his is, in my opinion, worth special attention due to the weight and timing of the topic and the swarm theory applied to the SBC he put into his piece entitled “2 major challenges Southern Baptists face in getting churches to engage the unreached.” Before reading any further here, go read his piece. If that’s all you get out of this post, then still it was probably worth your time. Seeing the Southern Baptist Convention as a swarmish entity is uber helpful especially in light of the daunting task of making massive change in default behavior. (Again, let me encourage you to read Long’s piece before going any further here.)
To restate Long’s two cautions in the referenced piece:
- Can Southern Baptists change the default of SB churches as it relates to international missions?
- Will Southern Baptists cooperate with others outside of the convention in the efforts to embrace UUPGs?
The first caution is a good question that I will not pretend to answer, but I will share that the desired change in default is, I believe, highly substantive and positive. It is encouraging to see that the language and expectations imb is holding out to SB churches is changing. Over the past several years I have seen imb be more open to the idea of the church functioning as a missionary–which I would credit my friends and cohorts at The Upstream Collective to a great extent for promoting and holding out this idea of the Sending Church. In the past I have seen imb consider sending churches as those that would do non-strategic or non-critical work to free up company personnel to do the strategic roles such as engaging new peoples and areas. Now, however, with the vision that Dr. Tom Elliff–the recently elected imb president–is conveying, it is a call for all to participate. All are to play critical, strategic roles in taking the gospel to the nations. Churches are being asked to partner with imb to embrace the unengaged. To be clear here, embracing a people is for the intended purpose of leading to engagement. To do this among one people is significant and challenging. To seek to do it among 3800 at one time is one of the more lofty and complex challenges undertaken historically in missions. It must be of God if it is to succeed at any level and the activity must be scalable and largely driven by a vast number of smaller swarms (as Long points out).
Exactly what the minimum default expectation and activity looks like is being ironed out as different leaders pose and grapple with this issue. These expectations should be public soon.
On the second caution, I strongly agree that the SB swarm is more likely to be effective in the end goal of engaging the UUPGs if the effort is not exclusive. It seems helpful to remember that this commitment to reaching UPGs and ultimately UUPGs was birthed 11 years ag0 at table 71. As part of a larger group of like-minded Great Commission Christian organizations, imb accepted the challenge to take the gospel to those that do not have access to it.
If one holds to the theology that once an individual from every nation, tribe, people and language has made Christ their Lord, then Christ will return, then it would be best to admit that mission is really about the existing followers of Christ rather than those that have not heard. In other words, if evangelicals can get one person from every people to pray a prayer of salvation, then those that believe can finally get out of here sooner. Were this to be a correct eschatological view, which I question strongly, then the task is not about reaching peoples, but reaching a person from each of the peoples. However, this view does not seem consistent with the whole of Scripture for a number of reasons including that we read of Christ’s guts churning when He beheld the masses that were “like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus consistently was concerned about individuals and masses. He spent his ministry years continuing to share primarily with one people group. His passion was about seeing people become followers of the Most High God. Regarding Revelation 7:9 and eschatology, Elliff states that this is not a cause and effect relationship. Instead of a causal situation, this can be viewed as coincidental in nature. Our responsibility is obedience to take the gospel to the nations. The timing of Christ’s return is known only by God the Father.
If this is about the peoples of each people group and not about a person from each group being compelled by the Savior, then it seems that partnershipping is of increased value and importance (please allow the word for extra emphasis). SB churches, entities and imb must be in partnership for this to work to fulfill the imb vision. Even further, partnership with other like-minded churches and agencies is essential to reach the peoples among the unengaged and unreached peoples. Elliff’s responsibility and station is to seek to influence the swarm that is SB. It is my hope that through the language that he uses and the messages–both overt and meta–imb sends this week and in the coming months that other swarms beyond the SB affiliated will be influenced and encouraged to see churches, agencies and networks be about reaching both UUPGs and UPGs.
Finally on this point, I want to reiterate Long’s point that others will believe because of the unity of the believers in Christ. While the instruction is simple yet often difficult for us to live, “they will know we are Christians by our love for one another.” Partnership is essential. And based on what I am hearing, it is welcomed by imb leadership.
In addition to Long’s concerns, I will offer two aspects that I believe will be critical for the Embrace effort to be successful. One of these is timeless in missions and the second a bit more specific to this vision.
First, churches must prayerfully seek to answer the question: “To whom are we sent?” The Embrace conversation may influence this significantly, but ultimately a people should go only as the Lord directs. Whether to a UUPG, a UPG, Dearborn, MI or even a town in the U.S. Bible belt, both the individual and the church would do well to go those to whom she is sent.
Second, Embrace is a commitment to see the effort through. If the church is going to those people that the Lord has sent them to, then the Embrace effort will not be contingent on the presence of the initiating pastor or other church leader. I envision a future question for staff hires including the senior pastor to be whether or not he senses that God is leading him to be sent to the people that the church has already embraced. This is a commitment to see the task through to fulfillment. At this point, the church would do well to calibrate expectations in terms of a decade or more rather than think in years. The call to Embrace is not a call for the preservation or development of imb or for the enrichment or ease of the church. This is a call to obedience. A call to be about the Great Commission. Embrace is ultimately a call to “go and make disciples of all nations.”
*These ramblings are my own and are not the official position of any person, agency or church. Where the arguments are lucid and helpful, there is a good chance that these points are influenced by other persons. Where they are unclear or unhelpful, there is a good chance that is mine.
This week I stumbled upon a video that was both unsettling and powerful. I think it is fair to call it music, though it is unlike anything I have heard before (note: I would never declare myself a music maven or on the cutting edge of developments in the music world). Raw, emotional, honest, Listener’s this piece was gripping. After watching the video a few times I downloaded the group’s most recent album and continue to listen, process and appreciate the art and ideas from Listener.
In addition to Wooden Heart, I have appreciated the feel and lyrics of “You Were a House on Fire.” Here are the lyrics to the second part of that piece from Listener’s site.
We all write songs about life, we just sing them different.
you sing the words but you don’t know the song.
and you expect us all to sing along? how selfish
the lengths that we go to, to put so much distance between us is staggering
you’re burning alive with stress and life
both hands in flames trying to hold the fire inside
drop and roll …repeat line for emphasis.
I’ll repeat it and repeat it until you believe it
you’re gonna be ok! say it to me…
the answer is still silence … I’ll take it as a maybe
I can’t decide if I should knock down your door or on it
say the word and I’ll take an axe to your heart or a pin prick
cut right through the dark, let it spill out the contents
on our knees sorting through the remnants
pour out your hate in my hands, I’ll let em slip through my fingers
and this is for you, and this is for the times that we only listen long enough to know the other person we’re talking to has the same opinions we do.
for when we’re burning inside, for when we’re trying to hide that fact
this is for the scalps that we went after, to be only the best dressed
to scrape another notch on our belts, add another feather to our headress
I want to be the bigger man for you, but I can’t take this truth
This past week I had the privilege of being at a children’s camp sharing about mission and enjoying time with my family. While away, there were several delightful things that I saw as beautiful. Thought I would share a few here.
- nature – The handiwork of God. Breath-taking. Enough said.
- children – I loved being able to hear stories and see the energy and enthusiasm of so many youngsters. It was infections.
- faith – While this goes back to kiddos also, it was beautiful to see the purity of child-like faith.
- family – It was so good to spend time with my family and create some new memories. I also thoroughly enjoyed watching my kids interact with other kids and adults. (Thanks to all of those that cared deeply about my kids!) I was reminded that they are growing up in so many ways. Finally on the family note, it was also a blessing to see other families that are seeking to walk with God.
- sacrifice – Those who shared their lives as sponsors and cooks, leaders and administrators were giving their time for others. These were beautiful expressions of service and love.
- friendship – This week was also a week to reconnect with some who have been instrumental in my life. Thanks so much to them! This was a blessing and our time together last week as well as over the years was, for me, a glimpse into the goodness of God.
- God – Sharing with others about the missionary God that calls us to be a missionary people and in turn requires the church to be a missionary church was, as usual, helpful for me in reflecting on how beautiful is the plan He made. How beautiful what He has called us to be about.