Jeff Iorg Blog


Easter in the Preschool

Apr 21 2014


I hope you had a great Easter! I did. I worked in the preschool area at our church. I was a “Sunday buddy” for a special child who comes to our church and needs one-on-one assistance. We have four of these children participating regularly in our Sunday programs – and they each need some intensive help to have a positive experience at church. I was glad to be a buddy this past Sunday.

I am proud to be part of a church that reaches families with children who have special needs. It’s labor intensive and can be quite challenging to staff, but we somehow find people to do this important work. Many pastors proclaim, “Every life matters” from the pulpit but how many churches actually practice what is preached by accommodating every person who wants to participate in church programming? Not as many as we would hope.

Being in the preschool also gave me the opportunity to observe my wife in action. She has been a children or preschool ministry leader for about three decades. Watching her exercise her gifts, training, skills, and passion for children is amazing. She represents the thousands of behind-the-scenes ministry workers who make healthy churches so effective. Hats off to Ann and her Preschool Team (and all of you out there doing similar work) for a job well done!

 

Pulpit Power

Jan 21 2014


The Martin Luther King Day celebrations reminded me of a trip a few years ago that included a few minutes at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. The most surprising aspect of my visit was how small the church was. It could easily fit inside our chapel at Golden Gate, which is not very big compared to many other schools.

Yet, from a relatively small church facility, a pastor used the power and influence of his pulpit to guide the Montgomery bus boycott and fuel the civil rights movement that changed our nation. The size of the church was eclipsed by two things – the power of the preached Word of God and the capabilities of the man doing the preaching.

Many churches, and sadly many pastors, have lost the sense of awe the pulpit once inspired. The pulpit, as a symbol of preaching, has been removed from many churches. A seemingly good motive for this was to remove communication barriers with the congregation. While I understand the desire to change the mood toward a more dialogical approach, the lost sense of authority implied by jettisoning the furniture may have been more of a loss than intended.

The African-American church still embraces the power of the pulpit – not just preaching, but the actual “sacred desk.” In many of these churches, only the pastor or his invited guest may speak from the pulpit. All other speakers use a smaller lectern. The symbolism of this is clear – what emanates from the pulpit is sacred, powerful, and unique.

Perhaps one reason our nation, including many churches, have lost touch with living under the authority of God’s Word is connected to this change related to preaching. Moving the furniture back onstage may not be the ultimate goal – but it might be a symbolic step in the right direction.

 

A Moving Experience

Nov 18 2013

A few days ago, while in Hong Kong, Ann and I worshipped with the Kowloon International Baptist Church. We were fortunate enough to be with them on “International Sunday,” the day their church celebrates their multiculturalism. Like most “international” churches in cities outside the United States, they worship in English. They minister to the expatriate community and others from various countries who want to worship in English. Many “international” churches have leading businessmen, diplomats, educators, and other professionals who are working in foreign settings. For many, English is their second language but there is no church available in their first language. Kowloon International certainly fits that description. 

Their “International Sunday” celebration included a flag display with persons standing when their country’s name was called and flag displayed. We lost count around 30 countries represented in the service! The service also included a scripture reading, just one verse from a Psalm about God’s work among the nations. The verse was read in succession by several people, each reading in their country’s mother tongue. It was powerful to hear the verse read, among others, in Russian, German, Kazakh, as well as several Asian languages and dialects. Interspersed in the scripture reading, we sang a hymn – also in various languages as we all tried our “phonetic best.” 

The service was emotionally moving – perhaps because it reminded me so much of home. Golden Gate is a truly multicultural ministry setting. We have moved beyond tolerating cultural differences to embracing and celebrating them. We practice a wide-variety of worship styles in chapel, eat all kinds of food on our campuses, and recognize cultural overtones and influences in our teaching/learning environment. We relish the messiness of it, rather than react to its challenges. 

God has been good to move me beyond monoculturalism to the richness of relating to and working with all kinds of people. If you are still in “mono-mode,” take the risk to branch out. Meet some new friends, eat some new food, worship in some new ways, and get over thinking your way is the best way or the only way to do life (or church!). God will enrich you when you develop these relationships and discover how he works differently through people in other places or cultures.

 

Extend the Call

Aug 26 2013

Because of one of my books, Is God Calling Me?, I get asked to speak at college events on the subject of “God’s call.” A few years ago, when speaking to about 600 students, I asked, “How many of you have ever heard a sermon in your church on God’s call to ministry leadership?” Only a few hands were raised. Then I asked, “How many of you have heard a pastor or speaker extend a public invitation to answer God’s call to ministry leadership?” Even fewer hands were raised. 

I am often asked, “How’s the seminary doing?” My response is, “In many ways, just about like the churches.” We are a reflection of the churches that support us. When churches don’t teach about God’s call and challenge young people to respond to it, we will naturally have fewer and fewer students pursuing God’s call at the seminary. 

A young church leader called me recently and said, “We had the best thing happen at camp. The pastor asked for a show of hands – among 125 campers – of those who thought God might be calling them to be missionaries, pastors, or other church leaders. Amazingly, 25 hands were raised.” She then told me, “We had been teaching on missions and ministry all week, but it didn’t occur to us to ask the pastor to include answering God’s call as part of the worship services. When he did, it seemed so natural. I was embarrassed we hadn’t planned to do it and glad he did it. Now we have a whole group of kids to shepherd forward toward potential leadership.” 

Learn from this example. Older children and teenagers are interested in kingdom service. Many of them will commit to a life of ministry leadership – if they are challenged to consider it and supported in their decision. Golden Gate is the end of the training funnel for future leaders. The beginning point is children’s and youth ministries in churches. Collegiate ministries are also vital to the process. 

Church leaders – be more intentional about teaching and preaching about God’s call. Fan the flame of initial interest and nurture embryonic commitment. Seminaries don’t produce leaders. We only shape those the church sends. We are depending on you to call out the called!

 

Good times in LA

Aug 19 2013

One of the best things about being president of Golden Gate is working in our multicultural community. As the most multicultural seminary in the United States, we are a mosaic of languages, cultures, and ethnicities. While diversity has its challenges, the advantages and blessings are so numerous the negative aspects are almost eclipsed. We learn so much from each other and are so enriched by each other – there’s just no way to really explain it unless you experience it.

One outgrowth of three decades on this path is our network of multicultural ministry partners. This past weekend, it was my privilege to speak multiple times at the annual Missions Conference for the Mandarin Baptist Church of Los Angeles. What a church! Many mono-cultural church leaders/members think of ethnic or language based churches as “mission churches” or as objects of missions. While some are, many are not. Not by a long shot!

MBCLA is a vibrant, strong, mission-sending church making global impact. They are celebrating fifty years of ministry this year. Their church meets on two campuses, with seven weekend services, in four languages. They sent out seven short term mission teams this summer to work around the world. They have ongoing mission projects among Native Americans, with special needs children in California, in Mexico, and in various places in Asia. The church is swarming with college students and young professionals. Their pastors are highly trained, biblically-centered, and missionally-driven men who intend on making a dramatic impact in their community and around the world.

In California, some of the largest Southern Baptist churches – attendance 1500 or more – are Chinese, Korean, and Russian churches – not to mention several very large African-American churches and others that worship in English but are multicultural in their make-up. These churches – and their pastors – are leading voices for biblical values, missional advance, and spiritual revival. Several of them are Golden Gate graduates – which makes us proud.

If you are in a mono-cultural church, take the risk to meet pastors and members from other backgrounds. Learn to eat new food, sing different songs, worship with a different order, and operate on a different schedule. It might be unsettling, even intimidating at first. But once you start making a few friends, you will never be the same. Your stereotypes will vanish and you will have many fun surprises. For example – guess where my Chinese hosts liked to eat? Italian! Then the next day, Hawaiian! And, of course, one really good Chinese banquet too!

Gotta love diversity – especially when the dinner bell rings.

 

Reallocating Resources

Aug 05 2013

Southern Baptists have never had more money, more trained leaders, more materials and programs, more technology, more of a national presence, and more of an international reach. Yet, despite all this, we are becoming less and less effective at communicating the gospel and baptizing people – the first public step of discipleship. In 2012, we baptized fewer people than any year since 1948. Why?

The reasons are many and varied. Over this summer, I am blogging about some of the reasons – making no attempt to write a comprehensive treatise, just sharing some perspectives from my vantage point.

We are a prosperous people – probably the wealthiest denomination of Christian churches in the world. When you add up the money, facilities, and property owned by 45,000+ churches, 42 state conventions, about 1200 associations, and a dozen SBC entities – our assets are in the billions. Just considering the hundreds of millions we receive in offerings each year would be enough to distance us from almost every other group. We are, by any measure, a wealthy people.

You might be thinking, “Well, someone else’s church or association or state has a lot – but not ours.” If you think that way, it’s only because you are comparing your resources to other SBC entities - not churches or denominations on the global economy. When you compare us to other global groups, we are rich by that standard.

The sad reality is we spend so much of our wealth on ourselves. We borrow billions to build extravagant facilities to compete with the church down the street. We spend additional billions on programs to meet our wants (not our needs) for recreation and fellowship. We employ people to do ministry, rather than expect people to learn and lead voluntarily. Our selfishness is staggering. Yet, it’s hard to get any one of us to admit to the problem. What seems like extravagance to others viewing our situation, we justify as a real need in our case.

To reverse the decline in evangelism will require a radical reallocation of resources. We must – churches, associations, states, seminaries, and mission boards – ruthlessly evaluate how we are using our resources. We must prioritize spending on projects, programs, facilities, and staff that reach lost people – not provide more and more services to believers. This will be painful – very painful – to those who believe their church or denomination exists to meet their needs.

How can you help with this process? Get honest about your personal finances. If you are a leader, you can’t lead an organization to do what you aren’t personally modeling. Ask your church leaders to do a thorough review of its spending. Find out how much is being spent on initiatives actually reaching people who have never heard the gospel or who are not members of any church. Don’t be mean or divisive! Just participate in an honest analysis. Work toward incremental change if that’s all that can be done, moving as quickly as you can to get more and more money into front line evangelism projects.

Money matters. Where your treasure is, your heart will follow. Let’s put our money on our priority of reaching people.

 

Stop Whining

Jun 03 2013


Spending time with a modern day warrior has reminded me how good my life is and how much I need to stop whining about small problems. The young man in question has spent the past several years in the most violent places on earth, dealing with people driven to destroy as many people as possible. His stories are sobering and the personal price he has paid – relationally, physically, and spiritually – is humbling.

In my recent graduation message, I reminded students they have chosen a life of sacrifice, frugality, and limited financial security. A graduate from 1963 was in the attendance. He told me, “In my day, we never thought about asking the salary and benefits. We believed God would provide if we were in the center of his will.” He then lamented, “Nowadays, every person we interview to be employed by our church wants to know ‘the package’ in the first conversation.” All of us – experienced leaders and recent graduates – need to hear his lament and the concern it raises

While asking about compensation at the right time is appropriate, I understand this veteran leader’s problem. Many younger ministers approach their work as a profession, thinking of their work as building a career. What happened to pursuing a call as the mark of ministry leadership? My warrior-friend considers his life mission – protecting others – as a calling. He has read Romans 13 and understands the government’s role to defend the weak and liberate the oppressed. He willingly serves despite the limited compensation and personal cost. His example humbles me. It also motivates me to deliver this message to ministry leaders, “Stop whining.”

American ministry leaders face so little true opposition. We are not persecuted, not physically threatened, and seldom even verbally attacked. Based on my conversations with hundreds of pastors, when those attacks do come, they are usually from other Christians – not outside authorities.

Let’s readjust our perspective. Our sacrifices are minimal. Our lifestyle, even if we live frugally compared to others in our community, is comfortable from a global perspective. Our work is not a career, it’s a calling. Our focus is building His kingdom, not ours.

Ministry leaders have hard days – but so do plumbers, physicians, and public school teachers. Let’s adjust our perspective, stop whining, and get on with the work!

 

Jerk Church

May 06 2013

A new church was chronicled in our local newspaper this past weekend. You can check it out at www.jerkchurch.com. On the other hand, don’t bother. This so-called church is a group that gets together to sing, eat, and do nice things for each other. They claim to be a church without all the baggage of divisive religious convictions. Judging by the lyrics in their online hymnal, what they apparently believe in is vulgarity and perversion.

In a weird way, there is one thing I like about this church. At least they are honest! One of the members said of their church, “It has all the things we like about going to church, without the religious doctrine that doesn’t resonate with us anymore.” The jerks, as they call themselves, have created church in their image – without any frustrating doctrinal standards. They get to determine what is right and wrong, moral or immoral.

Many people, including some Christians, do the same thing but aren’t nearly so frank about their position. The growing rejection of doctrinal, moral, and ethical standards taught clearly in the Bible saddens me. Either you follow Jesus and submit to his Word, or you don’t. If you do, it doesn’t mean you always get everything right, but at least you’re trying. You recognize biblical authority and make a good faith effort to submit to it.

The Jerk Church brazenly rejects biblical standards. Two-faced Christians who do the same, while claiming not to, frustrate me even more. Both groups are self-deluded, thinking they can follow “their God” – defining him in their terms and selectively obeying the parts of his Word they find acceptable. Both groups diminish the gospel and undermine the fulfilling life God would really like for them to have.

What saddens me most is people missing out on God’s best because they redefine, rather than submit, to his standards. Don’t fall prey to that temptation! Stay strong in your determination to honor God and live according to his Word.

 

A Global Perspective

Feb 27 2012

Driving through the night, I had the radio scanning for something to keep me awake. The strongest signal was a Christian talk format, with a caller lamenting the struggles of the American church, the decline of American culture, and thus, the imminence of the return of Jesus. Circumstances in America are “proof,” according to the caller that Jesus’ return is just around the corner. I was struck by his well-meaning, though mono-cultural perspective. Since his world – America - was not what he thought it should be, the world must be coming to an end. 

His narrow perspective skews his conclusion. He sees the world through an American lens – more specifically in his case, an “American South” lens. As I listened, I thought about the suffering Church around the world, the growing Church in various places around the world, and the ancient Church that has withstood centuries of secular turmoil and opposition. Those Christians would probably have a very different perspective. Our expectations about Jesus’ return must be based on something more than our perspective of circumstances around us. 

My second thought about this caller was his limited knowledge of what makes for “decline” in the culture and “struggles” in the church. Many Christians around the world look at the governmental protections, financial prosperity, human resources, and communication capabilities of the American church and wonder, “What’s the problem?” We are free to worship without persecution, practice religion with little interference, spread the gospel by any legitimate means, and travel freely to do the same. Believers in places like Iran, China, and Yemen would like to have these “problems.” 

Please don’t try to convince me the American church is being “persecuted.” The recent dust-up over the government trying to force religious organizations to provide contraceptives has been cited as a good example of persecution. One person told me, “It’s another example of our government’s increased persecution of the church.” While it is offensive, aggravating, and probably an illegal infringement on religious practice – it’s not persecution. 

Persecution is when people are denied employment and education, forcibly separated from their family, imprisoned, tortured or martyred for their faith. When we describe actions like verbal abuse, financial challenges, or bad public policy as “persecution,” we demean the sacrifices of believers who really are part of the persecuted church. 

We need a global perspective before we make conclusive announcements about God’s activity in our world. God is not an American God, the American Church is not the barometer of Kingdom health, and the Lord is not going to return just because the American Church (or culture) has some problems. 

Jesus may return tomorrow, but only when he is ready to retrieve the Global Church as his eternal Companion. For that, we can all wait expectantly!

 

Implementing infiltration strategies (part 2)

Nov 28 2011

Missional Christians consider themselves deployed, not just dispersed throughout the culture. Christians are already embedded at schools, companies, and neighborhoods where they study, work, and live. They are deployed with a mission to infiltrate their community with the gospel. Following up from last week, here are some additional steps to accomplish this goal. 

Be available. Engaging people with the gospel takes time. My commitment to being a corporate chaplain requires me to decline other ministry opportunities. It also takes time away from family and personal time. Finding the balance in all this is important – but so is making time to build and maintain witnessing relationships. Part of my responsibility is being available – having time for spontaneous conversations, answering phone calls, returning text messages and emails, sharing meals, counseling sessions, attending weddings, funerals, and baby dedications. Some of these events can’t be scheduled, yet a timely response is necessary. Seizing the moment for ministry-connection leading to gospel-presentation is essential for missional advance. 

To create flexibility in your schedule may require you, particularly if you are a busy church leader, to evaluate how you are spending your time. Are you completely enmeshed in Christian activity to the exclusion of missional involvement with lost people? If so, some “transactional adjustment” of your schedule is required. Transactional adjustment means you must take something out of your schedule before you can put something else on it. You can’t keep adding more and more. Minus one proceeds plus one for the scheduling equation to work. As you create more time for engaging unbelievers, you will most likely start by deciding what current commitments must be deleted before anything new can be added. 

Another part of this is creating “margin” in your life so you can respond to serendipitous opportunities to share the gospel. When a non-Christian sportswriter asked me to have lunch to talk about spiritual questions, it became a priority! Other lesser obligations had to be pushed back or canceled. Keeping your schedule flexible enough to respond to unexpected opportunity is challenging, but essential for connecting with people – on their timetable – about the gospel. 

Be yourself. People can sense a phony! If you want to share the gospel, living an authentic life – not a perfect life – is essential. The people you live and work around know the “real you.” Be yourself. Be a genuine Christian, not a person acting out the role of a believer. One common devilish lie is Christians can’t witness to people who know them well until they live a perfectly committed life. Not true! Unbelievers know you aren’t perfect – so stop thinking you have to be. It is far better to admit your mistakes, apologize for them, and move on. You will be surprised at the response. Most non-Christians will respect you more for your honesty – and be more open to hearing the gospel from you. 

Trevor is trying to live a missional lifestyle at work. He is implementing several of the steps outlined in this chapter. After a series of problems with his boss – some his fault, some not – he exploded in anger in front of his co-workers. He vented his frustration is blunt terms, including profanities he thought were erased from his vocabulary. Trevor called me, discouraged, feeling his “witness was lost” with his fellow workers. My counsel: go to work tomorrow, accept responsibility for your actions, and apologize. To his surprise, the response was positive among his co-workers who told him “No problem, just forget it.” A genuine apology, expressed humbly, defuses conflict and restores relationships. Your non-Christian friends know you aren’t perfect. Authenticity trumps duplicity every time so admit your mistakes and move on. 

Be patient. The final step to implementing an infiltration strategy is patience. Some people are ready to hear the gospel and respond now. Share the gospel, win them to faith in Jesus, and disciple them to spiritual strength. Many people, however, take time to open themselves to the gospel. You may pray for months or years, always looking for an opportunity to share the gospel, yet feel stymied in the process. When you finally do introduce the gospel into the conversation, the response may be tepid or even resistant. Many witnesses give up at this point, assuming they have failed. Not necessarily. 

Some people open themselves to the gospel over time. God orchestrates circumstances to bring unbelievers to the end of self-trust, to convince them of his love, to remove objections to faith, or to clarify the gospel as a grace-gift apart from any works. Some people process the gospel more slowly, truth dawning on them over time rather than having a dramatic revelation. Some unbelievers are watching you, wanting to know if the gospel is really transformational before making their commitment. Finally, some lost people are just plain stubborn – self-sufficient and unwilling to repent. Unfortunately, being broken by life’s disappointment is often part of their path back to God. Your steady friendship may facilitate their progress to salvation through the pain of a broken life. 

When you commit to living a missional lifestyle, you will probably find people more open to the gospel than you imagine. After thirty years of sharing my faith, my overall impression is most unbelievers are either open to or at least tolerant of gospel-dialogue. My truly negative experiences in sharing my faith can be counted on one hand. Most non-Christians, when approached appropriately, are not antagonistic about discussing religious issues – including hearing a Christian’s testimony and Jesus’ story. Many of the barriers to sharing our faith have been erected by us – not the people around us. Religious barriers to communicating the gospel can be removed – but only by the same people who built them. You can remove religious barriers to sharing your faith.

 

Implementing Infiltration Strategies (part 1)

Nov 21 2011

Based on the responses, my challenge to implement “infiltration strategies” has hit a nerve – in a good way. Here are some suggestions for implementing these, excerpted from my new book Live Like a Missionary. I will share some more next week. By the way - A church just ordered 400 books and plans to go through it with the whole congregation! Maybe your church should do something similar.

Missional Christians consider themselves deployed, not just dispersed throughout the culture. Christians are already embedded at schools, companies, and neighborhoods where they study, work, and live. You don’t need to “get outside the walls of the church.” You live there already! Every Christians has a relational network, even though some may be limited because of years of immersion in the Christian subculture. When you adopt a more missional lifestyle, becoming more connecting to your community will involve two options – maximizing current relationships and/or purposefully creating new relationships – all in the context of your normal life patterns. Let’s consider examples of both options for infiltrating your world with the gospel.

George committed his life to Jesus, but decided to keep racing automobiles as an avocation. He started telling his friends about his conversion and encouraging them to become followers of Jesus. His race team organized a car show, on a church parking lot, to connect his racing friends to his church friends. Note this distinction: George connected this lost friends to his church friends but in the context of an activity central to their lives, not the church’s. He maximized existing relationships for sharing the gospel.

Lisa, a young mother, moved to a new community and wanted to establish friendships with other women like her. She could have joined a church-based group for mothers of preschoolers. Nothing wrong with that! The church program was Christian-focused with unbelievers welcome – a classic engagement strategy. But Lisa wanted to meet more women who needed to know Jesus. She joined a local “play group,” operated by a community center. Lisa met about a dozen women who became her friends. Over time, she discovered none of them were Christians – or even had any connection to a church. As a missional Christian, this became a relational gold mine! Liz had a bi-weekly opportunity to interface with women who shared her life concerns, pressures, and frustrations. It was easy to talk about her faith as the solution to these issues. Talking about Jesus was part of the conversation – along with diaper rash, dealing with colic, developmental concerns, and laughter about the funny things children do. Choosing to infiltrate a play group is an example of initiating new relationships for the purpose of sharing the gospel.

Whether you are maximizing existing relationships or initiating new ones as part of your missional commitment, there are four principles that will help you implement infiltration strategies. These are simple steps to improve your effectiveness in sharing the gospel.

Be intentional. Sometimes, the perspective described in this book is derided as an excuse for diminished church involvement or a watered-down relational approach that soft-sells witnessing. Both of those criticisms can be true if a person isn’t intentional about sharing the gospel. Living a good life among unbelievers and hoping your spiritual aura effects life-change is insufficient. Intentional strategies make the difference. One of the simplest strategies is to make a prayer list of unbelieving friends and pray regularly for their salvation. This practice accomplishes two purposes. First, it asks God for something within his will and with biblical precedent (see chapter 3). Second, it continually sensitizes you to the spiritual needs of the people you are praying for.

Another intentional strategy is maintaining a record of your progress in sharing the gospel with your friends. Andy kept a small notebook in his car with a page for each person he was trying to reach with the gospel. It also doubled as his prayer list (described above). Any time he had a spiritual conversation with one of this friends, he noted it. He also included significant life events (births, marriages, promotions, etc.) as well as life struggles (sicknesses, deaths in the family, etc.) that might contribute to his connecting the gospel to their life needs. While you may be so relationally sensitive you don’t need a “spiritual spreadsheet,” keeping records of your witnessing attempts and the progress you are making can be helpful for those with shorter memories!

A third intentional strategy is having Christian literature, books, DVDs, CDs, and web site addresses to give to others. When witnessing to friends and family members, the gospel is often shared incrementally. Recently, my friend Braylon, responded very openly to a question I raised about his spiritual background. We talked for about twenty minutes about the gospel. He had to return to work, so I offered him a gospel-tract about salvation. He agreed to read it. The next time we are together, I will ask him about it as the basis for our continued conversation. When a friend expresses spiritual interest, one very good way to extend the dialogue is to share a resource related to their concern. Andy, the same man with the notebook, also taught me this practice. He always had a zip-lock bag of materials in his car and office, ready to distribute at a moment’s notice. Now, with electronic resources, you can text or email a web address as a follow up to many conversations.

Check back next week for three more implementation ideas.

 

Why infiltration strategies are resisted by Christians

Nov 14 2011

The first reason infiltration strategies are difficult is Christians do not control the venue where they are deployed. In the examples given last week, a common characteristic of infiltration strategies is someone other than a church or Christian leader sets the rules, controls the schedule, establishes the policies, and most importantly, determines the moral values of the organization or program. This is a problem for many Christians who are intimidated by secularization which contradicts their core values. Missionaries, however, live like this all the time! Missional Christians embrace living among secular people as an opportunity to model and speak the gospel – even when they can’t control the setting. 

Too many Christians, even leaders and prospective leaders, can’t fathom intentionally choosing to work or play outside the Christian subculture. Our seminary’s primary campus is located in the San Francisco Bay Area, a hotbed of politically liberal, religiously indifferent, secular thought. There aren’t many churches – and very few large churches – since evangelicals comprise less than 3% of the total population. When prospective students visit our area – they usually reach one of two conclusions. Some wonder how they can live with no Christian schools, recreation programs, day care centers, or extensive church ministries to support their Christian faith. In short, they wonder how they will survive without a Christian subculture – a comfort zone they are not prepared to leave. Those students don’t normally choose our school. 

On the other hand, some prospective students are drawn to our area because it requires joining the community to find the services listed above. They understand the absence of a Christian subculture means they must engage the culture – and in doing so build relationships with unbelievers. Believers who consider themselves deployed, not just dispersed, see their role as infiltrating cultural networks and systems with the gospel. Christians in similar situations see their setting as a gold mine of spiritual opportunity. Missional Christians, like missionaries, embrace living where very few people are followers of Jesus. 

A second reason infiltration strategies are more difficult is Christians are afraid of being tainted by the culture. They are uncomfortable hearing profanity, sharing meals where alcohol is served, sitting in the smoking section, hearing off-color humor, or socializing with secular people. They prefer insulation from offensive aspects of culture, rather than infiltration of it. Christians also shy away from serving on boards, committees, or community organizations with people who don’t share all their values.
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This raises an important question related to personal holiness among deployed believers: Do you violate Christian standards by befriending people who behave in sinful ways? The answer is a resounding NO. Jesus modeled living among sinful people, yet without sin. Relating to people who make poor choices isn’t the same as making those choices yourself. Missional Christians must have the spiritual self-discipline to relate to unbelievers based on who they are (a person God loves), not what they do (act reprehensibly toward God). As you infiltrate the culture with the gospel, you learn to relate to people without judging them. You love people, overlooking their inappropriate behavior because you know it is a symptom – not the cause – of their lostness. 

One word of caution, however, as you develop relationships with non-Christians and take the gospel into secular situations. Some behavior may be so tempting for you, it would be wise to avoid associating with people involved in it until you are sufficiently capable of resisting the temptation. Newer Christians often must break old patterns by completing disassociating themselves from past behavior (and sometimes friends involved in it). This may be a temporary decision during a season of spiritual development, or a lifelong choice if the temptation is unrelenting. Missional Christians must be mature enough in their faith to resist temptations while they reach out to unbelievers and know situations they need to avoid all together. 

It’s also important to remember, some behavior is always inappropriate for Christians. Spiritual discernment and personal discipline are required to walk these fine lines. 

A third reason an infiltration strategy is difficult is many Christians have poor spiritual-esteem. They aren’t really sure about their faith’s legitimacy in the marketplace of competing religions and ideologies. They feel threatened when unbelievers share gut-honest, critical opinions of church or Christianity in general. These Christians lack a robust faith capable of standing up in the marketplace. What passes for “discipleship” today has too often produced weak-willed believers without the spiritual stamina to make a difference in their communities and work places. Our faith is a “greenhouse” faith – capable of thriving only in controlled environments. To infiltrate culture with the gospel will require faith able to withstand hurricane force opposition – spiritual, philosophical, and ideological. 

The Christian faith is personally transforming, intellectually defensible, spiritually empowering, and practically livable in every life setting. You can develop the spiritual self-esteem to represent the gospel boldly, without reticence, to the people in your circle of influence. A missional Christian has an authentic faith, confidently shared no matter the spiritual climate. 

Adopting infiltration strategies is also difficult because church and denominational leaders seldom celebrate Christians who adopt this lifestyle. They celebrate what happens in church buildings (attendance, baptisms, and offerings) or what happens through church programs (even those directed toward unbelievers) – not church members who devote significant time to infiltrating the community with the gospel. They promote programs and projects they control – contributing to the definition of “community deployment” as “supporting church-based outreach to the community.” 

Christians with a robust faith must infiltrate public schools, sports programs, Chambers of Commerce, factory floors, country clubs, foster care systems, and countless other venues with the gospel. Believers who choose this path must be celebrated, not criticized, by church leaders and viewed as missionaries with an apostolic mandate. These believers aren’t merely social workers or spiritual activists. They are gospel-tellers who seek intentional ways to introduce Jesus to every person. They are more than a spiritual presence. They talk about Jesus, win converts, and make disciples. When the results of their work become evident, wise church leaders celebrate the victory and encourage others to join the work.

For a more complete discussion of this concept, see my book Live Like a Missionary

 

Infiltration strategies

Nov 07 2011

Churches today, and most Christians who support their work, focus on attraction and engagement strategies to communicate the gospel to their community. Let’s define those two concepts. An attraction strategy is a Christian event or program designed to accommodate unbelievers and introduce them to Jesus Christ. For example, seeker-friendly worship services or Christian coffee houses are attraction strategies. They are designed for Christians to invite unbelievers to hear the gospel, experience Christian fellowship/worship, and observe Christian community. 

An engagement strategy is an event or program designed to extend ministry to unbelievers and introduce them to Jesus. For example, a church-based sports program or neighborhood block parties are engagement strategies. They are also designed for Christians to invite non-Christians to participate in activities with believers and sample Christian fellowship. Both attraction and engagement strategies have their place and should not be abandoned. They are, however, inadequate for gospel-penetration of a post-Christian or never-Christian culture across North America. An infiltration strategy must be promoted by churches and celebrated by church leaders. 

What is an infiltration strategy and does it differ from attraction and engagement strategies? An infiltration strategy is the deployment of believers throughout the culture to introduce unbelievers to Jesus Christ in their context. Consider the following comparisons to help clarify the differences in these three approaches. For example, starting a church-sponsored softball league for the community is an attraction strategy. Creating a church-sponsored softball team and playing in a community-sponsored league is an engagement strategy. Joining your company’s softball team – practicing, playing, and staying for the after game refreshments – is an infiltration strategy. Inviting a friend to Sunday school is another example of an attraction strategy. Organizing a Bible study at your workplace and inviting friends is an engagement strategy. Volunteering as a corporate chaplain and seeking out opportunities to share the gospel in the workplace is an infiltration strategy. Another attraction strategy is starting a children’s home. An engagement strategy is developing a church-sponsored mentoring program for at-risk children. An infiltration strategy is becoming a foster parent through the state controlled children’s services division. 

Many Christians find living an infiltration strategy lifestyle more difficult than participating in attraction or engagement strategies. There are several reasons for this, rooted in the characteristics of infiltration strategies and the church-based culture supporting the other alternatives. We will consider those reasons in more detail next week.

 

Criticizing the Church

Jan 14 2008

It seems to be open season on the church. Almost every comment I hear these days about the church is negative. There are complaints about dying churches, plateaued churches, and churches that won’t change to be in step with contemporary trends. Conferences abound to help church leaders “fix” the church. Young leaders tell me they will sacrifice themselves for ministry, but not for church leadership. That puzzles me. 

One national leader recently raised an interesting point with me. He asked, “Are we reaping what we have sowed in our constant criticism of the church?” In other words, is the condition of the church today (in some way) a self-fulfilling prophecy of the criticism we have voiced over the past years? 

Church issues have consumed my life for the past thirty years. I have been a pastor, church planter, denominational executive, and seminary president. I attend churches, speak at churches, consult with church leaders (usually about problems), and try to motivate others to be effective church leaders. Through all this, I have been exposed to the underbelly of church life, the dirty inside operations, the weaknesses and foibles, and church people at their worst. 

My voice, at least part of the time, has been in the chorus of criticism. Having seen the ugly side of church life, it is only natural to call for change, improvement – even reformation on occasion. But I have not succumbed to the temptation to dismiss the church as irrelevant, unimportant, or passé. 

Why do I still believe in the church? Why do I believe every church – even traditional churches – is important to kingdom advance? Here are a few reasons: 

First, the church is God’s eternal plan. Read Ephesians 3:7-13. God had a plan, a mystery, which is fully revealed in the church. God orchestrated the universe to produce a people for himself – the church. God obviously highly values the church. So should we. 

Second, the church is around at the end. Read Revelation. At the consummation of the ages, the church is present. God’s people, gathered from the peoples of the world, will celebrate eternity with him. 

Third, the local church is God’s priority now. Read the New Testament epistles. Most were written to local churches. Missionaries traveled to start local churches. Leaders were dispatched or selected to lead local churches. The universal church is only known now through the local, visible, “church on the corner.” 

Fourth, the church is the spiritual entity where comprehensive ministry to all kinds of people takes place. Parachurch ministries are helpful. I work with one in my outreach to the baseball community. But they can’t replace the church. Church is where generations blend, personalities learn submission and cooperation, character is shaped (sometimes painfully), and community is celebrated. 

So, the next time you are tempted to criticize the church – be careful. While the church function can be improved, the church itself is timeless, essential, and here to stay!

 




president