Jeff Iorg Blog
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.
While visiting and speaking at Hong Kong Baptist Seminary, a local pastor took me to the area of the city focused on the “death industry” – his words, not mine. Huge funeral homes were surrounded by businesses catering to the needs of the deceased and their grieving family members. Buddhist, Hindu, and other religious burial rights were being carried out with an intensity and organizational detail resulting from handling dozens of simultaneous services every day.
One of the interesting aspects of the whole enterprise was the creation of and marketing of paper products to be burned to provide whatever the deceased might need in the afterlife. Besides what you might expect – paper houses, cars, and furniture – there were some other unusual provisions. For example, paper dolls – representing friends and loved ones – were included in the pyre. Paper iPhones, iPads, and pocket organizers (complete with chargers) were available. Medical equipment, exercise gear, and boats were also popular. Apparently, the afterlife has many of the same demands and needs as this one!
The most striking paper product available, however, was money. Printed in various denominations – and priced accordingly in real money – were paper products issued on the “The Bank of Hell.” That’s not some metaphorical preacher phrase. I am sitting here right now looking at a piece of fake paper money with “The Bank of Hell” printed on it. Alongside are paper gold and silver bars since, even in the afterlife, precious metals – and their paper facsimile - are still precious.
The saddest part of all this wasn’t the money being spent on paper trinkets to be burned to provide resources to be used in the next life. The saddest part was that these actions represent the only hope, the only tiny shred of hope, for meaningful life after this one. Standing on a street corner watching a woman drop Bank of Hell money into a burning urn, Jesus as the Hope of the World became very real to me. Our hope for eternal life rests on the resurrection of Jesus. He overcame death – so everything he says about death and what comes after can be trusted. He is our only hope and he is enough.
Get Better at Urban Strategies
Jul 29 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.
For the first time in the history of the world, more people live in cities than in rural areas. This is true globally and also true in the United States. This is a problem for Southern Baptists. We are a rural denomination, with thousands of small churches scattered across the countryside. We are specialists at the small church, started historically by farmer-preachers, and led now by bi-vocational pastors. We have shunned cities as sources of evil influences. We have also avoided city ministry because it is so much more expensive than rural ministry. Just paying enough salary for a rental house for a church planter in San Francisco costs more than an entire church plant would cost in less expensive (and less populated areas). We have had a hard time finding future pastors, usually reared in rural churches, who can work effectively in cities.
If we are going to evangelize large numbers of people in the future, we must learn how to effectively reach people in urban areas. This will be a denominational paradigm shift. NAMB has been pushing this change, and their leaders have sometimes been criticized for their efforts. While they may have made some mistakes along the way, the overall thrust of what they are doing is right. We must, no matter how painful it is, refocus our resources – human and financial – on evangelizing in population centers.
This doesn’t mean rural ministry must be diminished. It simply acknowledges the importance of allocating resources according to lostness. Where the most lost people live, we must focus our efforts at spreading the gospel most effectively. If you want to read a more thorough presentation on this issue, check out my book The Case for Antioch.
This ends my musings on some key issues to reversing declining evangelistic effectiveness among Southern Baptists. Thanks for thinking with me about these issues. You may have a better list. If so, publish it somewhere and let’s continue the conversation until we find the right answers. The eternal destiny of millions depends on how we resolve this issue.
This past weekend, for the 52nd consecutive year, Golden Gate hosted our annual Missions Conference. Students, faculty, and guests came together to study, pray about, and commit to serving in missionary roles around the world. It is, quite simply, our seminary at its best.
Spending time with students preparing for international missions humbles and inspires me. These men and women have committed to leaving home, family, and friends to share the gospel in difficult places. They have stepped away from more lucrative career options, including ministry leadership in the U.S. Many of them will risk their health, and some their lives, as they work in places with limited medical care and rampant disease. Yet, despite these challenges, they joyfully look forward to how God will use them. I am awed by their devotion and commitment.
If you are getting a little older, and are discouraged about the future of missions, you should come to our conference next year. You won’t be discouraged any longer! Looking into the eager eyes of such competent, high-quality emerging leaders will restore your hope about the future. God is calling young men and women, and they are answering his call. The future of international missions is bright – as long as these kinds of students are leading the charge into the next generation.
I have a special admiration for young women answering God’s call to international service. They are choosing a difficult road – but an essential one to reach women in countries where male missionaries can’t really relate openly to women. I frequently tell each of these women, “You know, you’re one of my favorites!” One female student replied, “Seems to me you have a lot of favorites.” Word must be getting around that I have a lot of favorites! Well, I do! Young women willing to sacrifice themselves in service around the world are all my “favorites.” Thank God for them!
When we get to heaven someday, it will be interesting to see the full impact of more than 50 years of conferences like the one last week. Who knows how many millions of people will be in heaven because of missionaries called out, prayers offered, or money raised on our campus? It’s a privilege to go to work every day where people are passionate about what really matters – going global with the gospel.
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!
Going to Dark Places
Feb 20 2012
This past weekend was the 51st annual Missions Conference hosted by Golden Gate Seminary at our Northern California Campus. The conference featured front-line workers from around the world as well as our faculty. Most of it was organized by our students, who also provided worship and prayer leadership in the plenary sessions. A special bonus this year was a packed house for special chapel service featuring Dr. Tom Elliff, president of the International Mission Board, SBC – followed by a luncheon for pastors and other local leaders.
The conference evoked a hodgepodge of impressions, thoughts, and insights for me. First, our students are amazing. Many of them have no interest in building a ministry career. They want nothing more than to disappear to the backside of the world introducing the gospel to people who have never heard the name of Jesus – much less the gospel. They expect financial hardship, health struggles, and danger from oppressive governments to be their daily experience. Many of them are single, focused on obeying God even it means no marriage or children. Their spirit of sacrifice humbles me and reminds me how easy my life and ministry really are.
Our faculty also inspires me. Our missions faculty, as you might expect, are amazing people who speak multiple languages, have worked all over the world, and have lived a missionary lifestyle in every dimension. But a faculty member from another department told me of a recent experience that reminds me all our faculty are “missions faculty.” A student submitted a paper outlining the main problem in his ministry setting – followed with proposals for solving it. His problem, as he identified it, was “98% of the students on a nearby college campus are not Christians.” The professor stopped reading at that point and wrote on the paper, “That’s not a problem. That’s an opportunity. Start over.” I loved it! When did lost people become the problem? They are an opportunity for the gospel! It excites me our faculty gets that on every level.
Now back to students. Not only are they willing to go anywhere in the future, they go there now. As part of the conference, students, faculty, and missionary speakers went into San Francisco for an urban immersion. They spent the afternoon walking the streets, meeting people, and sharing the gospel. Once again, the international missionaries told us what we hear every year, “San Francisco is the hardest place, the darkest atmosphere I have ever experienced.” Why do veteran international workers say this?
You can start with the public nudity. It isn’t illegal in the City. Last week, one of our churches had a nude man come to the worship service. The sign out front says, “All are welcome” so he walked right in – despite the presence of young women and children. Or, perhaps it’s open expressions of every kind of sexual practice. Maybe, it’s the large, aggressive homeless population begging on almost every busy corner. If not that, it’s the politicians who advocate every liberal tolerance – except equal respect for evangelicals. But if you thought any of this was the cause, you would be wrong. The cause is much deeper. It’s spiritual, a stronghold of evil resulting from decades of disregard for God’s Word, that manifests itself in these destructive ways.
Pray for our students, faculty, and staff – as well as the pastors and other courageous workers – who make San Francisco our home and/or mission field. And, while you are praying, thank God for people who are drawn to the dark, difficult places around the globe. Without their work over the past 20 centuries, our world would be an even darker place.
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.
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
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.
The Chinese Century
Aug 25 2008
The Olympics have been billed by some as the coming out party for a new China. Without a doubt, the Chinese government put on a great show with beautiful venues, tight security, and home-country athletes primed to win gold in many events. Apart from the continuing question about the age of some Chinese gymnasts, the entire show was a resounding success – from the 2008 drummers who opened the games to the British accepting the challenge for the London Games in 2012.
China is a world power, to be sure, and the Olympics have reminded the world of that reality. China’s population is four to five times that of the Unites States. China is geographically huge and diverse, loaded with natural resources to fuel its continued growth. Many Chinese live in burgeoning cities – more than 50 Chinese cities have a population greater than 1 million. China is becoming more educated as university enrollment grows and exchange students come to the United States to earn degrees. The country is also booming economically as more and more global companies (like Walmart) establish a presence there.
Let’s hope the “new” China is different, however, in several specific ways from the old China. Let’s hope China develops a better way to manage its population than forcibly enforcing the one-child policy. Let’s hope China changes international policies in places like the Sudan. Let’s hope China recognizes human rights, among its own people, and allows freedom of the press and thought to flourish. Let’s hope China becomes more of an ally in the worldwide war on terror. Let’s hope, most of all, for a new freedom of religion that allows Christianity to grow rapidly without persecution or the threat of persecution.
Southern Baptists have longed considered China vital in the process of world evangelization. Our most revered Southern Baptist missionary, Lottie Moon, worked in China. Many others have followed in her footsteps. In the future, let’s hope China openly embraces missionaries who come to share the gospel and meet human needs in the name of Jesus. Until they are as welcoming of our missionaries, as we are of their students and scholars, real freedom of religion will not exist in China.
China will be a major force in the twenty-first century. The United States government must recognize this and act accordingly. Southern Baptists, and all evangelicals, must also recognize this and make praying for, going to, and working with China a major priority.
I am an unabashed supporter of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. I support their leadership, their strategies, their passion, and their personnel. I give through my church to the Cooperative Program and a special gift every Christmas to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. When asked, I go around the world to speak to missionaries to encourage them in their work. On our campuses, we host IMB personnel and send our graduates to work with them. I do all I can, and our seminary does what it can, to support the IMB.
The IMB has many shortcomings others like to point out. I see some of those problems, but I am still on their team. Why? Here are several reasons:
Their strategy is sound.
They operate with a sound missiology and with a profound sense of global awareness. In short, they have learned many things over the years and simply know what they are doing. So many people with a passion for missions have no clue what it really takes to effectively work cross-culturally. The IMB has the expertise.
Their personnel are competent.
They have high standards for appointment. Yes, a person can go to the mission field faster if they go independently. But can they stay as long? Will they be as effective? To whom will they be accountable? The IMB requires a thorough process before appointment. This insures a high quality missionary force more likely to make a long-term impact. And, they have a way to involve almost every Southern Baptist – from short-term volunteer church groups to full-time career appointed personnel.
Their personnel serve sacrificially.
Missionaries work in challenging, even dangerous places, for meager compensation with limited resources. Some of the most heart-rending moments for me are visiting missionary families – a father, mother, and multiple children living overseas and serving together. If they are urban missionaries, they are cramped in a small apartment. If they are in remote areas, they may live in a modest home. Schooling is a major issue. Health care is another problem. Personal safety is a growing concern. Missionaries sacrifice to serve.
Their organization is comprehensive.
Just one example is their commitment to Member Care. Each region of the world has a missionary couple who are assigned to serve the interpersonal and family needs of missionaries, confidentially without administrative intrusion. These include marital counseling, crises with children, medical issues, problems with extended family back home, and other challenges. This is a wise investment in keeping missionaries emotionally and spiritually healthy and able to serve. And yes, with more than 5,000 people serving, these kind of problems should be expected and addressed!
Their organization is accountable.
The SBC elects trustees to manage each of its entities. The IMB has trustees work with the administrative team to insure a well-run organization. Sure, like every large, international conglomerate, the IMB has occasional lapses and problems with employees, procedures, and fiscal management. But, on the whole, it is a model of Christian fiscal responsibility.
These are a few of my reasons for supporting the IMB. No organization, certainly no Christian organization is perfect, but this one deserves our support as the largest mission sending agency in the world. Pray for them and join me in doing all you can to support their work!
Troublesome Survey Results
Jul 14 2008
While on our recent trip to Brazil, we learned a major problem with Christian evangelism in that country is syncretism. Syncretism is combining religious beliefs to create a new, personally sculpted understanding of God and the means of a relationship with him. Among Brazilians, when Jesus is presented as Savior and Lord, he is readily accepted…as long as he can be added to the collection of other gods and saints the person is already worshipping.
One missionary told me about the expansion of the gospel in his area. He starts his Bible study program with a consideration of creation and then moves to idol worship. He establishes a foundation about God’s requirement to worship him alone before he ever introduces the idea of Jesus. Then, when Jesus is presented, he can be presented as the only means of salvation, requiring true repentance and faith. Many of the converts in his ministry have dozens of figurines, statues, icons, and pictures of various saints, religious figures (like the pope), or other spiritual influences (like spiritism). As evidence of true conversion, this missionary does not consider a person a true convert until they have committed themselves to Jesus and also abandoned all idol worship.
Reading this, an American audience might think, “That’s just the way it is on the mission field.” But is it really just this way in international settings? Two weeks ago, a major research study of American religious practices revealed 57% of Evangelicals believe Jesus is one of many ways to salvation. In other words, American Evangelicals are very similar to syncretists around the world. They like Jesus. They are willing to add him to their lives, to adjust their belief system to assimilate him, but no longer believe he is the only, unique means for a relationship with God.
While we might quibble with some of the research methodology, and by doing so reduce this percentage, my experience confirms it would still be a high percentage. People today, including many people in Baptist churches, simply do not really believe Jesus is the only way of salvation. They affirm him as a way, as their way, and as a good way – but not THE way.
Perhaps this, more than any other factor, explains the declining conversion and baptism rates in the Southern Baptist Convention. A person’s actions reveal what he or she really believes, not what they claim to believe. Our collective efforts, or lack of them, reveal our true convictions. For this reason, it seems to me our failure in reaching people may be rooted in universalism. More than we realize or want to admit, Southern Baptists (like other Evangelicals) may have quietly experienced a seismic theological shift away from the exclusivity of Jesus as Savior and Lord.
May God help us, for if we have made this shift and can’t recover, our denomination will be gone within a generation.
The Finest People
Jul 07 2008
It was my privilege this summer (for the second time) to be the guest speaker at the annual general meeting for missionaries from the International Mission Board in South America. The meeting is a combination family reunion, training seminar, spiritual revival, and eating contest! These missionaries are prolific reproducers, so there are about as many children and teenagers as there are adults. At this particular meeting, a church in Florida sent a mission team to lead Vacation Bible School for children and a separate youth camp for teenagers, while the adults had separate sessions. All in all, the week was one of the highlights of my recent ministry.
Missionaries are some of the finest people to be met anywhere. They are passionate, selfless, committed, and sold out for getting the gospel to as many people as possible. They are not, however, perfect people. They need structure, training, spiritual motivation, and inspiration just like the rest of us. Thus, they need this meeting and it is a priority of the IMB.
One of the common problems of missionary life is loneliness. While more and more missionaries work in urban areas around millions of people, some still work in very remote places. Either way, loneliness can be more a state of mind than the result of the proximity of people. On my prior trip, my insensitivity on this issue was painful to confront and confess. After flying all night, we had to wait at the airport for missionaries to arrive on other planes before we could be bused together to the retreat hotel. Needless to say, after flying all night, waiting for a few hours, and then riding a bus for another hour – I was tired and cranky!
When we got on the bus, a woman missionary across the aisle turned around, kneeled in her seat, and started conversing with the missionary in the seat behind her (directly across the aisle from me). She talked non-stop for an hour! My patience was thin and more than once I thought, “Why doesn’t she just shut up for a while?”
The next night, over dinner, I learned about this missionary. She was serving with her husband and young children in a remote jungle location. Basically, to arrive at her village, a person would take a boat up the Amazon as far as possible and then hike into the jungle. The annual general meeting was her once-a-year opportunity to speak English and see other missionary women. When she arrived, she planned to spend every waking moment enjoying her friends and talking their ears off!
Hearing her story humbled and humiliated me. How soft my life is! As if her willingness to raise a family, to educate her children, and support her husband weren’t enough – she was also willing to do it alone in the Amazon jungle. My anger the previous day at being inconvenienced by her chatter revealed my arrogance and shallowness. Needless to say, confession and repentance were in order.
This incident reminded me how difficult life is for international missionaries and how much they deserve our support. So, pray and give to make it possible for them to have the resources (spiritual and financial) to do their work. Whatever you have done in the past, do more! A woman who will give her life for a jungle tribe to know Jesus deserves our best.