Thursday, April 24, 2008

Don't Cast Your Net, Pick Up a Fishing Pole

As I sat looking out over the Arabian Sea, my mind was absorbed with the little fishing boats anchored off the coast. What a tough job that must be, to battle the wind and the waves in such a small boat, throwing out the nets hoping to catch a few fish to eat and to sell. At night the fisherman do not rest, but the mend their nets and prepare for the next day’s toil.

I then thought of the class of faithful servants I’ve been teaching this week. Many of them told me about the persecution they have suffered their service to Christ in this region. In my class this morning I challenged them to quit trying to be “net fisherman,” but rather “pole fisherman.” My class is about knowing people in culture, not methods of evangelism and church growth.

The church has traditionally tried to reach the world with the Gospel by casting large nets – revival campaigns, VBS, radio/television ministries, tract distribution and showing the Jesus Film. Using those methods we pray for a few people to get caught in God’s net, but many escape, some swim away frightened, others angry and offended. I'm suggesting the better way to reach a nation for God is through building a relationship with those who live in our community, to fish for the souls of men, one at a time.

Of course this is not the role of the full-time pastor or missionary alone. In fact, its everyday followers of Christ who work in an office or factory and the community where they live who should be about the business of pole fishing. Being friends with those we live with, living a consistent godly life of integrity, without gossip or anger; by helping them in their time of need, this is the way of pole fishing.

To be a good pole fisherman you have to know the way of the fish – go where they swim, know what they feed on. This means that we, as fishers of men, must be, like our Lord, “a friend of sinners.” Christ came not into the world to condemn the world; He came with love and compassion that they might have salvation. And so it is with us. May we get out of the secure confines of our boat, i.e. the church, put away our nets and go fishing, each day we live.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Do The Work of an Evangelist

A few years back one of my former professors suggested I write a book entitled, “Reflections of a Cross-Cultural Evangelist.” I didn’t like the title as the word evangelist conjures up, for me, negative images. Today’s evangelists are those who usually have a gimmick, look like pro wrestlers or wear Treki uniforms. I don’t want to project the image of one who is forever thrusting a gospel track in the face of everybody I meet asking, “Are you saved, brother?” After my classes this week, however, I’ve been thinking about my role as a cross-cultural evangelist.

One of the assignments for my class is to read my doctoral dissertation on the social structure of the Kara Pokot. There are many things about the Pokot culture that is non-Christian such as drinking homemade beer, polygamy, female circumcision and going to the witchdoctor. Many students, down through the years, have taken me to task for not speaking out more forcibly about these practices. I am continually reminding my students that the study of social organization is not meant to correct behavior but to understand the worldview of people. There are profound reasons why the Pokot, and all cultures, engage in sinful practices. It is those reasons (I call “critical tension”) that lead an evangelist to speak to people about their relationship with God. I remind my students that most cultural practices are non-salvation issues. Yes, of course I do not condone genital mutilation, divorce, co-habitation, homosexuality and a whole host of other non-Christian practices (and other “sins” Christians don’t make a big deal of i.e., gluttony, gossip, covetousness, etc.) but they are issues outside the door of a transformed life. I’m concerned with the condition of people before they are redeemed, which makes me different from many who insist people act like Christians before they become followers of Christ.

While I indeed believe Christians have a responsibility to speak to the injustices of this world, Christianity, for some, has become, like our politics, issue oriented. In the process we have forgotten that abortion, though wrong, is not a salvation issue. What motivates me each day are the 87% of the 3.6 billion people in Asia who do not personally know a Christian. I’m trying to encourage the church to go out into the world and not only to meet people outside the faith but, like our Lord, be a friend of sinners. You will never be their friend by beating up on their behavior. You will become a friend when you learn more about them and build a relationship with them. Do the work of an evangelist, not an activist for a cause.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

God Is Good, All The Time

I have for the past few days been thinking about the theology of suffering. Actually, the thought of suffering has come out of my appreciation for God’s goodness and blessing on my life.

The philosophy and theology of the Western church, as I have argued before, is a by-product of our capitalistic market culture, which has had its affect on the church worldwide through globalization. Whether it’s business, family or church growth, the measuring rod of blessing is predicated on things going right, expanding and happiness. A business that is small, a church that is struggling and a family who are tested are never models of the way things ought to be. While most evangelicals criticize those who preach “prosperity gospel,” the influence of capitalism on our collective psyche that might equals right is profound. “God is good…all the time. All the time…God is good” is a common Christian cliché, but do we believe it? Has the philosophy of the Protestant work ethic become so out of balance that our pursuit of material success has overshadowed God’s perspective of His blessings? Indeed, would I recognize God’s blessing if things were not going well?

Mike Wells tells the story of receiving two Christmas cards. The first one goes like this.

Dear Friends,

This past year Bob received a big promotion. We were finally able to build that dream house we’ve always wanted. I must admit, it’s challenging to clean six bathrooms. Our son has a successful law practice, our daughter was granted a full scholarship at Stanford. Our grandson, who is four, is reading like a six year old and the doctor says he is a genius. It was a hot summer and we were able to take vacation to the French Riviera to escape the heat. Isn’t God good.

The other Christmas card...

Dear Friends,

In our little town the plant shut down this past year. Many people have lost their jobs and it has greatly affected our income, but we are managing. We went through a difficult time with sickness recently, but we are grateful that our health is being restored. Our Down’s Syndrome daughter, who they said would never read, is now learning a few words. This morning there was a terrible storm came through, but after it passed the birds began to sing. The Lord reminded me that the storms of our life would pass too. Isn’t God good.

Well, of course, both letters can be a testimony of God’s goodness. The challenge to my soul is, if my life were more like the second card, would I recognize His blessings? And, if I am not careful, will I only see the testimony of the first as a measure of His goodness?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Common Struggles

I enjoy reading mission history. History, as I tell my students, is a study of Divine action in time. So, when I read stories of personalities who served in a different era I gain insights, encouragement and strength of those who walked this journey of missions before me.

This past week I read an article about a Norwegian Lutheran missionary by the name of Notto Normann Thelle who served in China for 40 years. His senior colleague Karl Ludvig Reichelt overshadowed Thelle’s ministry as he was the “upfront” missionary who did pioneer church planting, wrote books and was the celebrated personality who led the mission. Thelle was his assistant, who edited Reichelt’s books, was the administrator of the work and who, for the most part, always played a secondary role. Thelle was quite content to serve as support staff, but he had two struggles that I, and many missionaries wrestle with – a feeling of uselessness and loneliness.

USELESSNESS - Thelle did not have the theological training of Reichelt or other missionaries, and though he was busy running the mission, receiving guests and speaking at chapel occasionally, he always wondered if he was making a contribution for Christ and His Church? He struggled in the language, never quite feeling that he was communicating in a way that reflected the message he wanted to present to others. Even those who are active in primary ministry often feel a sense of uselessness, how much more so of those who have, seemingly, secondary roles.

LONELINESS – As an umarried man in his early years of service, Thelle lived a lonely life in the midst of activity. Even if one has a family, loneliness is often the burden of those who leave their home country to serve overseas. As I read of Thelle’s life of loneliness it touched an emotional cord that so many of my colleagues face each day. Nothing is more painful than the feeling of isolation away from family and friends.

The encouraging thing about Thelle’s story is twofold. First, that God does bless those who faithfully serve Him, even if the work is not readily noticed or appreciated by others. Happy is the man or woman who understands that no matter if others see our service to Christ, He does. Second, that the pain of loneliness is not unique to us. Our pain of isolation is not lessened by this fact, but at least we can take comfort that many that have walked before us shared a common struggle. What is important is that we remain faithful to our calling and press forward knowing that by our lives we are adding pages to God’s great narrative of His work here on earth.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Beyond Knowledge

Kevin Vanhoozer, in an article entitled The New Theologians: Creating a Theological Symphony writes – “The goal of theology is wisdom, not knowledge.”

It’s 4 a.m. in Delhi. Jetlag has me and so as I wait for daylight to catch a flight to Bangalore, I read random thoughts on wisdom versus knowledge. Vanhoover’s comment on wisdom captures the essence of what I want to accomplish in the next two weeks I will be in the classroom of DMin. students. Hopefully, knowledge is something I will pass on to my learners, but the greater task will be to transfer wisdom that is associated with that knowledge.

The three ingredients in attaining wisdom is knowledge, practice and Divine insight.

Knowledge is not necessarily cognitive dump, as some accuse the function of education. While it is true that much of general education are bits of pieces of information which may or may not be relevant to life, specialized knowledge is essential for anyone with a task to perform. Whether the subject be how to prune a tree or how to start a business, knowledge is vital.

Practice is the second element preceding wisdom. As Francis of Assisi puts it, "Mankind has as much knowledge as it executes." To posses knowledge without application is as useless as a third thumb. One of the great challenges of any teacher is to force the student to apply what knowledge he/she receives. If they cannot, or will not, practice what they have learned then the knowledge they receive will be added to the millions of other pieces of information they will amass in a lifetime that will fade as smoke on a windy day.

Divine insight is the igniter, the mechanism that determines when, where and how knowledge is best applied. The accumulation of knowledge, though needed, is not wisdom. Having experience, though critical, does not equal success. Apart from God’s impartation one is left with an intellectual empty suit or a mindless daily laborer, no matter what their profession.

Presumptuous of me, I suspect, to advertise my class as applied wisdom rather than applied anthropology. Pretentious, perhaps, to suggest on completion of my course the student will have unique insights for ministry and service for Christ. If, however, that is not what I, or any professor, can offer his/her students who sit at our proverbial feet, then all they can hope for is more knowledge that they will easily forget.

"But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him."

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Supporting National Pastors

Though I have addressed this subject before, last week I received a message from a church asking my advice on supporting national pastors. The congregation has been going to the Dominican Republic for several years as part of their short-term missions project. The DR is one of the most popular destinations for short-termers as it cost very little to fly there, the weather is good and the population is Christian, though nominal and mostly Roman Catholic. One of the DR youth pastors is starting a church in a remote village and the U.S. congregation has been asked to take on his support. The leadership of the American church is willing, but the mission committee is hesitant. On the surface it seems plausible. We support North American missionaries for thousands of dollars a month to plant churches, why not a national for hundreds instead?

My advice to the congregation was not to support national pastors. Why?

The primary issue for me is one of dependency. When the national church receives outside funding there is no incentive for the local congregation to support their own church and no legitimate reason for the national pastor to teach stewardship to the new congregation. In the fourteen years I worked in Kenya we did not have an open-ended support program for pastors or evangelists. Though I worked with some of the poorest people on earth, when it came to starting churches I was very careful that they were started by men who:

(1) Felt a calling or leading to be a pastor. If there is a financial incentive for being in the Lord’s work, in a country where 50% of the population is unemployed, you run the risk of having people entering into ministry, not because of their commitment to the King, but a commitment to a 1,000 Rupees, Shillings or Pesos a month.

(2) Trusted God for their daily bread, not the foreigner. Missions, missionaries, churches in the states come and go, along with their pocketbook, but God, their true resource, never takes a furlough, never changes policy, never gets kicked out of the country for political reasons and never has an economic downturn. Nationals who trust in God for their resources also do not have to trust in both God and mammon, just God.

(3) Recognized that stewardship is not just for those who have disposable income, but even for the widow who just has two mites. The argument that the national church is too poor to do God’s work is not legitimate. Maybe they are too poor to have a nice building; maybe too poor to support their pastor, but that does not mean they are too poor to serve Christ. Some of our churches in Africa met under a tree for a year before they found the means to build a mud building. All of our pastors were bi-vocational who worked for a living but served God as pastors. Part of spiritual growth is stewardship, whether the person is living on a dollar a day or $75K a year.

Did I ever help the Kenyan church? Certainly. I helped pastors with their bi-vocational projects, helped churches with their physical needs such as buying corrugated tin for their roofs and helped start schools. However, I only helped in some projects after the fact, not as an incentive. I didn’t do it perfectly and made a lot of mistakes. But, after nearly 20 years of not being in Kenya, many of those poor churches and pastors are still serving Christ, growing and starting other congregations.