Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Missional? Yes! Missionary? Maybe Not... despite the rhetoric, not everyone is called to be a missionary...

Being a missionary is hard work.

Maybe that’s why not everyone is not called to be a missionary.

Please hear me out on this before you dismiss me as not knowing what I am talking about or as someone who is going to undermine your preaching that we are all called to go, evangelize and make disciples of all the nations.

I believe that everyone in the Kingdom is called to be missional in this great world of ours.  It is my sincere belief that God has set apart the church, in whatever way you understand it, to be living examples of His hands, His feet, and His skin.  All of us are called to be about Christian relationship, community and love in this broken world
where we live.

However, that does not mean everyone is called to be the ends of the earth kind of person that leaves his or her home, gets on a plane and travels to some f
ar off land to proclaim this truths to other cultures.

I have served in Mexico for over 20 years.  For those of you who are not aware, Mexico has historically served as some sort of gateway mission drug for the US church.  Since Carolyn Koons of Azusa Pacific University essentially jump started the short-term mission industry almost 50 years ago, millions of people from the United States have gone to our neighbor south of the border on mission to help “evangelize” people.

I was one of those millions and a little over 20 years ago, I Co-founded an organization called Adventures in Life to facilitate short-term work in Mexico.  Like many back in the day, I got my first taste of what I thought was being a missionary in Baja California.  Our ministry also started just north of Ensenada, in a little area called La Misión.

Over those 20 years I have become pretty good at navigating the local culture, proudly feeling comfortable moving from one part of the country to another.  It did not matter if I was enjoying a fish taco with friends in Ensenada or building a greenhouse with my Christian brothers in Oaxaca, I was at peace and content.  Frequently I have been told, by Christians and non-Christians alike that alongside my love for Christ, I had the heart and soul of a Mexicano.

One night recently I found myself on a road to a new area of Oaxaca.  I did not choose this area, rather God sent me there, using some respected ministry partners to issue that call.

After a long ride, we arrived late in the city of Tlaxiaco, tired and hungry.  When we called our hosts for the week, we were told where to meet and soon found ourselves seated in a blue painted taco stand.  As plate after plate of food was being brought to the table, Roberto, our host, told us to eat, that the food was not simply there to be admired.

The extrañeros with me, one a Christian from another area of Oaxaca and Brother Joe Ramirez from San Diego were digging it.  Great food, new friends and lots of stories to share and to hear.  As relationships were reignited my mind started to race.

How would the average short-term missionary enter into this area.  Some of the best people who have ever served with me would have struggled that night.  None of our hosts were Christians.  We had mountains of deep fried food, and when I say deep fried, I mean in lard.  Not that 100% vegetable stuff we use in the states. Fat... and when we finished the fried food, the grilled tacos arrived.  That great Oaxacan cheese mixed with mushrooms and jalapenos, topped with a smoking hot habañero chile salsa and then the classic flor de calabaza.  All of that was wonderful, and a sort of a prelude to what was next.

Tacos de sesos.  Cow brains.  Served just for you by people who are watching your every move.  And that’s when I was reminded that being a missionary is hard and that not everyone is called, equipped, or ready to be a missionary to another culture, in spite of all the books and literature out there saying otherwise.

Things like your ability, or even desire to relate to non-Christians on their turf suddenly come into play in this type of setting.  Is the missionary versed enough in the culture to even carry on a conversation about secular stuff like economics, education and politics with locals?  Is he or she aware enough to pick up on social cues as they are being offered on how to eat and act around the table?  Is it possible to look at a plate of food you’ve never eaten, not frown or look disgusted and take it all in without a clue that you are scared stiff at the prospect of eating the brains of a cow or a bowl of pork skin soup and chile?

Have you thought about how to not run from your faith when you are confronted with some of the ugly realities of previous missionary outreaches to the very people with whom you are sharing a meal?  Do you have the skills to navigate a conservation that can be very critical of your home country and do it in a way that allows a budding relationship to continue?  Can you decline a shot of tequila, or scotch or vodka, depending on where you are serving in a way that does not offend your host?  Or perhaps even more difficult, can you drink a shot of mezcal or a glass of wine that is served for you by your hosts and newfound friends?

These are the questions that have been coursing through my veins the last couple of weeks as I have struggled to reflect on the rhythm, culture and ethos of this new place where I am serving.

Yet there is another question that is also dogging me and that question is this.  Given the reality of the above types of situations, is there a role for short-term mission work in the life of the long-term missionary?

I believe that there is, but only if we are willing to acknowledge and accept certain realities and make some changes in our approach.

The first place we need to start is with the sober realization that not everyone is called to be a missionary.  I know this goes against the current rage that we are all missionaries, but hear me out.  We are all called to be missional in our approach, but not everyone is called, or gifted to be a “ends of the earth” missionary person.

Here’s what I mean.  As you live your life day in and day out in your normal sphere of influence, you need to be living Christ out in an incarnational way that draws people to the Kingdom.  It needs to be part of who you are and how you live your life, where you are planted.  So what I am talking about here is being living witnesses for Jesus in your school, work, house and neighborhood.

For me, when I speak of being missional, I am talking generally of how we relate to and serve others in the name of Christ where we spend 90% of our lives or to put it bluntly, our home country.

When I speak of being a missionary, I am talking about getting on a plane and crossing borders of culture, geography, language and understanding.  I am talking about someone who essentially lives within the culture to where he or she has been sent. Naturally, there are exceptions to these broad strokes, but that is how I see things.

It is this reality, that not everyone is called to the “ends of earth,” that has led me to conclude that while short-term mission [STM] should certainly be in the tool box for any long-term missionary, most people on these mission experiences are simply not equipped to be incarnational on the foreign mission field.

Missions is hard.  Being a missionary is hard, requiring a skill set few young people with no cross cultural training will ever have.  Short-term mission participants are by their very definition, only in a country for a few days or months.  This is hardly enough time to get their feet wet, let alone begin the laborious process of assimilating into another culture.

Should we abandon short-term mission in favor of an approach solely tilted to long-term work?  Only at our peril because I believe that short-termers do indeed bring many needed assets to the work of the log-term missionary.  But we must live in reality and make sure we are not expecting more from short-term work than it is realistically able to give, or do.

What are your thoughts?

Friday, June 21, 2013

Missionary Ink... are tattoos a line in the sand for missionary service?

I am sitting in a Starbucks in Las Vegas enjoying a hot cup of coffee on another hundred degree day.  As I look out the window, there's a couple sitting at one of the outside tables.

Both of them are fully tatted up with almost all exposed skin real estate below the neck covered in ink.

As someone who thinks almost constantly about how the church can reach out to new generations of people, the tattoo culture has intrigued me for a while.  How does the local church, not the hip, niche ones in urban centers around the country, reach out to people who have made their bodies a work in progress art project?

This is not an issue that is going away any time soon, and it impacts more than just the local church.

Let’s leave behind the local question and think globally... to the “ends of the earth” if you will.

In my role as a missionary in Mexico, I get a number of chances to speak to churches and groups around the US.  Receiving short-term teams and providing mission direction for churches is a big part of what I do.  One of the first things that hits me when I meet a group for the first time is how many people have tattoos.  

Years ago, tattoos were the exception, sported by only a few people, and rarely exposed in public.  Now, they are everywhere and we are confronted with them daily.  With this reality has come a new issue for those of us in the field serving people who might not share US sensibilities about freedom in Christ.

The apostle Paul famously said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “all things are lawful, but not everything is beneficial.”  Sadly, I think many are only taking the first part of his statement to heart.

I get asked all the time whether or not a Christian can get a tattoo.  To me, it almost seems like a trick question.  Sometimes a youth pastor has told his or her charges to ask the missionary, as if I have some sort of divine knowledge that they do not have access to.  Even parents send their kids to me, hoping I guess that I will deliver the bad news so they don’t have to say no themselves.

But for me, there is no easy answer on this.  Tattoos are not a black and white, or even a color issue in spite of the desire by many conservatives to stand on a specific line in Levitican Law.  

So what do we do?

I have no answers for how our church culture welcomes people covered in tattoos.  Just look around at your members and you’ll understand what I mean.  If your church is like a majority of churches in America today, I am guessing when that person walks in covered in tattoos, he going to get a few stares.  Okay a lot of stares.  Yet unless we are willing to write off an entire generation of young people, we must address this issue.

On the mission front I can only look back 19 years to a young man named Brian who served with me in Guadalajara for two weeks.  Brian came to know Jesus after he had been tatted up.  So as we talked about his options to serve, Brian came to realize that he should keep his tattoos covered while he was in Mexico.  That became part of Brian’s mission, or his offering to us and our partners in Mexico.  Fortunately, Brian was able to cover all of his tattoos.  Many people today are unable to do that.

So here’s my answer to all of you who have asked me whether a Christian can have a tattoo.  Sure you can.  But understand this... getting a tattoo may forever make it impossible for you to fulfill God’s calling on your life to go to the “ends of the earth.”

Let me put it another way.  

Your body is not your own once you give your life to Jesus and your decision on whether or not to get a tattoo could profoundly affect your ability to serve God on the mission field.  

I fear that even as we are seeing increased interest from young people in the mission field, whether it be long or short term, we may have to leave some of our most talented people at home.  Many of the places the church is serving, and the places with the biggest need of a Gospel witness are going to struggle with, or outright ban missionaries with tattoos.  

Why would someone choose to do something that could limit their ability to serve God in these areas?

Thinking about it like this, doesn’t it just seem a little selfish?

I’m just askin...